Weekly Playlist 16: Dream Come True

I think Only Human by KH (Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden under another name) and Running by Helado Negro are two of my favourite tracks of the year so far, so there’s a strong start to this week’s collection. Further down we’ve got one of The Temptations’s first singles – perhaps not one of their best known, but the from the Ondioline introduction onwards – played by Berry Gordy’s wife, Raynoma – it is just a splendid track to enjoy as the sun comes out and days get longer.

The New Breed is one of the only other songs from earlier than this year and it’s a slow burner of a song – piano led, beautiful, and the perfect closer to this week’s selection.

Enjoy!

1. Only Human (Radio Edit) by KH
2. Running by Helado Negro
3. Girls Like by Tinie Tempah feat. Zara Larsson
4. Counting Down the Days by AK
5. Esquima Dream by Stephan Crump
6. 1,2,3 dayz up by Kim Petras feat. SOPHIE
7. (You’re My) Dream Come True by The Temptations
8. Embryo by Jackson Mullane
9. Pretending He Was You by Claude Fontaine
10. The New Breed by Elan Mehler

Apple Music Link

(Image: El sueño de Jacob by José de Ribera)

Us

 

This review contains spoilers to the plot of Us. Watch Us first before reading because it’s an excellent film.


I’m going to run through what I think is my main interpretation of Us first, because I think it’s an extremely clever film, and although I think Baudrillard’s notions permeate the work, the clear analogy running through the work is worth exploring.

There’s a sense in which each of the alternative family are, as the title would suggest, Us, but our worst sides. For example, whereas Jason plays with a toy that makes sparks, his alternative, Pluto (named for the ruler of the underworld) is a pyromaniac with a burned face. These alternatives represent what we would do if unconstrained. As such what holds us back from the ‘darkness of humanity’ as Peele himself puts it, is the social ties, the need we have to put on a mask to interact with others. If, like in America (Us vs ‘U.S.’) at the moment, these masks begin to drop, violence and mayhem will ensue. In this conception both the underground and overground alternatives are both real, held in tension by the image we choose to portray to others. Peele is suggesting (as all horror films do, to some degree) that what is most terrifying is ourselves.

Both Jason and Pluto wear masks, but the key thing that the film is exploring is that we all wear masks. Rather than attacking this as being something terrible and we need to become our ‘true’ selves, I believe the film is saying that these masks have a value. Indeed, towards the end of the film, Jason and Zora exchange a brief moment where, in a moment of terror, he puts on his (Chewbacca) mask. She looks at him as if to say ‘why?’, his gestured retort seems to say ‘why not, it comforts me?’ and she accepts this.


In 1981, Jean Baudrillard published a book, known in English as Simulacra and Simulation. Like most Baudrillard, getting at all aspects of his ideas is not easy but I’ll give a very quick run-through here because it’s important for the rest of what I’d like to suggest.

Simulacra are copies of things where either the original never existed, or where the original at least no longer exists. Baudrillard opens with what he claims to be a quote from Ecclesiastes:

The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

Baudrillard suggests that societies progress through stages in which we take reality:

  1. Firstly we reproduce it with a sign that is a faithful copy
  2. Next, we come to believe that the sign is an unfaithful copy. Signs no longer seem to reveal reality to us, but they at least suggest a reality is still there, even if the sign fails to capture it fully.
  3. By the third stage, the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but there is no original. Signs and images still claim to represent something real, but there is no underlying reality that they’re referring to.
  4. In the fourth stage, this simulacrum has no relationship to reality whatsoever – signs just refer to other signs creating a space in which everything only exists in relation to something else. He called this stage the hyperreal. In this stage, any reference to reality is perceived as being oversentimental or naïve.

Baudrillard contends that we went through three historical stages that match these. Premodern times linked the real and the sign, in the Industrial Age, mass reproduction led to copies of items, making commodities which imitate reality. Finally, the post modern age, the simulacrum ‘wins out’ as it were and the relationship between reality and representation vanishes. Everything is a simulation.

I felt that it was useful to give a relatively quick run through the philosophy of the book, but I got a fair amount of it from the rather good Wikipedia page, so if you’d like to read some more about it, I’d start there rather than trying to delve into the book itself which is on the verge of being incomprehensible even if, like me, you’ve got a degree in Philosophy.

Before we return to Us, I’d like to mention that these ideas were explored in 1999’s The Matrix. Indeed, a rather beautiful edition of Simulacra and Simulation is where Neo stores his computer discs. In the Matrix, it transpires that the ‘real world’ that Neo lives in is, in fact, a simulation because robots have decided that humans make good batteries. One reading of The Matrix is, therefore, that the world Neo is escaping by taking the red pill is actually equivalent to the postmodern world in which we live. Neo is in fact taking a journey back to a simpler time where signs and reality were more closely related.

8dsdo4vdf5511

Us bears a similarity to The Matrix in this respect. The alternative family that the Wilsons meet, simulates their existence in tunnels beneath the world, and like Baudrillard’s contention of a postmodern world, it is unclear quite whose world a simulation of the either, and thus, perhaps neither are truly ‘real’. The pun of the title queries who really is ‘Us’ in these scenario. Are we them, or are they us?

Added to this, though, the film also communicates a number of further interpretations or signs (added to the ones above) that are less related to Baudrillard in appearing to signify things in the real world (although, I guess Baudrillard would probably suggest the real world situations I’m about to describe are merely another collection of signs).

The film is also an expression of how society creates and feeds off a hidden class who operate out of sight of the middle and upper classes, but keep the world operating. The final two acts of the film, therefore, are like a revolution where the working class rise up and destroy their middle class equivalents.

Similarly, there’s an analogy with the American love of incarceration which, like the slavery it replaced, has created an entire group of humans living a shadow existence outside the freedoms we assume for ourselves. Adelaide spends a large amount of the film in chains, and although Peele has specifically said this film isn’t about race (and it certainly doesn’t need to be), he’s certainly making this allusion clear.

The film operates on all of these levels, questioning our notions of reality in a post-modern world, presenting a metaphor of our best and worst selves and how they interact, and speaks to the separation between classes and the incarcerated, all while presenting a genuinely creepy horror film. Quite the achievement.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston

 

Following on my Waste Land reading, I thought I’d give this relatively short book a go. It’s directly mentioned in Eliot’s half-serious, half-mocking footnotes:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.

The book makes claim that the King Arthur legends in fact are, in a suggestion worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a coded representation of marginalised pagan rituals. It’s not a claim I really feel knowledgeable enough to rule out, but I didn’t feel that Weston’s argument is strong enough to make the broader claim hold water.

A lesser claim, not quite made by Weston herself, but closer to Jung’s later claims of collective unconscious, is that almost all legends and religious stories reflect some deep requirements of human beings. To quote Wittgenstein in his remarks on The Golden Bough: “we act in this way and then feel satisfied”, or to tweak slightly, we find the form of these stories satisfying, and thus we pass them on.

Religions are about more than the stories they tell (large elements of ritual, community and group identification etc are also important), but in this conceptualisation, various stories are shared in groups and those that are the most popular continually get passed from generation to generation, some written down earlier in their existence than others. Only those that speak to multiple generations have come down through the centuries.

Multiple generations retell these stories in the form that speaks best to their peers. In this chain, The Waste Land itself is a modernist retelling of elements of the Arthurian legends, but in a form where the narrative is almost entirely removed (mainly by Pound), leaving a series of loose voices and images.

Weston’s book is, therefore, an interesting part of this chain. Eliot clearly knew the Arthurian legends before reading Weston, but he also chose to give her prime position in the footnotes, presumably because her book prompted his creativity. To a contemporary reader, it’s hard to give it more credit than this. It’s not an electrifying read, and its central argument, like that of Weston’s hero, Frazer, seems to have started from the conclusions and worked back to the premises with limited and often implausible evidence.

(Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash)

Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough by Ludwig Wittgenstein

James Frazer’s Golden Bough is a now much-discredited work of anthropology, published in various versions between 1890 and 1915. The fundamental thesis is that societies move from a belief in magic, to one in religion, finishing in the knowledge that comes from science. Despite it being challenged rather harshly even from the early days of its publication, it has remained influential in literature. I revisited it because of the influence it had on Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Around 1930-31, Wittgenstein first had some of the Frazer’s work read to him, then made some notes on it himself, which have been published in this extremely short book (it’s only 18 pairs of pages with the original German on one side and the English translation on the other.

Wittgenstein challenges Frazer’s notion that the people (called ‘savages’ by both Frazer and Wittgenstein) engage in magic with a belief that it will cause a particular action:

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.

One could also kiss the name of the loved one, and here the representation by the name would be clear.

The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut out of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.

This last paragraph makes, what I think is a key challenge not only to Frazer, but also one that applies equally well to the modern ‘new atheist’ movement and their ideas about what religious people believe. In both the religious, and ‘magical’ sense people don’t truly believe that these ritual actions will directly cause change. They do it fundamentally because it makes them feel better. As such, when people pray in church a friend that has cancer, but also support them getting medical treatment, it’s not that there’s some sort of disconnect between the two actions. They are, fundamentally, different things. Science is not a replacement for religion.

Wittgenstein’s responses to the work fit quite well into his later work, especially the Philosophical Investigations. For example, Wittgenstein also challenges Frazer’s notions of how different these ‘savage’ cultures are from us. He uses an example in which Frazer refers to a ‘ghost’ since the important fact is that Frazer has the word ‘ghost’ to refer to. It’s still widely understood in modern times. Frazer did not need to explain this term:

A whole mythology is deposited in our language

This shows a strong kinship with this group. The early ‘magical’ savages, the religious thinkers or the scientists are wildly different from each other, they all share common thought patterns and approaches, and as in the previous example, are not as ignorant to the effect that their actions may have as Frazer would like to believe. It also links with the Philosophical Investigations as an example of the way that language develops (or doesn’t) based on use. We still have a use for the word ‘ghost’

If you have some experience of Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein’s remarks are worth a read. Besides anything else, it’s unlikely to take much more than a few minutes and it contains some interesting challenges to the text. If nothing else, his forthright approach makes for an enjoyable read.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

I have mixed feelings about Dickens. At one end of the scale, Bleak House is a masterpiece and it’s hard to carry off a preachy anti-capitalist tale and make it heartwarming, but A Christmas Carol does just that. The other end of the scale is far from terrible. The Pickwick Papers is a fun collection of tales that never quite coheres (perhaps was never really meant to), and Hard Times takes that preachiness, removes the heartwarming and leaves a book I found a slog.

Nicholas Nickleby falls somewhere between those ends. Like a lot of Dickens, if he was publishing today, creating a complete work rather than a series of episodes, a good editor would have cut a lot of extraneous characters and sub-plots, perhaps leaving something that felt more like a single novel. This isn’t really a criticism of Dickens as a recognition of the world he was writing for, but as a modern reader familiar with the novel as a form, Dickens in general and Nickleby in particular, feels disjointed and flabby.

On the plus side the language, even in the worst of Dickens novels, is masterful, fun and a constant delight. More than enough to cover up the most tedious of plot diversions. Characters are generally well drawn, although in this case, male characters are painted with a wide-ranging palette (albeit with broad strokes) but female characters tend to be either idiots, or pure, chaste and in need of rescuing.

In summary, if you’ve never read any Dickens before, don’t start here (wait until Christmas and read A Christmas Carol, it’s short and delightful). If you’ve got a few under your belt, this is middle-ranking. Not as sublime as some of the later work, but more assured than some of the earlier work.

(Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash)

The Brady Heywood Podcast on Apollo 13

The Apollo programme seems like a good antidote to the politics of today. Putting aside the important facts that it was a show of strength against the USSR, and as a product of its time, it excluded (or failed to recognise) women and people of colour, it is still a major achievement of people working together for a common, peaceful goal.

The new podcast series that Brady Heywood has put together outlining NASA’s response to the problems of Apollo 13 really sets out the achievements of those who not only launched the crew into space, but also against all odds, managed to get them safely back to earth. Brady Heywood is a forensic engineering firm, and although Sean Brady doesn’t shy away from many of the technical details, this is perfectly understandable for the layperson. All technical aspects are clearly explained, and since it’s a story in which much of the tension derives from engineering issues, having an expert guide you through the story is very useful.

Those who have seen the film Apollo 13 will have a rough idea of the story, but I have to say that I found Brady more engaging and exciting than the (excellent) Ron Howard film. He captures the peril, the ambiguity, and thus the achievements of the team that managed to bring the crew back to earth safely and the end result is genuinely moving.

You can find parts one, two, three, four and five here, and subscribe on iTunes here.

Weekly Playlist 15: Spring Feeling

I did say on Twitter that I might not do blog posts about the weekly playlist anymore, but then I posted quite a lot on the blog this week, so here we are. At least it’s not the only thing on the blog.

The National have a new single out, so that’s got to be on there. It carries along the drum-beat heavy sound that I love. The classic acts for this week include Scott Walker, Prince and Bob Dylan (the latter’s Desolation Row being a response of sorts to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land).

I was introduced to Phoebe Bridgers’s Scott Street on one of my favourite podcasts, Song Exploder – I find that having the artist explain its construction makes me love a song all the more.

  1. You Had Your Soul with You by The National
  2. Spring Feeling by Toby Martin
  3. My Own Thing by Chance the Rapper feat. Joey Purp
  4. Montague Terrace (In Blue) by Scott Walker
  5. 2Shy by Shura
  6. When You Were Mine by Prince
  7. Comme si by Christine and the Queens
  8. Scott Street by Phoebe Bridgers
  9. Al-Mu’tasim by Cochemea
  10. Desolation Row by Bob Dylan

Apple Music Link

(Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash)