Friday, August 11, 2006

Before any type of precipitous and offensive condemnations assail the following commentary, allow me to say that, on the average, I admire and respect beauty for its essential and aesthetic reason alone, as this photograph testifies. This does not preclude me from forming an opinion about my experience after having been exposed to such beauty, especially since taste, and experience itself, are nothing but subjective matters. Such an opinion cannot be molded in a social vacuum, however. What I present is nothing but a perspective having been sculpted by the reality of my social experience, or, at least, what I felt during my observations of such beauty and at the time I wrote the piece. As I write this now, I am convinced that there is something more fulfilling, something more real than what I saw. Had I experienced it, the bulk of the commentary would have become nothing but a simple footnote.

It is also important to point out that, because of its political connotations, the following commentary is not an example in liberty of opinion, but an exercise in exposing the double standards that plague society. I am neither advocating for nor presenting a solution. What I do is simply present an observation; completely subjective, somewhat subversive, and perhaps a subtle example of subliminal perception. Please, allow yourself to be the judge.

A Trip

Two weeks of a badly planned trip to Western and Eastern Europe amounted, most of the time, to the mediocre sightseeing (for which I only have myself to blame) of some of the most ostentatious architectural structures ever created, ranging from imperial castles and small noble quarters to imposing cathedrals purporting to represent the greatness of god. I photographed some of them for historical and archeological reasons. Of the meager and vulnerable contemporary quarters of the common people, if they ever existed, I photographed nothing, because no map or summary in tourist travel guides suggested that they ever did. Yet, their descendants begging on the street for a few coins, even during the redemptive era of capitalist opportunity, remain faithful historians. God, I suppose, refuses to provide shelter to these people or remains busy guarding the flamboyant castles and churches after millennia of upper class abduction. Perhaps it was god herself begging on the street, a constant and paradoxical reminder that one has to look beyond the obvious and touristy to gather a better understanding of a country’s culture.

When majestic buildings were destroyed during war or communistic oppression, some were rebuilt to a larger than life reality of their previous existence. For purposes redemptive of such past, communist statues in Budapest should have been destroyed, or, better yet, as such action would have rendered all the significance of occupation as meaningless, they should have found their way into a museum with the solid intention of reminding potential deniers that the country indeed suffered a so-called occupation. These statues, however, were not destroyed after liberation, but simply removed from the city and re-edified, not in a museum, but in a remote park à la Disneyland where curious vacationers paying the touristy entrance fee of 2500 Hungarian Forints can satiate their thirst of first hand knowledge—while also having the opportunity to buy a T-shirt mocking the three tenors, or the other way around, if one is to succumb to the marketing campaign depicting Lenin, Stalin and Mao as the “Three Terrors.” The seductive qualities of capitalism with their respective marketing schemes have been more powerful and redemptive than the educated amusement—and education—that a museum can provide, I suppose.

Moving to the west, in Bavaria, to be exact, one can find Neuschwanstein, a castle that enjoys fairy tale celebrity with the imprimatur of none other than Disney, which used it—paying the rights?—for the ubiquitous promotional that has so obsessed the infantile minds of children and adults who believe the disneyfied depiction of reality. From Sleeping Beauty to Cinderella to Disney itself, the exuberantly portrayed silhouette of this castle, in conjunction with astounding pyrotechnics and an enthusiastic musical score on the background, has been the representative image for this corporation. If one knew the history of the castle, all disneyfied meaning would be spoiled, but that is a matter of another piece.

On my way to Munich, before meeting face to face with Neuschwanstein, I encountered the fairy tale theme on the plane while watching an in-flight movie, not a film, about James Braddock, a lower class boxer who was nicknamed the Cinderella Man for vicariously representing Irish redemption during The Great Depression, given that he rose from pugilistic oblivion to defeat the heavy weight champion in America at the time: Max Baer. Braddock, the movie shows, was a simple and good man, honest, incorruptible, and perfectly capable to forgo food even during the night of the fight to a mercilessly depicted Baer in order to give it to his own children. After seeing all those castles in Europe, especially the Cinderella castle, I wondered if the house that Braddock bought in Jersey with the money he earned after the fight with Baer would ever become a tourist trap in 300 years.

I have to admit that as someone with strong inclinations towards the socio-historical context of reality, archeological sites provide fascination and a solid reference point. Rome, Egypt, and Mesoamerica are simply a few examples. Yet, during this trip, I became convinced that Braddock’s house in Jersey, although with the potential of becoming the subject of historians such as Howard Zinn or Eric Foner, would never get approval from the censors of fairy tale reality, even though imposing castles promise to forever remain the subject of reconstructed reality for generations to come. There might be hope for less deserving structures. After all, Bulgakov’s flat at the time he wrote Master and Marguerita became an informal museum in Moscow, even during communist rule, and it has now become a formal café and museum. Can we assume that MLK’s legacy, not his property, in these times of so-called democratic freedom would ever become monumental without so much arbitrary appropriation and co-option after his murder?

Archeological sites, I suppose, at some point become arcane. Most of the time, they seem to do it when their significance is too close in time with the reality of subjects who observe them. Not without reason, there have been several revolutionary attempts to destroy the significance that imperial structures represent, the actions of the Boston Tea Party being but simply one example. To whom does reality belong? To whom does historical knowledge?

In Moscow, I saw Lenin embalmed, not alone from 10am to 1pm, but lonely all the time in his mausoleum. He died in 1924, a mere 82 years ago, but some tourists argue that he has become arcane while they ponder on the magnificence of millennial edifices that surround him. “It’s ridiculous how much money they spend in preserving that body,” one furious tourist proclaimed, although he could not resist the lure of that ridiculously preserved body. “Hey, Honey!,” his wife responded. “Look at that church!” “Yeah! It’s beautiful,” he said. “Let’s go see it.” In no way do I intend to assert any comparison of significance or character between Lenin and Jesus, but I could not help wondering if this tourist would embrace the same feelings if the embalmed body of Jesus, expensively preserved, turned out somewhere in Lebanon after the Israeli bombing. Perhaps it takes more than 82 years, or royal extraction, to ensure the validity of a ridiculously expensive prefabricated posterity, as I surmised after visiting the St. Stephan catacombs in Vienna, which contain the tombs of Duke Rudolph the Founder and 14 other members of the Habsburg family, along with 56 urns preserving some of their royal organs. After an agitated dissertation about how great it was for such site to have been preserved because of the significance of the royal tombs, an infatuated tourist concluded: This is great history, you know? There was no mention of thousands of preserved bones belonging to the common people, which we had seen less than five minutes earlier, as this catacomb also served as a mass grave during the black plague. History, perhaps, remains a subjective matter.

Tired of castles, monuments and mausoleums, I embarked my unpreserved body back home, unable to reconcile my expectations about the trip with my experience, but already planning another trip to territories where perhaps the magnificence of undeveloped land would be the majestic attraction. A photo-essay depicting sand dunes that I saw in a Swiss Air magazine I found at the Munich airport seemed to serendipitously corroborate my belief that Africa should be my subsequent destination. Yet, memories of my unfinished trip still bothered me. The foreknowledge of several vacuous hours of flight worsened my frustration. I had to study for an upcoming make-up exam on research methods, but I could not gather the strength to go over research design, random sampling or ethical considerations when my experience had been arbitrarily skewed to see that which an artificial portrayal of history imposed on me. Hollywood movies such as Cinderella Man, 16 Blocks, Shaggy The Dog, and 8 Below were featured on that return flight. Not willing to concentrate, I watched some of them, running away from my reality, including that of studying, but mainly avoiding V for Vendetta, what I expected to be a movie with Die Hard tendencies in which an all-American hero turns vengeful to his own system after experiencing the reality of entrapment.

After a few minutes of 16 Blocks, I changed the channel because Bruce Willis was again playing himself, or one of his roles in the Die Hard series, which is basically the same. Flipping through channels, a female British voice seduced me: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” Serendipitously, I found the reconciliation to the frustration that had anguished me.

V for Vendetta is a film, not a movie, about an anarchical concept personified by V, who in turn personifies Guy Fawkes, one of several co-conspirators who attempted to blow up the British parliament on November 5, 1605. V, having been incarcerated and tortured in a dystopic British regime resembling the one of Nazi Germany, plans an exuberant revenge aiming at redeeming not only the Gunpowder Plot of Fawkes, but also the subjected population of his country. An anti-hero superceding the role of any antithesis, V succeeds, making elaborate use of beautiful pyrotechnics, music, and Shakespearean language (For those who may even dare argue that I am condoning terrorism, please see all the early reportage from the Los Angeles and New York times about the Iraq invasion in which photographs depict missile launchings and explosions as beautiful images and use the language of Shakespeare to condone the paradox).

As you can imagine, I loved the film, for its anarchical meaning and because it provided me with the reconciliation I was searching for. After this film, my trip became vindicated. At least vicariously, I was able to blow up all those structures that rendered my trip meaningless and whose arbitrary significance so troubled me—even with awesome fireworks and the great 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, which Disney would have probably approved of.

As reality is sinking in, however, I now have to develop the courage to see a film in which Yale frat boys blow up Mayan archeological sites in the name of national security.

Wait a minute! For that I need not wait for a lame screenplay, but simply tune in to reality and move the location from Mesoamerica to Mesopotamia, as such arbitrary imposition of reality is currently happening in Iraq.

(Does anyone want to argue about Terrorism?).