Archive for November, 2009

The Butterfly Effect

Posted: November 24, 2009 in Artistry, Culture, Taste

I saw a recent documentary film on Russian ballerinas. I don’t really get dance, and though I’ve seen my fair share, I usually can’t distinguish merely good from truly excellent execution in terms of either technique or expression. However, in the course of the film, one of the profiled ballerinas rehearsed what I am guessing must be her signature solo and pose, the sort of thing that appears on ballet posters. I found the image below:

Turns out it’s Uliana Lopatkina as a dying swan, danced to music of Camille Saint-Saëns. Pretty extraordinary. I also found the following video:

There are videos on YouTube of other ballerinas interpreting the same dance for comparison.

One of the curious things about ballerinas is the total devotion to the art necessary to achieve success, something few average folks can muster. But unlike most other artistic pursuits, dance careers are typically over by age 40 (or much earlier). Athletes have similarly short careers, limited by the fact of aging.

Perhaps inevitably, my mind wandered to this memory while at the pool swimming (a regular part of my ongoing triathlon training, which I don’t approach with total devotion), only in my mind the swan became a butterfly. Considering the obvious physical demands on a ballerina and their ability to persevere, I thought I could at least swim a few lengths of butterfly. Suffice it to say that I don’t have such extraordinary extension in my arms, but I do have the body control and coordination to swim the stroke properly. I also know it takes everything I’ve got just to do butterfly at my age, even though I’m in good shape for swimming. So for two lengths of the pool, I was totally committed to doing something both powerful and maybe a little graceful. I paid for it for a few days.

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There you go again, I can imagine my interlocutors saying in a Reaganesque moment, again with the torture. Between torture and the closely related modern security state, I’ve blogged numerous times (sorry, no links — just do a search) to report my disgust and condemnation, not that any of it matters. Registering those sentiments is irrelevant. So why bring it up again? Because it just stinks, and much as I hate to have knowledge of it, the problem needs repeated airing.

The precipitating news this time is a Salon article by Glenn Greenwald about a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Arar vs. Ashcroft (searchable here). The case is “just” another instance of extraordinary rendition and subsequent torture of an innocent person over the course of ten months, which actions are by now so routine that the terms extraordinary and torture have lost all their impact. Business as usual. Move along. Nothing to see. Greenwald nails it with this comment:

So continuous are the inhumane and brutal acts of government leaders that the citizens completely lose the capacity for moral outrage and horror.  The permanent claims of existential threats from an endless array of enemies means that secrecy is paramount, accountability is deemed a luxury, and National Security trumps every other consideration — even including basic liberties and the rule of law.  Worst of all, the President takes on the attributes of a protector-deity who can and must never be questioned lest we prevent him from keeping us safe.

The court decision (granting blanket immunity to government functionaries in cases of presumed national security) appalls me, not just because it fails so utterly in basic humanity but because the courts are (or once were) our best hope for checks on excesses of the Executive Branch. Congress certainly isn’t applying the brakes.

The state hasn’t merely set its sights on foreigners traveling to or through the U.S. Here is a glimpse of what’s to come as the civil authorities wage domestic battles against the citizenry: “Robocops Come to Pittsburgh.” The array of high-tech assaults now becoming available to police (which now resemble the armed forces) is just astounding. Although these devices are rationalized as means to quell unrest or disperse protesters, those folks out on the streets are usually Americans, and they’re typically reacting to something, sometimes with inchoate, unfocused violence. But they’re increasingly recharacterized by those charged to protect them as un-Americans, anti-Americans, terrorists, or evildoers. Sure, sometimes they’re mere vandals or criminals, but not often. Yet they and others on the scene unfortunate enough to be guilty by proximity (including journalists) are swept into whatever administrative action is decided upon by civil authorities, which typically entails catch-and-release dragnets completed within the 24-hour window where charges must be filed yet function to dispirit and nullify all forms of public protest.

This is what is meant by the dictum Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. The holders of power are insulated from accountability and derive erotic pleasure from deploying power. The connection between sexuality and death is pretty well recognized in the marketplace of ideas. Here is one of many such analyses tied to recent ideology. Will it go away in time with education, shame, moral uplift, protest, etc.? I doubt it. Like other Machiavellian behaviors and institutions, such as slavery, they keep cropping up again and again in disguised or subtly altered forms because their underlying appeal or utility never goes away fully. I guess the dream of world peace is the stuff of beauty pageant contestants, who mouth the words for us, telling us what we want to hear about both them and ourselves, so that we can sleep quietly at night. Meanwhile, the atrocities continue.

A friend gave me the first book of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson to read. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but this is a nice diversion from my usual fare. The novel is so thoroughly derivative of Tolkien I find myself irritated frequently, but it has its own ideas and devices, too. Though only halfway into the book, one idea caught my attention distinctly.

Among the numerous races of people and characters are the Haruchai, a warrior class that serves the Lords of the Land. The Haruchai are reminiscent of the Samurai. What struck me, however, is the manner in which the Haruchai came into the service of the Lords. Some 2000 years before the time of the first novel, the Haruchai prepared to wage war against the Land, but the Lords refused to go to war lest the Haruchai be destroyed utterly. Instead, the Lords gave to the Haruchai precious gifts. Oddly, the Haruchai responded by taking a vow of service to the Lords for a debt that could never be fully repaid. Although never quite stated so baldly, the Haruchai basically enslaved themselves to the Lords, presumably out of gratitude.

These two acts — refusal to destroy one’s enemy and self-enslavement — are pretty remarkable. If applied to our current geopolitics, it would suggest that the U.S. might think twice about its preemptive wars against minor powers, and those minor powers might consider some form of tribute for the greater power’s refusal to invade or otherwise engage. Of course, that’s idealistic. What we have instead are the lone world superpower beating up on everyone else, like the tantrums of a schoolyard bully, and the irrational promises of at least one victim of our aggression to deliver the mother of all battles, only to fail in less than a month yet subsequently mount a surprisingly effective insurgency. If the situation in the Covenant novel is slightly comical, it’s certainly matched by the real-world situation in which we find ourselves.

Like Tolkien’s novels, Donaldson’s work appears to be the subject of considerable analysis. I haven’t read any of it, since I don’t want to spoil my reading pleasure. So I don’t know if this observation has been made, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Donaldson has conceived of his characters and their world as being profoundly stupid, as in cognitively challenged. Sure, they adhere to strict codes of honor and integrity (an almost child-like allegiance), and their florid, Tolkienesque language is sophisticated, but from what I’ve read so far, they’re also bumbling fools in their absolutism and inability to regain lost lore and knowledge. What else but sheer stupidity would compel a people to enslave itself out of gratitude or a generous people to accept such an arrangement?