Lose Yourself

This page is all about books, food, art and culture.

Meeting Spider-Man

I’m not talking about the web-shooting, masked hero who prefers his kisses upside down. I’m talking about the real deal – the man who regularly appears in the top daredevil lists alongside Evel Knievel and Harry Houdini. The climber who has conquered some of the highest skyscrapers from the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai to the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur. He scales glass buildings without any safety ropes, and is now leerily eyeing up the Shard in London. He’s also been arrested more times than he can remember.

If you haven’t guessed already, I met the Frenchman Alain Robert who’s been nicknamed Spider-Man. If you want to see him in action, watch this video where C4′s Cutting Edgeseries follows the daredevil who is championing the new sport of free urban solo climbing.

I was fortunate to have lunch and a boat ride with him in Bangkok, and he was both inspiring and terrifying at the same time. Clad in a red leather suit, with the trademark long rockstar hair and a decided taste for champagne only, he had more than a whiff of Iggy Pop about him. What struck me was the size of him – I’d imagined a miniature body builder with fingers of steel but in reality he seemed rather lean. His wrists carry the scars and gnarly bumps of an earlier fall that should have ended his career. But perhaps most surprising of all: he suffers from vertigo.

Now, how can a man who climbs hundreds of metres high up sheer glass buildings without safety ropes be afraid of heights?! I hear you scream.

Well, of course, this could just be a publicity stunt. But after hearing him recount some childhood stories, I let go of my cynicism and realised this is a man who has not just overcome his fears, but completely obliterated them. He answers this philosophically:

” Climbing is my passion, my philosophy of life.
Although I suffer from vertigo, although my accidents left me disabled up to 66%,
I have become the best solo climber.”

(I also forgot to mention, he is painfully modest.)

I think my lasting impression of Alain Robert is simply that he is absolutely, irrevocably, and rather entertainingly, mad. If you want to see more of his gravity-defying feats, check out his website.

Alain Robert

Picture credit: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/daredevil-climber-alain-robert-sets-794567

Speechless: The Little Mermaid losing her tongue

I recently got the urge for a Disney marathon and wanted to finally revive my favourite of them all, The Little Mermaid. My sister and I would watch it on VCR on repeat, rewinding back to the start in a scratchy blur of colour, ready to sing along with Sebastian and his crustacean band again and again.

This time, the magic was lost on me. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun. The colourfully animated underwater world, harking back to 1989 (a time before mass CGI animation broke loose), was still impressive. I found myself rooting for justice against the raucous charm of the sea witch Ursula, and honestly, what’s not to love about a crooning Jamaican crab?

The thing that made me itch with irritation is this: Ariel just isn’t the girl I thought she was.

20130724-214256.jpgThe original fairytale, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837, did not end with the same ‘happily-ever-after’ as the Disneyfied version. The Little Mermaid does not marry the prince and remain human. Instead, she surrenders her tongue in a bargain with the sea witch to win the prince, and she is warned that her newly acquired legs will cause her relentless stabbing pain. The prince, on meeting her, encourages her to dance and she performs for him despite the agony of the act. However, her gamble is not rewarded, and the prince becomes engaged to another. The Little Mermaid can say nothing to reveal herself as his saviour during the storm at sea. She is doomed to a broken heart, and worse, the fate of dissolving into sea foam. Her mermaid sisters offer her a reprisal in the form of a dagger, and she can return to the sea if she kills the prince before his wedding. The Little Mermaid cannot murder him, and so she evaporates into sea mist. The twist is that she becomes ‘a daughter of the air’, and rather than disappearing into nothingness, she gains an immortal soul.

20130724-214321.jpgThe original story is far more tragic than the Disney adaptation, but arguably both endings finish with her being set free either culturally or spiritually. In the film, Ariel regains her voice once Ursula is defeated and she is transformed into a human by her father, King Triton. This is significant as he once despaired of her curiosity with the unknown world above the waves, yet later grants her legs to live as a ‘part of their world’ permanently. The Little Mermaid marries her prince, and they kiss on the bows of a boat with a procession of mer-people waving farewell from the surface. Ultimately, Ariel chooses the unknown: a life with legs, a human prince, and a place where she imagines ‘bright young women, sick of swimming.’ This life comes at a price, though. Her family cannot visit her on land, and it is a place that serves up her fishy friends on seafood platters. Is her drive to explore a different life so strong that she can happily abandon her former existence completely?

Mermaids have been awarded a more sinister history in literature and sea lore. Homer writes of sirens in his epic Odyssey. The deadly sirens use their mesmerising voices to seduce seamen to their rocky deaths:

‘Come this way, honored Odysseus, great glory of the Achaians, and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did…’ (12.184-189)

20130725-214525.jpg A voice is more than an instrument for the sirens, whose songs have the power to lure men to their doom. They are formidable females who are able to captivate even the strongest sailors. With this is mind, when the Little Mermaid surrenders her voice to the sea witch, she essentially gives away her agency and the very essence of being a mermaid. Her beauty remains, but her power has been stripped away.

In the Disney version, Prince Eric seeks a bride that sings the tune that he heard when he was salvaged from the shipwreck. Of course, it was Ariel’s song and there is dramatic irony in the way that she has surrendered the tool that would have made him automatically love her. It is deeply ironic that Ariel’s desperation to live above the waves and marry the prince forces her to sacrifice her most precious gift – her voice. The song would have sealed her happiness, but by using words, she could also reveal her identity as his stormy rescuer. When the sea witch removes the Little Mermaid’s voice, she removes her temptress powers and forces her to communicate through her actions. Disney portray Ariel as a loveable and girlish mute, who flicks back her hair, bites her lip and clumsily stumbles into the arms of her prince. Asides from briefly snatching the reins and launching a horse across a ravine, her sense of curiosity and self assurance seems lost. Gone are the days of fighting sharks in shipwrecks, hoarding human artefacts in a secret lair and having fiery spats with her father. Instead, she is filled with earnestness, waiting impassively for the prince propose to her. She simply nods, smiles and dreamily combs her hair with a fork. The prince does not seem overly concerned in getting her to regain her command of language, and readily accepts that she is in shock from surviving her own shipwreck.

Let’s take a closer look at Sebastian’s seductive Kiss de Girl song:

There you see her
Sitting there across the way
She don’t got a lot to say
But there’s something about her
And you don’t know why
But you’re dying to try
You wanna kiss the girl

Yes, you want her
Look at her, you know you do
It’s possible she wants you, too
There is one way to ask her
It don’t take a word
Not a single word
Go on and kiss the girl

Fictional spell aside, this is song is about submission. Ariel’s predicament of making the prince fall in love with her is made worse by the fact that she is so helpless relying on her looks alone. A pond full of singing creatures is roused to explicitly drop the idea of kissing her into his head. It is only her still beauty that Sebastian refers to, and although he mentions ‘there’s something about her’, it does not convey her sense of adventure, rebellion, or intelligence. She cannot physically speak, but the line saying that ‘she don’t got a lot to say’ seems obtuse, suggesting that the ideal woman expresses herself silently through her beauty. The audience is encouraged to overlook this in their anticipation of a romantic conclusion.

20130725-220613.jpgI’m not alone in my perception of the ginger mermaid. Especially when you look at how far equality has come with the new red-headed heroine Princess Merida in Brave. Ariel sacrifices so much for her happy ending, but is her life with the prince worth it? Altman and DeVos claim that:

‘[Disney] betray Andersen’s tale while it exploits society’s obsession with physical beauty and romantic love’

What do you think?
Does Ariel become a strong woman complete with her own voice? Or is the Disney version a fairytale with as much substance as sea foam?

Notes

The original fairytale summary, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid

Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults, by Anne E. Altman and Gail DeVos (2001), p.187.

Ariel’s song, ‘Part of your world’, Disney Sing Alonghttp://youtu.be/mGoXtSw0Ias

Edward Snowden and Nineteen Eighty Four

With Edward Snowden leaking secrets of mass surveillance in the US and beyond, it seems that Orwell’s dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four is coming true. But can we be accused of over-reacting? In one camp, popular social media sites like Reddit have rallied behind Snowden, revering him for revealing the governments’ betrayal of the peoples’ privacy and spying on its own citizens. Memes declaring ‘Save Snowden, Save Freedom’, and pop culture references such as ‘Team Edward’ have ignited political fervour in many online users. In the broadcasting world, news providers such as the Beeb have explored the wider international implications, with the potential breakdown of trust between nations such as the US and China and the side effects of those security breaches. The US understandably wants to reclaim their NSA whistleblower before he damages their credibility further, but he continues to evade them with his goose-chase escapades that even plucked the Bolivian president out of the sky. The US has responded to his allegations of ‘persecution’ with the argument that it is necessary to protect ‘the greater good’.

20130715-222135.jpg
In his recent letter to the Ecuadorian government to seek political asylum, Snowden wrote:

“The Government of the United States of America has built the world’s largest system of surveillance. This global system affects every human life touched by technology; recording, analysing, and passing secret judgment over each member of the international public. It is a grave violation of our universal human rights when a political system perpetuates automatic, pervasive, and unwarranted spying against innocent people.”

There is more than a smack of Nineteen Eighty Four’s ever-omniscient ‘Big Brother’ to this quote, and Snowden sees technology as facilitating the US government’s ‘grave violation’ of the rights of the people on a global scale. Snowden appeals directly to our paranoia of technology here. Does the presence of so many surveillance systems change the way that we behave? Those that have watched The Truman Show and feared that they were the centre of another actual experiment, or those that stare into surveillance cameras and wonder if anyone is watching, will know the power of suggestive policing*. A similar concept maintains online content in China, with users self regulating the posts of others. And it works – the Chinese government continues to strictly censor content in forums, and blocks online petitions, to prevent anything that may be deemed politically ‘unharmonious’. There are rumoured to be more than 40,000 secret police in Beijing alone dedicated to policing the Internet and upholding the so-called ‘Firewall of Shame.’

Orwell predicted this exaggerated form of censorship in Nineteen Eighty Four, with the four Ministry sectors working together to enforce propaganda, and ensuring that all citizens conformed to their own singular way of thinking by spying on them within their own homes. To control the nation, the Party and Big Brother (the government featured in the novel) maintained its order by punishing individuals who questioned its facts, or spoke out in protest against work, rations or leadership. The protagonist Winston Smith becomes disillusioned as he finds Oceania’s cyclical wars with Eurasia and Eastasia nonsensical and his ‘doublethink’ life devoid of meaning. His doubts and potentially slanderous thoughts are silenced by torture and jail, and then eventually the state kills him. Amnesty International recognises that China ‘has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.’

Orwell reacted against totalitarianism and his writing fights the invisible powers of autocracy. Like Winston Smith, Snowden writes of protecting the innocent and eludes to preserving the sanctity of free will and free speech. But is it Orwell’s world synonymous with today’s reality in the Western world which Snowden speaks of? Have we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to being reported, and are we not conscious of our data trail as we explore the web and connect with each other? How many people leave their privacy settings off, and document unencrypted personal details of their lives in daily posts on Facebook or Twitter?

Snowden has highlighted the dangers of our relationship with technology, but admittedly I’m not as outraged as I expected to be that our governments have been tracking us. To me, the Internet is a pool of shared conversations, images and connections that are designed to be seen, or at least logged in the rapidly growing archives of Internet history. In contrast, Orwell’s character notes his personal views in a diary that he keeps hidden, although he does arguably write with the purpose (or hope) that it will someday be viewed by the future generation. The discovery of his diary and his subsequent punishment seems much more of a violation than if he had willingly shared his thoughts online. He writes:

‘From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink-greetings!”

Overall, the aspect I find most frightening in Snowden’s address is the robotic language he employs to describe the method of surveillance, with ‘analysing,’ ‘recording,’ ‘pervasive’ and ‘automatic’. He explicitly plays on our human fear of technology advancing so far that we lose our purpose, or worse still, our humanity. A well-versed argument today is that technology is disconnecting us from reality – and paradoxically, each other – despite never before being so digitally social.

In light of this, those of us who have the liberty to post our thoughts without persecution from our governments, and are not raging extremists, should use the Internet effectively and not squander the opportunities that the web provides. We now have the tools to share experiences across cultures and forge new connections in our modern global community, learn about the world and see the dark corners we may never visit in person, and most of all, improve ourselves with the knowledge that is accessible at the end of our fingertips.

Sources

*See Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon, or self-policing. Angela Carter explores this in her female prison in Nights at the Circus

‘US disappointed with China,’ BBC World News, 11th July 2013,http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23282379

‘Edward Snowden’s Letters in Full’ by Kevin Rawlinson, The Independent,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/the-edward-snowden-letters-in-full-nsa-whistleblower-accuses-us-government-of-persecution-8683156.html

‘George Orwell back in fashion as Prism stokes paranoia about Big Brother’ by Stephen Moss, The Guardian,http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/jun/11/george-orwell-prism-big-brother-1984

http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/06/14/new-study-finds-revealing-patterns-in-chinese-internet-censorship/

‘Firewall of Shame’, Internet Freedomhttp://www.internetfreedom.org/Background

‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, TV Tropes,http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/NineteenEightyFour?from=Main.NineteenEightyFour

Ella Fitzgerald, Star Wars and the Invisible Man

How can Ella Fitzgerald, Star Wars and the Invisible Man be related? Jazz.

My Great Grandmother recently passed away, and amongst her things my Great Aunt found an old recording that my sister and I made for her as eleven year olds. I don’t remember filming it, and it showed us both playing instruments and reading poetry through many unprofessional stifled giggles. Embarrassingly, I kept squeaking towards the high notes on my trumpet with very expressive eyebrows, instead of playing the ‘velvet tones’ I prefer to remember. When I could hold a note, I enjoyed playing jazz most of all, finding that the orchestra too often favoured the delicate strings and allowed the brass section to blast two notes every fifty bars. Improvisation was daunting at first, but once you learn to navigate the flats of the scale and jump in trills, jazz became invigorating to play.

Before giving up music for sport, I played the lead in the main theme tune of Star Wars when record breaking Olympic sprinter Linford Christie visited our school. Except, ironically, he was late. By the time he showed up, the top ‘D’ was a bit of a struggle for my strained lips as we had been playing on repeat in anticipation. There was an angry red circle on my lips, but this was overshadowed by the fact he’d just been charged with doping, and it was the end of his successful career as an athlete.

Skip ahead a couple of years, and I’m a young teenager working in the neighbouring village of Walberswick. Early each weekend, I cycled past the common, over the River Blyth at the harbour, and through the misty moors to work at a vintage home ware shop. That’s where the romanticism ends. The evil lady in charge banished me to a small dusty shed, filled with trinkets, toys, jewellery and ornaments. It was lonely work, walking up and down the wooden floors with my feather duster. My only solace was a CD by the artist Ella Fitzgerald. I fell in love with her low dulcet tones and smooth honey vibratos, and she even mastered the ‘bippity-boppity-boo’ jazz sounds that any Disney fan will recognise from Pinocchio, with Louis Armstrong’s ‘When you wish upon a star.’

      Listen to Ella Fitzgerald duet with Louis Armstrong, performing ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’

here20130629-183503.jpg
I soon quit that job, realising I could still listen to Ella and Louis without working there. A few years later, a yoghurt company released an advert featuring the sounds of Nina Simone, sparking a national debate on whether it was a man or woman singing. My closest connection to jazz at that time was my obsession with reggae, which played on the bluesy swinging rhythms and classy toots of the brass section. I even dated a guy called Jaz for a short while, although he wasn’t really into jazz as he was experimenting with writing songs on his acoustic guitar.

More years passed, and every time I went to pick up the trumpet again I found an excuse not to: the dorms at uni are not very sound proof; the case is too heavy to carry; I can’t find time to practice; the keys are sticking and the pipes need cleaning. Last summer, I found the black leather case with the gold buckles, and clicked opened the clasps. The rich black velvet, moulded to the exact shape of the trumpet, held it closely and reluctantly let go as I scooped the instrument out. Popping in the silver mouthpiece, I looked at the tarnished brass body that was once so bright and unblemished. The curls of metal that my fingers wrapped around, the small discs of mother of pearl that sat atop the three keys, the wide black hole which magically released my breath into music. I played one long low boom of a ‘C’, and my fingers attempted to climb up the scales but my mouth couldn’t remember how.

At university, I studied a haunting novel called Invisible Man* by Ralph Ellison. It depicts the narrator, hidden underground and invisible to society, recalling his former invisible life as a black man living in 1930′s Harlem, America. Music has a profound escapist effect on the protagonist, whose actual name is never disclosed. He sits in his cave, listening to his radio-phonograph playing Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue.”

      Listen to Louis Armstrong’s ‘Black and Blue’ song

hereWhilst listening, he realises that Louis Armstrong was able to transgress the social racial boundaries through art, and form a black identity in his music. His language mimics jazz, with identifiable breaks and diction creating blues rhythms. He loses himself in the song: ‘I not only entered the music but descended … into its depths.” The lyrics of the song echo the struggle for identity that the narrator suffers as a black man himself:

      I’m white…inside…but, that don’t help my case
      ’cause I…can’t hide…what is in my face

How would it end…ain’t got a friend
My only sin…is in my skin
What did I do…to be so black and blue.

My love affair with jazz music is not quite over yet.

*Not to be confused with H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, The Invisible Man

Sources

‘The Visual Art of Invisible Man: Ellison’s portrait of blackness,’ by Lena M. Hill,http://mfs.uchicago.edu/public/institutes/2012/InvisibleMan/prereadings/InvisibleMan.pdf

‘An Urge to Make Music of Invisibility: Ralph Ellison’s Fiction,’ by Sara Wood,http://www.49thparallel.bham.ac.uk/back/issue9/wood.htm

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