Heliotropology, conspiratorial schemata and throwing eggs at Shy Guys

Wednesday, 16 March 2005 — 10:34pm | Literature, Studentpolitik, Video games

Not much in the way of positive, uplifting news this week in the world of people who play chess a lot better than all of us combined ever will. First Kasparaov retires – though mind you, there really is no better guy to spearhead the effort to cut Putin down to size, and devoting more of his energy to it isn’t a bad thing – and now Japan has ruled that Bobby Fischer will be deported back to America. While I’ll admit that Fischer has become a bit of a loon in recent years, this is doing nothing to help, and the grounds for his criminality – that his 1992 rematch with Spassky was an economic activity that violated sanctions on Yugoslavia – remain absolutely preposterous. I suppose this is the kind of thing that happens when you mess with a bona fide genius, no pun intended.

In other news, yesterday’s Gateway had a terrific crop of letters, one of which said exactly what I’ve been trying to say for days, but better and in fewer words. Megan Grieve wrote:

I myself voted for Mustafa. He seemed to have an intelligent and serious platform but, most importantly, he seemed to want the position for the right reasons. Lettner’s platform, that repeatedly mentioned the Powerplant, seemed more suited to someone running for VP (Student Life).

Lettner seemed to take the whole election as a joke, and the only time I heard him speak was at the candidate forum in which his entire speech consisted of an unamusing frozen (as in tuition) metaphor. If I wanted a joke candidate, I would have voted for Spanky. Yet it was met with a resounding cheer from the audience and now he’s our new president – I don’t understand.

I could not agree more, though for my part, I found Lettner’s speech amusing – as a speech alone, that is, and not in context of the Myer forum where it was delivered, and where I was hoping to hear some real ideas. Be that as it may, Lettner still has a year ahead of him to do something useful with the organization, and in spite of some massive turnover we may have some decent Councilors to keep him in check. The best part of the letter is that nobody has any idea who the writer is. Informed normal students exist! Now, if only we could apply the same principles to ferret out the extraterrestrials.

And while on the subject of extraterrestrials, I want to digress for a moment and make some brief observations on various works of literature I have delved into of late.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is an interesting fellow, in that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where he stands when it comes to imperialism and the White Man’s Burden in all its assorted flavours. On one hand, the worldview he exhibits is clearly one that divides the world into people who are savage brutes and people who aren’t. In A Princess of Mars, the difference between the two is that the former has a capacity for love and compassion. It opens with John Carter fleeing a band of Indians, who are naturally a posse of uncivilized cowboy-hunters. Where it gets interesting, though, is when he ends up on Mars and falls in with the Green Men of Thark, a brutish tribe of warriors for whom killing is acceptable so long as you triumph over your foe and seize his rank and possessions, laughter is a mark of delight in the suffering of others, and the bonds of family extend only to dumping your kids in a public incubator for five years until they hatch. In a telling scene, our protagonistic Gentleman of Virginia tames their ravenous beasts of war with a display of his teeming love and empathy. The message here is less than subtle.

Naturally, they are an ugly people with green skin and eyes in weird places. In contrast, the peaceful, scientific red-skinned people of the Kingdom of Helium are a more human sort, and even perform the courtesy of providing the requisite beautiful princess to be rescued. Put all of this together, and it seems like a matter of black and white: Helium is civilized, Thark is not. Bad Thark!

At least, that’s how it seems, until a number of other considerations come into play. Thark is not an undeveloped society; in fact, it evolved into a Spartan warrior state, and one that acts as a colonizer, not the colonized. Moreover, John Carter ultimately fights not the Tharks, but the Zodangans, a society that one could judge to be “civilized” along the same axis, because the Zodangan prince was betrothed to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris. The Tharks, as a loveless society, have no familial construct, yet it is precisely by the presence of kinship laws that Zodanga falls. And as we all know, chivalric romance reduces to nuptial law in the last instance.

The other joke, though whether we are laughing with Burroughs or at him is indeterminate, is that the Tharks are an exact representation of everything that Nietzsche says human beings are: animals that thrive on bloodlust and take pleasure in the suffering of others. Thark is humanity in its uncensored form. Its people differ from all others in that they see no need to justify revenge by calling it retributive justice, or validate bonds of economic gain with artificial constructions of love and marriage. As a society without guilt, it needs no social structures or deities for the sake of absolution. But over in Zodanga, the pillars of civilization – nuptial law in particular – becomes that civilization’s undoing. So who, or what, is the enemy? Maybe the very act of colonizing is to remake the enemy as a friend.

This is, after all, the same author who presented the inversion of having apes civilize a Greystoke of noble birth and raise him as one of their own. I would say more, but I have never read Tarzan of the Apes and have no idea how it ends.

I also wish to say a few words about Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, as it begs – indeed, it grovels on its trembling knees – for a comparative study alongside The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (which, now that I think about it, should have borne the far catchier and more grammatically sensible moniker The Code Da Vinci).

The two cover a lot of similar ground in trying to play connect-the-dots with occult history’s greatest hits and presenting it as a Rembrandt of a grand conspiracy, but aside from the prominence of Templars, Merovingians, and Rosicrucians (oh my!) they reside on opposite poles of the literary globe. They share a core, but they never see nor talk to each other, and probably shouldn’t lest there be the outbreak of nuclear war. It would be unfair to evaluate them by relative merit, since they lie on mutually isolated spectral planes, and it may give one the false impression that Foucault’s Pendulum is itself the life-changing masterpiece that Da Vinci wanted to be. It’s not; while it is full of fascinating ideas and delightfully obscure allusions (including some to Casablanca), the story itself isn’t a whole lot of fun. Unlike Da Vinci, which is admittedly a lot of fun in a guilty way until you step back and realize how stupid it is sometimes, there are no murderous albino henchvillains in sight.

What really shows upon juxtaposition, though, is that Eco is a card-carrying professor of semiotics while Brown doesn’t understand the first thing about signs and interpretation, yet somehow miraculously landed a job teaching kids English. It has allowed me to identify another major irritation about The Da Vinci Code beyond just its abuse of the language, and put this irritation in words. To be succinct, what I mean to say is this: Robert Langdon has no business being a professor of symbology, and even by high school teacher standards, Brown doesn’t have a clue about what it means to read symbolism.

The Da Vinci Code is an exercise in interpreting symbols and mistaking that interpretation for truth. In doing so, it reduces signs and images to correspondent representations that somehow map quite neatly to the things they signify, as if you could look them up in a dime-store book on the twelve uses of dragon’s blood like that taxi-driving kid in Constantine. Eco knows better: his story is one that explicitly makes fun of people who confuse interpretation with the revelation of an absolute reality. In it, Casaubon and Belbo create a reality out of a grand interpretation, which is what signs actually do, only the joke’s on them when it actually works. Symbols don’t just sit around and symbolize things. If Robert Langdon were really a credible symbologist, he would be aware of this. Then again, this is the same book where a professional cryptologist fumbles her way through something as elementary as the Fibonacci sequence, which schoolchildren could probably spot even if they don’t know its name.

And this is why it is so amusing when people mistake The Da Vinci Code as some grand revelation (and sometimes even write books to debunk it lest people be led astray), or when readers on my side of the fence claim the reason they don’t like The Da Vinci Code is because so much of it is made up. Last time I checked, you were allowed to make things up in a work of fiction. The problem with Dan Brown is not that he doesn’t know what truth is, but that he doesn’t even know how to get to truth. In this respect, Foucault’s Pendulum made fun of Dan Brown a decade and a half in advance, only nobody noticed. I venture that most people who pick up Eco’s tome either drown in the stormy sea of allusions or put it down after seeing that it hardly goes anywhere in the first three hundred pages, which is right before it starts its engines and becomes a really good read.

It all comes down to the conception of what conspiracy theories are and how they work. I would say that as is the case in Eco, conspiracies are not the discrete data points, but the connections themselves; moreover, the connections don’t become true by way of logical validity alone. They become true when they are accepted as truth, which, as Fox Mulder says, is out there.

Let’s save V For Vendetta and my completion of the Lemony Snicket series for a future posts. They deserve a space of their own.

On a final tangent, I want to say a few words of praise for a little game for the Nintendo DS called Yoshi’s Touch & Go. It’s phenomenal, and I think Nintendo has stumbled upon the core mechanic for the “stylus platformer” out of all the concepts they first displayed in the mini-games bundled with Super Mario 64 DS. Touch & Go is not the Super Mario Bros. of the touchscreen and certainly no Yoshi’s Island, but that is because instead of real levels, it presents tests of precision, speed and endurance over a randomly iterated course that you play for high scores.

One can only hope that Kirby’s Magic Paintbrush builds on this mechanic and adds to it the element of adventure that comes from meticulous level design. But for now, it’s games like this one that really justify the investment that is the DS and show off what it is capable of, not from a technical perspective, but from an interactive perspective. I also find it encouraging that in spite of how it can pull off N64-quality graphics, the DS still manages to foster traditional 2D design. Viewtiful Joe aside, 2D design has been unfairly neglected by the technically-oriented home console arena.

I also realize I promised in my last post that I would be getting to gushing over the Episode III trailer right away. I’ll get to that.

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