Climb Every Montaigne and Avatar Experience, Neil Robinson

Originally Posted: 26 January 26th, 2010 by Neil Robinson

Two Articles Included: Climb Every Montaigne & Avatar Experience

  1. Climb Every Montaigne

I was listening to the radio today. Several learned people were discussing the French essayist and thinker Montaigne, who was alive in the sixteenth century and pretty much dead after it. I’ve never read anything by him and I know almost nothing about him. Before listening to the radio this morning, I knew even less. At some point in the learned persons’ discussion, a woman who’d written a book on Montaigne said he was the world’s first blogger. I think that’s what she said. I wasn’t fully paying attention. It was certainly something like that. She just meant that he wrote like a blogger, and she admitted she was saying it to provoke debate rather than because she believed it. Imagine that: a blogger – or someone a bit like a blogger – writing before the launch of the internet. It’s one of those comparisons that seem arse about face. Surely, some bloggers write a bit like Montaigne. This is of great significance…isn’t it? He came first. It’s as if I’d said Gorgonzala was a bit like Dolcelatte. I’d be guilty of a crime worthy of a visit from the dreaded Cheese Police. (Now then, lad, didn’t you know Dolcelatte was invented for the British market as a bowdlerised version of Gorgonzola? Ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law.) The order of things is important, and comparisons are dodgy at the best of times…including the one I just made.

Montaigne was apparently very fond of his cat, and often used to play with her (incidentally, that’s not a euphemism. In case you were wondering. I apologise if you weren’t). He famously speculated that it was the other way round, and the cat was playing with him. This too is of great significance. It reveals Montaigne thought about animal consciousness. Which also reveals that there is much I have still to learn; and in fact, fortunately for me, and as I have discovered through the power of Google, Montaigne’s essays are now available free on the internet. This is of great significance. The not-quite blogger from the time of Shakespeare now has stuff on the internet. It must mean something profound. I’m just not sure what…Maybe I should get a cat. But I don’t like the way they lick their backsides and eat things they find in the garden. They crap on the vegetable patch, too. If they’ve got consciousness, you have to wonder what goes through their minds when they decided to chomp on the rancid three-week-old corpse of a rat that in life made the mistake of dining heartily on warfarin.

The writer Will Self, who was among the learned people, didn’t like the suggestion that Montaigne was an ancient blogger. He objected mildly. Perhaps he too was thinking that the suggestion was arse about face. Will Self is bloody impressive. He seems to have read just about everything. I often have uncharitable thought about him – I suspect that when he knows he’s going to be part of a TV or radio discussion panel, he bones up the night before. He probably knows very little about topics like the life of Montaigne until his agent rings him and give him the heads up. Then he learns all the salient facts, and intersperses them with words like “heuristic” and “eschatological”. I suspect he’s a blagger, basically. Except that on the radio today he said he’d read Montaigne’s essays a long time ago during a long quite winter stay in Scotland. He wouldn’t have made something like that up, would he? Then Will mentioned the English writer Thomas de Quincey (1785 – 1859), comparing him with Montaigne. What a bastard that Will Self is; de Quincey too for that matter. The thing is, I have read Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater. It was a long time ago and I was in Essex, not Scotland. But I remember bugger all about it, except that it was good – I think – and that de Quincey was addicted to opium. Which is anyway in the title of book, and thus hard to forget. Oh, and I pinched the dates of his life just now from Wikipedia.

Bloody blaggers and dodgy bloggers. I think I’ll just bog off to Scotland, stop worrying about them, and read the complete works of Marcel Proust. At least, I would if I had anywhere to stay in Scotland and if I owned the complete works of Marcel Proust…Please don’t tell me they’re on the internet.

Originally Posted January 23rd, 2010 by Neil Robinson

  1. Avatar Experience

Hello out there. Greetings etc

I went to see James Cameron’s Avatar recently. Along with everyone else. Of course, I don’t mean every single person in the country went to the same cinema I went to – that would be absurd, and it would have made the queue for tickets nightmarish. My cinema was quite full, however (the carpet had a thick and crunchy dressing of discarded popcorn. Apparently audiences don’t know where their mouths are in the dark); and everyone I know has either seen the film – some people more than once – or is going to see it.

And did I like Avatar? I did. What’s not to like? Saying I hated Avatar would be like saying I don’t like ice cream or chocolate. Everyone likes ice cream and chocolate. The film is fast-moving, gripping and hugely spectacular. The 3D made me feel a little motion sick at first, but I soon got used to it. Massive gun ships looming from beautiful extraterrestrial skies, though awesome, were not for me as breathtaking as the flakes of ash that rained down following a conflagration: at one point I had to restrain an urge to reach out and snatch a glowing ember as it drifted past; I feared it would land on the woman in the seat in front of me and set her hair ablaze. Pandora, the alien world that Cameron and his special effects wizards have created, is of course the real star of Avatar, and I foresee I brace of sequels set in its resplendent rainforests. So, yes, Avatar is a great show. It’s put two of my favourite things – science fiction and fantasy – at the top of a lot of other people’s list of favourite things. Also, there’s a proper story behind the 3D and fancy stuff…but…however…There’s always a “but” and a “however”, isn’t there? Just a few nagging doubts…

Coincidentally, showing on terrestrial TV not long after Avatar’s official release in the UK was HBO’s film of Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of Native Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. This book, which I read an awfully long time ago, describes the injustices done to various tribes, and HBO provide a slightly abridged version, focusing on Sioux leaders including Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the plot of Avatar, a film that is in many ways an American guilt-trip and atonement. Both stories relate the struggles of an indigenous hunter-gather people whose environmentally friendly lifestyle conflicts with the greedy domineering schemes of a more technologically advanced civilisation. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tells its tale through complex flawed characters – many, on both sides of the conflict, are degraded and degrading; both sides commit atrocities; but ultimately by far the greatest injustice is done by a duplicitous European culture that cannot tolerate a different way of life. It’s a tragedy of staggering proportions; no happy endings; no wish fulfilment. Whereas Avatar…well, I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away by suggesting Hollywood doesn’t allow that kind of negativity.

Of course, the characters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are fictionalised versions of real people with a real place in history. The characters of Avatar are imaginary – but that doesn’t entirely excuse them from being a little one dimensional. Avatar’s bad guys – the gung-ho military types and corporate snakes – are very bad; the good guys, human and alien, are very good. There’s a tiny moment of ambiguity at the beginning, but it doesn’t last long. None of the characters is permitted tragic stature. I don’t mean to say the film is all bad; far from it. This story of repression, ecological atrocity and a people’s struggle for self-determination is always worth retelling, in many different forms: by viewing a landscape from different vantage points you get a more complete picture.

I suppose critics could fault Avatar by claiming it suffers from “call a rabbit a smeerp” syndrome. Cameron’s alien race, the na’vi, might be blue-skinned and eight feet tall, but they smile, cry and laugh just like Earth humans. They ride horse-like creatures. But I’ve never been a fan of the whole “call a rabbit a smeerp” critical movement. A story about truly alien aliens could easily, and justifiably, be incomprehensible. And like I just said, it’s the job of fiction, of all art, to change our perspective when looking at familiar things, even if that change is fractional.

Avatar is about the here and now: it’s America’s way of questioning itself and perhaps supplying atonement as a wish-fulfilling fantasy. (I know Cameron is Canadian, but he’s spent an awful long time in the States.) The film clearly reveals the US’s current moral uncertainty about its place in the world, and many might say this uncertainty is an indication that the US is in decline as a world power. Great empires are sometimes said to produce their highest art shortly before they expire. I’m not sure. I suspect America’s putative obituaries are premature and that the US has yet to produce its finest art. Let’s hope so. Because I have reluctantly concluded that Avatar, while it is a good film and a meaningful modern fable whose heart is in the right place, is not a great film…perhaps…maybe…Hmmm, I think I need to watch it again.

Published Works: Oliphan Oracus available on Immanion Press

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