There’s something terribly wrong with Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is a television show that has won basically every award worth winning and every accolade worth giving and been subject to the most minute scrutiny by television critics, writers, psychologists, addiction experts, and dramatists ever since the show first aired back in 2008. It has more than simply caused a sensation. It is actually regarded as probably one of the greatest shows ever to air on television.Its premise is beyond horrible. It charts the demise of its main character, Walter White, an overqualified and deeply frustrated high school chemistry teacher, into one of the kingpins of the Crystal Meth drug distribution networks around Albuquerque New Mexico, home of the vicious brutal cartels that supply the USA. Walter White aka ‘Heisenberg’ is what’s known as a ‘cook’. In other words he turns his skills as an exceptionally gifted chemist into making the finest Crystal Meth either a pusher or a user can buy.

Discovering he has only two years to live with incurable lung cancer, stage 3A, which means it has moved to the lymph nodes, White turns to drug manufacture to ventilate his rage and frustration at his mediocre lot in life. He is 50, frustrated and underachieving in life. He has a surprise new baby on the way and has a son whom he loves deeply with Cerebral Palsy. White earns $46k  p.a. in his teaching job. He also has to supplement his income working at a car wash, run by Bogdon, a deeply unpleasant bullying boss.

As if things cant get worse, we have the question of Walters personality. Walt is not a wise humble balanced guy who, discovering his illness, realizes that despite the fact he is going to die that he has a loving wife and family. He is a bitter frustrated resentful man. He has wasted his mind. Moreover he feels cheated by his best friend, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Decades before he and his friend Eliot Schwartz were once in a small chemical start up company called Gray Matter. Gretchen was Walt’s Girlfriend, but she left him for Eliot. Walt, devastated, sold his share in the company that he had contributed so brilliantly to for a pittance – $5k. (To get an idea of how brilliant Walter White is,on his wall approximately 5 minutes into Episode 1, Season 1, we see Walter White is a recipient of the Nobel prize). Twenty years later Eliot and Gretchen are married, and Gray Matter is worth $2 billion. Much of that had to do with Walters contributions and breakthroughs. White is bitterly resentful of this and checks how Gray matter is doing each week in the news business sections.

He refuses Eliot Schwartz’s offer of payment for chemotherapy and, along with a former high school pupil of his, the delinquent very unreliable addicted child of respectable middle class parents, Jesse Pinkman, begins to cook Meth. Soon because of his extraordinary talents as a chemist, he begins to make the finest Crystal Meth either the local DEA or indeed the local mehthead population has ever seen. Walter is also a gifted and ruthless businessman, dispatching opposition and killing those who threaten him with skill, and a cold remorselessness that grows increasingly disturbing as one watches. This of course is not the story of some everyman. Walter White is no everyman. He is brilliant, egotistical, ruthless, logical, and a killer right down to the soles of his shoes. And he makes the finest meth in New Mexico. Thought his might be an attempt to describe the capacities we all might have in us to be evil, and perhaps if we had Walt’s ego and abilities, had had been slighted and disappointed in life as Walter White had been, perhaps, just perhaps we might find ourselves in not dissimilar circumstances. For the most part though Breaking Bad is so far fetched to be surreal, and yet its surreality lends itself to the fascination of the story of the high school teacher who goes to the dark side. The sheer alien territory of the New Mexico landscapes also helps, the endless stretches of desert, the murderous drug gangs decimating one another for the easy hyper profits available for drugs that because they have been prohibited have become the purview of criminals. This, along with a slow steady build-up to one of the most anticipated and horrifying endings to a series ever, lends one to ask the question what is this show about?

Money? Well, in a word, no. Walter makes vast sums of money. But he enjoys the power and the challenge of eluding detection more than money. Breaking Bad is not about morality either. Its about amorality. Its about the lunacy of prohibition that has never worked and will never work. Its about vast sums of money, unbelievable amounts, that bring power into the hands of very very bad people. Its about the thin patina of civilization and conventionality that covers over our human capacity for greed, murder and revenge. It is a vicious satire of capitalism and market economy gone mad. Everyone is destroyed by Walter Whites monumental desire for power and revenge and in many ways he is part of another economy, the drug economy, with its supply chains and its accountants and economists and entrepreneurs. The problem with Walter is that he disrupts everything. He inevitably finds a way to completely wreck every well crafted operation he finds himself in because he is driven by this desire to get to the top. Planes Fall from the Sky. Children are poisoned. Lovers are allowed to choke to death. Prisoners are executed in their cells. Drug Bosses get their heads blown half off. He doesn’t care. After all he is going to be dead soon. All Walt wants is the ultimate revenge. He wants to be king. As Walter says to Skyler his wife: “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”

What is horrifying is not the carnage that goes on in the drug world. We are used to that. What’s horrible and funny and fascinating about Breaking Bad is how Walter White, apparently the nicest of men, could be so much worse than any of them.

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Notes Scribbled in Dejection in JC’s Cake & Cafe Shop Newtownmountkennedy

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When you are stuck in a Cafe in Newtownmountkennedy an hour or two before an appointment, one can become intolerably bored. Being a bit of a bore myself, I start talking to complete strangers, who for the most part have come in for a quiet time by themselves and don’t want a strange hairy talkative man discussing economics and brands of coffee with them. The other possibility, being the one I found myself doing after talking too much this particular Wednesday morning, was to ensconce oneself, read too much, and start making notes, too many notes, notes on a book that is quite brilliant.

Peter Watson, in his truly wonderful unputdownable Ideas, a history from fire to Freud (Orion Books ISBN 978-0-7538-2089-6), which deals in one thousand odd pages the development of ideas from the emergence of the first Chimpanzee/proto-human (about six and a half million years ago, give or take) to around 1933 just as the Nazis began to turn Germany into a war economy. I picked up this particular tome after I came across the second volume of this series (it deals with 1933 onwards) from seeing and reading bits of it years ago in a friends library and desperately coveting a copy of it myself. The second volume is called A Terrible Beauty – The people and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind, which, as I said, takes us from 1933 onwards to the late  1990’s. I read it and think I may have either lost it or gave it away.

The first volume (Ideas …) glides swimmingly through the millennia of history and deals deftly with vast tracts of ideas and cultural shifts with élan, clarity and compelling prose. Its definitely worth a look. Think about it as a Christmas gift for readerish friends.

In the last hundred or so pages, the area of the book I found myself in that Wednesday morning, Watson begins to talk about the flowering of German Genius, an event that happened between the years 1848 and 1933. The picture on that sits oddly on the top of this web page is a photograph of page 906 of Ideas  I took on my phone. It gives one and idea of just how many rather clever German individuals were around at that time. One or two names, however I do take exception to. For instance I notice Franz Kafka’s name is on the page, about midway down. Kafka was actually a Czech. He subsequently lived in Berlin and died in Austria- so he kind of barely makes the list. Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austro Hungarian Vienna in 1889, and spent a lot of time in Cambridge, England.  Also the photo of p. 906 is of a list of most but by no means all the rather clever individuals that came out of Germany between the aforementioned years. This flowering is an event that runs parallel but is not necessarily inextricably linked with the development of the most repugnant scientific racism (pseudo scientific if one looks at it closely) that was gaining momentum during the time, also in Germany and surrounding countries. The scientific racist, whose logic hides to my mind a profound bigotry that seeks rational defensible explanation, believes (borrowing an idea taken from the Enlightenment) that being human is a biological rather than spiritual or theological or metaphysical fact. This belief, coupled with Primarily Western European historical contact with other races and a firm misapplication of Darwinian Principles of Evolution, led some  thinkers to believe that not only are all races not equal, but equality doesn’t come into it. Some are just not as evolved as others. The misinterpretation of Germany’s Renaissance, (if you might like to call it that) was misinterpreted. It gave us a huge advance in so many disciplines. Yet it was also used a proof of racial superiority. This racist thinking, backed with jackboots and weaponry was a kind of poacher-turned-gamekeeper thinking that leads nations to impose their versions of democracy and/or religion on others, believing they to be the one in the right and all others by default in are in error.

However if one looks down the list in the photo of page 906, one sees how few of those artists and thinkers would for a moment hold such views. I would like to very quickly single out one name and point out that Nietzsche was not one of those aforementioned thinkers. He was not a racist in any way, shape or form. He split with Wagner for instance because he loathed, among other things, Wagner’s racism.  Moreover Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth who looked after him during his years of dementia was a racist. She also married a fascist, someone Nietzsche loathed and despised and would have nothing to do with. Elizabeth Nietzsche’s subsequent associations with Hitler, and her poisoning of her brother’s writings and legacy has done much to distort the reputation of one of the greatest philosophers, prose stylists and psychologists that ever lived, and its a deep shame that such a thing happened.

Anyway – so many exceptional artists, philosophers, scientists, engineers, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers did not emerge in a void. Something had to have triggered it – for instance the unification of Germany in 1848, without question triggered events. Indeed to crib lines from Fawlty Towers – there is ‘enough material for several volumes’ trying to tease out the causes of the German Renaissance. One thing that Watson points out as a big cause is the profoundly interesting and dynamic German concept of what constitutes cultural activity. German Kultur came to stand for intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity  – but not to the same extent political, economic or technical life.

Kultur was a synonym for societal  manifestation for a type of creativity of a higher order, perhaps the highest, one of the profoundest expressions of the German Spirit. Thus for a person to engage in such intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity, ones work was more than welcomed, but seen as central to the furtherance of the nation’s well being. This is somewhat different to how such work is seen now. It is the province of universities and study groups paid for think tanks and the work of vast multinational corporations who invest huge sums in universities and trawl for talent across the world for those people to work in vastly well stocked labs on projects that are deemed useful mainly fiscally attractive rather than good in themselves. It is a sad truth that novels are written for sales now more than anything else. If one decides to become a writer or a poet one is really talking about someone who teaches college and gives creative writing classes and as a side project writes. They operates so cohesively within the system as to never have an opportunity to adequately critique the world they live in. Other than that they either become part of the one percent who write a best seller or remain forever on the fringes of the golden circle, giving readings at open mics and getting their work published in small presses. An artist needs an audience, and so many gifted artists work shrivels on the vine of rotted potential simply because the world we live in views the creative thinker as something extraneous to what is central and most important, being economic viability.  Painting and sculpture is a huge business and viewed as such. As a consequence has thus far completely lost its teeth with the exception of a few labouring in isolation. Academics in universities are, as well as teaching and publishing duties, are expected to bring in money from corporations and perform studies for a price as part of their contract. There thus is a world of difference between the use of genius ( an unpopular word I admit – perhaps giftedness is a less controversial word) as a commodity and the pursuit of artistic and intellectual goals as a good in itself. The irony is that the rather romantic view of pursuing such goals as a good in itself has a massively beneficial effect on society as a whole. The post 1848 Germany for all its many many faults, was a place where such work went on precisely because of such values. And we are happily living with its many benefits since.  The chapter that covers our present age is in real terms remains unwritten. The commodification of skill sets tends to more benefit the needs of the corporate thinker, the organizational psychologist, the investor, and the team leader. The irony of the lessons of this Watsons chapter in German prewar history seems to be this : the more the truly creative person works/writes/paints/builds  for themselves, the more they work for others. This is not egotism, which goes nowhere. This is the selflessness of true creativity, which transcends not only the bounds of egotism but says something about what it is to live in the world.

FRAGMENTED SOCIETIES

 

Feminism, Love and Identity in the Novels of Doris Lessing

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Authors Press,  India  ISBN 978 81 7273 9188  200pages

My introduction to the work of Doris Lessing was when I had the misfortune at fifteen to pick up a copy of Briefing for a Descent into Hell. I read it at a sitting and, scared the living bejeepers out of me, and gave me more nightmares than one can shake a stick at.

A year or two later I picked up The Grass Is Singing, then The Marriages of Zones Three, Four and Five,  and I was hooked. Here I knew was a marvelous writer. The style was direct, fluid, highly intelligent without any consequent loss of emotional intelligence, and she shied away from none of the big issues. I read everything I could find by her and finally devoured the mind bendingly brilliant The Golden Notebook  at least twice if not three times (I really don’t recall).

So when my friend and colleague Dr Ajit Kumar suggested we co pilot a project on Lessing I was very enthusiastic indeed. Some world class academics on Doris Lessing have contributed papers to the volume, and I have to say the cover design by the Graphic Artists in Author’s  Press is great.  The Authors (I include a biographical sketch of each author at the end of this blog post) have written on a vast panoply of themes and perspectives covered in Lessing’s Novels – sexual violence, racism, cold war politics, family, motherhood, sociological perspectives on colonialism, dynamics of child rearing, philosophy of gender, among others. There is some brilliant work here and the exhausting work of editing taught me an immense amount.

This is a book Doris Lessing herself was interested in seeing a proofed copy of  when she heard of it through the Doris Lessing Society, which greatly excited not only us but all the contributors. Sadly Lessing died on the 17th November 2013 and did not get to see it.

Central to Lessing’s concerns was the notion of woman in the world, in other words feminism in the broadest sense of the term.

The notion of any fundamental feminist theory rests not only on the struggle for female reproductive rights but on the idea of every woman’s legal and moral right to control of her own body. Similarly the notion of any fundamental feminist theory does not extend to female political rights but to the primordial recognition of women as co legislator with their male counterpart in any political and legislative dialogue. By extension the notion of any fundamental feminist theory rests not only on the struggle for equal pay between man and woman, but on the parity of productive potential between the sexes and the elimination of all discrimination on gender grounds, especially on the grounds of the necessity of maternity/paternity leave and childcare time. Finally a notion of any fundamental feminist theory postulates women’s full possession of their minds and bodies and thereby the radical elimination of all forms of sexual oppression, of any culture of rape of women, including rape within marriage.

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Doris Lessing’s writing has brought a revolution by her unique and deeply critical female sensitivity to the unfair or highly limited roles of woman and to their restricted representation in society and its literature. The book discusses in detail some of her approaches to discussing these very limitations and her approaches to these limitations. Her focus zeros in on female self definition despite the limitations imposed on them because of patriarchy and related social taboos. She portrays how women have overcome odds and liberated themselves not only from patriarchy, but also from mental, emotional, physical, social and political oppression.

A great writer. I was delighted to work with Ajit in editing it, and really chuffed to contribute and article to it on – The Golden Notebook.

Contributors:

1. Lili Wang is Professor of English in the English Department, Fujian Normal University, China. Her research interest lies in English Literature and has been teaching English for more than 30 years. Her recent publications include A Study of Doris Lessing’s Art and Philosophy (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press (China), 2007); “Lessing’s Paradoxes: ‘A Mind of Winter”(on Mara and Dann). Foreign Literature Studies. Vol.31, No.2, 2009; “Seeking for Traditional Mother’s Memory: A Comparison between Woolf and Lessing”. Foreign Literature, No.1, 2008. She has been a visiting scholar in Cambridge University, Berkeley, University of California, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Hong Kang University.

2. Amy Lee has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Warwick, UK. Her research interests include witchcraft and witchery, the Chinese Diaspora, female self-writing, contemporary fiction and culture, narratives of detection and marginal experiences. Recently she is working on young adult literature. She has published on women’s diasporic writing, life writing, and gender issues in contemporary fictions and film. She has taught professional and creative writing; and is dedicated to promoting creative teaching and learning in the secondary school sector. Currently she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing of Hong Kong Baptist University.

3. Ajit Kumar has done his Ph.D. research work on Doris Lessing’s novels at Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra, India. He is a well published scholar of Doris Lessing. He has published many research papers in national and international journals of English studies. He has presented many research papers in national and international conferences and seminars. He has written the Introduction and Textual Notes of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. He is engaged in editing a book on British Women Authors. He was honoured with Best Research Paper Award in World Conference AIAER-2010.

4. Pamela Grieman is the managing editor of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her doctorate from the University of Southern California.

5. Oran Ryan is a writer. He has written novels: The Death of Finn (Seven Towers, 2006), Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger (Seven Towers 2007), and One Inch Punch (Seven Towers, 2012). He has written plays: Don Quixote has Been Promoted (2009, Ranelagh Arts Festival) for the stage and Radio: Preliminary Design For a Universe Circling Spacecraft (KRPN, San Francisco, California 2010) He has lectured on James Joyce, has written and published short stories, poetry and literary critical articles. He is currently working on his next novel titled Hardcastle Dies Laughing.

6. Florica Bodiştean Ph.D is Associate Professor and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of Aurel Vlaicu University, Arad, tenured for the following courses: Comparative Literature, Theory of Literature, Stylistics of Poetic Texts and Literature of Children and Adolescents.. Main published studies include: Representations of Femininity in Tolstoy’s Novel War and Peace; Heroic and Erotic in Hemingway’s War Novel; A Vision on Femininity in the Romantic Historical Novel: Walter Scott, Ivanhoe; Tristan and Isolde, or On the Conventions and Liberties of Medieval Eros; Patterns of Femininity in the Heroic Epic. Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Renaissance Woman vs. the Woman of the Middle Ages in Cervantes’s Don Quixote. She has published books: Marin Preda or About the Complexes of Creation (doctoral thesis, 2002), A Theory of Literature (2005, second edition – 2008), Poetics of Literary Genres (2006, second edition – 2009), Literature for Children and Adolescents Beyond „Story” (2007), Heroic and Erotic. Essay on Feminine Representations in the Heroic Epic (2013). She is the member of the Romanian Writer’s Union, editor-in-chief of “Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies”.

7. Ambalika Biswas is Associate Lecturer of English at Royal Thimphu College an international college under Royal University of Bhutan, is educated at Rashtraguru Surendranath College with Bachelors and Post Graduate degree in English from University of Calcutta. She has a specialization in Indian Literature, T.S Eliot and Gender and Literature. Ms. Biswas has done her Bachelors in Education from Loreto College, University of Calcutta. Prior to teaching at Royal Thimphu College she used to teach as a part time lecturer at P.N Das College, Palta (West Bengal State University).

8. Feruza Shermatova is a current Fulbright visiting scholar at University of Washington, Seattle, WA, who researches how gender is expressed in Kyrgyz language. She got her Ph.D. in comparative English-Kyrgyz linguistics namely, the issues of translation of syntactical stylistic devices from English into Kyrgyz in 2011. Her primary research interests focus on stylistic analysis of fiction and linguistic problems of fiction translation.

9. Baliram N. Gaikwad, is a Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellow at African American Studies, University of Florida, USA. He achieved Doctoral degree in British Literature from India and has authored several research papers on British Literature and Dalit literature. Dr. Gaikwad works as an Assistant Professor and Chair, Dept. of English at Acharya and Marathe College, Mumbai.

10. Chung Chin-Yi has completed doctoral studies at the National University of Singapore. Her research centers on the relationship between deconstruction and phenomenology. She has published in Nebula, Ol3media and the Indian review of World literature in English, Vitalpoetics, Rupkatha, an Interdisciplinary Journal on the Humanities, KRITIKE: An Online Journal of Philosophy, SKASE Literary Journal and Thirty First Bird Review, Linguistic and Literary Broadbased Innovation and Research, and Humanicus: an academic journal of the Humanities, Social Sciences and Philosophy. She has 4 years of teaching experience at NUS, teaching exposure modules and higher level electives. She presented papers on the Beckett centenaries in 2006 in Denmark and Ireland and recently at the Theory Culture and Society 25th anniversary conference.

11. Shahram Kiaei is a faculty member in the Department of English, Qom Branch Islamic Azad University, Qom, Iran

12. Sushumna Kannan is currently Adjunct Faculty at San Diego State University, USA. She has an MA in English (Literary and Cultural Studies) from EFLU, Hyderabad. She has submitted her PhD thesis titled “Akka Mahadevi, a saint, poet and rebel?: A Study in Feminist understandings of Tradition” at Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore and awaits defense. She has attended conferences, national and international, and has presented papers. She received the Regional Fellowship for doctoral work at France for two years. Having worked at several colleges in and around Bangalore.