issue 247 - September 1993
The Wedding Banquet
directed by Ang Lee
Mistaken identity is one of the oldest plots around which to build a comedy. But Taiwanese film-maker Ang Lee puts a new spin on the theme in his bitter-sweet film The Wedding Banquet. The mistake here concerns the sexual identity of Wai-Tung Gao. Young and handsome, Wai-Tung has a lot to be happy about. A property investor on the up in his adopted city of New York, he has created a very particular lifestyle for himself which is far removed from that of his family back in Taiwan. For Wai-Tung is gay and enjoys the openness of his relationship with his white boyfriend Simon.
His mother, worried that their only child isn’t married yet, sends him computer-dating questionnaires hoping to fix him up with the girl of her dreams. In a bid to stop her constant badgering Wai-Tung arranges to marry Wei-Wei, a Chinese artist friend who needs to get her Green Card. But Wai-Tung hasn’t bargained for his parents flying 10,000 miles to watch him get hitched while Simon stands by as best man.
Ang Lee’s second feature deservedly won the best film prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. It relishes the brusque farce of the situation but also allows for some pertinent comments about how a traditionalist Taiwanese family must come to terms with the desires and lifestyles of the younger generation. For the Gaos the marriage of Wai-Tung and Wei-Wei is symbolic of the union between Taiwan and China. This is particularly meaningful for Mr Gao, a former nationalist general who fled the mainland after his entire family had been killed by the communists. He is concerned with the continuation of the family name which, of course, necessitates the birth of a grandson.
Wai-Tung meanwhile is sympathetic towards his father’s concerns, though he is not prepared to come up with the goods. And Ang Lee treats all his characters with such generosity and warmth that he affords us the broadest understanding of their dilemmas.
Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz
by Don Byron
‘American pop,’ writes jazz clarinettist Don Byron in the sleevenotes to his jazzed-up klezmer album, ‘has always been a barometer of social change.’ From African-American jazz and blues to rock’n’roll, the American pop tendency has been towards a pluralist, harmonious state where cadences – like national origins – become an assimilated whole.
Fast, sonorous and emotive, klezmer is the Jewish music of pre-War eastern Europe. On the face of it, klezmer is an odd entity to find in the hands of Byron, a dreadlocked black musician whose fame lies in a series of virtuoso jazz albums. And yet, thinking about jazz and its ability to assimilate diverse forms, Byron’s album makes perfect sense. It is a homage to Mickey Katz who, from the 1940s onwards, used klezmer to play about in the space that separated America’s immigrant population from the WASPish dominant class. Songs like Haim Afen Range (read ‘Home On The Range’), the Latin horns of Dreidel Song and the mandolins of Paisach in Portugal are, for all their exuberant burlesque, underpinned by a serious question: what is it to be an American? Elegantly rephrased by Byron, the question is no less pertinent today.
Hungary’s Muzsikás group started with a very different brief. After playing at a photographic exhibition about the lives of religious Jews, Mihaly Sipo and his three Muzsikás cohorts began investigating the threads that linked klezmer to native Hungarian and Gypsy folk music.
In doing so they were following in a grand old (eastern) European tradition – classical composers like Bartók, and more recently Kodály, had made similar excursions into folk and Gypsy music. Their field trips around the Transylvanian Maramaros region have resulted in a vivacious, captivating recording whose 14 tracks range from Hassidic wedding dances to lamentation songs. Folk singer Márta Sebestyen’s unaccompanied song Farewell to Shabbat is alone enough to melt most hearts.
Both Byron and Muzsikás aim to reclaim music that was, through an interplay of time, fashion and anti-semitism, in danger of falling out of memory. We are all aware of the resurgence of virulent racism in Europe. In stressing the inter-relatedness of Jewish music to folk – and, for that matter, jazz – these records have a cogent point to them.
Pioneers of Change
by Jeremy Seabrook
After all the debate about ‘the end of history’, it is refreshing to have this reminder that we actually could be approaching the beginning of history. There is a growing realization, as one of the visionaries in this book puts it, that ‘however different the problems of North and South appear, they derive to a considerable degree from the same root cause: the absence of, or limited space for, genuine democratic participation by citizens’.
After centuries of capitalist disempowerment, spaces for popular initiative are opening up from the sheer need to survive. Thousands of movements everywhere in the world are imagining a different future.
Frances Moore Lappé, from whom the quote above comes, is one of many recipients of the Right Livelihood Award – or the ‘alternative Nobel Prize’ – who talk to Seabrook in this illuminating book. These people have seen the poor of the earth fighting back. They have witnessed and taken part in an amazing story: completely powerless people recreating semblances of life where international economic forces have sown human misery and ecological destruction. This kind of ingenuity and imagination is rarer in rich countries where almost all spaces for autonomous action have been destroyed by the consumer society.
With centuries-old arrogance Western civilization has claimed universalism for its distorted values. The book’s interviewees know from first-hand experience the destructive force of industrial culture. As Anwar Fazal, the founder of Consumer Interpol, says: ‘The category of the sufficient is basic in traditional societies. Once you start to measure wealth in cash, then enough ceases to exist, for it cannot be found in the realm of monetized riches.’
This point is made in a different way by John Turner, an expert in self-managed home and neighbourhood building who has witnessed the incredible resilience of slum dwellers in the Third World: ‘Hope for the future lies in the fact that so many of the poor in poor countries manage to do so much with so little. While the rich do so little with so much, there can be no future.’
Against a Peacock Sky
by Monica Connell
The familiar problems of anthropology. People swallowed by tape recorders emerging as paragraphs of text. Cultures pinned like exotic butterflies. The imperialism of explanation. And the financially secure anthropologist’s place in frugal societies. What kind of justification can the knowledge so gleaned claim?
Monica Connell’s awareness of these problems reduces many of them and though her account of her stay in a village in the remote Jumla district of Nepal is finely observed there is nothing in it that is voyeuristic. Her position is always clear – the people she stays with become her friends and involve her in their rituals and their routines of rice planting and gathering pine needles. Yet she retains her composed outsider’s eye, often being ‘humbled and then resocialized’.
In prose that is remarkably supple and dispassionate she reveals the seasonal rhythm of the Jumla people’s life in a series of vignettes. She refuses to judge or explain away, rendering complex and often troubling situations with equanimity. Curiously this makes you think more and not less about the issues involved... Like how the community carefully harvests pine needles for fuel but has stripped the area near the village of trees. Or when a woman whose baby is ill is told that she is a witch holding her husband under a strange and evil power.
Monica Connell’s honesty about events like these is the book’s great strength – with it she achieves a rare and luminous empathy.
It’s exactly a century since Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer published their ‘Preliminary Communication’ on hysterical phenomena, a paper which aroused derision in Viennese medical circles. The doctors who thus responded had little time for the patients or the symptoms the paper described, seeing them as either idle malingerers or negligible mental phantoms. This was the earliest in a long series of writings in which Freud maintained a systematic and relentless assault on the pieties of the conventional medical establishment of his day.
Many of Freud’s most famous treatises, when superficially examined, appear to be monuments to the most trivial aspects of human life. For example, within one five-year period (1900-1905) he published a book about dreams (The Interpretation of Dreams), another about slips of the tongue, mis-spellings and similar matters (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life), and yet another on jokes (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious). It now requires some effort of imagination to appreciate how outlandish these must have seemed to his fellow professionals, and indeed the book on dreams took an astounding eight years to sell 600 copies. Each of these works is now considered a classic because they formulated wholly original concepts, in effect inventing a language with which to talk about human psychology. They also demonstrate that Freud was as interested in ‘normal’ minds as in those of the ‘mentally ill’.
Everybody knows something about Freud’s theories and discoveries. He proposed that many apparently physical illnesses had a psychological root, but that this origin was often too painful for patients to acknowledge. Psychoanalysis, sometimes called ‘the talking cure’, was the careful and difficult process he perfected for leading patients to the discovery of the source of their illness which, when recognized, usually disappeared. He held that the vast majority of these sources were erotic in nature, and that the psychic regulation of sexual impulses was the single most important factor in human behaviour. He argued that infants have an erotic life and that the family is a formative arena steeped in sexual tension. Human beings consist of an id, an ego and a super-ego. The id consists of those instinctual drives which need to be satisfied if life is to be maintained; the ego is the conscious part of the id which is continually laying the best and most efficient plans to satisfy it; while the super-ego is the entity which keeps the ego in check by ‘reminding’ it of the moral and physical restraints placed on its activities by the existence of others.
The hedonism underlying Freud’s theories creates obvious problems for any egalitarian politics. When considered on a collective scale, his has been called a ‘regulated free market’ model of social behaviour, in which individual egos ‘compete’ for their own selfish satisfactions, subject only to the ‘regulation’ of their super-egos. The raw material for his work was supplied by private consultations with the moneyed classes of Vienna, and by his own self-analysis: it would be hard to find a more solidly bourgeois group of subjects, and so the ‘free market’ model which emerged should perhaps cause no surprises. Freud’s preparedness to universalize from such a limited clientele has rightly encouraged scepticism towards his thinking, which attaches also to his other major omission, namely the failure to consider how much his interpretations and procedures were determined by his own gender.
These criticisms admitted, the understanding of psychology which Freud advanced has enormous political potential in allowing us to make sense of sociological and historical phenomena as well as the political psychology of our own societies. Towards the end of his life, in works such as Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud was trying to apply the insights of his earlier individualist work to society as a whole. In this he was only partially successful, mainly because the political potential of his work is better realized when this procedure is turned around. It may be, in other words, that individual psychology is as much a product of our political culture as the reverse. Many of the technical terms that Freud used to describe mental events – ‘repression’, ‘censorship’ – are more familiar to us as words describing political processes. Perhaps, then, individual psychic repression and censorship is more widespread in societies in which these are the administrative norms, leaving people with less pleasure in their lives?
The model of the human mind described by Freud should not be regarded as universal, timeless, natural or unalterable. Our political culture and our mental dynamics are intimately related. That is a liberating insight, and, whatever his other blind spots, we ought to applaud the courage of the Viennese doctor who made it possible.
Freud’s work is summarized in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1917) and New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933) – both are published by Penguin.