Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stinging jellyfish

I have stopped reading Shantaram by George Roberts (the thousand page first installment of a promised four thousand pages fictionalizing the adventures of Roberts, who starts as an escaped convict who runs a free clinic in a Bombay slum, and works his way up to become an international gun-smuggler for the Indian mob). While the first couple hundred pages held my interest, by the time I reached the page five hundred, I concluded that the book is an ultimately forgettable and longwinded piece of convict literature, with unpleasant social ramifications.

Shantaram purports to show "India" to Westerners, and Roberts incessantly brags about his gift for languages, but, to take just one example, on page ten of Sukhetu Mehta's "Maximum Bombay", Mehta explains why "damn" is a superior to than "Sisterfucking" as a translation of the word "Blenchod" and its multifarious cousins the in Indian languages. Needless to say, Roberts' taxidrivers and slum friends pepper their language with "sisterfucker" this and "sisterfucking" that. It makes for a hardcore and extreme reading experience, it tells us a lot about the sort of world that Roberts thinks he lives in, but it doesn't tell us too much about India.

With that said, Shantaram does not lack a certain naive charm. It is imbued with a fundamental generosity towards the milieu that inspired its creation as people are flatteringly exaggerated almost beyond recognition. The first native that Roberts meets has the widest smile Roberts will encounter in his life, until he meets that native's father. The first attractive Western woman who Roberts encounters turns out to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Dope-hazed bull sessions among low-lifes become philosophical dialogues that would rival Plato. Roberts himself is transformed from a petty heroin-addicted thief into a hardcore serious criminal -- "Australia's Most Wanted Man". The work is almost a Danielle-Steele-class narcissistic day-dream for wanna-be tough guys in touch with their sensitive side, but, at its core, it is a boring example convict literature, where a protagonist fights a depersonalizing system by exaggerating his sense of self-worth and the value of his life.

In fact, much of the pleasure of "Shantaram" comes from peeling away Roberts' exaggerations, and imagining the hum-dream anecdotes that were spun into his outsized tale. His explanation of how "Australia's Most Wanted Criminal" was able to escape from a Maximum Security Prison involves particularly amusing narrative contortions. It turns out that, after the guards had singled him out for extreme and illegal torture, he pretended that they had broken his spirit, and was thus given a prison job very near the prison walls. Isn't it a bit more likely that he was never tortured, and, as an pseudo-literate ex-junky who fundamentally didn't belong in the justice system, he came across as a mild and pleasant fellow, and a guard wanted to give him a break by assigning him an easy job?

But those pleasures couldn't sustain me for another four hundred pages, let alone three thousand four hundred. And, once I learned that Johnny Depp had bought the movie rights, the book suddenly took on a different color. Complaints about movie adaptations usually center around the fact that the filmed realization cannot match the idealizations that readers form in their minds. My problem with this adaptation is that by turning bar-room blarney into a movie, it has the potential to accurately represent the book, but accepting the book at face value undermines any value that the book could possibly have. Johnny Depp is one of the coolest people alive, and the thought of him pretending to be someone who was pretending to be one of the coolest people alive is very sad. As daydream and bullshit, Shantaram is very amusing, but, as mythology, it is infinitely depressing.

But my problems with a potential movie adaptation run a bit deeper, and quickly spill into contemporary cultural attitudes towards crime, modernism, Ezra Pound and Francois Villon. Against the view that modernism is a sublation of classical values opposing the romanticism of the nineteenth century, a common link between the modernists and the romantics is an appreciation for criminals, but this superficial similarity has opposite causes. Romantics promoted a natural identification between artists, prostitutes and homosexuals because an artist's stock and trade is self-knowledge, and, with so many aspects of self-knowledge criminalized and marginalized, artists found themselves cast among the dregs of society. As sexual self-knowledge has become thoroughly commercialized, the criminal class has shrunk to include sociopaths and jerks. The modernists, in contrast, were more interested in the phenomenologically criminal aspects of the criminal class, the bold assertion of the will of one consciousness against social mores. Modernists admired the raw intellectual power to break with tradition, not a deeper tradition of criminality.

The legitimation for both the modernist and the romantic "cult of criminality" is not longer part of the social landscape, in fact, Artists responding to our current world are not particularly fond of criminals. The few people who are producing works of merit are, in general, moralistic blue-stockings (Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut come to mind) who dogmatically cling to transcendental values like respect and freedom. Kids today who are seriously interested in exploring alternative cultural approaches are usually do so in the context of Buddhist-, Bible- or Upanishad-study groups.

However, as artists and bohemians have lost interest in sociopathic criminals, the general public and the corporate elites have become fascinated by them. The transformation of "The Sopranos" from a one-season Oedipal nightmare into a long-running management parable has accompanied a deep criminalization of the outlook of the corporate elites (who have learned to follow every law as they violate every principle), while the traditional identification of artists and criminals has provided a type of intellectual cover for a general moral collapse among the social elites. The people running our corporations and financial insitutions already conceptualize themselves as social rebels, so promoting traditional values becomes the genuine act of rebellion. Interestingly, much of their self-image is tied to a modernist notion of themselves as "artists". And, in this way, a book like Shantaram, that champions a artist-criminal lifestyle, is hardly the touching example of under-talented outsider literature that it might have been twenty years ago, but rather is another nail in the coffin of our culture. Criminals are deeply uncool, and it is sad to see Edward Scissorhands tell us the opposite.

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