Monday, August 27, 2007

The Emerging Mind: V. S. Ramachandran

Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, delivered The Emerging Mind as the Reith Lectures in 2003. The Reith Lectures is an annual affair hosted by the BBC, and has been in existence from 1948. The fact that it has featured such eminents as Bertrand Russell (in the inaugural year), Arnold Toynbee, Robert Oppenheimer, Peter Medawar, J. K. Galbraith, and Edward Said in the past is testimony to Dr. V. S. Ramachandran’s standing in the intellectual community. The book is a compilation of these lectures.

For those who have read Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, this book might evoke a sense of déjà vu. Which is not surprising, considering that Ramachandran deals with the same subject and issues in The Emerging Mind as he did in Phantoms, albeit in a more condensed manner.

One of the key themes that Ramachandran wrestles with is an explanation of all human behavior and responses in terms of the workings of the brain. Therefore, his questioning of the Freudian line of thinking is not surprising, almost expected. As far as Ramachandran is concerned, if the body feels something, it has something to with the brain; if an emotion is evoked in the senses, there ought to be a corresponding activity in the brain that explains the emotion. Believers in the occult and the fantastic (and in Freud) may not accept the Ramachandran line of thinking, and the feeling (thinking?) is bound to be totally mutual.

I read (and reviewed) Phantoms in the Brain a few months ago, and one of the characteristics of that book was the focus on individual case studies. The Emerging Mind has a little less of it, may be a function of the need for brevity in the lecture format. Therefore, one needed to concentrate a bit more when reading Mind, even though it is quite a slim volume of essays.

While Ramachandran comes at it purely from the perspective of the brain, the aspects that he touches are quite all-encompassing, ranging across personal characteristics, family interaction, social behavior, free will, philosophy, and art. Quite an interesting list, and quite interesting connections. Of course, the author himself states that some of his conclusions are still preliminary and need further research and substantiation. It is this experimental nature (with simple ingenious tests, another staple of this scientist-thinker) of Dr. Ramachandran’s analyses and conclusions that make them even more interesting to contemplate (and attempt to refute.)

The other aspects of Ramachandran’s writing – the simple language and the earthy humor (with digs at Texas, George W. Bush, and the Jews even, among others) – are present in good measure in Mind, which make the book delightful reading.

The transcripts of the actual Reith lectures can be found here, but the print version has been enhanced with extensive notes and a useful glossary, which helped a layperson like me better understand some of the technical concepts that are dealt with in the book.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Modesty Blaise: Peter O’Donnell

As with James Bond, I decided to get started on Modesty Blaise with the first in the series. And the first book is evidence that Peter O’Donnell was clearly building Modesty up as a serial star. The myth-building is very evident, the characterization is so larger-than-life it would have been a shame if it had been a one-book character. Of course, a three-year run as a successful comic strip would have encouraged O’Donnell into thinking that a series of novels with Modesty Blaise is bound to be successful.

While the comparison with James Bond is inevitable, let me just point out one key difference between the two in terms of characterization, and get out of the comparison game. James Bond’s character is based on the narrated successes from his past, even in the first book, Casino Royale. In the case of Modesty Blaise, her character and the aura around her have been shaped by her upbringing, the travails she had faced as a child, and the experiences she had had in her growing years, be it the fact that she had been raped twice (and therefore learns the art of becoming unconscious at will) or that that she worked in as an assistant in a barber’s shop. (An essay titled Girl Walking, written by Peter O’Donnell in 2006 throws light on the genesis of the Modesty Blaise character.)

Back to the book itself.

Modesty Blaise is a regulation super-thriller, with an invincible protagonist (and a loyal second lieutenant), a seemingly formidable set of enemies, a task that is beyond a country’s conventional crime-busters, multiple locales, a grueling climax, and it-all-ends-happily-for-the-good finale. I admit that is a bit of an oversimplification, but at a broad level that is what it is. It can be argued that a bulk of superhero thriller fiction pans out that way, with variations in some of the elements, and so it is. But the difference in Modesty Blaise is Modesty Blaise. And her approach in perfecting herself in everything she does or needs to do to succeed.

I wasn’t good with a gun, like you. I spent two hours a day for two years, making myself good. It might not seem worth it. How often do you really need to use a gun—I mean, to shoot with it? Once in three, four, five years? All right, I spent fifteen hundred hours making myself ready for that one time. Because I’m a professional, Paul.

As tends to be the case with super-heroes, the thrill is not really on whether they will succeed, but how. And in Modesty Blaise’s case, she seems to do it rather effortlessly, thanks to her invincible multi-dimensional skills, her history of successful endeavors (a touch tall, considering how young she is), and her reliable assistant, Willie Garvin. That perhaps is a bit of a letdown in the book. I didn’t quite sweat in any part of it. Even when Modesty puts herself up as live bait to the enemy and exposes herself to the brutalities of Mrs. Fothergill.

When I finished reading Modesty Blaise, it left me with a strange melancholic feeling for Modesty. Even though she succeeds, she still seems to be seeking something elusive and unattainable. Is it happiness? Is it peace? Is it acceptance? Is it love? I wonder whether the later books answer this question. Or is she the statue of the perfect woman, the real one hidden, never to come out?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Casino Royale: Ian Fleming

Another confession, after the Alistair MacLean one: this is my first James Bond read. Since I am not much of a film buff either, the only Bond film I’ve seen is Octopussy, and my sole memory of that film is Vijay Amritraj focusing a close circuit camera on a woman’s cleavage. I was probably of that age then. But I digress before I begin.

I thought I’ll get a sense of the icon that James Bond is and so I decided to start from the beginning. (Am doing likewise with Modesty Blaise as well – that review shall follow later.) Casino Royale ushered in arguably the most famous introduction in the world of spy fiction, nay, in all fiction, with “Mine’s Bond – James Bond.” Spydom was never the same again.

Of course, hindsight is always perfect. So it’s easy to see why James Bond became what he was. But Casino Royale has rather unassuming beginnings, a touch overwritten and melodramatic even, quite in contrast to the suave protagonist.

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

But since you know it’s about a cult personality, you plough on. And you don’t get disappointed. The myth construction is massive, the image building is unmissable, the action is either looming or is on. (However, it would be interesting to read early reviews of Casino Royale, from reviewers for whom James Bond was not yet the James Bond.)

As you gradually delve into the book, the pieces come together. The first piece – the “women as sex symbol” attitude.

‘First of all, and he inhaled a thick lungful of Caporal, ‘you will be very pleased with your Number Two. She is very beautiful’ – Bond frowned – ‘very beautiful indeed.’ Satisfied with Bond’s reaction, Mathis continued: ‘she has black hair, blue eyes, and splendid . . . er . . . protuberances. Back and front,’ he added. ‘And she is a wireless expert which, though sexually less interesting, makes her a perfect employee of Radio Stentor and assistant to myself in my capacity as wireless salesman for this rich summer season down here.’

Then comes the 007 car. As original as its owner.

Bond’s car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4 ½-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war. It was still serviced every year and, in London, a former Bentley mechanic, who worked in a garage near Bond’s Chelsea flat, tended it with jealous care. Bond drove it hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure. It was a battleship-grey convertible coupé, which really did convert, and it was capable of touring at ninety with thirty miles an hour on reserve.

The legend of the Bond car is well and truly under way. Except, you wonder, if he were a secret agent, would he want such a conspicuous car, such an obvious giveaway? Well, I suppose if you are creating legends, you need the trappings.

Then the drink. ‘Shaken, not stirred’ is an expression we hear often enough. But what really is the secret recipe of Bond’s drink?

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?’

Ah, I’m thirsty.

As with most superstar character building, James Bond’s reputation is built on some of the cases he reportedly worked on successfully before the current one. In a classic reversal of the old dictum “show, don’t tell,” the superstar’s exploits are told to us from his past. The current case he handles is just one more in the long line, as it were. Quite a bit of the Sherlock Holmes legend also, if memory serves me right, was built this way.

I realize I’m long into the review but I’ve barely talked about the book. But that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? You read (or watch) James Bond for James Bond, not for the plot. Of course, Casino Royale has a plot – the hero busts a Russian spy by beating him at the baccarat table. And while he gets there, there are attempts on his life, he kills some Russian’s underlings along the way, and there is the odd twist with a beautiful woman. Of course, a lot of what he achieves is attributable to good fortune, but then James Bond is the kind of character who can charm the pants off lady luck, or so the legend got built.

With a character as memorable as James Bond, you could have a plot so thin it can be written on the back of a bus ticket, and still make for a great read. That’s Casino Royale for you.

I suppose it’s fair to assume that though Ian Fleming probably planned to create James Bond as a character who would travel through a series of books, he wouldn’t have realized what a cult he was about to create. But if the racy style of the narrative is anything to go by, he certainly intended a movie version of the book. Now the book carries an image from the movie. Did Ian Fleming succeed?

One last snippet on the personality of James Bond.

‘I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very pernickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally have to eat my meals alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.’

That to me defines the character. And its success.