Monday, March 22, 2010

No Exit--Jean-Paul Sartre

March 22, 2010

"Hell is...other people." In Sartre's existentialism view, this is quite literally true. No Exit is a play that explores the afterlife in a satirical and often humorous way, challenging us to think about the how we define ourselves and the context we build for ourselves in order to create meaning in our world.

At the outset of the play, Garcin has just arrived in the afterlife. He is conducted by a valet to his new 'accomodations,' which is something akin to a mid-level hotel room, albeit one to which he will be confined forever. Still, it's nice enough. The valet is amused by Garcin's queries as to the location of the burning pincers, the hot pokers, the other instruments of torture. Garcin is confused and not a little relieved to learn none of these are part of the environs he would inhabit for all of eternity. This would be much easier than he had anticipated--or so he thought.

Not long after, he is joined by two women, Inez and Estelle. None of the three knew each other in life, and they are left to wonder how they three came to be one another's eternal roommates. In attempting to make connections among themselves, they at first maintain the facade of innocence, feigning surprise at their fate. Soon enough, though, the ugly truth comes out, and they each see the other in all their naked and calculating guilt. They see the blackness and the cowardice in their souls, dependent upon each other to absolve them, to mirror back what they want most to see in themselves--justification.

But, as Inez says, "You are--your life, and nothing else." There is no justification, no way to defend oneself. And yet that is what they continue to do--to seek approval and affirmation from one another, all the while recognizing they have the power to withhold that affirmation from the other two, and thus keep the upper hand. It's a vicious circle, being more drawn to the lure of the power over others than to the desire to work together for a common cause, a greater good. Rather than subverting the desire to wield power over others, each becomes more fierce in attacking the character of the others, knowing what they seek is salvation in each other.

And thus they begin eternity. No end in sight, no change expected. A forever of looking for peace, and a forever of knowing it won't come. Who needs the fires of Hell? Hell is..other people.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hunger Games--Suzanne Collins

March 10, 2010

As I was reading the book (another recommendation by one of my students), I was struck by the same feeling I get that makes horror movies so difficult for me to watch--the hopeless, inescapable feeling of being trapped. In a suspenseful horror movie, the feeling is visceral; I don't want to be there, participating in the experience of walls closing in, killer getting closer, options disappearing.

Books are different for me, though I can't quite tell why. I have a vivid imagination; I can see clearly what I'm reading. For some reason, though, I don't feel quite like I have to live through the situation in order to experience it. Despite being fully engrossed and present in the story, I am not made to feel I am in peril. I get to experience the cathartic release ("Thank goodness it's not me!") from a removed spectator position, rather than participant. It's fascinating and entralling and riveting, and I love it.

The Hunger Games is another book set in the post-modern world, a dystopian society that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. The country is divided into twelve districts, many of which are suffering economically. Kaitness and her family are barely eeking out a living (by illegally hunting) in District 12, the most distressed of all the districts. Hunger is a constant companion, and the well-being of her sister and her mother are the sole focus of her days.

That is, until the annual reaping, wherein each district is obliged to offer up two tributes to participate in The Hunger Games, sacrifices to the Capitol which provides for their safety. All children and young adults are eligible, at a certain age, to become selected, and in this particular year, Kaitness' beloved younger sister is selected. Desperate to protect her, Kaitness offers up herself as this year's female tribute. Along with her, District 12 sends Peeta, the local baker's son. They will represent their District in the fight-to-the-death struggle that is The Hunger Game.

All tributes, two from each district, are transported to the Capitol, where they are fed, trained, and prepared for a brutal, televised competition in a wilderness designed to test their strength, cunning, and perseverence. It's closely followed by all the inhabitants of each district who are hoping a win will bring money and food and respect to their families and neighbors. Ultimately, there can only be one survivor who will reap the benefits of wealth and adoration, both for themselves and for their district. Once chosen, a tribute has no option. It's kill or be killed, survive at all costs. Alliances can be made initially, but trust is a hard-won commodity, since there is the ever-present knowledge that if there is to be but one victor, alliances can only survive so long.

Kaitness and Peeta face ruthless opponents, devastating wildfires, attacks by genetically engineered beasts, starvation, and lack of water. There are ambushes, broken alliances, and loss of friendship. The most difficult trial, though, that they must face is the knowledge that the bond they form with one another will become the most painful thing of all. To end the Games, either Kaitness or Peeta, or both, must fall.

Part Running Man, part Logan's Run, part Rollerball, part The Lottery, part Survivor, and part Big Brother, with Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure, it's the kind of book that has appeal for the young adults for whom it's written and their parents as well. I couldn't put it down, and when I did finish, I felt the need to run right out and get a copy of the second novel in this gripping trilogy.