Thursday, January 27, 2011

JAWS and MADAME BOVARY and ZEN: Thursday's Critical Anaylsis

You can see John P. Anderson's excellent Flaubert's Madame Bovary: The Zen Novel at google books, at this link.


Anderson gives the classic a wonderful Zen interpretation.  Gustave Flaubert drew from several influences when writing his great novel, including Flaubert's own family and the historical Delphine Delamare, the real Madame Bovary.


Flaubert invented new literary techniques to subvert reader expectations in order to bring them to a new awareness, not just of literature, but of their own daily lives as well.  One way he does this is through the counterpoint of style and plot.  "The style of the novel is grounded in Zen-like detachment and freedom whereas the plot is mired in desire, illusion, and determinism."


"Flaubert finds a principal enemy of human freedom [free will] deep in the guts of mankind in the tapeworm of desire.  The desire tapeworm feeds on freedom and excretes dissatisfaction.  Emma (Madame Bovary) is not free because she has the worm.  Emma wants, Emma gets, but she is quickly dissatisfied and then the worm wants more.  Emma could be a poster girl for our 21st century credit card society."


For a definition of Zen, Anderson uses the one in the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"...the Buddha-nature, or potential to achieve enlightenment, is inherent in everyone, but lies dormant because of ignorance.  It is best awakened not by the study of scripture, the practice of good deeds, rites and ceremonies, or worship of images but by a sudden breaking through of the boundaries of common, everyday thought."


This sparkling study is nearly line-by-line and is 229 pages long, full of insights and wisdom.  Many authors and philosophers are cited, but in particular Anderson uses Schopenhauer's The World As Will And Idea and Parerga And Paralipomena: A Collection of Philosophical Essays.


Anderson says that the first chapter of Madame Bovary is about the establishment of the self.  The change in the narrators, between Charles and an anonymous "we" and an anonymous "I" leads to the detached observer with a Zen perspective.  The observer is free, while Madame Bovary is a slave to mindless desire:  "Me me me.  More more more. Shop shop shop.  These are the call signs for Emma Bovary."

So what do JAWS and MADAME BOVARY have in common?


A lot.  The insatiable will to consume especially.  Dean Sluyter, in a marvelous essay entitled "All You Can Eat," draws a fine Zen interpretation from Jaws


As with Flaubert's novel, the movie of Peter Benchley's Jaws opens with the point of view of the shark, "the shark-as-self" established with an underwater camera, nosing through the seaweed as if looking for prey with that dualism of its driving music in the background.  The collective "we" of the audience looks through the shark's eyes, traveling through the ocean.  Consume, consume, consume.


The shark is the great white, the great blank, the great nothingness.  It is an emblem of what the Buddhist's call "the hungry ghost," the all consuming desire.

Sluyter says, the first victim is the long-haired girl who runs off from the beach party to skinny-dip at sunset, a naked Eve calling to her impassive passed-out Adam to join her.  "Shown in a long shot, she swims tranquilly in the twilit water, which glows with a jewel-like radiance and fills the screen with its vast expanse, a tiny figure easily at one with the ocean of wholeness."  As in Tim Winton's Breath: A Novel and all the other such transcendental works I review here, the ocean is a symbol of the collective Oversoul in this interpretation. 

Then the shark approaches and we see her from below, from the shark's point of view.

In the movie, the forces of material consumption live in denial.  They want to cover up the truth with illusions and salesmanship.  The three men who resist the denial and set out to hunt the shark represent a trinity, and the way Sluyter uses it is consistent with the way it is used by Emerson, Melville, McCarthy, Conrad, and so many others frequently discussed in this blog.

Sluyter says that the shark is the main character, that Hooper, Brady and Captain Quint "are supporting characters who exemplify three different ways to confront the hungry self."  Sluyter says that the three approaches are what Buddhists could call the fundamentalist, the Hinayana, and the Mahayana.  These approaches yield three different outcomes.

1.  Quint has the fundamentalist, eye-for-an-eye approach.  "It is the way of an aggression rooted in dualism."  You might say that Quint is  a basic man dominated by his animal-nature.  He is the body in the body/mind/spirit trinity.

Quint's fundamentalism is driven by a perpetual struggle against any adversary conceived as Other than the one who struggles.  This is reflected in everything he does, the song he chooses to sing, the destruction of the radio, in everything he says.  His consuming hatred of the shark becomes self-consummation. 

2.  Sluyter says that monkish Brady represents the Theravada/Hinayana branch of Buddhism, the "smaller vehicle" as befits the small cage in which he descends in an effort to kill the shark.  If Quint is the body in the body/mind/spirit analogy, Brady represents the mind, the scholar, the shark expert always seeking more knowledge, a better understanding.  It is Brady who, after confronting the shark face-to-face, declares, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

3.  Sluyter says that Hooper represents the Mahayana or "greater vehicle" of Buddhism.  Hooper contains metaphorically the spiritual force of our common humanity that finally blows away the shark, the nothingness blown to nothingness.  The last scene shows Hooper and Brady paddling together on two of the buoys lashed together.  Hooper, representative of the spirit, says that he believes that the tide is with them.  Brady, representative of the mind, tells him to keep paddling.

Mind, body, spirit.  You should read Dean Sluyter's entire essay, which runs a long twenty pages and is collected in Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies.

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