Friday, September 20, 2019

Papillon and 1984, Two Sides of the Same Coin

When a man betrays his friend what does he have left?

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as Henri Charrière and Louis Degas, two ordinary men who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.

Papillon is about a man who refuses to give up all he has (friendship) to appease an authoritarian government, while 1984 is the reverse. In this manner they are two sides of the same coin.

Papillon is the story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, who has been wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the penal colony of French Guiana. During the voyage, he strikes up a friendship with Louis Dega, a forger who is known to have money. Charrière offers Dega protection in return for some of the money. But when Dega sees the brutality of life in the penal colony, and his almost certain demise under horrid conditions, he decides to join Charrière in his escape. What started out as a business transaction becomes a friendship that neither of them expected. For indeed, when one has nothing to his name, when everything has been taken away from you, friendship may be the only thing a person has left. Indeed, that is when he must decide if that friendship is worth fighting for and possibly dying for. This is the theme of both movies.

Papillon takes a dreadful turn when Papillon defends Dega’s life and is thrown into solitary confinement. The brutal scenes that follow show the strength of Papillon’s character, his will to live, and his refusal to reveal who has been sending him extra nourishment, which would have been a death sentence for Dega. The theme here is friendship and honor, and the extraordinary degrees to which men of character will go to protect and defend their friend. Ironically, it is only through the horrible ordeal of solitary confinement that Charrière’s greatness of character is revealed. Horrible conditions can make or break a person. And the first thing that usually goes is character, but Papillon shows that loyalty can survive even under the worst conditions.

Dream sequence:
Heavenly Court:  “You know the charge.”
Papillon: “I’m innocent. I didn’t kill that pimp. You didn’t have anything on me so you framed me.”
Heavenly Court: “That is quite true, but your real crime has nothing to do with a pimp’s death.”
Papillon: “Well then, what is it?”
Heavenly Court: “Yours is the most terrible crime a human being can commit. I accuse you of a wasted life.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”
Heavenly Court: “The penalty for that is death.”
Papillon: “Guilty.”

1984, on the other hand, shows the opposite side of the coin. In the novel, Winston Smith finds a true companion and friend in Julia. But the authoritarian regime under which they live cannot abide dual loyalties. They expect total and uncompromising loyalty to the State. When the State finds out about their affair, Big Brother captures and brutalizes Smith until he finally breaks and betrays Julia. In so doing he turns into the perfect, subjugated citizen, no better than a worker bee. The friendship and love that gave his life meaning is destroyed in the name of totalitarianism. In the end, Winston Smith is turned into a grotesque human being. Not grotesque in his physical features, but grotesque because his character has become distorted and corrupted. Grotesque because he has betrayed the one thing that had given his life meaning, while at the same time freeing him from a life of servility to the State:  his friendship with Julia.

Winston Smith and Julia.

Friendship is the theme of both Papillon and 1984, except that in the case of Papillon, the characters are exalted, while in 1984 the characters are debased. Both are timeless classics, but the only one I can watch over and over is Papillon because I believe in the greatness of mankind even under the worst conditions. But I am aware that the opposite can be true, that mankind can be debased and corrupted even under the best conditions. In the end Papillon chose to eat cockroaches rather than betray his friend. His sacrifice redeems his soul from Heavenly punishment, and he merits a second chance at life. Which goes to show you that friends are not just there to pass the time with, sometimes they are sent to us by God to redeem ourselves. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

COVER REVEAL and excerpt: "The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton"

Edward “Neddy” Stevens had one goal in life, and that was to be a doctor of physic. His father, Thomas Stevens was a prominent merchant in Christiansted, and they lived in a beautiful house on King Street. When he wasn’t studying his school books he was assisting the cows and horses from the neighboring plantations in their labors. He had no fear of blood or mucus, and the ordeal of giving birth caused him no queasiness. He also studied the smaller creatures on the island: the lizards, the crickets, the beetles, and the occasional scorpion or tarantula. The latter almost causing his expulsion from school when he placed it in Master Fraser’s desk. Neddy had an almost innate understanding of how their tiny bodies were perfectly adapted to their environment. The marvelous compound eyes of bees, the delicate, gauze-like wings of dragon flies, and the slender proboscis of butterflies designed to sip the sweet nectar of the flowers like a sailor who drinks his grog from a slender bottle. It was all perfect by Nature's design. And it brought him no end of delight. By far his greatest possession was a book on medicine called A New Practice of Physic, which his father had purchased from the estate of an elderly doctor who passed away from too much spirits. That book was like the Holy Grail to Neddy, and he was always diagnosing his classmates as having dropsy or scurvy or myopia, with the occasional case of chicken pox or the ague. His mind was never at rest and in this regard we were perfect companions.

(From The Lost Diary of Alexander Hamilton, due out in 2020.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Why We Need Universal Truths in Literature

An Accidental Discovery

While I was growing up I never had a chance to see “My Fair Lady.” Actually, I probably had a thousand chances to see it but never bothered because I was always too busy, or I considered it irrelevant or boring. My mother used to watch it constantly, which probably contributed to my dismissing it as irrelevant. Finally after many years I saw it and was amazed that it portrayed a profound universal truth.

The universal truth was MARRIAGE. 

In the movie, Professor Higgins brings Eliza Doolittle to live in his house, but before she can stay there, her father demands “payment” from Higgins. This “payment,” I realized, was the payment the Bible refers to in Exodus (21:7-9) when a father sells his daughter to be a maid-servant in the home of a rich man. A payment which can be later converted to a bride-price if the man decides to marry her.

I was stunned. “My Fair Lady” is pure Hollywood, a version of the stage play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. The basic story-line follows an arrogant professor named Henry Higgins who attempts to make a lady out of a cockney flower girl. Yet embedded in the story is a universal truth so profound, it exists in the conscience of mankind on a level so deep it can only be recognized by the subconscious. It is as if these universal truths that comprise our universe have been downloaded into our souls, to exist forever, even if only in a dormant state, so that they can only be eradicated if the files are corrupted or the neuro-pathways are blocked.

That is the power of a universal truth; we recognize it even when we can’t quite understand it. It hits us at the gut level and reveals something about our collective human psyche. It allows us to live through these characters, albeit vicariously. It allows us to see ourselves through their mirror. And when we look closely, we learn something more about ourselves.

By definition, a universal truth is a truth that applies to all mankind regardless of time and place. It is an intrinsic part of our collective human soul. Without the existence of universal truths, we lose an essential part of our humanity. Without these truths, life begins to lose meaning. We enter into a state of anarchy. Chaos ensues, and our endeavors become futile, like Atlas who was condemned to hold up the celestial spheres for eternity. Atlas represents anyone who is burdened by a responsibility that has no meaning. Universal Truths supply the meaning. And what is life without meaning?

Good literature at its heart is about conveying universal truths through story. We perceive these truths in the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. Whether the character is good or evil, we see a bit of truth in his behavior. We learn about the world through his actions. We learn about human nature. We learn about ourselves. And by connecting to this character, we feel less alone. Ultimately, we experience his struggle vicariously, which allows us to release pent up frustrations, anxieties, and fears through his journey on the page. That is the purpose of fiction.

In a sense, this is what good literature does: it connects us to these universal truths even if only on a subconscious level. We know it when we read it, and that’s why classic literature continues to sell millions of copies every year. Truth will never go out of style.

Humans have an insatiable desire for truth

Humans have an insatiable desire for truth. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was customary for writers to place a Universal Truth, or a general statement of principle, at the beginning of the narrative. Think of the opening statement of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austin: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or the opening statement from “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Nowadays, universal truths are embedded inside the text, in the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is shown, not told.

Just to give you an example, I will give you a universal truth from “Johnny Tremain” by Esther Forbes:

“Johnny felt he had learned a lot in his first lesson. A few more and he would have had no fear of Goblin (a horse). But there were no more lessons. Rab was too busy. He was teaching Johnny to ride as he did everything else—with a minimum expenditure of his own energy. Every day Johnny led Goblin to the Common, for it was quite a long time before he dared ride him through the narrow, crowded streets. And he sat in his manger and talked to him.
The idea that Goblin was more scared than he gave him great confidence and so did Rab’s belief in him and his powers to learn. He had always been quick on his feet, rhythmic and easy in his motions. He had no idea that learning to ride by himself, with a notoriously bad horse for one instructor, and a boy who never left his printing press for the other, he was doing an almost impossible thing. But one day he overheard Uncle Lorne say to Rab, “I don’t see how Johnny has done it, but he is riding real good now.”

UNIVERSAL TRUTH:  A hero is made by overcoming a succession of tests and challenges.

There is no doubt that adding universal truths to fiction give it timeless appeal. There are many more universal truths in “Johnny Tremain” and in many other young adult books, especially those by Ann Rinaldi. That explains the near universal appeal of young adult literature. In short, good literature connects us to these universal truths, we recognize them on a conscious and subconscious level no matter where we come from in the world. 

What are some Universal Truths in literature or film that you have discovered?

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Poetry Book Cover Reveal and Review

So pleased to reveal a new cover for my poetry collection as well as this wonderful review from the International Review of Books.

For the new cover I wanted a more evocative image that highlighted the flora of the region. Poetry book covers can be more abstract than fiction to allow the reader’s imagination to take over. Love this new design by Angie at Pro-ebook-covers which incorporates tropical flowers in an abstract design that is colorful, symmetrical, and truly evocative: 

Here is the review:
“Schiller presents her love story to the three islands of the former Danish West Indies in this collection of verse and art. The poetry is unintimidating and very well supported by the watercolor art of Skaidra Zayas. Ships and slavery, sugar and starlit skies pepper this collection of history and natural beauty.  The poems range from simple odes to native creatures to the deeper and more complex "Galileo’s Moons." For the reader unfamiliar with the islands,  Schiller presents a brief history as well as a brief autobiography.  It's rare to find a themed collection of poetry that flows this smoothly and naturally without the hint of stiffness or forced wording.”

Glad to have won their Gold Badge!
You can purchase "On a Moonlit Night in the Antilles" HERE.