The Hours examines the unique female consciousness of being. From the feminist perspective, it may be acclaimed a subtle and exquisite masterpiece. Yet, mundane viewers may decry it as a jejune bemoaning of the white, middle-class women, nothing less than a portrait of bourgeois ennui. Admittedly, the Marxist disciples are justified to criticize the three females’ lives as self-indulgent and self-conscious, because they are free from economic burdens as suffered by women in poor countries. While poverty-stricken women struggling for survival are left no extra energy to question the meaning of their life, these rich, white women have the leisure to ponder over the meaning of their existence. In proletarian view, the repeated quest of “who am I” is a sign of intellectual arrogance bred by material abundance. So, let’s explore the three women’s life and see if it’s really the bourgeois ennui that gives rise to such an unhappy life.

In this film, three women’s lives are fatefully intertwined through a book, Mrs. Dalloway. In 1923, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) wrote this book on the brink of mental collapse. In 1951, Laura (Julianne Moore) devoted herself to reading this book while entrenched in a boring marriage life. In 2001, Clarissa (Meryl Streep) unsatisfactorily enacted the role of this book’s main character, Mrs. Dalloway. To me, the most unforgettable line was uttered by Richard (Ed Harris), a gifted writer dying of AIDS, when he commented on Clarissa’s life: “Oh, Mrs. Dalloway----Always giving parties to cover the silence.” Somehow, “cover the silence” has lingered in my mind for years.

What’s the charm of these three words “ cover the silence” anyway? Something significant about female identity is hidden here.

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Prologue

With the countdown of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games in London, England will attract the attention of the whole world this summer. In the eyes of a foreigner, England is featured by a cloudy sky, foggy towns, and red phone booths. The British mentality is notorious for its snobbery, hypocrisy, xenophobia and insularity. From the perspective of a perspicacious writer, George Orwell, we see something subtle and intriguing about the British culture. Let me summarize what Orwell highlights as the distinctive British flavor in the article, “England Your England”:

According to Orwell, national characteristics are continuous and persisting, stretching into the future and past. They have entered into the soul of the people. Despite the changing of the world, national characteristics can change only in certain directions because certain alternatives are possible and others are not, like a turnip seed never growing into a parsnip. For the British, their characteristics include the following:

First of all, the lack of artistic ability. The British are not as musical as the Germans or Italians; paintings and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France.

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At first glance, the myth of Persephone and Demeter is to explain the four seasons featured by varied landscape. On second thought, it implies a delicate female relationship denied by the patriarchal society---a lesbian desire for the union of two females, body and soul. The “return to the mother” is not the excessive attachment of mother and daughter; instead, it reveals the power of generation and transformation. 

According to Adrienne Rich, a radical feminist, the return to the mother is a manifestation of lesbian love, which is nurturant, reciprocal and creative. For her as for other lesbian feminists, a desire to return to the mother and lesbian love are expressions of female Eros, the life-instincts to assert female identity against the aggressive and manipulative power of the patriarchal society (Trask 133). Love between two women echoes the love between infant and mother, both of which provide sexual and emotional intimacy beyond males’ reach. In lesbian feminists’ view, women can only gratify their sexual and emotional need through other women, as they understand each other better in body and soul. Lesbian love challenges the patriarchal society in its celebration of the erotic and autonomous potential of the female body. Women’s sexuality is not the privilege of men; instead, it can be enjoyed between two women. To be more precise, penis penetration was not the sole means for woman’s orgasm; women can achieve orgasm by other women (Trask 136). The return to the mother, in a certain sense, signifies the lesbian desire for the union of two women, be they mother/daughter, sisters or lovers. It is the rebellious stance against the patriarchal dominance of female body.

In the spring myth of Persephone and Demeter, Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld. She was detained there as the queen of the Underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of harvest, was so sad and unhappy without her around that all plants and flowers died during the period of her absence. Zeus then ordered that Persephone spend four months with Hades and another four with Demeter. Every year when Persephone was away from her mother, the season of winter came; the earth was cold and lifeless. In contrast, when Persephone was together with her mother, the season of spring came; the earth was abundant with life and vigor again.

Underneath the account of the change of seasons lies the message of female desire for each other. When Demeter and Persephone are together, the plants grow and flowers blossom. It implies that the union of two females helps for mutual growth and creativity. Female Eros, defined in lesbian discourses as “life-instincts,” find full expression in the rebirth of the earth. The nurturant relationship stimulates female autonomy, which is often repressed or denied in the patriarchal society. When Persephone stays with Hades, flowers wither and plants die. The message is obvious: male dominance hinders female creativity. The male’s exclusive ownership of female body stifles her power. In contrast, the sexual and emotional intimacy between two females generates life and vigor.

Persephone’s return to her mother is a metaphor. It is a subversive gesture against the patriarchal hegemony. Hidden in this spring myth is the lesbian desire for female autonomy and creativity! Heterosexual love embodied in Hades and Persephone is the exploited one. Hades raped Persephone and forced her to stay, providing her with abundant material supplies. This echoes the real world where women are the sexual slave of their husband, while living a seemingly peaceful and happy life. In such a relationship, women have no autonomy over their own body. The winter with its desolate sight reflects women’s loss of life force under men’s control. In contrast, when Persephone returns to her mother, the world comes to life. The union of two women brings warmth to this world, chasing away the chill of male exploitation.

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On my second viewing of Good Will Hunting, some lines still moved me to tears, especially Sean, the mentor’s remark about Life and Art. When he uttered these words, it seemed as if he was talking to me, not Will Hunting, the genius kid he was trying to help. Besides these, the part dealing with true friendship is also touching. These significant lines were illustrated as follows:

I. Life and Art

Sean: if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo. You know a lot about him; life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up with that beautiful ceiling.
If I asked you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites. You may even have been laid a few times, but you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid.

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Prologue

Flowers, candle lights, fragrance, feast---Yea, it’s Valentine’s Day. To its sacredness, people grow numb. To its overtone to sex, people grow ecstatic. Katherine Anne Porter’s essay, “The Necessary Enemy” tolls a warning sound to those passionate, naive, and gullible young maids! The following is its excerpt:

Summary: 愛與憎是生命的底蘊,兩者互相激盪交融,共存於生命中。人性之惡讓愛無法真正落實,卻讓憎不斷生起。有愛必有憎,似乎是人無法逃脫之宿命。憎由愛起,和愛的關係亦敵亦友。婚姻洽是滋養這兩種情緒的最佳溫床。 

Love is taught, always by precept, some times by example. Then hate, which no one meant to teach us, comes of itself. It is true that if we say I love you, it may be received with doubt, for there are times that it is hard to believe. Say I hate you, and the one spoken to believes it instantly, once for all. Say I love you a thousand of times to a person afterward and mean it every time, and still it does not change the fact that once we said I hate you, and meant that too, it leaves a mark on that surface love had worn so smooth with its eternal caresses. Love needs to be taught again and again. Hate needs no instruction, but waits only to be provoked

愛須要以規勸或仿效的方式,不停歇的來教導。而恨卻不請自來,不須人教,等在那而一觸即發。愛人們說再多次我愛你,彼此還是會存疑不信。但只要說一次我恨你,這句話立刻會烙印心中,在愛永恆輕撫所磨平的光滑表面上,留下不滅的汙點。

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The real strength of essays is the writers’ idiosyncrasy about life, especially with the tone featured by light-hearted irony and informality. Here are the exemplar essays by Virginia Woolf, a formidable feminist whose novels used to entangle me in the time labyrinth and whose fictional characters bewildered me with their stream of consciousness. Yet, I came to appreciate her insight on life through the two essays illustrated below. She is powerful in criticizing a famous courtesan in the Regency period, and also, reflecting on life and death.

Harriette Wilson

In this essay, Virginia Woolf commented on the life of a notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson. She attributed her wanton way of life to her big family, the one with fifteen children and a bad-tempered father always on the point of solving math problems and getting furious if interrupted. The result was her eager escape from it. At the age of 15, she became a mistress of a certain Earl. Thus began her life “free as air from any restraint.” That means a life full of variety, full of men with money and rank! “Large and voluptuous herself, she loved for the most part little men with small hands and feet, and like Mr. Meyler, skins of remarkable transparency--- foreboding perhaps an early death.” And her shallow mind denied the possibility of the early death of her man in full bloom! The result of consulting with the verdict of her conscience was always odd, for “nothing was further from her liking than serious thought.” Therefore, she would insist that no law bind marriage, which should be based on love and honor. Ironically, the two very things were what she was always lacking and seeking!

In that strange land of her dissolute life, however, spendthrift men rambled through, pouring on her lavishly whatever they had. With a vivacious personality and charming countenance, she enthralled rich and powerful men:

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聖經和希臘神話,被視為是西方文學的源頭。兩者所講述的故事,成為後世文學取之不盡的題材。聖經這部經典分舊約及新約兩部分,文學主要探討的是舊約,時間大約從西元前1000年至300年,地點相當於今日的中東兩河流域地區。舊約可稱為猶太人的文化及建國史,分三部分,第一為妥拉或律法(Torah),其中有5部書;第二為先知書(Prophets),內有8部書;第三為聖卷(Writings),含11部書。所以舊約共有3部分24部書。本文介紹這三部分中較知名的故事,並詮釋其內涵。

第一部妥拉(Torah)創世紀(Genesis)出埃及記(Exodus)利未記(Leviticus)民數記(Numbers)、及申命記(Deuteronomy)五部書。文學上主要談的是創世紀故事的內涵,共可歸納為三點。第一,人的自由意志(free will)意味對上帝的不服從(disobedience);第二,人的生命注定是短暫而充滿痛苦的。第三,上帝是公平、正義及慈悲的化身。創世紀從第一到第三章,講述上帝如何在七天內創造世界,之後人類又如何因撒旦的引誘而墮落。上帝創造世界與二元對立(binarism)、數字3和平行法則(parallelism)息息相關。上帝在第一天創造日/夜;第二天天/地;第三天陸地/海洋。到第四天,又回過來和第一天成平行:太陽/月亮,此二元對立之物和第一天日/夜相關而平行。太陽是日的主體,而月亮是夜晚的主體。同樣的,第五天的天空生物/地面生物又和第二天的天/地呼應。第六天的陸地生物(包括人)/海洋生物又和第三天的陸地/海洋相呼應。上帝這六天的創造,以三為主軸,互相對稱。在宗教上,三這個數字是神聖的數字,從聖經的創世紀可見端倪。例如位一體(Trinity)的神,包含天父(Father)、天子(Son)及聖靈(Holy Spirit)。在審視這六天完美的創造物後,上帝讓第七天成為休息日。所以對耶教徒而言,星期天做禮拜是神聖而莊嚴的,這一天不是用來耽溺享樂的,而是省思過去這六天忙碌勞動後的收穫及意義。七代表一個完整的循環,周而復始,生生不息。另西方文化論述二元對立的觀點,例如男/女;同性/異性戀;西方/東方等,也可在創世紀找到源頭。

創世紀1-3章中另有兩點較細緻的內涵。先舉原文如下:

1. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

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The only intimacy I never found to flinch or fade away was a purely intellectual one. There was none of the cant of candour in it, none of the whine of mawkish sensibility. 永不退失的親密關係是純然的知性關係,此中絕無虛矯的真誠及感傷。

(William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating”)

In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. 在這失序混亂的世界,有時只有美才能被信賴。只有藝術的卓越才能不朽。愉悅感不能被打折扣,有時美食才是唯一的真實貨幣。

(Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love 152)

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The instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for the truth and have begun striving for ourselves.  -----Buddha's teaching        

With the upcoming Presidential election in Taiwan on January 14, many overenthusiastic voters suffer from insomnia, anxiety, or illusion, collectively called “election syndrome.”Caught specifically during the election season, this disease causes obsessive voters physical and mental disorder. According to psychiatrists, it is hard to dissuade such people from getting too caught up in the election. Tranquilizers may help if the election fever disrupts their normal daily routine to an excessive degree.

This disease can be attributed to human nature. We are made of such stuff as crave for excitement and spectacle, both of which are manifest in the election campaign. To see the opposing candidates fight is a pleasure for some voters. Their stagnant life is ruffled by such a spectacle. At least, they have something to hate. And with something to hate, their life is endowed with the spring of thought and action. The jarring interests, the heated debate, and the denunciation of others’ values arouse excitement among the opposing supporters. They may assemble in crowds to show their worship to the favorite candidate; they may decry, interpret or recite the candidate’s remarks. Somehow, human mind takes a perverse delight in antipathy. Love may turn insipid; pain may be healed by time; hatred alone is immortal! For Taiwanese voters, the sentiment of hatred recurs whenever an election involving the KMT and DPP is held. The election campaign has become a never-failing source of hatred. And the irony is that the zealous voters love it! They find it a remedy for the ennui of their existence; in other words, it saves them from the boredom of life. Yet, these bigoted haters are not brave fighters as they smugly claim themselves to be. They are, in fact, the slender vines which must twist around the sturdy oak simply because they have no sufficient strength to support themselves. How sad they know so little about their weakness! It is the weak mind that should rely on a hero to lend it some luster.  

Another danger about hatred is the unknowing strengthening of one’s folly. Does the denunciation of others’ vices lead to the enhancement of our virtue? Nothing of the kind! In most cases, the more vices we discover in others, the fewer faults we find in ourselves. The spirit of censoriousness, the intolerant watchfulness over the actions of others makes us blind to our own faults. Love of virtue, the assertion of justice, the redress of iniquity---all these political slogans don't help much in amending our own frailties; instead, they end up the ruthless punishment of others’ immorality!

So, while we cannot part with the human essence of hostility and discrimination, we can at least hold the mirror of virtue to reflect our inner self once in a while, to see how similar human folly is despite the opposing political positions!  

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Brothers (窒愛) is a movie about post-war trauma and sibling rivalry. Released in 2009, it tells a powerful story of two opposite brothers, Captain Sam Cahill (starring Tobey Maguire) and his younger brother, Tommy Cahill (starring Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam marries his high school sweetheart, Grace (starring Natalie Portman), with whom he has two young daughters. In the eyes of his family and colleagues, he is a respectable hero, dutifully serving his family and country, In contrast, Tommy is a drifter on parole, found guilty of robbing a bank. In a military mission in Afghanistan, Sam’s plane crashes and he is supposed dead although his body is missing. The black-sheep brother then takes on the duty to care for his family. As Grace has a deeper contact with Tommy, she becomes sympathetic with him, for she finds that lying under his degraded behavior is the sense of inferiority. Later, Sam miraculously returns from the battlefield, but he is totally changed. He is irascible and aloof, always finding fault with his family and suspecting the adultery between his wife and brother. After a fierce conflict with them, he is sent to a mental hospital. The hope of reconciliation emerges after he confesses to his wife that he has killed his comrade in Afghanistan to come back to her.

The story triggers two issues to ponder: one is about the trauma of a war hero; the other is about the impact of family violence. American culture upholds the qualities of a war hero, who is identified as a superman with perseverance and strength. But in most cases, the trauma inflicted on him is ignored. The American society rewards and honors the war hero in that he sacrifices himself for his country. Those that are physically hurt by enemies, say, getting his arms or legs maimed in battle are entitled to the medal of Purple Heart, which grants them certain privileges. But how about those suffering inside without any visible scar? No reward of course, since mental illness is a sign of weakness in American culture. Brothers brings forth this issue, implying how deep the trauma cuts into a family. The forced murdering of his comrade torments Sam, driving him to self-destruction as a payment for his sin. Only unconditional and forgiving love from his family is the sole source of his redemption.

The other issue touched by this film is family violence. The two brothers’ father also serves in the army, inculcating in his sons the value of sacrifice and honor since their childhood. Such a strict and moral father, however, has his dark side. When he is drunk, he inflicts violence on his family, especially his wife. The younger son is also a victim suffering from his verbal violence. He keeps negating his existence by heaping scorn on his behavior. The black sheep son is thus generated! The two brothers, in a sense, rebel against the violent father in different ways. The elder excels in his career to outshine his father, while the younger sinks into a pit to infuriate his father. Both have a constrained existence.

Overall, Brothers highlights the values of an American family. Although a site of conflict, a family is still a source of redemption. It may well be considered a place of “re” ---return, reunion, reconnect, and reconcile. All the hustle and bustle of outside world can be shut outside the door, with the warmth of the glimmering hearth rekindling the love of each family member.

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