Dylan Brethour

Dylan is a London-based freelance writer. She previously worked in Beijing where she enjoyed post-revolutionary poetry and watching dating shows. She holds an MA in Transnational studies from University College London. Dylan tweets at @DylanBrethour.

Sunspring Review

It’s good news for AI enthusiasts and sci-fi fans: artificial intelligence has written a screenplay. The result is Sunspring, a surreal and occasionally hilarious eight-minute film. Director Oscar Sharp and AI researcher Ross Goodwin teamed up to make the movie for the Sci-Fi London film festival. The AI, which named itself Benjamin, was fed dozens of science fiction scripts. The selection included everything from classics like Blade Runner and Alien to Hot Tub Time Machine. Benjamin is a LSTM recurrent neural network, a system that can be trained to understand how a series of inputs are connected to one another. Using this knowledge, the system then generates output based on the patterns it has learned. Sunspring took a top-10 place at the festival, edging out hundreds of human competitors.

The film follows characters H (Thomas Middlemarch), H2 (Elisabeth Gray), and C’s (Humphrey Ker) futuristic love triangle. “Follows” might be the wrong word because there is no plot to speak of, just a series of disconnected and often bizarre events. We only know it’s the future because H and H2 are dressed in that mainstay of sci-fi costumes, gold lamé. The initial set is pure low-key science fiction, filled with computers and motherboards. After C declares “I have to go to the skull” he x-rays his face. There are also ray guns, black holes, and floating through space. It may not be obvious why any of this is happening or what exactly these objects are, but that’s all part of Sunspring’s weird charm.

Despite making no sense there still, somehow, manages to be a storyline. “I am not a bright light,” H says sadly to H2, just as C appears in the background. Although most of us, unlike H, don’t respond to the appearance of a romantic rival by spitting out an eyeball, it’s all strangely familiar. Everyone will recognize the body language of a relationship gone sour. It’s easy to feel H’s pain as H2 laughs along with C or rubs his arm. Even if all she’s just said is “I’m a little bit of a boy on the floor.” The actors do a wonderful job of chivvying the story along through their choice of action. Part of the fun of watching Sunspring is imagining how many ways it could have been filmed. With such an open-ended script the story could easily have looked very different.

Benjamin was also responsible for writing the stage directions, which included instructions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor” and “He picks up a light screen and fights the security forces of the particles of transmission on his face.” Because the screenplay veers from cliché to incoherence any narrative comes from the decisions of the people involved. It’s impressive just how much meaning the actors manage to wring from the nonsense script. Still, the effect is like overhearing a conversation that’s only half in English: you can’t shake the feeling that what you’re hearing should make sense but it never does.

The futuristic setting fits nicely with all this dystopian confusion. But Sunspring isn’t a dystopia because it isn’t really anything. Unlike some equally confusing avant-garde films, there’s no hidden message or meaning. At least for now, AI has no ulterior motivation. The consequence is that Sunspring feels like a Rorschach test, tantalizingly suggestive but nebulous. Together Sharp and Goodwin have transformed their clever concept into an equally clever film. And this experiment is also a smart riff on one of the enduring themes of science fiction, the intelligent machine. Only in this case, the machine has written the script. The experiment shows AI’s potential and also demonstrates, often to hilarious effect, its shortcomings.

However brilliant Sunspring may be, Skynet is still a long way off.

 

 

Faith is a Foreign Country

Tyburn Convent is minutes away from one of the busiest street corners in London. An unobtrusive brown building overlooking Hyde Park, the monastery commemorates the city’s historic gallows. Petty criminals, failed revolutionaries, and Catholic martyrs all lost their lives on the Tyburn tree. In 1585, after Saint Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn and quartered at the Tyburn, Father Gregory Gunne told a British court, “You have slain the greatest man in England. I will add that one day there, where you have put him to death, a religious house will arise.” In 1903 Marie Adele Garnier, founder of the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, a Benedictine order of nuns, fulfilled that prophecy. Today the monastery houses relics from Catholics martyred at the Tyburn; there are linens stained with the blood of Jesuits and a venerable collection of finger bones, vertebrae, hair, and fingernails. The shrine, a model of the three-legged gallows, is a grim reminder of England’s internecine religious history. Inside the small chapel, which is open to the public, there are white bars separating the nuns from those that come to pray. The monastery has sister convents around the world, the order stretching from Europe to South America. All are cloistered, the women living in self-imposed isolation behind the convent walls. They take new names, abandon their past, and spend most of their days in silence. Nothing could be further from the nearby bustle of Marble Arch. The other Tyburn namesake in the neighborhood is a pub.

I was brought up in a staunchly secular household. Nuns, when I thought of them at all, seemed like remnants from another age. Later I became aware of the convent’s more radical history. While religious orders have often reinforced gender roles, they have also offered women an independent space to study. From Hildegarde of Bingen to the Catalan social activist Sister Teresa Forcades, nuns have frequently been formidable intellectuals. Contemporary cloistered monasteries, however, are much easier to dismiss as curiosities, anachronistic and isolated. But it’s that removal from the world that may, ultimately, be of value to people, like myself, who are secular. Religion is not a place where most of us look for counter-culture. Cultural critiques are associated with the more familiar bohemianism of art and progressive politics: the Beat poets, hippies, Luddites, and punks. It’s worth asking whether that should still hold true in the 21st century? The role of counter-culture is to elicit discomfort, drawing attention to otherwise invisible assumptions about society. It may seem counterintuitive to look for inspiration in an institution as the hierarchical and traditionalist as the Catholic Church. But the old monastic ideal, with its separation from the world, could provide a vantage point to critique the way we live now. And so, with that in mind, I interviewed the Sisters at Tyburn Convent.

Sister Thomasina is a cheerful woman from India in her mid-50s. A former mental health nurse, she now wears the white robes of a novice. It is her first year in the convent. Thomasina laughs and shakes her head when I ask if her family was Catholic. “I come from a very communist background,” she tells me. Her father was a councillor in the Bangalore Communist Party and she spent her adolescence in its Youth League. The conversion was less painful than might be imagined. “Jesus,” she says “was a perfect communist, you know. In principle, if you take it literally, he did have a bias for the poor.” Her turn towards Catholicism began with a copy of Augustine’s City of God, bought on an outing with her university. After her conversion, she resisted pressure from her family to marry, turning down a proposal from her Buddhist table tennis partner. “In Buddhism you know, you have to work towards nirvana…And I’m so damn lazy,” she says laughing, “I thought, I can’t be doing all these things, even for love.”

This sacrifice of normal human intimacy is part of contemplative life. Women are drawn to this order from across the world, often at a great distance from family and friends. “For me it was a gradual process of losing family,” says Mother Lioba, who left her family in Australia. “There is a definite dividing line…You have to internally make that decision. So that what you’re doing is saying, okay, I’m leaving those things that are good in themselves and I’m taking the ultimate good which is God.” The question a contemplative must ask herself, she tells me, is: “I love my family, can I, do I, am I, called to love God more?”

Outside of the monastery it has become increasingly uncommon to hear any defense of solitude. We’re a culture that is afraid of loneliness, perhaps because it has become so common. More and more of us are living alone, often far away from where we might consider home. Long working hours leave little time to see friends or make new ones. The connections we make on social networks appear more like a simulacra of company. Despite, or maybe because of all this, it’s considered a failure not to be social. Which is one reason why the choice to enter a cloistered convent appears so jarring.

In this context, the convent provides the shock of the old rather than the shock of the new. Monastic life has fossilized a regard for solitude which has fallen out of favor elsewhere. Talking to the nuns, it’s apparent that part of monastic life is the struggle with time. Those of us in the outside world expect to be almost perpetually occupied. The other side of this quest for ceaseless activity is boredom, frustration, and the nagging fears that surface when we’re alone. Separated from their own history, from family and friends, the women of the Tyburn are left to contend with themselves. “If you’re in the world you have days when nothing’s right,” says Mother Lioba. “Either I’m not right or everyone else is not right. And usually it’s everyone else who’s not right….in the world you’ve got probably hundreds of things you can do that can draw you out of yourself…but in a monastery you don’t have most of those things.”

The Benedictine rule encourages self-knowledge by splitting the day between labor, prayer, and study. “To feed your prayer you have to study, and to mull over what you study that day you need manual labor,” says Sister Thomasina. The purpose is not individualism or self-realization, but the desire to become closer to God. “You have to die of your will. Your will is no longer your own. It’s not what you want to do…it’s what God wants you to do,” the Nigerian novice Sister Mary Jane tells me. The sentiment echoes Augustine’s Confessions: “How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?” “One of the definitions of a spiritual life is that you have to know yourself,” Mother Lioba says. “Part of a monastic journey, which is really a spiritual journey, is facing who you are.”

The sacrifice this entails can be daunting. The Mother Prioress M. Catherine, a soft spoken British woman, entered the convent in 2001 at just 19. She remembers the experience fondly, but notes, “as a young person coming into the monastery it is quite a big transition to make. Just the demands of community life. The demands, probably, of a daily time table that’s very intensive and tight. And daily responsibilities and duties that you just never get away from.” Talking to the women here, however, there is a greater sense of contentment than hardship. They chose life in a convent because they feel called to it by God.

A sense of vocation is a common theme in the interviews. The word comes from the Latin, vocāre, “to call,” which is precisely how it is expressed by Sister Mary Jane. The feeling of needing to be here, she tells me, is “like outside somebody called you and you said, yes.” The form vocation takes varies. “It’s very personal,” the Mother Prioress explains, “Some people describe their call in terms of great peace…Some people talk about a nagging feeling…Some people might be reading something and it comes to them, this is what I need to do. Some people, it’s very specifically as a result of suffering.” As she leaves she tells me “I couldn’t say enough about how wonderful the life here is.”

If the past is a foreign country, so is faith. Which is precisely why faith has value even for those who have turned down Pascal’s wager. Most of us live in a heavily interconnected environment,  sharing the same political and cultural vocabulary. While there are sharp divides in opinion, the idea of what constitutes a value is often shared by both sides of the political spectrum; what’s in dispute is the content or route towards that desired outcome. This results in a circulatory effect: social constructs and ideas are recycled. In this digital age, that closed loop can be particularly difficult to escape. It’s been argued that the web has a democratising effect, creating the opportunity for disparate voices to emerge. And while that may be true, it also has the effect of submerging all sides in the same medium, the same avenue of thought and expression.

The nuns of Tyburn Convent provide a more pronounced alternative to the way many of us live now. The women I spoke to have rejected status symbols, human comforts, and exterior validation. They cultivate an interior life that will invariably go unrecognized by most, pursuing knowledge for God’s sake alone. While visiting the convent did nothing to attract me to religion, the purpose of cultural critique is not to provide solutions but to pushback against complacency. By drawing attention to the nature of the choices we make, counter-culture compels us to interrogate who we are. It’s not necessary to follow the provisions of the convent’s  critique in order to feel its value. Life in a cloistered convent is a reminder that the way our lives look is not inevitable; that the terms of personal contentment can change. In that sense, there is strain of independent thinking among the women of the Tyburn that’s revolutionary as any form of counter-culture. As I stepped into the underground after the interviews, I thought of the women listening to the rumble of trains beneath the convent floor; separate from the noise and crush of the crowds and praying for the passengers who ride the rail to Lancaster Gate. I’m glad they’re thinking of us.

The Poet Who Murdered His Wife

“Children trap bees
for their flowers
the world traps people
for itself”
—Gu Cheng, “The Art of Pulling Strings

Any author with an unusual death will have their life read backwards. Of course, this isn’t just true for authors. Anyone in the public eye who avoids the cancers, heart attacks, and car accidents that kill most of us will have their death overshadow their life. The Chinese modernist poet Gu Cheng, whose violent end is frequently placed at the centre of his work, is a case in point. In 1993, exiled from China and living in the isolated New Zealand community of Waiheke Island, Gu Cheng murdered his wife Xie Ye with an axe. Afterwards, he ran to his sister’s house to tell her what he had done and, in the confusion that followed, Gu Cheng hung himself. He was 37. Xie Ye was 35.

While remaining relatively obscure in the West, Gu Cheng is remembered in China as a prominent member of the so-called Misty Poets. Writing in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the burgeoning poets group attracted an enormous following among the country’s disaffected young. Their name, menglong, meaning hazy or obscure (hence Misty Poets), was intended as a criticism by the authorities. The Misty Poets’ work was an obvious departure from pro-CCP rhetoric of previous decades, and the poets risked their personal safety by publishing. Gu’s most famous poem, “A Generation,” gives some sense of the anger, alienation, and optimism that runs through the movement’s work.

“Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
I go to seek the shining light.”

Gu would go on to write more surreal modernist verse, dramatically departing from traditional forms of Chinese poetry. Writing for the London Review of Books, Eliot Weinberger notes that, despite Gu’s limited access to Western Modernism, he recreated many of its techniques.

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—”Dee dee da dee da” (excerpt)

Eliot argues Gu’s creativity and innovation make it probable he “was the most radical poet in all of China’s 2500 years of written poetry.”

Gu is not the first significant writer to have murdered his spouse. William Burroughs and Louis Althusser both killed their wives, though in circumstances suggesting diminished responsibility. Althusser was mentally ill and Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer only after the unfortunate decision to combine generous amounts of alcohol with a game of William Tell. Whether Gu was also mentally ill is unclear. His eccentricities certainly contributed to the isolation that the couple endured in Waiheke. Gu refused to learn English in case it interfered with his ability to write in Chinese. He also had a tendency to wander around with the snipped-off end of a trouser leg on his head. When asked why, he explained that it helped protect his thoughts.

Debates over the role of an author’s life usually begin when his or her beliefs are in some way problematic. There is Heidegger’s much debated association with Nazism, Lovecraft’s racism, and Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s enthusiasm for eugenics. The question is: How do those beliefs affect the writing? If the writing is good enough it tends to be a reminder that people, and the world around them, are complex. By creating a nexus for critical thought, authors go some way towards undermining their own stereotypes. In contrast, poor writing that is bigoted typically survives as a historical artifact, not as art. Trying to assess the significance of a violent action in relation to art is far more difficult. Vicious or stupid beliefs can be swept away into the broad category of social fault, while cruelty, on its own, is individual.

There is a danger of holding artists up to a different moral standard than everyone else. Most of us are fortunate enough not to have our work evaluated in relation to the worst things we’ve done. This is partly because artistic fame results in the scrutiny of private life. It’s also partly because of the closer-to-the bone relationship we have with art: it is a commodity that affects us more deeply than most others. In other words, very few of us care if the postman is a bastard so long as the mail arrives on time. We simply want the mail. And while art shouldn’t be read as a purity test for the intentions of the artist, it’s disingenuous to pretend that life and work can always be comfortably separated. Texts aren’t impersonal objects, and this is readily apparent in Gu’s own work. His poetry, however surreal, frequently touches on everyday life and his own experiences.  There is an abundance of natural and rural imagery, his family having been “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

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“Mouth of the River”, excerpt

The attention Gu and Xie’s deaths attracted in China was bolstered by the recent publication of their book, Ying’er: the Kingdom of Girls. While presented as fiction, Ying’er is a thinly veiled account of Gu’s life on Waiheke. Xie is listed as a co-author, but in reality contributed only a small portion of the text. The theme of Ying’er is Gu’s relationship with Xie Ye and his girlfriend Li Ying, all of whom were living together on the island. Gu and Li had met when she was still a student. They continued to exchange letters after he moved away until, in 1989, Li Ying managed to acquire a New Zealand visa, claiming political asylum after the Tiananmen massacre.

Unsurprisingly, the accounts of how and why Li Ying came to live with the couple are contradictory. Li Ying herself wrote a book called Heartbroken on Waiheke which included her disappointment with their shared primitive house and simple lifestyle. Li also wrote that she had been unaware Gu expected a sexual relationship. This was, according to Gu’s sister, contradicted by Xie. Li, she claimed, had shared Gu’s dream of a “kingdom of girls” from the beginning.

The role that Xie Ye played in Li Ying’s arrival is unclear. Anne-Marie Brady, who befriended Xie and Gu on Waiheke, paints a portrait of surprising intimacy between the two women, punctured by the perhaps inevitable squabbles and moments of jealousy. Some of that jealousy was from Gu himself who was envious of the two women’s relationship. Nevertheless, Li’s presence on the island appears to have been entirely arranged by Gu.

However, Weinberger suggests somewhat darker motives. He encountered the couple when they were living in Berlin on Gu’s DAAD (a German academic exchange service) fellowship, writing:

“Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.

Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’

Xie Ye, Weinberger writes, said that she had accepted Li Ying in the hope that the young woman would replace her as Gu’s wife. The reasoning was Gu’s jealousy, which extended even to their young son, Sam. Sam had been given into the care of a Maori woman named Poko after Gu confessed to having violent impulses toward his son. Brady also describes Xie’s distress over being separated from Sam. She highlights a passage addressed to him that Xie contributed to Ying’er:

“In the face of such ugliness and suffering, my fragility is no different from yours. How I wish you didn’t know such unbearable sadness in me. You have just turned three and we have nothing but each other.

Though Xie had begun an affair in Berlin and seemed to have been considering leaving Gu, her hope of regaining custody of Sam kept Xie from escaping Waiheke. Despite his own history, Gu Cheng was unable to tolerate Xie’s new partner. By then Li Ying had left Gu for a middle-aged martial arts instructor, and afraid that Xie would leave him as well, Gu’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. By his own admission, he had tried to strangle her while they were in Berlin. After the couple’s return to Waiheke, Gu refused to let Xie go anywhere on her own. Xie attempted to remove Sam from school in order to flee, but was prevented by the principal. Without legal custody of Sam, she chose to remain on the island. Shortly after she risked running away with their son, Gu murdered Xie.

Gu’s history of brutal domestic abuse makes appreciating his poetry uncomfortable. In the absence of biographical details, however, his work is original, eloquent, and provocative. The question is, whether to try and bridge that gap between art and life? Eliot argues that, “When you forget about Gu Cheng, you can begin to read him.” And it is true that poems like the sardonic “A Banner” are best read without considering Gu’s personal history.

“Death is relatively minor procedure

just a small excision of life

it doesn’t even leave a scar

 

And after the procedure the patient is remarkably calm”

“A Banner” was written over a decade before Gu murdered Xie and it makes little sense to leap backwards through time and interrogate the poem. The injunction to “forget the life”, however, requires something impossible: refusing to acknowledge what we already know.

There is no straightforward response to the problem of biography. Our home, as readers, may be in the ambiguous division between life and art. Gu was a brilliant poet who murdered Xie Ye, two disparate but connected components of the same life. And that tension, for his readers, should be difficult.

Sources

Sea of Dreams: The Selected Writings of Gu Cheng. Translated by Joseph R. Allen. New Directions Books, 2005.

Anne-Marie Brady. Dead in Exile: The Life and Death of Gu Cheng and Xie Ye. China Information. Vol XI, No.4 (Spring 1997)

Eliot Weinberger. Next Stop, Forbidden City. London Review of Books. Vol. 27 No.12, 23 June 2005. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n12/eliot-weinberger/next-stop-forbidden-city