Motifs In “Lunana: A Yak In The Classroom”

The film “Lunana” is beautiful because of its delicate and precise construction. Every shot is carefully thought-out with the meaning of the whole film in mind. Within the film, there are several motifs which also help to contribute to the meaning.

Singing is one such motif. In the first act of the film, so to speak, we witness Ugyen singing in English in a club in the city, after proclaiming that he was going to quit teaching and wants to leave the country to sing in Australia. Singing for him is somewhat of an escape from his work and home life, and is also a way in which he connects with other people. Ugyen also listens to music during the climb up the mountain, until his device runs out of battery. We next see singing while Ugyen makes his ascent to Lunana with his two guides, while they are making camp for the night. He asks them what they are singing about, and they explain to him that they are yak herders. I believe it is significant that this moment comes after Ugyen is forced to take off his headphones, and it could be argued that listening is part of the singing motif.

Singing/listening is also seen in the relationship between Ugyen and Saldon; in fact, the sound of Saldon singing is what caused Ugyen to seek her out in the first place. Furthermore, the interaction where Saldon teaches Ugyen the song she was singing is one of the most significant in their relationship. Asking why different people sing, and what the different kinds of listening are, will lead us to some of the more general thematic concerns of the film.

Another motif that the film explores is yaks, and more specifically, their dung. What I found most striking was the respect that the people of Lunana have for the yaks. I would go as far as to say that they have achieved mutual recognition with the yaks, while at the same time Ugyen is struggling to achieve something similar with the people. In conjunction with the motif of song, one of their most treasured songs was written about how a herder was forced to slaughter his most prized yak. The use of the dung to make fire, and the fact that Ugyen immediately starts collecting the dung with his bare hands, is also significant. I think that this motif leads us to themes concerning city life versus rural life, as well as animal and human relationships.

I am certain that there are many more motifs that could and should be explored further, and such exploration is encouraged by the clever approach taken by the filmmakers and writers.

The Illusion of Power

I am always a little confused when I read about a struggle for power. I have never understood its allure, and why the quest for power seems to always triumph over logic and reason.

I suppose that I have always believed that the people who strive for power are the same people who are completely ignorant of their humanity and mortality. Once you understand what it means to be human, and what it means to live among other humans, you realize that power is often an illusion, and is just as often a paradox.

Take Lear, for instance. As soon as he relinquished his land to his daughters, he was no more than a haggard old man to the people of the kingdom. I would go as far as to say that even when he did control the land, his power was far less than he thought it to be. Power is a fickle mistress, and Lear learned that in a rather unpleasant fashion.

Today, people say that they want to have power so that they can make a difference. The fact that people believe this concerns me. Hoping for a better future, trying to put the right people in charge. “That’s but a trifle here.” People want to have power because they want to have power. Democratic Senators vote against ending the filibuster because they are more concerned with retaining their seat than they are concerned about allowing people to vote. Perhaps that is a segue to another discussion altogether

This constant struggle for dominance bores me. There will always be bad people, there will always be good people, and there will always be people who are lucky enough to have more than others who are better people than they are. Trying to change this is a waste of everyone’s precious time, and by partaking in the struggle, you only succeed in perpetuating the issue you were trying to solve.

Don’t Rush To Judgement

“The Spirit of Radio” is a song by a band called Rush, and was released in 1980 on the album entitled Permanent Waves. The song’s lyrics were written by Neil Peart, the band’s drummer.

The lyrics of the song convey the idea that the music-making and listening is magical and sacred, but that its meaning and truth is diminished by the fact that money has become the driving force of all music production. What makes the song truly complex, though, is that the innovations in machinery that caused music-making to appear more artificial actually allowed music to reach and touch more listeners than ever before. The song uses both poetic and linguistic techniques in order to accomplish this effect.

In the first verse of the song, we arrive at the first example of multi-dimensional language within “The Spirit of Radio.”

Begin the day with a friendly voice

A companion unobtrusive

Plays that song that’s so elusive

And the magic music makes your morning mood

This language, according to Perrine’s Sound and Sense, is that special kind of language which we use to communicate experience. In Perrine’s own words, “It must not only involve your intelligence, but also your senses, emotions, and imagination.” The first line evokes both the senses of the early morning, as well as the emotions that accompany emerging from sleep to face the day. In addition, the first line concludes with a metaphor, which compares the singing coming from a radio to the voice of a friend. This metaphor augments the idea that music is magical (without saying it explicitly), because it can lift the spirits of the waking worker through the turn of a knob. These layers of meaning make the language more powerful, and, more importantly, make it poetic. The second line continues the metaphor, and continues to develop the idea that music is magical to both the listener and the creator by comparing music to a “companion” to spend time with.

In the chorus of the song, the lyrics explore the magic of the radio, and the music that it broadcasts, with more poetic language.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life

Bright antennae bristle with the energy

Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength

Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free

In the first line, the airwaves of the radio that bring music to a car or a household are made synonymous with life. Rather than just describing the crackling airwaves, as it were, the lyrics add the word “life,” which adds to the idea that music is sacred and life-giving. What is important to note here is that the technological power of the radio is what allows the music to reach the listener, and therefore is part of the magic of music-making.

However, lingering in the backdrop of this magic is the concern that the machinery involved in the making of music has made the process mechanical, and therefore, not truthful. This idea is presented in the third verse.

All this machinery making modern music

Can still be open-hearted

Not so coldly charted, it’s really just a question

Of your honesty, yeah, your honesty

One likes to believe in the freedom of music

But glittering prizes and endless compromises

Shatter the illusion of integrity, yeah

An interesting technique employed in this verse is the rhyming of “open-hearted” and “coldly charted.” These two phrases are the pole opposite of each other, but within the sound of the song, they are similar. The significance of this added wrinkle, perhaps, is that the honest musician can make even the most restricting chart (sheet music) sound meaningful and truthful. However, the “glittering prizes and endless compromises” that are a part of the studio musician’s everyday life mean that money is constantly driving the production of music, more than any truthful drive to create within the musicians themselves. A result of this is that most musicians struggle to call their music authentic, because the push to gain profit, whether it originates subconsciously or from agents and managers, is stronger than the push to create truthful music.

Musicians must work hard to remain honest in their work. It is no secret that money dominates the industry as much, if not more, in 2021 than it did in 1980. It is up to those who understand the magic of music-making to keep their hearts open and focus on the magic instead.

Ending a Story

As I closed the book on Friday afternoon, I felt a profound sense of melancholy. Hamid’s articulation of the complexity of human relationships is beautifully done, and left me feeling nostalgic about relationships in my own life where the passage of time caused irreversable change. The clever and subtle hints of a divide between Saeed and Nadia are placed carefully long before their physical separation occurs, and the truth and humanity in those hints is what makes Hamid such a great writer. Even though that truth caused me to revisit regrets of a past life, I was not worse off for the opportunity to reflect. It must be said, however, that the change that comes with the inexorable passage of time is not always something to fear or to cry over.

When Nadia walks by the musicians in the migrant camp, she says that people were calling this time the “new jazz age.” The magic doors of the new world of Exit West have thrown people from all around together, and Nadia witnesses the creation of new and exciting music as a result. Although the circumstances of the substantial migration in Hamid’s novel are very different to the forced migration of African-Americans during the Atlantic Slave Trade, who of course created the blues, out of which came swing, bebop, hard bop, and post bop (jazz is a problematic word that generalizes this music but that is a separate issue), the beauty and innovation within the music is what connects the past with the future that Hamid has created. This scene in particular gave me hope for the future, however uncertain that future may be. The inevitability of change as time passes, in this case, is positive and wonderful to behold to both Nadia and the reader.

Whenever a novel or film concludes with a distinctly happy result for the protagonist/main character/Matt Damon I am reminded that the great escape from real life is over. It doesn’t matter that I know that Frodo and Sam will succeed, I will still read with bated breath as they make their final ascent to Mount Doom, and put the book down with a smile on my face after Wormtongue slays Saruman (putting off the sadness that is bound to engulf me when Frodo leaves Middle-Earth). Days after finishing Exit West, though, the conversation between Saeed and Nadia in their home city still pervades my thoughts. Navigating human relationships, in a world of chaos, is hard, and Hamid illustrates this constant struggle in a way that makes me consider the choices I have made and will make in my own life.

Being a human being is complicated, and while there are certainly times when I would rather watch Daniel Craig shoot bad guys with his Aston Martin than reflect upon my existence, I’m grateful that I read this novel.

Existentialism, “The Stand”, and Reading

All throughout our discussions of existentialism I’ve also been reading The Stand by Stephen King. The premise for this particular novel is quite indicative of our world’s absurdity: a malfunction at a government research facility caused a deadly virus to be released, and resulted in most of the US population being wiped out. The real story, though, is in the groups of people who come together after the dust settles.

King’s skill in creating worlds and creating characters is unmatched. I feel as though just by reading three quarters of this book I’ve lived the lives of hundreds of people. In this reading, I have found that being detached, and accepting the absurdity of the world that King has created, has made the reading experience very powerful and fun. More fun, certainly, than if I had tried to justify or derive meaning from the absurdity of the world. Allowing myself to just exist in the world, was much more enlightening and gratifying.

A further connection to The Stranger I’ve found in The Stand is the utter prominence of physical and sexual desires. This becomes a more pervasive motif during Part 2 of The Stranger, but in King’s novel it is fairly constant. This focus on sex as an aspect of human nature, rather than love, I feel, is another part of existentialism that Camus touches on, but could be explored further. I would be interested to know whether King’s use of sexual and physical desires, rather than love stories, had any connection to his beliefs about existentialism.

Mersault Costanza

A story about nothing? Well, not really. He just made me think of George when he complained that there was only “one roller towel” to last all day in the bathroom where he works (25). In truth, there is complexity and oddity to be found in all of Mersault’s relationships, particularly with Salamano, his neighbor.

The conversation that Mersault has with Salamano after Salamano loses his dog was the most compelling moment of the story for me, where I felt most immersed in this world with human beings. For much of the story preceding that I had difficulty sensing any strong feeling from the narrator. Even though his apathy towards life is truly human and this should not be dismissed as a boring story due to the boring nature of the world, this was the first point where I really felt lost in the world of The Stranger.

“When she died he had been very lonely. So he asked a shop buddy for a dog and he’d gotten this one very young…they had grown old together”(44-45). Mersault yawns after this, while I’m stricken with grief for this man’s loss, and he says that he is “sorry about what happened,” and I still felt after that that even though I had been profoundly affected by the old man’s story, Mersault was not affected at all, and through that, his character continues to take shape. Perhaps it is not that the story is about nothing, but that the narrator is not interested in finding meaning within his life, and is content to continue living a life of no substance.