12 July 2008

Compass of Life เข็มทิศชีวิต

It's probably not too far-fetched to claim that The Compass of Life, a self-help guide by Thitinart na Pattalung, is a big phenomenon in Thailand. The version that I possess is a copy from its fifty-fourth printing, with other roughly half a million copies currently spreading on the surface of Thailand and other parts of this planet. The reasons I bought this book vary: (1) I wanted to know what the fuss was all about; (2) I saw it's on sale (more than 50% reduction) at my local 7-11; and (3) I was bored.

Reading the book was a pleasure but still didn't give me any clues why it's distinctively so popular, whilst there are tonnes of other self-help guides on sale too. It took me a couple of weeks to ponder on the issue (as long as my free time allowed) and I've finally come up with some conclusions.

(1) The marketing. Even though it claims to be a self-help guide that uses Buddhist teachings, we don't see any pictures of Lord Buddha or amulets in this book. In their place, we find minimalist, yet stylish, illustrations by a hiso woman. This strategy probably appeals to those who are atheists or those who think that straightforward Buddhism is not cool. However, Buddhist teachings are anything but absent in this book. There are quite a few parables that show how our desirous mind is perhaps the cause of all our suffering; this is one of the main tenets of Buddhism.

(2) Preface. Famous celebs, such as Marsha and Udom Tae-Panich, wrote prefaces to this book. Normally you wouldn't imagine them in the prefaces of any self-help. Apart from these famous celebs, you have the big names, including those of Dr Prawes Wasi and Khunying Chamnongsri, to endorse the quality of this book. The mix-and-match of these big names and those of the celebs is ultra-chic for contemporary middle-class people who want glamour as well as intellect. Ergo: possessing this book means they are both glamourous and intellectual at the same time. What more do you want?

Also, needless to say, the author herself once was a hiso. Look at her surname. She may now still be a hiso, if we take a look at how many books actually have been sold.

(3) The content. Of course, in the age where the rise in oil prices happens almost everyday, people are bound to suffer, especially those who don't need to drive but need to keep up their appearance. These people suffer more, partly because they know that they don't need to drive to go to work or to uni. This rise can be compared to a slap at their middle-class cheek, to make them acknowledge that they are living on the surface, on the need to have others acknowledge their materialist credibility.

This book caters for such middle-class people whose immanent threats are not immediate or urgent. Their problems may concern debts arising from their wish to live in a good neighbourhood, even though they could've bought a cheaper home. Another threat is perhaps they just want to imitate the lifestyle of those four women in Sex and the City but couldn't earn enough to pay for it. All these problems may perhaps be accounted for by the middle-class veneration of the exchange value, rather than the use value, of everyday items. Sorry to sound like Marx, but I believe that it's time for us to stop and have a serious look at how we, as part of the ever-bigger always-expanding group of the middle-class, lead our life. Or to use Baudrillard's terms, perhaps we are now surrounded by hyperreal images projected to us through mass media and these images (or simulacra) in turn instigate our desire and appetite. (It's thus my belief that all those working in marketing or advertising should be shot or at least sent down South to help the police. Perhaps they need to see what 'real' life is like.)

From this perspective, perhaps The Compass of Life is famous because it emerges at the opportune time when we no longer know who we are anymore, no longer know what we want anymore, simply because mass media and society dictate our life to the extent that we can't just live, but need some navigational instruments to guide us.

06 July 2008


Teeth, a film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, was fun to watch, as it is based on the imaginary plot of one interesting what-if. What if a girl has a vagina dentata (toothed vagina)? The film manages to show how teenagers nowadays are surrounded by temptations, both through peer pressure and mass media, to be sexually active before marriage.

Dawn, a female protagonist, tries to steer her life through this modern-day labyrinth of corporeal desire and materialist society, in which premarital sex is getting increasingly commonplace. She tries to stick to her belief that virginity should be kept until marriage (this sounds like Ronan Keating of Boyzone). However, it is not until she meets a series of men like Tobey and Bill that she realises that her promise is hard to keep and that men around her are just a bunch of desiring machines who know what abstinence means but never bothers to seriously practise it.

After such encounters with wrong men, Dawn starts to realise her mutated private part and gradually learns to acknowledge its potential power to punish men. All in all, it's a very good film that sheds light on how the vagina dentata can be used as a tool to perpetrate poetic justice.

However, when one dwells on something below the surface, I think the director plays upon the characterisation that is too facile. Men are always hunters and women are always preys. In the real world, one wonders whether such a disparity on that terms can be seriously held true. One such scene is when a male doctor probes into Dawn's vagina. Of course, a message is got across of how this doctor can make use of such a situation to fulfill his own sexual fantasy under the disguise of science, but one also wonders why Dawn does not particularly choose a female doctor to handle her case.

In fact, when one comes to think seriously about it, the myth of vagina dentata is mainly created by men because they are afraid of women, especially their dark cavern where men's vital force (semen) vanishes. This film is perhaps then directed by a man to men rather than to women. If the vagina dentata is just a myth, it still means that men are still safe and their conjured fear is unfounded. Moreover, their fear of the female private part is no longer just an anthropological and psychoanalytical truth, it can also milk money. When viewed in this light, women are still exploited paradoxically through their empowerment.