Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Some views on the dialectic

We live in a cynical world. We live in a world where debate has stopped, to any real extent. There are no ideas. There is no art. Culture is stagnant. The symbol of our times is a carcass in formaldehyde. Politically, choice is restricted to, for example, Labour or Conservative, Republican or Democrat and, like Orwell’s pigs, it is impossible to look from one to the other and tell which is which. When there is rebellion against this faceless conformity, as there has been this week in Austria, as there increasingly is in Italy, as is beginning to emerge in France and in Germany, it is looking towards that tired, hackneyed old knacker’s-yard horse, fascism, the last refuge of the hopeless, worthless and valueless. Europe beware: fascism adores a vacuum. How has it come to this? The reason – standstill. It is the logical result of the dialectic. Here’s the dadaist view:

A philosophical question: from which angle to start looking at life, god, ideas, or anything else. Everything we look at is false… The way people have of looking hurriedly at things from the opposite point of view, so as to impose their opinions, indirectly, is called dialectic, in other words, heads I win and tails you lose, dressed up to look scholarly.
Tristan Tzara. Dada manifesto, 1918

It is the dialectic which rules philosophical and political debate. It is stifling. Victory goes to the best debater, not the best argument. Options are reduced to a proposal and its antithesis. Ideas wither. And so, the surrealist view:

We are still living under the reign of logic… But in this day and age logical methods are applicable only to solving problems of secondary interest. The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience. Logical ends, on the contrary, escape us.
Andre Breton. First Surrealist manifesto, 1924

It is at the interchange of politics and art, ideas and words, civilisation and culture, barbarism and learning, that the fight is being lost. The dialectic rules. I tell you, you tell me, neither listens, but the dialectic slugs it out until one of us falls bloodied to the floor and accepts (not admits) defeat. And so, the individualist view:

Our war is with words and in their every aspect… Let none make a mistake: not because men use words to deceive; not even because words incline by capacity to deception and are the natural basis of Civilisation: the inoculators of men’s powers with the debilitating serum of “Culture”; not because they can be used, and are used, as readily for ends of diplomacy as of frankness; for hiding motives as much as for revealing them, for alluring and deceiving as much as for guiding and illuminating… Since deception is the human way of the strong with the weak, the ways of culture and civilisation are the natural human way of the strong with the weak. As long as there is interplay of intelligences of unequal degrees of power, the verbal deception, which in the bulk constitutes civilisation and culture, will continue. Only a dreamer: a dunce: could seriously expect it to be otherwise.
Dora Marsden. I am, 1915

Well, there’s me, the dreamer, the dunce. I don’t believe we have to expect, or accept. Indeed, that is why we are where we are. The dialectic, as Marsden infers, relies on rhetoric. And Foucault points out:

Rhetoric is a technique of speaking which allows one to persuade others to believe in statements that may or may not be true, that the speaker herself may or may not believe.

Sound familiar? Apply to our politicians? You bet it does. Apply to our writers? Yes, but only to the extent that they still feel any compunction to persuade anyone of anything, to the extent that they consider there is a truth or that they have any role in establishing that truth. Edward McGushin, in his study of Foucault, notes:

Access to the truth [now] is secured by method and by evidence. Thus, Foucault claims that one can see in the history of philosophy a process by which the relationship between the subject and the truth is despiritualized.

I am uneasy about the word despiritualized but the essence of this is correct. The end result of two hundred years of enlightenment and rationalism (in itself a good thing) has been the worship at the altar of what Barthelme called ‘the sovereign fact’. In the dialectic, knowledge and argument and result are all. Where is there room for feeling, for empathy, for art, for beauty? And without those, where is the soul of humanity? And without those, is it any wonder that we are disconnected, that we do not know what the truth is?

What is required is for the artist to stand at the interchange and ask, not about knowledge, but about truth. What is required is for the artist to become a parrhesiast. Foucault explains:

...the parrhesiast… reveals a difference and the “possibility of a rupture” in the relationship between the speaker and listener, through the “sting of the truth” spoken.

Parrhesia is frankness, the speaking of truth. Foucault describes it thus:

In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.

Who, today, will tell us the truth? Ignore politicians: they are morally spent. Our parrhesiasts will not come from there. So in the arts? The Hirsts and Banksys printing money? The pornographers of doom like Cormac McCarthy obliterating the future in the name of their God? The lost and confused and myopic who appear to see only the worst of our own culture and the best of that of our enemies and sink into tortured ambivalence? The stylists and show ponies who mistake form for function, fine words for grand ideas? Or the moralisers whose every thought should be your thought, who know the golden way?

Until there are parrhesiasts in political life rather than self-servers, the Browns and Camerons, McCains and Obamas, who seek office as an end in itself; until there are parrhesiasts in artistic life who are prepared to articulate a vision of truth rather than make money or write pretty, there is nothing for our culture but a slide towards the nihilism which seventy years bred before a generation of fascists and will, undoubtedly, be delighted to do so again.

RG Collingwood, in his 1940 survey of fascism and Nazism, noted:

When travellers are overcome by cold, it is said, they lie down quite happily and die. They put up no fight for life. If they struggled, they would keep warm; but they no longer want to struggle. The cold in themselves takes away the will to fight against the cold around them.
This happens now and then to a civilization.

His remedy, of course, was religion. I would argue against that, but his prognosis is correct. He continues: ‘The civilization dies because the people to whom it belonged have lost faith in it. They have lost heart to keep it going. They no longer feel it as a thing of absolute value.’

How valuable do we think our civilisation is today?

Monday, September 29, 2008

The selling of the family assets

In principle, I'm pretty much in favour of cosmopolitanism and I'm in favour of the European Union, because I think nationalism is a disease which causes much harm. But recent events give cause to stop and question.

Much of the infrastructure of British life is now controlled by foreign companies. Banking, energy, travel, you name it, there are major foreign interests with controlling stakes. Now, these countries are, in the main, European allies and there is therefore little cause for concern, wouldn't you say?

Yet Austria has just seen far-right parties poll a third of the votes. Italy is lurching frighteningly close to a resumption of fascism. The world turns quickly. Who is to say what the political make-up of France or Spain or the Netherlands, countries where companies who own large sections of the UK infrastructure are based, may be like in five or ten or twenty years time?

What they teach

I guess the universities have gone back, because the google requests that lead people to this blog are, suddenly, overwhelmingly on the subject of "heart of darkness" +racism.

I've always had a lot of hits regarding this, because I've written about it at length. It infuriates me that, seemingly, the only bloody thing they teach students about this book is its alleged racism. This is a monumental book, a study of the depths of humanity and the touching of evil. It is profound and difficult. It requires reading and re-reading.

And yet our schools, colleges and universities peddle the same trite argument over and over, as if this is the most significant thing about the book. Achebe was wrong. This book is not racist. That should be the end of the discussion. Students should be directed to the real themes of the novel, because that is where they might learn something about the human condition. Instead, they continue to google about its racism and find their way to this blog.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A one-person tribe

This is John Updike, in a review of Foer's Extremely loud and incredibly close:

The newer novelists, having inherited almost no set beliefs from their liberal, distracted middle-class parents, see childhood as the place where one invents the baggage – totems, rituals, lessons to live by – of a solitary one-person tribe.

Another indicator of the indolence of today's culture, perhaps. I think he's right, to an extent. We are, as people, shaped by our shared pasts as much as our individual presents, and our individual presents must also combine to form a collective present. But we are all becoming more selfish.

It doesn't have to be like that. The child who mostly dramatically invented his own baggage is Oskar Mazerath, in the Tin Drum. With his little drum, he created his own entire world, the better to view and deplore the real world from. And yet, in the end, this was not a form of solipsism: Oskar's turning inward was not selfishness. And although he did harm to individuals - Jan, his biological father, for example - he loved humanity. He was individual, but he wasn't a one-person tribe. On the contrary, he represents the power of the collective.

The drama of fragments

Terrific article in today's Observer by Neal Ascherson on the new film about Baader-Meinhof, and about the people themselves, most of whom Ascherson met in the seventies. I think, when trying to understand the lack of response to world events today (which I am for my PhD), Baader-Meinhof and Germany in the seventies might not be a bad place to start.

They came out of the sixties student unrest, with a peculiarly German outlook tempered not only by fury about Vietnam et al, but anger about their parents' generation and what they did (and did not) do in the war. It was a powerful cocktail of emotions and led them on the path to terrorism.

But it's a predictable arc, isn't it, and it's why we are where we are today. Idealism, if unrealised, will lead to frustration which will turn to anger. That anger exploded in Germany in the seventies and burnt itself out. What comes next is cynicism, which is pretty much where we are today, a cynical world observing events, deploring them, but doing nothing very much about them. I guess the good news is that everything is cyclical and that, sooner or later, young people will react again against the folly being perpetrated by their elders.

Writing of the film, Ascherson makes a fascinating observation:
The method adopted by producer Bernd Eichinger...is to throw at the viewer one astonishing scene after another without stringing them together into some psychological narrative. He calls this technique Fetzendramaturgie - the drama of fragments. You and I can put the fragments together into any pattern we please.

That's a most interesting approach. My current writing project is already partly in that vein, but probably not as fragmentary as Eichinger's method. I wonder how well it will translate into written work: films are, of course, brilliant for fast cuts and dizzying changes of scene and multiple POVs. Something of that kind, as a written project, could be worth investigating.


I was watching again the DVD of Planxty's reunion in 2004, and it struck me again how curious it is that Christy Moore is such a wonderful performer when playing live but his albums are usually so flat. He has never really produced a great album, despite them containing the songs which make his live act so electrifying. The only album which comes close is the very early Prosperous album, but although it's credited as a Christy solo album it's really the first appearance of Planxty. His proper solo albums just don't work.

It's got to be the audience that makes the difference. At easter, I saw Christy's brother, Luka Bloom at the Gosport Folk Festival. He did the main concert on, I think, the Sunday evening, and it was okay but it didn't really grab me. The next day, however, he did another set upstairs in the Lysses House Hotel in a small function room where he just stood at the front, not on any stage, almost like he was part of the audience. It was stunning. Where, the night before, it had all seemed a bit remote, here he was warm and friendly and the songs seemed, somehow, more engaging. It was a tremendous set and he seemed to be enjoying it as much as we did. He just kept playing and in the end they had to stop him because they had to prepare the room for the Weight Watchers class later on...

Also that afternoon we saw a stonking set from Spiers and Boden, Bella Hardy singing beautifully (after being very nervous in the main concert the night before) and Lau giving it laldy. Clearly, all of them found this small, intimate venue stimulating, too.

It must be a wonderful thing for musicians, this connecting. Writers can't do it. I suppose you could argue that giving readings come close to achieving it, but I'm not much into that and, anyway, it feels different. The act of creation for musicians is playing the music. The act of creation for writers is the writing, not the reading. And, for people like Christy Moore, I am sure that without the audience there would be no point in doing what they do. It brings them alive.

Here is Planxty from the 70s:

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sanity, madness and the family

I've mentioned this book, by RD Laing and A Esterson, before. It is stunning. It is a study of eleven patients in the forties and fifties who were diagnosed as schizophrenic. The studies give extracts from interviews with the patients and their families, with a commentary by Laing and Esterson. They are poignant reading. These people were not so much mentally ill as deeply unhappy and pushed into situations where they broke. I write often about people being criminalised because they are forced into situations where they can do nothing other than offend. This is much the same thing: these poor individuals were pressed to the edge of their tolerance and they capitulated. It is impossible not to feel desperately sorry for the waste of lives which ensued.

All eleven are extraordinary, but it is the story of Ruth Gold which touched me most. When she was twenty she was hospitalised repeatedly and finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. Throughout her interviews (when she was 28) she comes across as a clever, reasonable woman. Her behaviour and her 'illness' when she was young appear no more than a youthful stretching of the mind. She wore colourful clothing. She made friends with 'odd' people and even brought them home. As her father notes after one such episode:
There have been writers and God knows what.

Ah, those writers, not to be trusted...

The ending of this study is completely heartbreaking:

INTERVIEWER: But do you feel you have to agree with what most of the people around you believe?
RUTH: Well if I don't I usually land up in hospital.

It almost makes you weep, that breaking of a human spirit. I would dearly like to know what happened to Ruth in her life. I hope it improved. She strikes me as a fine person.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The steady crawl towards civilisation

Gustave Le Bon, writing in 1895, noted:

The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisation, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause os generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples... The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes in human thought.

He considered the ‘present epoch’ was at one of those ‘critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation.’ I would argue that we are still, one hundred years plus, in that same stage of transformation. It is a common mistake to telescope history and to assume that current events are of greater import than they are. The fall of the Roman Empire took hundreds of years. The rise of the age of enlightenment, which we believe to have started in the eighteenth and effectively concluded in the nineteenth centuries, is still in process. We never attained enlightenment. Entrenched opinion dragged us back.

Le Bon continued:

Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilisation are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.

To take the second point first, modern scientific and industrial discoveries have transformed our existence for the good. Of course, one can argue for or against the benefits of, for example, fossil fuel-driven technology, but the general thrust of scientific and technological advance is entirely beneficial. Living standards are better now than ever before. Again, one can argue that this is not universal and there are pockets of humanity which live in the same states of deprivation they did two hundred years ago. And that is indeed so, but in how many instances is that the fault of the stagnant political structure which still obtains, as a relic from pre-enlightenment times? As I say, this is a long game. Expecting immediate, universal panaceas is for idealists. One step at a time.

It is on Le Bon’s first point that difficulties emerge, difficulties which explain why, after two hundred or so years, we still have not managed to take that vital step into a new epoch. Political and social beliefs are changing. Le Bon points to the entry of the popular classes into political life. He likens it to a harking back to the ‘primitive communism’ which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilisation.’ What this means, to my mind, is that they are becoming more humanist. Again, of course, this is a generalisation, and it is not my intention to ignore or belittle those for whom political and social emancipation are a dream. But, taken as a whole, humanity is in a better state than it once was.

So what is holding it back? It is the first of Le Bon’s beliefs that adheres. Religion remains the single greatest blight on humanity. It remains the barrier we must overcome (or overgo, in Nietzschean phrase) in order to emerge into a new and fair civilisation. Of course religion has fought back. It was mortally wounded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as rationalism took hold, but it never went away. It remained, sustained itself, prepared itself for its resurgence.

And now, in true millennialist fashion, it is re-emerging, in bastardised, exaggerated forms: the repulsive religious right in America (and elsewhere); the retrogressive fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in the Middle East and beyond, even the mindless spiritualism and mumbo-jumbo that preys on the gullible – feng shui, crystals, dreamcatching et al.

These religious beliefs have a strong hold on the human psyche. No-one really knows why. They are relics of some prehistoric thought processes and beliefs, but they have no place in a world that is pushing at the door of a better, more human civilisation.

‘The masses,’ Le Bon wrote, ‘repudiate to-day the gods which their admonishers repudiated yesterday and helped to destroy.’ Hindsight suggests he was premature in this belief. The sky gods still hold sway. But his concluding point is a key one, and should offer some comfort in these religion-threatened days:

There is no power, Divine or human, that can oblige a stream to flow back to its source.

Le Bon’s view of the rightness of this is tempered by his view of ‘the crowd’. ‘When the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds know, justifiably enough, as barbarians.’ He ‘fears’ that such a fate might be in store for current civiliation.

I would not use such negative language. One hundred years on, I still ‘hope’ that the moral force of our religious institutions will be dissolved by that great, brutal crowd known as humanity, to be replaced by a morality which owes nothing to superstition and everything to freedom.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The artist's day

This is Erik Satie, describing his day:

The musician’s day

An artist must organise his life.

Here is the exact timetable of my daily activities:

Get up: 7.18 am; be inspired: 10.23 to 11.47 am. I take lunch at 12.11pm and leave the table at 12.14pm.

Healthy horse-riding, out in my grounds: 1.19 to 2.53 pm. More inspiration: 3.12 to 4.07 pm.

Various activities (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, swimming etc…): 4.21 to 6.47 pm.

Dinner is served at 7.16 and ends at 7.20 pm. Then come symphonic readings, out loud: 8.09 to 9.59 pm.

I go to bed regularly at 10.37 pm. Once a week (on Tuesdays) I wake up with a start at 3.19 am.

Happily, my own life is equally organised. Indeed, it bears an uncanny similarity to M. Satie’s, with the exception of fencing, which is beyond the pale, in my estimation. I also worry that he doesn’t have time to chew his food properly. Which, as worries goes, is pretty pointless, since he died in 1925.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A disorder peculiar to the country - Ken Kalfus

A disorder peculiar to the country is a novel that is very pleased with itself. It’s a bit rude, a bit irreverent, a bit – well, puerile, really. It delights in taking the sacred cows of 9/11 and trashing them. At the very start, watching the Twin Towers ablaze, Joyce has to cover her face to hide her ‘protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile.’ The reason for the smile is that she thinks her husband, from whom she is in the middle of a protracted and nasty divorce, is unsafely ensconced in the upper reaches of the tower. He escapes, of course, and despite a traumatic incident while trying to save a fellow victim, he is seen ‘head[ing] for the bridge, nearly skipping.’ The reason for his delight is that he believes his wife to have been on Flight 93 which crashed in Pennsylvania with the death of everyone on board.

Now, I have no problem with demolishing some of these sacred cows. I’ve written before about the unsavoury whiff of iconography which is building up around things like the photos of the missing or the honour of the firemen, and the pricking of pomposity is an important task of the writer. It’s just that, with A disorder peculiar to the country, Kalfus doesn’t really carry it through.

Instead, he gives us a novel which irritates me twice over. Twice because there are two different books here, as though he didn’t really know what he wanted to say, so said it twice to cover all the bases. The first irritant is the first 80% of the novel, which is, for all his toying with our sensitivities at the start, really nothing more than yet another straightforward narrative conflating the domestic and the tragedy of 9/11. What is it about 9/11 and divorce or marital disharmony? Beigbeder, O’Neill, DeLillo, McCauley, all of them have twisted some form of relationship problems into their versions of 9/11, as if it’s the only metaphor in town. This one goes the whole hog. It’s the longest, most acrimonious divorce in history, and the story suffers badly because both characters are so repellent it is impossible to feel any form of empathy, let alone sympathy.

So much so conventional. But Kalfus is only toying with us, of course. He’s not conventional, and this isn’t a conventional novel. There is a scene between ‘Dr Nancy’ and ‘Mr Peter’, in which they observe children drawing scenes from the World Trade Center, which appears completely without context and makes no sense within the narrative. And postmodernism isn’t dead, so later in the story we get, completely pointlessly, a page and a half where each sentence is numbered. Naturally, they make no sense. Honestly, Barthelme did this sort of thing much better in the 60s and 70s.

But this is by way of preparing us for the second book in this novel, the ending. Here, Kalfus simply descends into insanity. Essentially, he creates an alternative reality where everything – the war and the domestics – turns out much more harmoniously than in real life. Iraq and Afghanistan are triumphs. The world is a beautiful place. Everybody say aaahhh.

The infuriating thing is that if Kalfus had written the whole novel like this it could have worked. But instead we have something which is a complete shambles. The majority of it is straightforward narrative with a few peculiarities and postmodernisms thrown in to keep us wary. Then it drifts off into a completely different realm, but by this stage it is impossible to accept: the register of the novel has been set, and the shift required for the ending is too great. Take this exchange, for example, when the male character decides to become a suicide bomber:

“What are you doing? What is that?”
“A suicide bomb.”
His bathrobe had opened and the explosives wrapped around his midsection were visible. She [his estranged wife] raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“I made it myself. I have enough dynamite to blow up half the block. God is great.”
“Why doesn’t it work then?”
“I don’t know,” he said, irritated. “The wiring is tricky.”
“Did you follow the instructions?”
“They were in Arabic. But there was a diagram.”
She put down the carrot and the peeler and sighed wearily. “Let me see.”
“I can fix it myself,” he declared.
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“Too late.”

Now, I’ve already mentioned Donald Barthelme, and isn’t that an absolute ringer for his work? It could be funny – it is funny, but not in the context in which it’s placed. You can’t have a story which is straight for 80% of its length and then becomes surreal.

As I say, this really is a disappointing work. It is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It doesn’t begin to ask any of the important questions raised by 9/11, about American life, the American dream, global politics, the future. It raises a few smirks that scarcely rise above undergraduate humour and finally sinks into self-satisfied smugness.

Monday, September 22, 2008

American Youth

Alarm bells are rung early in American youth. Its epigraph is taken from Cormac McCarthy’s All the pretty horses. On the dustjacket, Mary Karr writes: 'He’s the new Cormac McCarthy-in-waiting.’ LaMarche even calls the main character ‘the boy'. However, comparisons with McCarthy do LaMarche a disservice. He is his own writer. His restraint is impressive.

American Youth
tells the story of a boy, Ted, who is showing off his dad’s rifles to a couple of friends, brothers Bobby and Kevin. He loads the .22 rifle and leaves it with the safety catch off. As he looks outside he hears a shot and turns to see that Kevin has accidentally shot his brother dead. Ted’s mother, terrified that her son will be arrested and that the family will be sued for negligence, persuades him to lie to the police and say that it must have been Kevin who loaded the gun. This is the simple premise of the story. From this, it becomes an impressive character study of Ted, a decent boy continually on the fringes of trouble.

He is nurtured by a sinister group of boys calling themselves American Youth. These are right-wing bigots who hate foreigners or newcomers, who blame liberalism for society’s ills, and who, while giving the air of being well-behaved and civilised young men, use thuggish tactics to frighten those whom they dislike. They are attracted to Ted, of course, because of the gun incident, the right to bear arms being one of their central tenets. The story is set in an America in depression. Housing development has stopped. People are losing their jobs. Ted’s father has to work in far off Pennyslvania. This, of course, is exactly the sort of environment that right-wing fundamentalists use to foment dissatisfaction, and that is exactly what American Youth do. In this context, it is noteworthy that the novel can be seen as yet another American novel in which some soul-searching about the state of the nation is taking place. The US, at least in literary terms, is undergoing a crisis of confidence.

At first, it seems that Ted is falling under American Youth’s influence, and particularly that of their enigmatic leader, George, but Ted is an individualist who does his own thinking. Ultimately, he sees: ‘a fundamental flaw in the Youth doctrine – they fought to preserve a status quo where there had never been anything but change.’ For Ted, change is inescapable. The novel accelerates to a climax that is gripping and believable, and it is a testament to the skill of the writing that you genuinely care about what is going to happen to this troubled but decent young man. It’s a tightly-written and exciting novel, and it examines some difficult moral issues in a fresh and intriguing way.

It also pursues important political questions, such as the tension that exists between liberalism and the sort of neocon agenda pursued by the Republicans. One of Ted’s classmates wants to write about the gun debate. Explaining his reasons, he questions: ‘the ridiculous concept of blaming an inanimate object for our country’s woes, and how that figures into the larger theme of liberal America’s inability to accept responsibility for their own actions?’ America, according to the Youth, is a country where ‘[t]hese days all they preach is diversity.’ This is the America of Sarah Palin and, like Sarah Palin, the Youth believe they have the answer to the country’s ills. Instead of diversity, they preach puritanism, decency, hard work.

But as the novel unfolds their hypocricy is revealed. “Vandalism,” says George, “is a form of protest.” And the Youth use vandalism to frighten and annoy those they depise, the outsiders. But this vandalism carefully echoes the vandalism which begins the novel, that of George and his slacker friend Terry. Terry represents the sort of values the Youth hate, and yet they are being shown to act in the same way. Thus, their shallowness is exposed.

There are no glib answers here. There is no black and white. Ted is not blameless, he possesses flaws and in particular his treatment of his girlfriend Colleen could at best be described as date-rape. But by refusing to give an easy way out, LaMarche forces his readers to consider their opinions, how they might have responded in similar circumstances, how vulnerable we all are to pressure. American Youth is an excellent first novel from someone who is going to be an important writer.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Almost Independence Day

I've just been listening to Almost Independence Day by Van Morrison for the first time in years, and I find it absolutely stunning. I'm amazed that it didn't register with me in previous listenings, because it's had such a strong impact on me today. As is my habit when I find music that intrigues me, I keep playing and playing it.

It's the intro to this song that really hooks me. It's clearly being played on 6 string and 12 string guitars, and I adore the sound of a 12 string guitar. It nearly always sounds slightly out of tune, mainly because it usually is. The high G string is an absolute bugger to get right, and you usually snap it in the process. But here the intro meanders in and out of a recognisable melody, the 12 string making it sound faintly Asian, and it's as though the tune is feeling itself into a mood. Finally it resolves into a deep chord of G and a strong melody is picked out by the guitars while a synthesiser starts to pulse out a rhythm. And then Van starts singing, and it's an almost surreal set of repeating phrases, going through a set of variations, swinging and slithering until it becomes something like a dream or meditation.

And when it's finished, as Steve Coleman would say, it's so beautiful you play it all over again.

Changing of the guard

In 1997 we were seduced into believing they would change things. They were on our side. We gave them our hope. We waited.

Some time in the next two years there will be a new changing of the guard. The old lot will come back in, promising change, revitalisation, compassion.

Nietzsche warned us about the lot of them:

Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do no forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had - power.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Kate Chopin - The Awakening

An extraordinary novel, and an extraordinary character, Edna. I was flabbergasted by the ending. It is one that is the subject of much debate, I discover, googling after finishing the novel. This post is a spoiler if you haven’t read the novel, so if you don’t want to know the score look away now.

Edna, originally a staid product of her time and circumstance, gradually rebels and refuses to be bound by convention or propriety. In this, she is a wonderful example of liberation, particularly female liberation. Remember, this novel was written in 1891. In 1899, Hardy was writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles and creating, in Tess, a fateful character with whom I fell in love when I was young but whom I increasingly lose patience as I grow older for her resigned fatalism.

Edna, it seemed to me, was Tess re-born, a woman who fought back, who established her own life on her own terms. A beautiful creation. The novel is remarkably complex. I’ve just finished it – ten minutes ago – and it is still going through my head. There are many interesting things to say about its structure, but I’ll save them for another post. Here, I’m interested in the psychology. There’s no wonder this was such a controversial book in its day. It is the story of a freethinking radical and even today those are considered with suspicion. As it unfolded, the novel appeared to me to be a wonderful (not to mention prescient) example of existentialism in the positive aspect of the philosophy: that is, the owning of one’s self and one’s actions, the mastery of one’s own destiny, the understanding that, despite the fact we must love one another and live as a community, such closeness can only exist where there is harmony within oneself. Chopin describes Edna’s thoughts near the end:
She had said over and over to herself: "To-day it is Arobin [a lover]; to-morrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn't matter about Léonce Pontellier [her husband] -- but Raoul and Etienne! [her children]" She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adèle Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

And, later:
There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.

This is powerful. It is difficult to admit to such emotions because they appear utterly self-centred, almost solipsistic, but there is a beautiful bravery in the way they are presented here. She has discovered herself. Unlike Tess, the victim, she has faced emotion, convention, morality, even nature, and decided on her own version of the truth. A true example of askesis, the process of self-discovery.

And yet, what happens? Within a page, beautiful, brave, vibrant Edna has gone the way of Tess. She drowns herself. The existentialism has turned from the positive message of hope that we know from 1940s Camus into the sullen, snarling version of it we know from later decades, a message of meaninglessness and nothingness. Far from mastering her own destiny, Edna succumbs.

This does not feel to me in any way a product of the story I have been reading, and it does not appear to be appropriate to the character of this woman. As I say, there appears to be a great deal of debate on this subject, and I look forward to reading more about it. I expect I shall come back to this.

Darkness visible?

There’s a quote from Ben Stiller in today’s Guardian which makes me groan:

"Darkness," Stiller muses. "That's the direction I want to go in right now - both as a director and as an actor.

What drivel. Unless you’re a black-clothed, kohl-eyed eighteen-year-old, you don’t ‘seek’ darkness. Darkness comes seeking you. I do get irritated by artists of whatever sort talking glibly about seeking darkness or exploring pain or whatever, as if it is some sort of day trip. It’s emotions tourism, toying with dark ideas and retreating back to the comfort of your luxury trailer before any real darkness can impinge on your consciousness. People who truly deal with darkness do so because darkness surrounds them. They don’t choose it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On Liberty

At at time when our government is reeling in our liberties one by one, it's instructive to be reminded of what liberty is all about. This is Michael Levin on John Stuart Mill:

In On Liberty Mill suggested or intimated, with varying degrees of explicitness and clarity, four separate reasons why liberty was necessary:

1. Individual liberty leads to the development of the faculties and capacities that are intrinsic and, to a significant extent, particular to each individual.
2. Individual liberty is a need of our human nature.
3. Liberty leads to truth
4. Individual liberty is a prerequisite for the advancement of society.

It is this fourth aspect that will be our concern here. This brings us to the fundamental political purpose of Mill’s book: that he wrote On Liberty because liberty seemed under threat and, consequently, the very foundations of European pre-eminence were endangered. We have, then, two levels of concern that Mill was seeking to express: that of individual autonomy and that of social progress. The connection between the two was that only the former makes the latter possible. To an extent, then, liberty was a need of the individual nature; it was an end for each person but simultaneously individual liberty was the means by which society itself advanced.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


This is the last stanza of Alexander Scott's poem Coronach:

Waement the deid
I never did,
But nou I am safe awa
I hear their wae
Greetan greetan dark and daw,
Their death the-streen my darg the-day.

The last line means 'Their death yesterday my work today'.

I think that is very powerful. I much prefer that to the usual epitaph 'When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today" because, to me, it gives a sense not only of debt, but of duty.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Talkin' 'bout a revolution

There are political and social fantasists who with fiery eloquence invite a revolutionary overturning of all social orders in the belief that the proudest temple of fair humanity will then at once rise up as though of its own accord. In these perilous dreams there is still an echo of Rousseau's superstition, which believes in a miraculous primeval but as it were buried goodness of human nature and ascribes all the blame for this burying to the institutions of culture in the form of society, state and education. The experiences of history have taught us, unfortunately, that every such revolution brings about the resurrection of the most savage energies in the shape of the long-buried frightfulness and excesses of the most remote ages.

I must confess to holding a naive admiration for Rousseau's 'superstition' about the nobility of the human being, but it is hard not to accept the validity of Nietzsche's point. That is why those who still preach ideas of revolution should be wondered about. It is the inability to learn that most disposes the human condition. We see the lessons of Robespierre, of Lenin, of Stalin, and still we seek revolution in the name of humanity.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Flamborough Head

Spent a beautiful, sunny, warm late-summer morning on the clifftops at Flamborough Head, eating wild brambles and looking out over a sea that was flat, calm and impressively beautiful. I've lived in England for twenty-one years. In a couple of years I'll have spent longer in England than I did in my ain country.

This poem is by another Scot, Jackie Kay:

In my country

walking by the waters
down where an honest river
shakes hands with the sea,
a woman passed round me
in a slow watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;

or the worst dregs of her imagination,
so when she finally spoke
her words spliced into bars
of an old wheel. A segment of air.
Where do you come from?
'Here,' I said. 'Here. These parts.'

Saturday, September 06, 2008

RD Laing

My bedtime reading at the moment is RD Laing's extraordinary Sanity, madness and the family. I'm half way through it, and I intended writing about it on here when I'd finished, but I see in today's Guardian that I've been beaten to it.

Hilary Mantell describes reading it in 1973 and being inspired. These were characters, real people. They had history. They were flawed, fascinating. It made her want to become a writer.

This is exactly what I was going to write. Read this book and all the writer's worries about character fade into insignificance. Make them real. Don't worry about trying to understand them because most of us don't understand ourselves. We contradict ourselves. We say (and believe) things which are the opposite of the way we act and react. As a primer for the aspiring writer, this book is amazing.

But more than that, for anyone interested in humanity it is humbling, sad and uplifting.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Culture or politics?

Slavoj Zizek, writing about the two 9/11 movies, United 93 and World Trade Center (WTC), made the observation that: ‘both films restrain (sic) not only from taking a political stance about the events, but even from depicting their larger political context.’ All we see, he observes, are:
the disastrous effects, with their cause so abstract that, in the case of WTC, one can easily imagine the same film in which the Twin Towers would have collapsed due to a strong earthquake. Or, even more problematically, we can imagine the same film taking place in a big German city in 1944, after the devastating Allied bombing.

It is, he says, a bit like Sherlock Holmes’ curious incident of the dog in the night-time: ‘"But we see no terrorist attack." "That was the curious incident..."’ The films could not locate the events of 9/11 in their wider context, to provide their cognitive mapping.

This, I would suggest, reflects a wider cultural and societal inability. The literature based on 9/11, too, fails to provide any semblance of an attempt to understand what happened and, more importantly, why. There are some questions, it seems, which may not be asked.

Zizek’s comparison with Dresden is apposite. Jonathan Safran Foer makes exactly the same connection in Extremely loud and incredibly close, a story which toys with metafiction in an attempt to conceal that at its heart it is a turgid domestic drama. The father of one of the WTC victims is a survivor of the Dresden bombings, and remembers that attack at one stage in the narrative. We are also treated to a reminiscence (I only read this two nights ago, but already I’ve forgotten how it was introduced to the plot) about Hiroshima. The little boy who is the main character, peculiar to the point of autism, is called Oskar – Oskar Matzerath from The Tin Drum, anyone? A sane little boy trying to make sense of the insane world of adults? Foer’s point is clear: wars and bombings and civilian attacks are nasty, nasty things. They make orphans of us all. But nowhere is there any attempt by Foer to properly contextualise these events. Rather, he uses 9/11 to ratchet up the emotional intensity of what is, essentially, a straightforward story of childhood bereavement. It’s 9/11 as emotional porn, with a bolted-on liberal, anti-war message. In this, he is not alone. Claire Messud, William Gibson, Stephen McAuley, Don DeLillo, Ken Kalfus et al, they have all used 9/11 in, to varying degrees, gratuitous ways.

Zizek, in his discussions on the response to 9/11, focuses on the political dimension. ‘The lesson,’ he says, ‘is thus that, in combating terror, it is more crucial than ever for the state politics to be democratically transparent.’ Fair point, but it is less the state politics that interests me than the national culture, because the only way we will change the state politics is through galvanising the national culture. Zizek says: ‘we live in a post-utopian time of pragmatic administration, since we learned the hard lesson of how noble political utopias end in totalitarian terror.’ Indeed. This is why I think it is curious that Zizek’s focus is so strongly on the state and not on the ‘anti-state’ – the culture, those men and women of the arts who should be playing their part in rolling back the dogma of pragmatic administration. Why are they writing prissy little domestic dramas with 9/11 as a stock emotional wallpaper designed solely to invest some pathos to proceedings?

The actions of the 9/11 terrorists introduced what Zizek calls (after Hegel) a “dimension of absolute negativity’. This dismal intrusion was made all the worse because the US (and the west) was still in its ‘holiday from history’ after the fall of Communism and the ascendancy of the unipolar power. Zizek’s analysis of those first few days was that the US was reacting in the manner of an individual whose entire set of core beliefs had been attacked. What frequently happens in such instances, of course, is denial, a retrenchment, perhaps even more fervent expressions of certainty in those now-questioned beliefs. (That, after all, is how many of the terrorists find themselves in such extreme positions in the first place. Those with the greatest apparent ‘belief’ are often those who actually harbour the greatest doubts: only extreme action can persuade others and, more importantly, themselves, that they haven’t wasted their lives in pursuit of something they no longer believe.)

I understand all of this, and it is entirely rational: an entire people were so shocked by events that they underwent a form of mental stasis: they were traumatised, many found themselves reduced to watching the footage over and over, over and over. That is a very human response, and it deserves our sympathy and understanding.

But it feels to me that so much of the literary response to 9/11 is still stuck at that stage of shock. It hasn’t overcome the moment. DeLillo’s novel is Falling man – ie, the focus is on the images of that day. Foer’s novel, likewise, uses a falling man as its final, visual scene, when it creates a tricksy flipbook showing one of the falling men apparently rising again. The literature is rooted in that day, in that moment, and in its immediate aftermath.

But it is what happened after those early stages of trauma or, rather, what didn’t happen that is important. It is this mental stasis that I think Zizek is referring to when he characterises the American response to 9/11 as a sense of awe at ‘the incomprehensible malignity of our attackers’. The first result of this, Zizek notes, was the inability of any commentator to voice an opinion that differed from the prevailing national mood: he or she was immediately set upon. That condition has gradually dissipated, but it appears to have been replaced, instead, by two things.

Firstly, the return of denial. 9/11 happened, it was a terrible thing, we must never forget but, more importantly, we must never discuss. Especially, we must never discuss how we came to be so hated that people would do this to us; and especially, we must never discuss how to ensure they don’t do it again, other than in macho militaristic or doom-laden homeland-security contexts.

Secondly, a state of guilt. We must have done something wrong, we tell ourselves. This is punishment. Of course, the lunatic religious right – Pat Buchanan, Jerry Falwell et al – started saying this from day one but, gradually, the guilt-trip liberal left have been swinging in that direction, too. DeLillo writes in Falling Man of the ‘narcissistic heart of the west’. Stephen McAuley writes in Alternatives to sex: ‘Struck from above by a dastardly enemy and the response is an encouragement to visit Disneyland, buy bigger cars, and then launch an attack on a country unrelated to the problem’. Get the message? We brought this on ourselves. The cult of tolerance which lies behind our attempts at multiculturalism (Zizek’s ‘post-political liberal project’) is taken to its extreme in the way we begin almost to identify with the mindset of our attackers. The west is sick, they and we say, and we ignore the sharia law, the Taliban, Hizb-ut-Tahrir proselytising and preaching hate in our universities, the abuses of human rights and human dignity characterised by the regimes of those who presume to criticise us.

And so we are in a position where the cultural body appears not to have progressed very far from the initial state of shock and incomprehension; and, when it has, it has regressed into denial and self-doubt. Its writers and artists are not doing what they should. They are not, as Vonnegut declared they must, acting as ‘agents of change’. They have not, like the modernists in response to the industrial-scale carnage of World War One, begun to develop new tools and techniques with which to lay bare the soul of society. They have not, like Vonnegut and his fellow counter-culture writers of the sixties, found the reserves of ironic detachment required to make serious observations out of seeming frivolity. Neither our writers and artists, nor American and western society in general, have yet begun to assimilate the lessons and to enunciate a response. America is still peering behind Zizek’s ‘fantasmatic screen’ which lies between it and the real world.

But Zizek calls for a political response. I do not believe we can trust the politicians to act in anything but a two-dimensional way (‘axis of evil’, ‘war on terror’). They will only ever be able to trade on base instincts of fear and the group siege mentality. (Only last night, John McCain’s acceptance speech for the Republican nomination was punctuated by chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’: a classic example of entrenched group-think at work.) The corollary is clear: if we look to politics we will fail. It is, therefore, the role of the artist to intervene. Only when Americans can be persuaded, simultaneously, to say ‘we will protect ourselves from of our enemies’ and to NOT say ‘God bless America’, will they have a hope of reclaiming happiness: in other words, to fight for what they believe without imposing what they believe on those who do not. Politicians may be Januses, but, alas, they do not have the subtlety to understand that this twin-faced approach is essential to peace and human harmony.

Shantih shantih shantih

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Gnossienne Number One, numbers one, two and three

Rather than the usual talking book, my MP3 player for the morning and evening walks to and from work recently has featured three different versions of Satie’s Gnossienne Number One, played on repeat one after the other. This is by way of research for my current project: I’m trying to work myself into a particular mindset.

Apart from the fact I think it is slowly unhinging me, it’s a curious experience. I know nothing about music, so I’m very much of the Prince Philip school – I know what I like, but I don’t really understand why. I love this music – and Satie in general – but, in my ignorance, I thought Satie was Satie, and classical music was classical music. I didn’t realise how different interpretations could be.

Number One, number one is very good, exactly as I’d expect it to be, except it has one completely bum note where, inexplicably, instead of the sinuous melodic roll of notes for which the work is famous, it jarringly repeats a note in a strident manner. The fluidity of the piece is immediately lost.

Number One, number two is disappointing. It’s frail, tame, almost timid. It sounds like somebody playing while their aged mother lies asleep in the next room, trying not to wake her. The eeriness of the piece is lost.

Number One, number three is intriguing. Originally, I hated it. Too muted and then, suddenly, TOO STRIDENT. Too much damper pedal. It’s trying too hard for effect, for dadaist strangeness. Satie wrote dadaist music, but Gnossienne Number One isn’t, and it ruins the mood. But, the more I listen to this one, the more it grows on me. Where, before, I recognised and understood the odd fluidity of the piece, I now think I’m coming to hear something slightly different, on a slightly different register, at one remove from where I was before.

Of course, this discussion might be more useful if I could tell you who was playing each of these versions, but I can’t because I downloaded them all with just the title Gnossienne #1. And I call myself a researcher…

But, in general, none of them is quite right. None of them is the Gnossienne Number One as I hear it. It’s one of those peculiarities about me (vanity, arrogance?) that even when I know nothing about a particular skill or craft I still believe I could do it better than anyone else – if only I had learned the basic techniques. Just as I believe I have a vision and sense of position for football which would have turned me into the new Johann Cruyff if I’d ever been able to kick a ball straight, I also now think I could perform the perfect Gnossienne Number One, if only I could play the piano…

But then, that’s what Gnossienne Number One is all about. It’s a process of thinking about and understanding yourself. It’s a respite from life, a brief, contained interlude in which an idea is born and toyed with and allow to fly free. That is why the fluidity and movement of the piece is so essential. Every single note is a completely logical successor to the previous one. They’re like Walter Benjamin’s seagulls, their flight patterns so diverse and fluid that ultimately the word seagull ceases to be meaningful and one just watches the movement, the life, the moment. Satie wrote on the score of the piece ‘Wonder about yourself’. It is a message for life. Wonder, and let it flow.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Civilisation and education

Michael Oakeshott wrote:

...a civilization (and particularly ours) may be regarded as a conversation being carried on between a variety of human activities, each speaking with a voice or in a language of its own; the activities (for example) represented in moral and practical endeavour, religious faith, philosophic reflection, artistic contemplation and historical or scientific inquiry and explanation. p 304

The danger, today, appears to be that there is precious little conversation going on. In the sixties, there was. People argued, sometimes violently, but there was a conversation. Now, there is either dumb acceptance or violent rejection. We live in a time of extremes. Oakeshott continued:

If, then, we recognize education as an initiation into a civilization, we may regard it as a beginning to learn our way about a material, emotional, moral and intellectual inheritance, and as learning to recognize the varieties of human utterance and to participate in the conversation they compose. p 304

So there we have it: education as the means to cure our fractured society. And what does this government give us? League tables.

Michael Oakeshott. Rationalism in politics and other essays. London: Methuen, 1962