Sunday, 14 October 2018
I live near a hospital, and there's a weird acoustic flaw where people standing and talking at street level across the road sound like they're having a conversation in my bedroom. As I spend quite a bit of time working from home, I hear quite a few of these little chats. What I mainly hear is people being comforted. I generally don't understand what is actually happening, as people have an incomprehensible tendency to never refer directly to what they're talking about, especially if it's important – a thing I don't think I will ever understand. Cancer, death – all horrific pain – is referred to as 'it', if at all. Sometimes, I'll pop my head out over the balcony and have a look. It's a deeply unattractive aspect of humanity, but whenever I encounter tragedy I have to see if the sufferers are beautiful, dumpy, misshapen, stylish, rich or poor, for no other reason than to project backstory onto their pain for my own private entertainment.
It's not just a hospital, there's also a methadone clinic and rehab as well. This means that I'm far from starved for entertainment. There was one night where a woman was screaming "Don't!" and "Stop it!" over and over again. I initially didn't want to do anything about that, not wishing to interrupt my highly important business of watching people fall over on Youtube. But this hesitation didn't last for more than a few seconds, so I went downstairs. At my appearance, the man who had been beating her ran away, and when I went to help the woman up, she screamed, "Don't fucking touch me!" and started screaming even more. So I went back upstairs and watched a video of people wiping out on waterslides.
The conversation I probably hear most often is people haggling furiously over prescription drugs. The price for Valium seems to be anywhere between one and four dollars per pill, depending on bulk, with good character, constant willingness to 'shout a shot', and length of relationship being the principle reasons given in favour of discounts. These conversations also often degenerate into violence, but I never feel even slightly inclined to get involved in those. Nor am I much interested in the occasional ice tantrum, usually involving one of those women who look like they're made of op shop leather storming down the street screaming imprecations at the tops of their voices.
One of the more interesting episodes involves a gigantic man with scars all over his forearms. He looks exactly like a GI Joe action figure, haircut and all. He's always humping a pack, always dressed in black, and always, always smoking. I would see him around the neighbourhood, looking like an action hero whose puppy had just died, smoking and generally staring glumly at the world passing him by. In my mind I called him 'The Happy Welder', partly because of the nature of the scars on his forearms, but mostly from an innate cruelty which I think I share with our entire poxy species.
Anyway, one day he happened to be standing in that spot over the road, so I went out to have a cigarette on my own balcony. He was visiting the rehab, standing outside and having a smoke with his case worker. He assured this man that things were going well. There were good prospects that he might get housing in the next year, and he hadn't attempted suicide in months.
These are the stories I observe on my street, before I head into the neighbourhood where I work and listen to conversations about which restaurants are new, and which are getting a bit tired, how unbelievable Tracy was at the last yoga class, and just how exciting and satisfying some new data centre project is. The distance between these two areas is roughly two and a half kilometres.
Monday, 24 September 2018
Education is in the news a lot these days, with quite a few people talking about systemic problems a la NAPLAN and so forth. As a tutor who is across something like one hundred and twenty students, I thought I'd put in my two cents about what I've been seeing in the world of secondary education.
It's always been axiomatic that school teachers are ludicrously busy. Apart from contact hours, there's the huge and ever-increasing burden of reporting and process, statutory requirements, extra-curricular duties, and professional development. As such, I've always known that my particular profession exists primarily to take up some of the slack which is created by the sheer impossibility of providing intensive one on one remedial or extension tuition for harassed, over-worked, and over-committed classroom teachers. It's telling also that a fair proportion of the tutors I manage are classroom teachers themselves, who freely acknowledge that the service we provide plugs specialist gaps which just can't reasonably be expected to be filled by the broader school system. I also tend to go in to bat for teachers when students complain that they've received no feedback on their seventh submission of a practice essay or whatever, explaining that these people are really really really busy. But lately I've found myself more and more called upon to defend or rationalise the indefensible.
The students who rolled up with printouts of the presentations their teachers have been delivering, still watermarked with the logos of Sparknotes or Gradesaver. Students set to study the difficult and abstruse poet T S Eliot who, for four of the six weeks allocated for the unit, were basically left to their own devices to Google the poet and poems, and then spent the remaining two weeks having their own (understandably terrible) research read back to them. The student who was advised not to choose The Iliad as a related text because it was 'too famous'. The class who spent an all day session on creative writing being actively encouraged to write stories on subjects that are specifically outlined in the syllabus as subjects to avoid. The class whose faculty has been setting them gruelling, multi-phase, multi-modal assessments which have eaten up most of the term's class time because their faculty apparently didn't understand the word 'or' in the syllabus. The same class whose teachers instituted a three week shut down in the middle of term as they suddenly realised they didn't understand the syllabus they'd had a year to adopt. The teacher who swore blind that the film Metropolis - a film which consists mainly of mass production machines killing and enslaving workers - had nothing at all to do with a critique of capitalism or class power.
And then there was the student who came to me with a voluminous notebook filled entirely with interpretations of Frost poems which ranged from the invalid to the insane. The same student who, when studying Strange Meeting, a poem self-consciously referential of Percy Bysse Shelley's Revolt of Islam, was given an interpretation which mentioned nothing about this. And when she asked her teacher if she should do some independent research on Shelley was told that the teacher "had never heard of that woman". Needless to say, Percy was a man. And then there was the teacher who marked one of my students down for pointing out that a poem which included a scythe, multiple images of 'reaping', and 'sleep' might just be talking about death, and the one who insisted that a poem with a rigid six syllables per line was in iambic tetrameter, which would require eight. And when asked what tetrameter actually was consistently, according to my student, 'ducked the question'. This is not to mention the multiple reports I get of whole classes spending weeks watching Netflix programs like The Crown for no discernable reason, teachers repeatedly informing classes of outright fallacies like, 'The HSC exam will never prescribe a Yeats poem to talk about', despite the fact that last year's HSC did, and one shining, gobsmacking example of a whole class who had been taught that Buddhism and Yoga were forms of devil worship.
Given all of this, I think it's time for some hard truths. The current system of teacher education does not reliably produce competent teachers, at least when it comes to the humanities. And then there's the input of the electorate. Every time we get outraged about inadequate education outcomes, the guaranteed institutional response is to add another layer of reporting and process, without necessarily allocating more funding. All this put together makes teaching an extremely unattractive profession. Sure, a small minority will be attracted to the profession as a vocation, but the reality is that most people work to pay the rent, and if working conditions are sufficiently crap, then so will be the pool of talent.
We need to get serious about education, and the only way to do this is to make teaching an attractive profession. It's really just a simple matter of paying more and raising standards accordingly. We can only lift the quality of teaching if entry into teaching is competitive, and it simply won't be if it continues to be an ever crappier job with ever crappier pay and conditions populated by the inevitable concomitant of ever crappier members of the profession. Paying salaries commensurate with the importance and demands of the job, requiring teachers of subjects - all subjects - to actually know their subjects at least as well as they know how to format lesson plans or fill in mandatory metrics reporting, and lifting the onerous and, let's face it, utterly worthless burden of process and reporting which was only ever instituted to appease the electorate without actually making any attempt to fix the system, are all essential steps in any effort to 'fix' education.
And it's not just systemic stuff either. It also comes down (arguably mostly) to our own attitude to what education is for, and our own practices in terms of demanding things from it. When government listens to the electorate in terms of what we want from education, what they generally get is inchoate gibberish. A thick layer of partisan outrage over-topping a bewildering plethora of demands for the education system to act as high end creche, ideological and spiritual coach, vocational employment trainer, high academic institution, life skills tutor, and general utopian fairyland in which no child is ever hurt, stressed, underwhelmed, overwhelmed, bored, or challenged. If we want meaningful change in education, we ourselves need to do some serious thinking about education on a systemic and social level, instead of just inundating government with shrill knee jerk personal responses along the lines of 'won't somebody think of the (my) children'. Because while education is very much about children, that's not all it's about by a very long shot. The product of our education system as a whole has a direct and significant impact on the economy, future social happiness, our viability as a nation. And it's not just economic - education is pivotal to the production of individuals capable of ensuring our future defence. In fact, our whole future viability as a nation. So why does everyone balk at the idea of spending on future defence the way we spend on, oh, let's say, defence?
It's possibly to do with the fact that we think about education stupidly, because for most of us, our education was the product of people thinking stupidly about education. It might perhaps be time to break that cycle.
Friday, 14 September 2018
I went to a raspberry farm once. It was in Tasmania, and was billed as the thing to go and see. In fact, it was represented to me as a thing to do, which would put it in the same category as writing a novel, having a jousting tournament with shopping trolleys, or walking long distances in the bush. A thing to 'do'.
When I got there, I found it surprising in several ways. First of all was the revelation that a raspberry farm looks like a vineyard, or a tea plantation, or like any other vaguely green space full of commercial agriculture. I am an urban creature, and that's really all I got from looking out at the neat green rows of what I presumed to be raspberry bushes.
The next surprise was the sheer number of things people are willing to put raspberries in. We went to a very nicely outfitted cafe/restaurant/gift shop type thing, where a six page menu contained an astonishing variety of dishes containing raspberries. There were pancakes and whatnot, as you'd expect, but also incongruous combinations, like a bacon and egg breakfast with, for no discernable reason, a raspberry compote. And even more intriguingly, a short list of items having nothing to do with raspberries, proof positive, I think, that the people running the place were well aware that they would be faced with people unwilling to tolerate their berry based whimsy.
But the most surprising thing of all, from my point of view, was the idea that going to a raspberry farm in order to eat a weirdly berried meal and look at some bushes constituted 'something to do'. I remember the person I was with stating that it was 'a bit of fun', and looking back, I think she did have quite a lot of fun watching me go from bewildered to nonplussed to irate. I can't help but wonder if that was her plan all along.
I wouldn't say it was a wasted experience, though. I did enjoy my breakfast, and I learnt several interesting facts about raspberries, though I think I may have forgotten most of them. But I also learned an invaluable lesson about people. Such activities have always been a complete mystery to me. I've always been vaguely aware that there are people for whom life consists solely of eating painstakingly made things in odd or new locations, but I always assumed that there must be some secret thrill to the whole thing. That in the same way I don't really understand people who are addicted to mindless MMOs or Valium or whatever, that there must be some intense pleasure or satisfaction to be gained from this mode of life. The biggest surprise of the day was that there isn't.
These people are just marking time, and doing it (usually in grim silence) in the company of their loved ones. And this makes me wonder about what we all do in our sophisticated urban environments. All those brunches and craft beers, our manufactured enthusiasms for manufactured trends and products - surely this is just a delusional version of going to the raspberry farm. It's all just as poorly qualified to be thought of as 'something to do', but because it's new and bright and colourful, and because we do it loudly and quickly, we deceive ourselves into thinking otherwise.
Sunday, 8 April 2018
Poetry, like fine wine, classical music, and art, is generally seen as an absolute quantity. Most people, scarred by their experience of it in school, are convinced that it is either the exclusive property of merlot sipping aesthetes, or that it's some sort of elaborate con and that there aren't any real rules to what makes poetry good or bad. Either way, this is a source of deep annoyance to me. Poetry contains some of the highest, deepest, and most heart-breakingly human ideas in all literature and, just like fine wine or classical music, it's only necessary to absorb a little bit of information to unlock a whole new world of beauty and experience.
To demonstrate this, I will step through the analysis and interpretation of a single poem:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The first thing we want to do is determine structure and meter. This is often a simple matter of just looking at the poem on the page. We can see here that there are four groups of four lines, and that these lines are all of similar length. This means that it's a pretty good bet that this particular piece is going to have a formal structure, with fixed stresses, syllable counts, and so on. Stressing a line of poetry can be a mind bending experience, especially with more modern poets who like to play with classical stress patterns, but it's usually not too difficult. With this particular poem, I think we can agree that the stresses work as follows:
Whose WOODS these ARE I THINK I KNOW.
His HOUSE is IN the VILlage THOUGH;
So what we have here is a recurring pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That particular kind of pairing is called an 'iamb'. If we count all of the iambs in each line, we can see that there are four, which means that this poem is written in iambic tetrameter - four iambic pairs of syllables, or 'feet', per line.
The next thing we want to do is determine whether or not there is a regular rhyming scheme. This is just a simple matter of assigning letters to the words at the ends of lines.
|Whose woods these are I think I know.||A|
|His house is in the village though;||A|
|He will not see me stopping here||B|
|To watch his woods fill up with snow.||A|
|My little horse must think it queer||A|
|To stop without a farmhouse near||A|
|Between the woods and frozen lake||B|
|The darkest evening of the year.||A|
|He gives his harness bells a shake||A|
|To ask if there is some mistake.||A|
|The only other sound’s the sweep||B|
|Of easy wind and downy flake.||A|
|The woods are lovely, dark and deep,||A|
|But I have promises to keep,||A|
|And miles to go before I sleep,||A|
|And miles to go before I sleep.||A|
We can see, then, that all but the last stanza have the same rhyming scheme. This tells us a couple of things. Firstly, that a deliberate choice has been made to compose this piece in regular iambic tetrameter, and secondly, that there is more than likely some significant idea or event embedded in the last stanza.
Iambic tetrameter is the meter most commonly used in songs. The most famous example of this is probably Hernando's Hideaway:
The groupings of four, with stresses distributed iambically, are instinctively and intuitively tuned to the western understanding of song-like rhythms. This means that poems structured in this meter are going to contain direct appeals to emotion – that the poet intends for the reader to 'feel' at least as much as they read the poem.
That, you'll be pleased to know, is the end of the technical part. Often seen as the most intimidating aspect of poetry, hopefully we can now see that it's actually the simplest, easiest aspect of analysis. What needs to happen next is the much more complex process of determining meaning.
Depending on the literary era in which the piece was written, and the contrariness or otherwise of the poet, this is going to be either more or less tricky. The poet in question here is one Robert Frost, and he falls very broadly into a bracket which includes Yeats, Eliot, Owen, and so on. We can loosely call this Modern or Post Modern, though it should be noted that the use of classical structures and nature imagery means that an argument could also be made (and was made by the poet himself) for Frost being Romantic. It's not that important – we just need to place the poem in time so as to have the best possible chance of understanding the symbolism present in the language.
One feature of poetry sitting in that bracket between 1798 and the present day is that the poet often takes for granted that we understand the symbols that they use. A mower/reaper/scythe will be death. A flower/jewel/star will be poetry. And, in this case, woods will be a place of liminality, wonder, and/or fear, and winter will be approaching death and cycles of change. This is arguable, but it's probably not worth having that argument, as I'm right, and anyone who says otherwise is more than likely wrong.
It's vitally important that poems be read aloud, as one of the most significant aspects of poetry is sound. One advantage of modern poets is that you can often hear them reading their own work, and, unlike so many poets, Frost is actually a skilled and sensitive reader of his own poetry.
As a soundscape, the poem has a sort of crescendo of pace around the second and third stanzas. If we need to establish that this isn't just some quirk on the part of the reader, we can examine the lines themselves. Upon doing so, it can be seen that many of the lines in these two stanzas do not have punctuation at the end of them. This is a technique called 'enjambment', and is designed to create a feeling of forward momentum.
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
This increase in pace, combined with the change in rhyming scheme and content, tells us that there is a turning point, or volte, between the third and fourth stanzas.
So what we know so far is that we're looking at a song-like, experiential piece with a progression of ideas culminating in the fourth stanza. What those ideas actually are is a different discussion entirely, but I would point out a couple of salient features embedded within the poem, which can be seen as the poet pointing out important images or ideas to the reader.
Firstly, when stressing this poem, there are certain points when the sing-song iambic tetrameter breaks down. Most notably in the lines 'The darkest evening of the year', and 'But I have promises to keep'. With the 'darkest evening' line, the stress pattern becomes problematic owing to the enjambment of the foregoing line. Further to this, the order of concepts is a little strange – the information feels like a redaction or interjection, in that it's not provided in the sequence which we would ordinarily expect. The fact of this piece of information sitting flat and unexpected at the bottom of the stanza highlights its significance, and it's important to note that the darkest evening of the year is more than likely a reference to mid-winter, and therefore the symbolism associated with that.
'But I have promises to keep' is next to impossible to chant in sing-song. This is definitely a deliberate move on the part of the poet, to break the meter, force the reader to step out of the comforting rhythm of song, and thereby physically ascribe significance to a significant line. The ambiguity of the stresses in this line bring the rolling enjambments of the previous two stanzas to a dead stop, and set the stage neatly for the final repeating couplet. And as these three lines are made to stand out so much, by both meter and repetition respectively, it's a good bet that the whole point of the poem is embedded in these lines.
It's generally up to the reader to determine what a poem really means, and I'm sure you've noticed that apart from insisting on standard symbolic meanings, I've left this side of things very much alone. But it does occur to me that if you're still reading this far in, not being provided with some kind of interpretation is going to be seriously annoying. So here goes.
The fact of the woods as being a distraction or pleasing halt on a journey indicates that the poet is talking, on some level, about dichotomies of duty and pleasure. Significance can also be ascribed to the fact that the 'owner' of the woods is absent - is not, in fact, resident in these woods. Many people interpret this as having to do with the absence of god or, with rather more complexity, of being reflective of Frost's attitude to the relationship between 'truth' in a poetic sense, and the poet. Various meanings are given to the horse and the ride, but at a very basic and easy level, we can all agree that what we're discussing here is a journey, and it's therefore not too much of a leap to determine that the journey in question is the journey of life. And then, at the last stanza, 'promises' and 'sleep' in combination should create associations with the ordeal or experience of life, and the rest and culmination of death.
If you're still reading at this point, the hope is that your reward has been a basic toolkit for demystifying any poem, and also for punching holes in the pronouncements of pretentious 'artsy' types, who rarely ever have the first clue as to what they're talking about. But I also feel there should be some other reward for endurance of this caliber, so please enjoy this video compilation of raccoons doing funny stuff.
Saturday, 7 April 2018
In the houses of my dreams, my bedroom is always in the sun room. A liminal place, not quite of the house, but not quite outside it. In my mind, that was the relationship Simon had with the world - marginal, individual, and quirky. But that's not a true image at all.
Simon was someone I mainly knew from school, so to talk about him, I suppose I need to explain a few things about the gladiator academy in which we grew up. I'm very proud of my school, of its standard of education, its standing in the community, and its honour roll, but I'd be lying if I said it produced uniformly kind and humble people. In fact, I can hear a great horse laugh rising from the sum of old Aloysians at the idea of kindness or humility ever being valued by the school. We're known for many things, many of which are positive, but what we're very much famous for is arrogance, entitlement, and that curious smiling intolerance peculiar to Irish Catholics.
When I attended his funeral last Friday, I met Pauline, Simon's mother, who said she had been initially annoyed by the long shadow cast by our school. She complained that he always had our motto, 'Ad Majora Natus' (Born for Greater Things) on his lips. She felt that this was arrogant, and possibly a little stupid. But then she looked into it some more, and found out about the deep Loyolan roots of social justice that lay behind this seemingly elitist message, and found peace with it. I understand this. When I think of Simon and my school days, I imagine The Great Hall crammed with boys soaking up the idea of themselves as some kind of special, chosen cohort, born to make their mark on the world. All except one – Simon – who must have known all along that the true meaning of this pat little saying was rooted in service to others. It helps to explain the way his entire life was shaped and pointed squarely at the single goal of helping the entire world to be and get better.
Simon was a part of the music department, as was I, and I believe that in the generosity of his heart he wished to be my friend. I took this very much for granted, and assumed that there was no requirement for me to reciprocate his many kindnesses, because I am the exact type of entitled arsehole which our school loves to produce. Simon was emphatically not this kind of person. As boys, we always put at least as much effort into being smooth and plausible as we did into becoming adept, and this was definitely a learning culture we received from the institution. I say 'we', but this was never true of Simon. He never seemed to care a jot for how he looked to others. He loved singing and songs, so he sang. He loved God and his church, so he went. He loved business, so he wheeled and dealed. He loved his fellow man, so he always and everywhere practised kindness and generosity. He loved Vanuatu, so he waded in, two-fisted, to fight for free market and democratic principles on that tiny island as if he were doing battle for the soul of the world. And never once in all of this did he seem afraid of looking silly, or worried about what others thought of him. It is with deep regret that I realise now that I never saw the enormous value of his immense heart and courage when I was a boy.
If I were ever to commit the gaucherie of attempting to 'sum up' a person in a few words or a single idea, I would describe Simon as relentlessly positive and earnest. The way he treated everything he encountered and liked was a kind of mad rush to embrace it. Simon had the kind of energy and commitment we associate with entrepeneurialism, despite having not a shred of the greed, mendacity, or selfishness which can all too often be the other side of that coin. He was passionate about creating, through business, that elusive invisible hand of Adam Smith. His big project in his final years was an app which would help people ensure that the produce they were buying was part of an ethical supply chain – organic, natural, and productive of fair payment to the farmer. Simon believed passionately in so many things, but it would seem that what he cared about most of all was the idea that by doing good, he could make the world a better place. His enthusiasms remind me of a knight of the crusades, riding out into a sea of iniquity to carve out a space where people might live in harmony with their highest principles. Simon was ever Utopian in his imaginings, which requires a greatness of soul few ever possess, and even fewer are capable of preserving into adulthood.
So it is with deep sadness that I farewell my old schoolmate, Simon Robert Agius. I don't believe in God, but he did, with an earnestness and love which has always confused me. But given that, it would be churlish of me not to wish him good journey in the manner I think he would have preferred. So I offer a prayer for his soul, casting it out into the ether in the hope that his faith was justified, and that the legion of souls who I know are pleading for his salvation are heard by a god as passionately in love with right and humanity as he was himself.
Pie Jesu Domine,Dona eis requiem.Qui tollis peccata mundi,Dona eis requiem.
Monday, 26 March 2018
I'm ordinarily a bit suspicious of this whole culture of recording and sharing every minute detail of one's life, hazily equating the practice of uploading photographs of dinners, Kodak moments, and every passing thought, with narcissism. Thing is, though, Facebook will not stop reminding me that I've been talking to and at you all for years now, which makes me think it might perhaps be time to lift a corner of the persona and say something meaningful. Think of this as that awkward moment in the night out when everything goes quiet and you get a strong sense that your drinking partner is about to drop some kind of personal confidence. And you hope they either don't, or that if they do, they won't remember it. With me, though, you can change the subject, or make a quiet exit, and I won't mind.
No? Well, you've been warned.
I like to think I've lived my life according to some kind of plan. The thing is, though, that rather like communities of faith, this is only possible to maintain with some serious post hoc propter hoc fallacious thinking. The fact is that my life has been a long process of stumbling from random action to unintended consequence, and the best I can say is that my course has been like a raft being propelled through a series of rapids. Every now and then I can stick an oar in the water to change my angle of incidence, but it's not really possible to claim with any truth that my overall course has been set by my own will.
This is far from being a problem. I've seen and done things most people I know have only ever imagined. I've been to many places, and met a collection of people who wouldn't be out of place in a Bukowski novel, or a Coen brothers film. Raw, breathtaking beauty, danger, adventure, and sojourns in the very highest, and very lowest strata of society have been my payoff, and with this range and breadth of experience I am very well content. There is a downside, though. Living like a raft going down rapids means you're going to take not a few knocks along the way, and my life has given me some scars that people can see, and a great many which are visible to no-one but the self I inhabit alone and in the dark. But even this isn't such a huge downside. As a writer, all experience is grist to my mill, and there is advantage in knowing intimately the taste of a mouth full of tooth fragments and blood, the despair of the worthless and forgotten, the misery of grinding poverty, and the insane, keening pain of savage loss.
Yes, it has very much been a life of sharp peaks and black, miserable troughs, and with this I am very pleased. And now, as I pass a climacteric and contemplate a path ahead that looks for the first time more like a home strait than a starting one, I feel a kind of settling. A friend of mine calls it, "sliding into your bones." I'm more comfortable in my skin than I've ever been before, and in a much quieter, unblustering way than the peak of my reckless youthful arrogance, far more confident. But it's impossible to ignore the fact that this confidence, as nice as it is, is born of a newfound sense of limitation. After decades of pig-headed refusal to accept them, I have finally responded to the universe's savage beatings and learned where my limits are, and how to respect them. Which is why right now, as full of good things as it might be, is also a time which is far from easy.
A lot of people think of 2016 as a year of catastrophe and loss. Remember all those people who died along with the possibility of believing that the world was run by sane people? Well, for me, the nexus of 2017/18 has been something of a personal version of that year. In the past three months, six of my friends have died, two from suicide. People I know and like, some close, and some more casual, but still valued friends, have lost sisters, fathers, mothers, wives, or, in one case, everything. Their pain is obviously not mine, but it eats at the edges of my world, darkening it, and making it harder and harder to maintain the delusion that there exists in the universe any kindness, purpose – anything at all beyond random calamity and the insanity of pain. In my more grandiloquent moments I imagine myself as Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner, sitting in the rain and listing all the wonderful and horrific things I've seen. I can see my ability to relate to his mood in that moment as a major life achievement. But what I don't have is the simple, quiet courage to say, as he does, "It's time to die," with all that smiling calm and peace. Try as I might, I'm not at peace with my own mortality and, it seems, even after a life unreasonably packed with death and loss, neither am I able to calmly accept the mortality of others.
This nibbling of death at the core and edges of my current world is beginning to make things a little bit ragged. I'm not a child any more, so there will be no running to the arms of oblivion in whatever form I can find it. I've grown enough to see the utter cowardice of this approach, and to revile it. But I am starting to feel a little ragged around the edges. The rage and sorrow of my awareness of the blankness of things, usually hedged and kept firmly at bay behind philosophy, physical activity, and simple enjoyment of the process of being breathing and quick, is beginning to intrude. I have a frustrating sense that my actions, usually such a source of smug pride, are no longer pure, direct, and effective, but rather atomised. I'm dogged by a sense of Sisyphean futility. Like Cerberus eating from a single bowl, I can't convince myself I'm actually achieving anything – just switching from one minor task to another, with no appreciable dent being made in the central mission. And there is a feeling, like the irritability of chronic pain, combined with an awareness of the cliff edge at my feet, which draws me into myself – makes me arm and harden my interface with the world in anticipation of calamity.
Basically, I'm likely to be a little unpredictable right about now. Friends of mine are no stranger to the harshness with which I can treat those closest to me, but I'm warning them that this might get a little sharper for the next little while. They're also used to those times when I just absent myself from the stream of shared experience. This, I tell them, is quite possible in the near future as well. And my newfound delusions of maturity compel me to share these PSAs with everyone else too, as a grown up and responsible thing to do.
There. Awkward personal confidence sharing is over. If you're still here, please enjoy this picture of a monkey riding a pig, as a token of my appreciation for listening.
Sunday, 25 March 2018
Very often, moronic pop culture will capture and distil big and complex ideas into affirmation posters. One such distillation has to do with the idea that life is made of moments. On one level, this just isn't true. A second's thought about what we mean by 'moment', as in, an incident or brief period of time which stands out from the rest of the tedious grind of living, will tell us that the proposition is impossible. But on another level, when once we recalibrate for the chicken brained incoherence of casual speech, there is a resonance of real truth. Life, as we live (or re-live) it in our minds, is pretty well exclusively made up of a more or less carefully selected highlights reel.
Now the self-congratulatory bum-patting machine of self help fraudsters wants us to believe that this is a good thing which should be embraced and harnessed. At least, I think they do, as in the language of hazy tropes which is their default for communication, they tend to put statements like, 'Life is Made of Moments' against a backdrop of a forest or happy children or puppies or whatever. But like so much of the palliative garbage these people peddle, what they are asking people to celebrate and embrace is a major, and arguably toxic, cognitive glitch.
We currently live in the most heavily mythologised age in all of human history. Sure, there's always been stories of heroes and gods, but the record of self expression which comes down to us through the ages shows us that this last hundred years or so has seen a massive expansion and democratisation of those stories. We have absorbed and co-opted these myths into the very fabric of our consciousness. Any time any person decides to undertake a fitness regime, for example, it's a very good bet that somewhere in their mind, a training montage will be playing. Whenever people try to explain themselves, the universal tendency is to treat their past as various stages in a Bildungsroman - a coming of age story. We look for the defining, climactic moments in our lives, and understand our current state in terms of a narrative which is not actually of our own making. And psychotherapists and self help gurus actively encourage this. "Look for the moment in your life when you decided you didn't deserve success," they'll say, and we'll scan back through our poorly maintained and sorted highlights reel to find, not necessarily a moment that was important, but one which fits the model we're being asked and expected to conform to. So we'll dredge up the memory of some teacher who told us we couldn't write very well, or some ten year old girl who mocked us for having funny hair or teeth or ears. And around this dubious framework we will construct a myth of the persecuted hero, or something equally ludicrous.
It's not uniform, of course. Fight Club is an excellent example of evidence that somewhere out there exists an awareness of this toxicity and a will to fight it. But Fight Club, for the very reasons it's appealing, is easy to dismiss. Because the delivery of this idea is also couched in exaggerated, mythic terms, and woven into an admittedly subversive, but still immediately recognisable Bildungsroman of growth, redemption, and acceptance.
I'm not saying that we should attempt to exterminate the natural and often laudable human tendency to narrativise everything - if we did, I'd be out of a job, for a start. And I'm also not enough of a Marxist to see deep evil in the energetic, free market way mass media has evolved to create a nexus of mutually performative supply and demand in the way it exploits our psychological foibles to give us what we want, and tell us what we want, in equal parts. I'm pretty sure all most purveyors of media want is our money and attention, and I don't really see a problem with that.
But where I do see a massive problem is where this mythologisation of everything - this blatant reduction of the entirety of human experience into signal moments and individuals - is applied to understanding of a complex and pluralist society, which understanding is so often translated into action. The process whereby we convert and reduce an issue or a history into a simple story of villains and heroes, a battle between the forces of good and evil, is brilliant for socialisation and the formation of tribes, but is woefully inadequate for the goal of responsible parsing of necessary action. It's no coincidence at all that the justification for movements like the KKK or The Tea Party rests on a foundation of blatant myth-making. This tendency to reduce life to a series of shining moments, while ignoring or deleting all the dull, sublunary, connective tissue which makes up the vast majority of real experience, is an open ticket to absolutism, hatred, and immense harm.