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Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Much Neglected Art Form

With the exception of a handful of pioneering academics and specialist publications, serious critical consideration of gaming as an art form feels, to me, to be seriously lacking. Sure, it's commonly accepted that gaming is now very much mainstream, but it's pretty clear that what most people are talking about when they say this is Call of Duty and Candy Crush. I'd argue that this is a terrible mistake. High end, complex games are material which should not - cannot - be sequestered generationally. Academics and reviewers who are rich in experience and expertise in other forms need to engage with this art form or face missing out on the richest and most complex thing to happen to creative expression since someone ran a reel of film through a projector. This is driven not least by the necessarily multi-disciplinary approach which must be applied to fully understand such works. There are few better arguments for this than the astonishing master work, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The sheer scope of the work is awe inspiring. In volume alone, the creative output dwarfs any contemporary work in any other medium, and there's the added consideration that all of this content has been crafted with loving care and attention to detail, and each element linked and interlinked in a decision/narrative tree of mind-boggling complexity. And as if that weren't enough, it's beautiful as well.

Yehezkel Kaufmann's conception of the meta-divine realm may not, on the surface, seem to have much to do with a sword-swinging, bodice-ripping computer game, but then that's not all there is to The Witcher - not by a long shot. Kaufmann's idea that the pagan universe contains a realm of being from which the gods themselves spring is important for many reasons, but here we're focussed on the way this affects ancient versus modern mentalities. In a culture dominated by transcendent monotheism, our understanding of ancient mentalities can be seriously hampered by the lingering formative effect of the big three. The idea that there is a place from which the gods come creates startlingly different interactions with the tangible universe. Depending on the nature of the relevant mythology, commonplaces like blood or water can become imbued with divine significance, and long-forgotten features of everyday life like sacred landscapes and ritual calendars suddenly make perfect sense. By transposing and synthesising many systems of meta-divinity into interactive dramatic and narrative form, The Witcher allows us to experience and understand these mentalities through a faithful and sensitive simulation of sacred liminality. Vaguely remembered and poorly understood superstitions are expanded and explained in a way which promotes understanding of the dim past in ways which history teachers can only dream about. It may seem unlikely, but anyone who has engaged with The Witcher is much better equipped to understand complex ideas like immanence and meta-divinity than someone who hasn't, simply because, on some level, these concepts have been lived and experienced.

The broad premise of the game centres on The Wild Hunt, a piece of European folklore having to do with the storm gods, elves, the departed, or the dread hound, Black Shook, depending on where in Europe the tale is encountered. The story goes that whenever there's a storm, it is The Wild Hunt galloping across the sky in pursuit of souls, and if Black Shook catches your eye, you are forever lost. So far, so simple. Layered in amongst this, however, is the idea of the protagonist/avatar, Geralt of Rivia, as a specially bred monster hunter called a Witcher. What this creates (besides complex explorations of the morality of professional warrior-hood) is a pretext for the compilation of a wonderfully comprehensive bestiary of practically every nightmare creature from Classical Greece to modern times, as well as somewhat more ambiguous or benign supernatural fauna. As an ethnographic achievement, The Witcher's bestiary dwarfs most examples from the mediaeval period, the time at which this literary form reached its peak, and for sheer preservation and detail of monstrous traditions, professional and amateur ethnographers and folklorists alike should find significant utility in the collection, in spite of its fantastical lack of context and attribution. It's not just about listing or preservation, though. The genius of the bestiary is in its detail and synthesis. The grand literary achievement of the monster lore in The Witcher is the deft manner in which an enormous, eclectic grab bag of superstition, folklore, and myth has been woven together into a coherent universe. The effect of this is to prompt new and interesting ways of thinking about humanity's fascination with the monstrous. The juxtaposition of disparate traditions highlights their similarities, and hints at the central truths of human conceptions of monsters, as well as exploring the essential dichotomy of beauty and horror. Common threads in logic, ritual, cult, and system catalyse and highlight ideas about transformation, therio and anthropomorphism, and humanity's intimate yet profoundly uneasy relationship with the natural world and the murky intersections of the conscious and unconscious.

The Witcher's literary merits do not merely rest, however, on mimesis, archaism, and preservation. The foregoing aspects, as substantial as they are, are merely peripheral elements of the narrative. The story itself is a grand interweaving of the public and personal, high drama and low comedy, intertextuality and resonance both comic and poignant, all heavily imbued with themes of justice, humanism, high statecraft and the idea that all decisions, however small, can have significant impacts. The element of active decision making present in gaming means that the thematic messaging has an immediacy and impact which far outstrips the capacity of any other form of literature. The player is not just an observer of the work's themes, but a responsible actor in their realisation. It is this element of responsibility which, in a well-crafted game, provides a far more intense experience of the core ideas of a story than is possible in print, image or film. The player is bowled along from decision to decision, the fates of individuals, communities, and nations in their hands. This isn't just about fantasy or role playing - the world of The Witcher is peopled with characters depicted such that the player invests emotionally in their existence, and the potent consequence of this is that the ideas and dillemmae unpacked within the story have vibrant and actual life. This constant load of moral responsibility forces players to consider fundamental questions of good and evil, and to interrogate their own moral choices, the basis and validity of their ethical positions and comfortable assumptions - the exact same questioning which is provided, at a considerably less confronting distance, by the philosophical bases of tragedy.

I often encounter a weird bias, when it comes to the visual product of games, reminiscent of the old prejudice against comic books and graphic novels. These latter are, of course, firmly entrenched in the mainstream now, along with the quotidian obviousness of Banksy, and the near meaningless jingoism of other forms of pop art. And yet the magnificent beauty of so much of gaming's visual art gets little to no serious attention. Whether it be hyper-realistic cinematic trailers like the one above, or the dauntingly global pool of art and art styles subject to mimesis, pastiche, elaboration, or straight use, The Witcher is a staggering compendium of artistic achievement.

The landscape itself is moulded with fine aesthetic (though definitely not geographical) logic. Dead ground, terrain, and cover are not just used tactically in The Witcher, but are also exploited to provide countless openings of sudden and breathtaking vistas. The construction is as intricate and deliberate as any Classical garden or Romantic grotto, and at least as powerfully and consistently sublime. The two key differences, however, are in the fact that the world of The Witcher is not a single garden, but a series of fully realised and populated simulated worlds, and that this is a landscape which is not limited to vicarious or imaginative experience, at least visually. It is also, to a certain extent, performative, in that the aesthetic reality of each environment is predictive and productive of the nature of its events and populations. This performativity is not just unidirectional either - the player's actions will form and shape sections of the world, providing dramatic and immediate visual manifestations of moral and sociological impact.

Beauty, male and female, pristine and grotesque, is a significant part of The Witcher's visual world. Echoes of Rococo and Pre-Raphaelite starry-eyed eroticism abound in the depiction of practically every character, be they young, old, halt, hale, pristine, or disfigured. There is also the uncomfortable Geigerian sexualisation of the grotesque and horrific. Monsters are lovingly rendered with exaggerations of tongue, breast, thigh, and curve, which make a further complex comment on the essential nature of monsterism - the inflation, subversion, or inversion of decidedly human characteristics which separates the monstrous from the merely frightening. Visually as well as textually, The Witcher points again and again to the concept of our darkest evils deriving their genesis and expression from deep within our image and awareness of ourselves.

At this point, this author's dilletantism in the field of visual art brings about a frustrating halt. While quite a lot of the game is recognisable as run of the mill fantasy art, there seem to be frequent excursions into much higher realms of visual expression. Someone much better qualified should devote some attention to this work - attention which it richly deserves.

The sheer plethoric volume of material in The Witcher is such that I haven't even touched on music, higher ethics, or the detailed exploration of human relationships abundantly present in the game. Questions about the value and absolute integrity of sovereignty, the dichotomous relationship of freedom and civilisation, historical simulation and representation, and much much more are all contained within this sprawling framework. And it's not just The Witcher, though it's a prime example. Whether the player is deciding the overall policy of intergalactic colonies in Mass Effect, conducting complex, multi-handed truce negotiations in Skyrim, or weighing the competing philosophies of transhumanism, reactionism, and liberalism in Fallout, the medium of gaming can provide a depth and level of narrative and thematic engagement unrivalled in immersion, impact, and sophistication in any other existing form. Creators, critics, and academics ignore this world at their peril, and to their significant loss.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Yoga, Swastikas, and Pauline Hanson

Yoga is really old. Maybe not as old as Indian Nationalists say it is, but it's still very, very old. The earliest evidence we seem to have of it is cylinder seals and reliefs from the Indus Valley which appear to depict yoga practices as part of ritual activity. These date to roughly 3000BCE. In this time period, Yoga is intimately associated with ideas of universal order, the primary symbol of which, for the Indus Valley cultures, is the swastika. Some archaeologists date cave paintings of swastika to 10000BCE, and posit a link between yoga, tantra, veda, and paleo or mesolithic ritual and cult. I find all this kind of thing profoundly fascinating, but I'm well aware that in this I am practically alone. So I may as well get to the point.

Over the millennia, yoga transformed, adapted, and expanded into a wide variety of practices and applications to do with medicine, religion, and so on, but until about the turn of nineteenth century, it was very much an exclusively eastern product. The idiocy of Orientalism helped to bring an awareness of yoga to the west, with fantastic authors like Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Roald Dahl being sucked in by its mystic allure and contributing to its popularisation. As for the swastika, I don't believe there's any real need to recount the story of its transmission to the west. The point is that the introduction of this alien cultural material was accomplished in a way which has rendered it practically unrecognisable with reference to the original.

I don't understand much about the detail of yogic practice, but what I do know for sure is that its original function is almost identical to that of gungfu - a form of moving meditation designed to link or connect the body with external, universal forces. Which is really not at all what it is today. For the most part, yoga in the west has shed its religious and ritual functions, and is now firmly entrenched in the self improvement/self management space. The key word being 'self'. Talking to practitioners and reading their promotional bumf reveals an overwhelming tendency to view yoga as a way to connect to inner aspects of the self, to improve or otherwise harmonise physical and mental components of the self, to engage with and learn to love the self. Self, self, self. Which is much more in the vein of being an observation, rather than a complaint. But the importance of the observation exists in the metamorphosis of the practice. When we in the west absorb an alien cultural product, we make it very much our own. A core element of pagan ritual and medicinal practice becomes, in the process of transmission, a leisure activity focussed entirely on individual well being, individualism and leisure activities being fundamental to western modes of life. This process can be seen over and over again through tea, pepper, potatoes, astrology, martial arts, curry, medicine, theatre, and writing... the list of appropriated (in the neutral sense of the word) cultural material is practically endless.

Which is what monocultural reactionaries simply don't understand. Idiots like Pauline Hanson and her fan club see the ingress of foreign cultural material as a threat principally because they do not understand the ways in which such material is transmitted or absorbed. To be fair, they also have trouble understanding primary school level civics and words of more than one syllable, but that's probably beside the point. The thing about anglophonic culture is that it is highly robust. We in the English speaking world have acquired the greater part of our cultures from outside, while the tiny original ethnicities forming our internal basis are arguably more mysterious to us than the cultures we have conquered, colonised, or otherwise absorbed. Western cultures in general are not so much under threat as they are in an accelerated phase of absorption and appropriation (neutral again).

It is only possible to view culture as safe when static and under threat when evolving if the viewer is suffering from some sort of serious mental deficiency. This could be ignorance, cognitive incapacity, or the delightful combination of both represented by Pauline Hanson. So really, we should basically leave immigration and other such issues alone, and focus on stealing ideas from a culture that refuses to allow intellectually stunted imbeciles to ascend to positions of power. Surely, there's some tiny country somewhere from whom we can appropriate this idea.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Moby Dick and The Fallacy of 'Killing the Magic'

One of the ideas I encounter all the time is the strange notion that analysis ruins the experience of creative works. It most often crops up when I'm taking a student through film analysis, as film is usually the medium they also engage with voluntarily in ordinary life. I'll be talking them through various film making techniques and explaining how each element is designed to evoke either specific or varied reactions, and they'll almost always ask, "But doesn't knowing all this stuff kind of kill the effect?". It's a question I get asked so frequently, and so reliably, that I have to conclude that it's a widely held belief.

I think it stems from the kinds of magical thinking we generally foist on children in schools as part of the effort to tame and socialise the human animal. God can see what you're up to. Santa will reward your virtuous behaviour. Imagination exists in a separate and alternate universe to reality, so no, it doesn't work if you just imagine you're wearing pants. And that's the essence of it - the quarantining of imagination away from reality creates the superstition that the analysis of imagination's products will somehow drag them into the 'real' universe, thus destroying their impact and wonder. I call this a 'superstition' advisedly. It's emphatically not true on any level. Imagination and reality are not clearly demarcated. They're not, in fact, even securely defined, understood, or satisfactorily proven to exist. Given that, one of the most important duties of an educator of older children is to repair the crude scars of earlier and necessary cognitive training - to re-knit the internal and external worlds of human consciousness once the child has become 'reasonable' enough to make independent (if necessarily arbitrary) distinctions between reality and unreality.

As a part of this attempt, I usually use Moby Dick as an exemplar. Melville's astonishing, enormous epic is usually first encountered as monolithic, intimidating, and practically incomprehensible. Rather like the bible, it hits the reading mind as a gigantic, towering edifice made from whole cloth, impossible to ever completely understand. For some, this is sufficient to make it unreadable, whereas others read it over and over again, trying to parse the deeper hidden messaging which they know, with absolute certainty, must be contained within it. And there is where it usually stops. The outline or shape of the primary concepts of the novel sit in a sort of fuzzy pool in the vague mnemo-cognate we use to have and store vague impressions. To my mind, this is a goddamned tragedy.

When we come to analyse Moby Dick, one of the very first things which happens is that we lose the idea of the text as monolithic - a single object. Its vast scope and incomprehensibly broad range is discovered for what it really is: not a singular vision, but rather a set of deeply fractured and inchoate explorations of distinct ideas. Basically, just like the bible, or a chance-met stranger, closer examination erases the illusion of a consistent and coherent entity. At this point, someone usually interjects with a kind of QED: "See! You've revealed its flaws, which kills it as an experience!", which is of course entirely wrong. Getting to know a text is like getting to know a person (mainly because that's exactly what it is). The better we know someone, the more inconsistencies, blind spots, flaws, and failings we discover. Thing is, though, when it's the right person, these apparent blemishes actually enrich and enliven the experience of that individual. In the same way, understanding Moby Dick's serious structural and conceptual flaws simultaneously reduces it to a manageable size, while elevating it into a pure act of communion. From an intimidating monolith, the story of the white whale becomes a conversation with a human mind. Flawed, certainly, but real and alive. An abstract interlocutor who asks us questions, tells us what it sees, thinks, and feels, and invites us to contemplate the human condition in all its frailty and majesty through the mythical lens of a failed (or not) monster hunt, and a Gilgamesh/Enkidu style platonic love affair.

And then it all becomes stark staringly obvious, in a way. The very famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," tells us straight out that Melville has created a persona with whom the reading mind is invited to converse. About the tenuous frameworks of society, identity, religion, sanity. About the grand narratives of humanity and its troubled relationship with truth and the rest of nature. About whale penises and tobacco smoking. About anything and everything, really. Its greatest flaw is its greatest strength - there really isn't any requirement to experience this text either sequentially or completely. It's discrete sections stand alone in a way that would make a modern publisher despair, and which make the work such an enduringly rewarding companion. In the case of Moby Dick, as in almost all cases, deeper, analytical knowledge does not in any way destroy its 'magic'. What it does do, however, is create the kind of knowledge which is necessary for all genuine bonding with ideas, images, thoughts, and people.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Blackjack And Politics

The best time to grind out a few hands of Blackjack at the casino is a Monday afternoon. This isn't about maths, but people. Blackjack is one of the few games where, with careful play, it's possible to take advantage of a very slight swing in favour of the player. In order for this to happen, however, all players need to co-operate intelligently against the bank. Players who are selfish, ignorant, or both, will make decisions which swing the advantage back to the bank. A good example is when the dealer draws a six or less. In this situation, it's vitally important not to draw picture cards from the deck, as these are needed to help maximise the probability that the dealer will bust. Of course, it's necessary to hedge oneself a little, so it's allowable to hit oneself up to ten, but the common good requires that players do no more than this. Ignoring the table and going for an individual win will usually result in every other player at the table losing. And this in a situation where proper co-operative play would have most likely resulted in everybody winning against the house. This is why Monday afternoons are best - none but seasoned, dedicated players hit the casino on a Monday afternoon.

In western democracies, politics is a game that's quite similar to Blackjack. Sure, the odds seem to be stacked against us, with big money interests and aggressive lobby groups poised to use up all the available oxygen, and legislative systems so opaque that the whole game seems irretrievably rigged in favour of the house. But we see again and again that united popular will can and does beat the bank. Thing is, this can only happen when it's more or less united. When we have a situation where the people are mired in useless garbage - semantic disputes, arguments over statues and holidays, mutual name-calling, and idiotic recrimination - the house will always win. So just like Blackjack, where a responsible player always follows the probability matrix, there are ways to swing the balance of politics back into our favour.

  • Ignorant participation allows interest groups to tailor the narrative to their own narrow requirements. If you're not across an issue, either get across it or shut up. Economics is a good example - hardly anyone understands it, but our insane insistence on talking about it anyway allows governments to fight elections around issues we do not comprehend.
  • Play the long game - sure, it's about self interest, but if we let our neighbour's house catch fire today, there's a good chance ours will go up tomorrow.
  • Default to the equal treatment of all people. Giving groups more rights doesn't destroy functional societies - it's taking them away which does that. 
  • Fear is never the answer. The project of civilisation is inherently unsafe, which means that its survival is dependant on our individual and collective courage.
  • Tribalism is the enemy of democracy. Any political view which isolates any group based on who they are rather than what they do, is almost certainly invalid. 
  • Think. How we feel about something is not a reliable guide to what is right, or even to what is relevant. Politics is neither a sporting fixture nor a soap opera - it's a real life process in which we are duty bound to participate as intelligently and responsibly as we can.
  • No-one can live in a world tailor made for them and them alone. Grow up and make room for other views.
  • Find common ground. Demagogues love division. When the people are polarised, the popular will is atomised, and the bank will always be able to have it all its own way. 
Great experiments of connectivity have always been a bit bamboozling for humanity. It's worth noting that great collapses and wars have tended to happen at our periods of closest interconnection. 1177 BCE, 576, 1913 - moments of broad connection seem to act as the tipping points of history. The internet has created another one right now, and the confronting realisation that the vast majority of people can neither ratiocinate, articulate, or spell, seems to be causing us to shrink from each other - to fragment and fracture apart as quickly as we possibly can. Which is the surest and speediest way to ensure that the house will always, always win.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Sudden Awareness of Statues

I'm used to being the only person who notices statues. Usually I'll be out in a public park somewhere, generally very late at night, and while everyone else is finding places to throw up or urinate, I'll be reading plaques and saying things like, "Who the hell is John Adamson, and why should anyone care?". I still don't know, but what I do know is that nobody I've ever encountered a statue with has ever had the first clue as to who it's for, or why people pay for statues to be put up in the first place.

What this means is that, as usual, the sudden emergence of this 'hot button issue' has caught big sections of the population entirely unprepared. And it's into this gap of understanding that the usual bigots and loonies have flocked, attempting to cast (no pun) the issue as stuff it is emphatically not. From the conservative 'destruction of history' nonsense, to the progressive grievance factory's 'endorsement of crime' polemics, the issue of statues is set to become another battleground for the nation's political soul, only this time potentially without the toxic scrutiny of innocent citizens' lives which comes with the Marriage Equality 'debate'.

So why do statues go up? And how, after a snappy five thousand years of living with and participating in the practice, can we still be as confused about this as we so patently are? The conservatives are right in that the central motivation is a kind of 'public history'. Prominent or otherwise significant figures in the formation of thought or the nation, or whatever, are commemorated in more or less random locations around the city, with little plaques curtly explaining who they are and why we should care. This is indeed a form of concrete (again, no pun) collective memory. But the progressives are also correct in saying that there is an element of morality in memorialisation. The strong implication of a statue is that its subject is someone to be admired - figuratively (because literally) placed on a pedestal. But there are statues of Bligh, Boudica, Napoleon, and other far from unambiguously admirable people, erected much more because the individual in question is considered to be important, rather than actually good. 

And this is really the essence of it. By far the most salient consideration when erecting statues is significance. The nature of the medium is such that fine shades of meaning, complex modes of communication, and so on, are basically impossible. I'm not saying they're not present - the statue of Bligh, for example, is deliberately stumpy, ugly, and truculent in stance. But this kind of fine symbolism is generally lost on the vast majority of the statue-ignoring public, and creators of public monuments must be aware of this general insensibility when it comes to their works. So statues are principally designed to memorialise the 'great' as distinct from the good. And, apart from a few notable exceptions (like Confederate memorials erected at the height of the Civil Rights Movement), in a largely neutral way.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. Should statues of colonialist, racist, or otherwise morally ambiguous figures be allowed to stand? I vote that we ask the children of Syria, or Yemen, or the citizens of Venezuela, or the women of Saudi Arabia - all the people most likely to give us the sensible answer, which is, "Who really gives a toss?". But, failing that, I think it isn't too hard to figure it out for ourselves. If statues are memory and a more or less tacit acceptance of certain values, then we should probably just leave them alone. Because we are generally pretty crap at remembering our past, and as a nation we are, by and large, tacitly accepting of our racist, murderous past. So until and unless those things change, I'd suggest that our current crop of statues is actually exactly representative of who we are. Pulling them down won't erase our deep-seated moral failings. It will only render them invisible.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Buddha, And Why We Can't Have Nice Things

The middle of the first millennium BCE was an amazing period in human history. For reasons nobody can satisfactorily explain, revolutionary advances in ontological and ethical thought suddenly occurred more or less simultaneously all over the world. Socrates in Greece, Confucius in China, and Siddartha Gautama in India, are all examples of this sudden flowering of radical intellectual growth. Some historians push hard for a kind of networked theory, contending that this simultaneity must imply much stronger global connections than current thinking presumes, whereas others ascribe causation to a whole range of historical, personal, and spiritual forces.

Whatever the truth might be, the important thing is that, for whatever reason, this period is characterised by serious and unusually productive contemplation of the perennial question of what it is to be a human, and what might be the best and most ethical way of manifesting this being. For the Buddha, the problem was characteristically simple, but not. The question, as he saw it, was the problem of 'suffering' - how to explain it, how to deal with it, and how to transcend it. It's difficult not to connect this to much later early mediaeval thinking about the problem of evil, and the inescapable conclusion is that the Buddha was in fact contemplating exactly that.

The Buddha's solution was elegant, appealing, and, unsurprisingly, still strongly resonant today. Suffering comes from desire, he says, and the control of desire, coupled with a focus on understanding higher truths, is the only real way to overcome the lacrimae rerum which is the human condition. What really makes the Buddha stand out for me, however, is the fact that essential to this framework was a kind of higher atheism. 'Have and worship no Gods,' says the Buddha on repeated occasions. As I understand it, what he was saying was that dependence on ritual relationships, worship, and the community of religion, were all more or less insidious forms of attachment. In order to transcend suffering, we must also transcend our dependence on supernatural agents, not only as intercessants on our behalf, but as explanation for our plight. Complete intellectual and spiritual independence seems to have been the Buddha's recipe for true connection with a world he very much saw as immanent, and as containing solution and meaning in and of itself.

I'm painfully aware that this is a very complex idea, and that I've possibly made a pig's breakfast of attempting to explain it in a short paragraph. Thing is, though, I'm pretty sure I understand it, regardless of how clumsily I might be expressing it. What's very clear to me, on the other hand, is that practically none of the Buddha's immediate or early followers can say as much.

There are many conflicting and complementary traditions of the Buddha's death, but they all tend to agree on the major points. The great man was dying and, in a manner hauntingly reminiscent of Socrates, used his own personal death as an object lesson in philosophy. He showed them the transcience of the flesh by baring his own withered body. He counselled them yet again to fight their attachment to his person, and to instead listen to his ideas. He forbade them from deifying, enshrining, or worshipping him in any other way. On these points, all the traditions seem to agree. Interestingly, most of them also agree that his last meal was pork. But that's beside the point. The point is that the Buddha was insistent, in his dying moments, that no religion be established around his identity. 'Become a lamp unto yourself,' he is said to have advised.

I imagine his followers nodded sagely, made solemn promises, did their kind best to comfort him in his final moments, this man who neither needed nor wanted comfort. What I know is that everybody knows where the Buddha died because a shrine was almost immediately set up on the spot, and that everyone knows who the Buddha is because of the massive global religion which has been established around his identity. It seems that his ideas were simply a bridge too far. Be kind to others? Certainly. Live a virtuous and moderate life? No problems at all, boss. Transcend suffering and evil by striving constantly for complete mental and spiritual freedom? Um... say again?

It's one of my favourite ironies that the reason I know about the Buddha's atheism and aversion to formal religion, is the de facto deification of his memory by the formal religions created by his followers. For me, this is emblematic of humanity en masse. We are constantly limited by the slowest and silliest among us. No sooner do one or a few of us reach incredible depths of understanding, the very act of communicating those understandings corrupts, dilutes, and normalises them. From Buddhism to Christianity, revolutionary, transcendent ideas have been cut and watered down until they fit the shapes of the societies which adopt them, generally becoming practically unrecognisable in the process. Perhaps there's some comfort in the possibility of this representing a process of incremental progress, but I doubt it. What it most probably represents is the basic impossibility of fracturing permanently away from the community of humanity - a thought which is simultaneously heartening and deeply frustrating.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Moral Courage

Hemingway is an author who seems to attract equal parts love and hate. The hatred of Americans I can understand - schoolchildren of both Canada and the US are repeatedly and consistently bludgeoned with his Nobel Prize winning status, his tortured soul, the luminaries of the Parisian milieu with whom he associated, and, if they're really unlucky, with the technicalities of his theories on the art of writing.

For others, this ambivalence seems to arise from the atavistic masculinity which he projected without necessarily possessing. And it is this question - the conundrum of Hemingway's real character, which concerns me today. Let's leave aside the fact that his writing advice could be copied and pasted into a Lee Child or James Paterson style manual without causing a single comment. That his weird modernistic obsession with form and structure was so easily co-opted by cynical purveyors of trash. That the worshippers at his shrine are made up almost exclusively of people who struggle to conceive of a single original idea, or to construct the shortest of viable sentences. Or the fact that he, like Peter Carey, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, and Graham Greene, smashed into my forming literary consciousness like a revelation of divine grace. Let's leave all that aside and focus on the myth of Hemingway and its feet of clay.

One of Hemingway's biographers pointed to an incident involving, if memory serves, Evelyn Waugh. If not him, then some other writer who saw actual war service, rather than receiving a medal for being randomly shelled at a politically expedient time. This writer, who I'm certain was British, penned an open letter to the great man asserting that, machismo aside, Hemingway lacked that most important of the types of bravery - moral courage. Hemingway, possibly drunk, or possibly simply not understanding, replied with a long letter listing multiple instances of his physical courage. And it's this which leads me to my point.

Moral courage does not consist in doing what is 'right'. Doing what is visibly, palpably, uncontroversially right, basically amounts to that tricky, vainglorious quality we call 'honour'. And honour is a doddle. All we need do to be honourable is to follow a course of publicly approved, widely popular external measures for rectitude, and then spend the rest of our days sneering superciliously at those lesser mortals who have had the misfortune to acquaint themselves with failure. This is emphatically not the essence of moral courage. Moral courage is about doing that which does not publicly or immediately seem to be right, but which we know to be anyway. It's about following through on abstract, and often counterintuitive principles. It's about seeing the picture which lies beyond our individual wants, vanities, and dignity, and doing what is best according to rules which have little or nothing to do with personal satisfaction in one's own virtue.

This is where the grand tourist Hemingway failed. He was incapable of separating real courage from the histrionics of his own personal code. There is a feeling, trembling on the edge of a theory, that the day he put that shotgun under his chin was the day he finally realised the hollowness - the cheap externality - of his own conception of honour. "I can't believe they fell for The Old Man and the Sea," he was reported to have said of his masterpiece. I don't believe there is anything particularly wrong with that book. Except, perhaps, for the self conscious bid for external moral approval which infests almost every sentence. That sense of a man laboriously doing good according to someone else's lights and not his own. The essence, in fact, of the opposite of moral courage.

I am reminded of a story about a sword master who, on being confronted by bandits, was forced to crawl through their legs while being pelted with stones to avoid being killed. After this incident, his students asked him why he had submitted to this humiliation and he said, "I gave them their lives." As a young and angry man, I had always dismissed this story as a tale of cowardice justified through sophistry. It's only recently that I've come to realise that what this story is about is the essence of exactly that kind of courage which Hemingway never managed to achieve.

Almost invariably, the appreciation of moral courage is retrospective. Because the essence of this kind of courage is not in the doing of what is acceptable, but of what is right in spite of all, including the popular, casual, or - most importantly - facile perception of 'right'.