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Monday, 26 March 2018

Some Awkward Personal Sharing. And a PSA.



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

The Delusion of Moments


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.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Robert Frost and Fear of God


One of the nicest surprises about Robert Frost is that he's hilarious. His public poetry readings are at least as funny as any stand up comedy act, where he quietly deprecates the toil of constructing his poetry, and makes light of his often furiously disharmonious relations with other poets, and with the Modernist trend of poetry and society in general. But my favourite surprising thing about Frost is the way he so even-handedly serves both the smug and self-satisfied with pastoral poesy porn, and the thoughtful with dark and poignant truth, at the same time and within the same, single poem.

Frost as an old man would often talk about what was missing in himself. He said he was shy and solitary owing to a "lack of continuity" in himself. A kind of constant discontent and inability to remain "consistently happy". A perennial dissatisfaction, if you like. And as he got older he would muse a great deal about god, especially the concept of the fear of god. I remember a documentary I watched once, where a shot of the great poet throwing apples at a fence with boyish glee suddenly cut to him standing, droop shouldered and forlorn, beside a wheelbarrow full of hay. "I think about the fear of god," he said. "I think about those who died on the battlefield crying out, 'May my sacrifice be worthy of you.' To me, that's the fear of god." And then he stared silently into the camera for a few long seconds, before we cut to him making jokes about Ezra Pound in a great hall, with the kids rolling in the aisles.

What's funny about this is that Frost's poetry indicates a lack of belief in at least any kind of god who is present or active in the world. He never accepted, the way Yeats insistently did, that truth or god or beauty was transcendental in any way. He always insisted that truth was only held in the moment of its construction, and that god simply wan't coming to help. Consider the first stanza of 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.   
The owner of the world the persona finds himself in is absent. He will not see the lone figure stopping to watch the snow fall. This is a constant trope in Frost's poetry – the lone figure, observing, but unobserved by any other intelligent consciousness. Always and again this idea of a solitary person in land owned, but with no owner in evidence – roads, plantations, gardens, mown grass: all shaped landscapes forlorn of their shaper.

There is a sense, sometimes submerged and sometimes more or less open, of a simmering anger at the contented and self-satisfied. The injection of horror and poverty into pastoral idylls in the poems in North of Boston is probably the most open example. We see it in Mending Wall, where musings on the futility of re-building a fence-line every spring give rapid way to a contemplation of Neolithic man murdering his neighbour with an upraised rock. Or in The Tuft of Flowers, and many others, where every instance of pastoral idyll is slyly, unfailingly, tainted with the deathly imagery of scythe and reaper. It's as if Frost, as an observer of humanity, thinks us far too blithe – far too pleased with ourselves – and wishes to remind us of our frailty, our insignificance, and our essential ugliness.

I identify most strongly with Frost on this point. To the lone observer, humanity as a whole seems far too gruntled with its own appearance, powers, opinions, personal truths, and intrinsic significance. Such contentment is as alien to me as it was to Frost. Like all good poets, Frost's effort was at least partly directed at decoding the universe, and in doing so he could see the bald effrontery of human self importance, and the ludicrousness of unreflective happiness in the face of the ordeal of life. The last stanza of Stopping by Woods highlights this with Frost's typically disconcerting bittersweetness.
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.
Put it all together, and Frost tells us what I think we know in our dark, solitary moments to be true, deny it as we might: that it is never time to be entirely pleased with ourselves. There is always work to do, always the fear of the nameless and vast beyond our comprehension to drive us, and miles and miles to go before we can sleep.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Understanding The Art of Travel


Probably the first thing to understand about Alain De Botton's The Art of Travel is that the title has a double meaning. Most students I speak to understand immediately that we're talking about ways to travel well, but very few have realised that the title also refers to that art which has been generated because of and about travel. This somewhat irritating ambiguity continues as a theme throughout the book.

Let's first look at the structure. Ostensibly, this book is divided into a number of sections, each purporting to deal with a certain aspect of travel. From expectations (ultimately disappointed), through liminal places, and ultimately in a kind of full circle back to sitting at home and thinking about travel, we get what appears to be a journey of sorts encoded into the book. More careful consideration, however, reveals that what we're looking at is quite possibly a structure which is mimetic of the 'seven ages of man', with a kind of reflective addendum at the end. Over and above this apparent resonance, the fact of the careful parsing or segmentation of each distinct sub-idea related to travel is reminiscent of philosophical treatises from The Enlightenment onwards. These aspects, combined with a general lack of travel anecdotes, should provide us with our first and most convincing clues that this is not a book about travel, or art.

When we look at the content also, we can see a general trend moving from the human to the divine. We begin with individual imaginings of the exotic with Botton himself, Des Esseintes, Baudelaire, Flaubert, et al, through to more complex understandings of the sublime and of beauty with Humboldt, Ruskin, and Van Gogh. Inserted somewhat weirdly before Wordsworth and other Romantic pursuers of the sublime is a consideration of The Book of Job, dealing with the problem of evil, before the whole thing tails back full circle to De Maistre and his semi-ironic explorations of his bedroom. The real journey here is a mental one. From Des Esseintes, incapable of leaving his native land owing to being a useless effete sack of human garbage, right through to De Maistre, capable of finding wonder behind his own couch, we can see that the book tracks a progress not through geography, but through philosophy.

This is consistent with contextual understandings of what Botton is actually about. He is known the world over as a 'pop philosopher', i.e., someone who reduces and simplifies philosophical work with the intention of making it accessible and usable to all. Leaving aside controversies around whether or not he should be taken to task for failing to credit the work he has so shamelessly ripped off, understanding that this is his overall mission is key to understanding this work within the framework of critical appreciation. Alain de Botton's overarching thesis is as simple as it is saccharine. Put simply, he posits that since so much of the landscape of our reality is 'made' by the process of observing it, then we should therefore take control of this 'making' by being consciously and deliberately alive to the wonder and majesty of the world around us. He argues that consciousness and reality are in fact a mutually performative nexus, in that they create each other, and that control of this nexus is the key to achieving eudaimonea, or human flourishing.

Taken from this point of view, Botton's mode of representation makes a whole lot more sense. His use of guides and images isn't random, but are rather appeals to authority culminating in Ruskin and Van Gogh, the two great visionaries of that process of interacting with and interpreting reality. He presents, in logical form, a progress from the raw instinctive cycle of imaginings of the ideal leading to disappointment, to the high cultivated Epicureanism of actively seeking enjoyment and grace through interaction with the landscape. And he signposts this by referencing people who he feels represent major surges of development in the awareness and manipulation of that relationship between the individual consciousness and reality. Which is all a fancy way of saying that the book proposes that 'life is a journey', and that the best way to undertake it is with as full as possible an awareness of the beauty and wonder which can be observed along the way.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

The New Age Subversion of Warriorhood


Warriors and warrior-hood go back a long way, crossing huge cultural, geographic, and temporal divides. It's arguably a universal feature of complex civilisation, by which I mean that any large and sophisticated society has, somewhere in its past, some sort of comitatus structure in its DNA.

Whether it's the Romans, the Anglo Saxons, Qin, Han, Zhou, Japanese, or Vikings, each one of these civilisations and cultural complexes has, as a major and arguably essential feature of its structural integrity, a wholly committed warrior elite (comitatus). It's not controversial to say that the comitatus structure and culture, whether it be Samurai or Legionaries, was a key part of the aggressive militarisation which enabled early expansion of all the world's current major civilisations, and which has shaped the world we live in today.

And this is the thing which I think has largely been forgotten. The origin and purpose of warriors exists in the service of the state. This might sound an uncomfortable proposition, but is actually reasonably obvious. The absolute loyalty of the warrior in ancient times is always focussed on a single figure: the thane, daimyo, king, or emperor. And in ancient times these people, whoever they were, weren't actually people, but rather living embodiments of part or all of the state. So while it may feel, when we're looking back through time, that what we're seeing is fierce personal and human bonds of loyalty, this isn't a true or complete picture. Warrior-hood, at its deepest, most functional level, exists as the force necessary to maintain and legitimise power, encoded into living, breathing humans.

Concepts as old as this do not, of course, need to be preserved pristine and in their boxes like some man-child's collection of Marvel figurines, but in order to retain any meaning or significance, what cannot be compromised is their core fundamentals. In the case of the concept of warrior-hood, that core centres around selfless service. Which would be why the man bun wearing single origin crystal healing elephant dung version of the warrior ethic makes me so viscerally angry. To be a warrior is emphatically not about making oneself 'better'. It is not about 'fixing' or 'improving' the self as a goal in and of itself. To be a warrior is to negate the self. To live as one already dead. Vanity, self-improvement for its own sake, and wandering around cocking on about being a warrior are no part of actually being a genuine one.

I know many people who say they're living a warrior lifestyle, and some of them actually are. But the vast majority are not - they're simply co-opting a garbled idea of warrior-hood as an excuse to be selfish, or in an attempt to be interesting, but mostly as a pretext for living a life that fails in any way to be of service to anyone other than themselves. We often speak of 'walking the path'. I would suggest that a great many people who claim to be are not - they're stuck in that zone just within sight of the first important step, rendered static by their insistence on striking a warrior pose.