Sunday, 14 May 2017

Empathy is like cholesterol ...

... with a good type and a bad type.
I did a Coursera course on morality by Paul Bloom several years ago, so I was already familiar with his work when I requested 'Against Empathy' from the library. Just to reassure you the book is not an argument for cold hard logic and that human beings should not feel compassion for each other, just that empathy is often not the panacea for decision making (both personal and political) that it is often made out to be. He does say at the beginning that 'Empathy plus reason makes a great combination' is a less snappy and provocative title.

The book lays out definitions and explanations of the role of empathy in human relations, and the way our thinking about empathy is related to our thinking about morality; is it necessary to have empathy to be good, are empathic people 'better' people? In examining its definition he begins to outline what he sees as the weaknesses of empathy as a guide for human action, how it can make us behave morally, but it need not. Here he gives a literary example from The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a character hears the screaming of a suffering animal:

"This has been cited as an example of the moral force of felt experience and the power of empathy. But what does Prendick do? He leaves. He goes for a walk to escape the noise, finds a space in the shade, and takes a nap.
So if vicarious suffering were the sole outcome of empathy, empathy would be mostly useless as a force for helping others. There is almost always an easier way to make your empathic suffering go away than the hard work of making someone else's life better: Turn the page. Look away. Cover your ears. Think of something else. Take a nap." (p.75)

In the next chapter he looks more closely at empathy as something that leads to 'doing good', and how doing good for one person can often ignore the effects it has on others:

"This sort of effect takes us back to the metaphor of empathy as a spotlight. The metaphor captures a feature of empathy that is fans are quick to emphasise - how it makes visible the suffering of others, makes their troubles real, salient, and concrete. From the gloom, something is seen. Someone who believes we wouldn't help if it weren't for empathy might see its spotlight nature as its finest aspect,
But the metaphor also illustrates empathy's weaknesses. A spotlight picks out a certain space to illuminate and leaves the rest in darkness; its focus is narrow. What you see depends on where you choose to point the spotlight, so its focus is vulnerable to your biases.
Empathy is not the only facet of our moral lives that has a spotlight nature. Emotions such as anger, guilt, shame, and gratitude are similar. But not all psychological processes are limited in this way. We can engage in reasoning, including moral reasoning, that is more abstract. We can make decisions based on considerations of costs and benefits or through appealing to general principles. Presumably this is what people who choose not to move Sheri Summers up the list were doing - they weren't zooming in on her, but rather taking a more distanced perspective. Now one might worry that this less emotional perspective is too cold and impersonal - maybe the right metaphor for this type of impartial reasoning is the ugly illumination of florescent light." (p.87)

I ended up feeling as if he made the same argument several times over, phrasing it differently and citing different examples to make very similar points. Sometimes it was also a case of trying to show how non-empathic based decisions are often equally 'moral', as in this example about the arguments over slavery:

"Carlyle has a specific issue in mind, a case where he wanted to ridicule economists for objecting to something that was the subject of considerable feeling and heart, something that Carlyle had defended with great emotion.
What was this issue the economists were being so negative about? Slavery. Carlyle was upset because the economists were against slavery. He argued for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies and was annoyed that the economists railed against it. Think about this when you're tempted to scorn economists and the cool approach they take to human affairs, and when you hear people equating strong feelings with goodness and cold reason with nastiness. in the real world, as we've seen the truth is usually the opposite." (p.112)

He even gets right down to genetics in his argument, explaining how supposed having 'selfish' genes does not mean the same thing as selfish human beings:

"Genes that cause a person to sacrifice his life in order to help three brothers or nine cousins would have an advantage over genes that caused a person to save himself at all costs. The 'goals' of natural selection transcend our bodies. So, strange as it might seem, selfish genes create altruistic animals, motivating kindness towards others." (p.169)

I think he makes a good case for the fact that 'empathy' and 'morality' are often confused in the way people talk and think about human behaviour. So much of what we do, and also how we think about what other people do is dictated by our own perception of situations and behaviours:

"the moralisation gap leads to a natural escalation of reprisals, both at the everyday level - disputes among friends, siblings, spouses - and at the level of international conflict. You do something nasty to me, and this seems so much nastier (more significant, unjustified, just meaner) to me than it does to you. And when I retaliate in what I see as an appropriate and measured way, it seems disproportionate to you, and you respond accordingly, and so on." (p.182)

"It shouldn't be surprising that morality can incite violence. Morality leads to action; it gets you to stick your nose in other people's business. I don't like raisins. But this isn't a moral belief, so it just means that I don't eat raisins; it doesn't motivate me to harass others who behave differently than I do towards raisins. I also don't like murder. But this is a moral belief, so it motivates me to try and stop others from doing this, to encourage the government to punish them, and so on. In this way, moral beliefs motivate action, including violent action." (p.185)

I felt like the book almost became an argument against 'gut reactions' and in favour of reason. Empathy becomes another way of saying that people respond to how they 'feel' about a situation rather than thinking through what might be the best course of action. I don't think that Bloom is arguing that we should not be helping others or responding to emergency situations, but we should be honest about why we do things. Sometimes people respond empathically because it makes them feel better as much as it might be doing good for the person they empathise with. Recently the US dropped bombs on an air base in Syria, and Trump put on a big show of empathising with the victims of the chemical weapons attack; I didn't believe him for a minute, since every one of his other policies shows no interests is helping the victims fleeing the ongoing conflict there. Empathy is something that is so easy to manipulate, to appeal to people's innate empathy to justify policy is just the kind of thing that Bloom is arguing against. The book is an excellent argument for something that in some ways is bleeding obvious: life is mostly much more complicated than it appears and solutions to problems are rarely simple. The same people who donate money to famine relief because they see starving children on the television will often vote for government policies that exacerbate the economic, environmental and political situation that causes the starvation. Empathy so often offers only a short term fix. One last quote, just because he sums up a political dilemma quite neatly. The book is thoughtful, well researched and intelligently argued, certainly well worth a read.

"Unless I'm a member of a tiny powerful community, my beliefs have no effect on the world. This is certainly true as well for my views about the flat tax, global warming, and evolution. They don't have to be grounded in truth, because the truth value doesn't have any effect on my life.
I am unhappy making this argument, because my own moral commitments lean me towards the perspective that it's important to try to be right about issues even if they don't matter in a practical sense. I would be horrified if one of my sons thought that our ancestors rode dinosaurs, even though I can't think of a view that matters less for everyday life. I would feel similarly if he supported ridiculous claims as true just because they fit his political ideology. We should try to believe true things.
But that's just me. Others see things differently. My point is just that the failure of people to attend to data in the political domain does not reflect a limitation of their capacity for reason. It reflects how most people make sense of politics. They don't care about truth because, for them, it's not really about truth." (p.237)

Briefly, two readathon books

I picked up '38 Bahadurabad' by Zeeba Sadiq completely at random at E.J. Morton in Didsbury and was utterly entranced by it. It tells the story of a young girl, Zeebande, growing up in Pakistan in the 1960s. Much of it concerns her relationship with her beloved father, though the cast of family and friends is quite extensive. What is so engaging is the everydayness of the incidents that she recounts, you get such a vivid picture of what their life is like; there is a wonderful contrast of closely observed details and naive childlike impressions and thoughts. Here Bashi Mamoo comes around to take tea with the ladies:

"Bashi moved towards the doctor, hand outstretched, as Zeebande fell into line behind him, aping his curious gait, his spine arched backwards like a pregnant woman, his two huge feet set at a permanent ten to two angle. Lax, who had been alerted by the child's shrieks of delight, pretended not to notice and scuttled to the kitchen to make tea. The doctor chuckled.
Bashi was in every way an enigma to Zeebande, a story-book character. He wasn't family that she was aware of, and he had no family of his own. She didn't know where he lived, though she knew that there was an open invitation for him to join them at Bahadurabad, and she could never place the strange idiom in which he spoke, part Urdu, part Persian, and part a language that appeared to be of his own invention.
He was odd-looking, of indeterminate age, though his permanent grey five o'clock shadow suggested that he was nearer her father's age than her mother's. His nose started orthodoxly at the eyeline before flowering into a bulbous tip that very nearly reached to his upper lip. At a 45 degree angle to this nose a biri would invariably be perched between his lips, though seldom lit, and an antique pair of glasses balanced improbably on the nose, one arm long since broken and replaced by a sturdy elastic band that he somehow managed to manoeuvre round his right ear. Bashi Mamoo always wore pyjamas, ill-fitting and hoisted a good four inches above his ankles, and a long white shirt guarded by two sturdy waistcoats. It is entirely conceivable that Bashi's unorthodox walk was a counter to the weight contained in the pockets and lining of those waistcoats, for they accommodated a veritable warehouse of watches, lighters, pens, cigarette holders and rings that he hawked around the streets of the city each day. An additional array of watches was always hidden under the long loose sleeves of his shirt. 'These are my bread and butter,' he used to tell Zeebande as she gazed wide-eyes at this mobile market stall.
'Can I have tea too?' Zeebande asked ten minutes later as Laxmi poured from the delicate china pot.
'You don't like tea, beti,' her Nani interrupted as she stirred sugar into her own cup.
'I do today,' the child countered cussedly, knowing that she would get her way." (p.82-3)


I am not sure, like with 'Good Omens', that there is much to say about 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman that has not be opined elsewhere. Two very unpleasant murderers are on the trail of a young woman called Door, and when she falls on the pavement at Richard Mayhew's feet he obeys his first instinct which is to help her. He comes to regret this in more ways that you can at first imagine. He finds his life rapidly spiralling out of control, or rather just disappearing, and he is obliged in his turn take refuge in a world below the streets of London of which he was hitherto unaware. While there is a dastardly plot afoot I felt it takes second place to the sheer inventiveness of the environment that he has created, peopled with a cast of characters that are quite literally London's landmarks brought to life.

Here is Richard, finding something to eat at the Floating Market:

"Another whiff of cooking food wafted across the floor, and Richard, who had managed to forget how hungry he was ever since he had declined the prime cut of roast cat - he could not think how many hours before - now found his mouth watering, and his thinking processes beginning to grind to a halt.
The iron-haired woman running the next food stall he came to did not reach to Richard's waist. When Richard tried to talk to her, she shook her head, drew a finger across her lips. she could no talk, or did not talk, or did not want to talk. Richard found himself conducting the negotiations for a cottage-cheese and lettuce sandwich, and a cup of what looked and smelled like a form of home-brewed lemonade, in dumb show. His food cost him a ballpoint pen, and a book of matches he had forgotten he had. The little woman must have felt that she had got by far the better of the deal, for, as he took his food, she threw in a couple of small nutty biscuits.
Richard stood in the middle of the throng, listening to the music - someone was, for no reason that Richard could easily discern, singing the lyrics of 'Greensleeves' to the tune of 'Yakkety-Yak' - watching the bizarre bazaar unfold around him, and eating his sandwiches." (p.112-3)

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Gustav Sonta

The pleasure of the Readathon is taking in a book all in one go, and it was particularly lovely with 'The Gustav Sonata' by Rose Tremain, that I picked up from the library the other day. It tells the story of Gustav and Anton and a friendship that endures the years and the separations, but also touches on the wartime position of neutral Switzerland and what happened to Gustav's father, a local police chief who finds himself breaking an official edict about the entry of Jews from Austria. 

Gustav's stoicism helps Anton when they meet in kindergarten and they form a close bond, with Anton's affluent family providing Gustav with the small joys that soften the edges of his harsh and neglected home life. Here they discuss Anton's prospective concert pianist future:

"'How does she know?'
'Because I'm a "prodigy". That means I'm more brilliant at playing than almost everyone else my age. By the time I get to eighteen, I could be performing in huge concerts in Paris and Geneva and New York. You see?'
'Huge concerts?'
'Sure, Even at our age, my mother says, we have to think about what we're going to do later in our lives. What are you going to do Gustav?'
Gustav turned his face away. Into his mind came the image of himself, on his hands and knees, in the Church of Sankt Johann, searching for pitiful 'treasure' under the metal grating. And it was easy to project this forward into the future - as though there were no future for him, but only this: a man crawling along, growing older year by year, searching for things which other people had cast aside.
'I don't know what I'm going to do,' he said." (p.56)

But Gustav's quiet acceptance of life stands him in good stead and he forges a life for himself that is steady and contented. He struggles to gain the love of his mother but finds solace in friendships that he finds along the way. I liked the philosophical approach of this hotel guest:

"Gustav asked, 'What is gin rummy, Colonel?'
'Oh, yes,' said the colonel, 'I stupidly forgot that it isn't universal, because it's always seemed so universal to me. It's a card game. Fairly simple, yet with a little skill attached to it, but without the need for perpetual vigilance, as in bridge. Bee and I used to play three or four times a week for years and years. It's a game that calms your nerves. I would even go so far as to suggest that it may help regulate a human life, and make what is unbearable easier to be borne. And now I have no one to play with.'
'We play an obscure card game in Switzerland called Jass,' said Gustav. 'The cards are decorated and complex. The scoring is difficult. Perhaps, while you're here, you could teach me gin rummy, Colonel? Once the dinner is complete, I have very little to do, except make the rounds of the hotel before I go to bed. I would be delighted to learn.'
'Would you really?' said Ashley-Norton. 'That's very decent of you. None of my friends in England wanted to stand in. they thought gin rummy was an infernal waste of time. I said to them, "That's the whole point of it. Wasting time changes the nature of time. And the heart is stilled." But nobody paid me any bloody attention.'" (p.166-7)

It is the colonel's story of his war experience that leads Gustav to seek out answers about his father's apparent fall from grace and sudden death. If Gustav is somehow representative of the self-contained and inward looking nature of Switzerland the analogy diverges as his investigation leads him to learn new things about himself too.  Anton's more turbulent life causes him more troubles, but it is his bond with Gustav that brings him back from the edge. The person I most found myself sympathising with however was Gustav's mother Emilie Perle, who's disappointed desires taint her whole life. I very much enjoyed entering into the small lives of the characters in this story; it is often small lives that feel more real and relatable.

The morning after the night before


It's 7.37am. 
Cups of tea count : 7ish
Pages read : lots
Books finished : 3
Walks round the block : 3
Hours slept : none 
Neverwhere is growing on me, I am now at page 211. Dunk came down about 6.30 and made me a hot cuppa; I have mostly made and then forgotten to pour them all night. Monkey has made slow progress with Foundation having dozed on and off for a couple of hours, but has reached page 133. 
We are in the home stretch now.
11.23am. We finished our books simultaneously a few minutes ago, both satisfied with the outcome. Neverwhere 372 pages
Foundation 234 pages
Pizza all gone, fruit all gone but there is cake left.
I think I've had enough tea now ... to last me until next week (or till tea time, whichever is sooner)

1.00pm
We fizzled to a stop in the last half and hour and chatted, but we made it to the end, and this has been my first Readathon where I stayed awake for 24 hours. Time for sleep now I think.
Final totals 
Me: 853 pages
Monkey : 702 pages
Tish : 144 pages

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Readathon April 2017

Happy Readathon Day
We started the day a little early so are already making good progress. Monkey is enjoying the delights of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and has read 177 pages.
I have started with The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain and am at page 138.
Cups of tea count: 3
We have a healthy selection of roasted nuts and dried fruit to help us through the early stages. 
Over at Outlandish Lit Julieanne is currently running a challenge to draw a book cover from memory.
See you later for updates.
7.15pm. After a little coaxing we have been joined by Tish, who is reading The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Ran Away by Jonas Jonasson and has reached page 82. Monkey has read 282 pages of Good Omens and I have just finished The Gustav Sonata, at 240 pages, giving us a grand total so far of 604 pages read. I have ordered the pizza so we are all set for a few more hours.
11.30pm We had cake and then Monkey and I went for a little walk around the block to refresh ourselves.Tish went off to bed after 144 pages. Monkey has finished Good Omens at 404 pages and is now starting Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I read a bit of Eileen Myles 'I must be living twice' but found her poems a bit aimlessly meandering. I read 47 pages of George Monbiot's 'How Did We Get Into This Mess?', articles from the Guardian, published by Verso Books. I am currently giving 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman an hour but am not sure about it yet (72 pages).
2.50am Monkey is snoozing. I have been reading '38 Bahadurabad' by Zeeba Sadiq (132 pages). Having spent that last couple of hours reading through her eccentric childhood and becoming enamoured of this wild and passionate child I find myself saddened to discover that she died in August 2010.


Friday, 28 April 2017

Biannual snooze on the sofa day

Life potters on, we read, and make stuff, and occasionally go to work. I took a brief break from the crochet granny squares (which are coming along pretty well),
to make a pair of socks,
and then another Shalom cardigan
I made one for mum quite a few years ago, and decided that an upcoming family wedding was an excellent excuse to make on for myself to go with my yellow Gudrun dress. Unfortunately I didn't order enough yarn ... oh what a pity, another visit to Black Sheep will be necessary.

Tomorrow sees Monkey and I settling down on the sofa for the Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon. We have been partaking in this for several years, and although we invariably do have a nap at some point we have cake and snacks to sustain us through the wee small hours. It feels wrong that we need an excuse to just read all day. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Birdcage Walk

'Birdcage Walk' by Helen Dunmore. I like Helen Dunmore, and I enjoyed this book, but do not find anything much to say about it. It is basically the story of an abusive relationship, but set at the time of the French Revolution. The heroine Lizzie has been bought up by her ferociously political mother with whom she has a close bond, but against whom she has rebelled by marrying Diner Tredevant, a local property developer. Against the background of european political upheaval her mother has a second child, and the relationship with her husband becomes steadily more disturbing as the truth about the fate of his first wife gradually emerges. It has an excellent build up of tension and menace, but the ending was too neat to be truly satisfying. 

Here Lizzie watches her husband from inside the darkness of their house:

"But he did not see me. He turned towards me, but i am sure he did not see me. The moonlight lay faint and blue and init I saw his face. It was not distinct: I could not see any feature. He looked up, and seemed to be scanning along the terrace, searching for something in the jagged half-built outline. It seemed as if his eyes passed over me and my heart thudded again.
His hands were clasped behind his back and he stood for a long time, unmoving. It gained on me that he was not looking at the terrace. There was something else, something I could not see.
At last he moved. He stepped away to the edge of the pavement, and disappeared. He was climbing down the steps that led to the track which was not yet a road. He would be hidden from me by the height of the pavement, and then he would reappear.
Sure enough, he did. He was on the turf now, and walking towards the edge of the Gorge. Moonlight showed the clear outline of his body as he moved. He looked smaller that I had ever imagined him. I must not blink in case the Gorge swallowed him as I might swallow the night air in my breath. But even though I watched and kept in watching, he vanished." (p.118)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The world is teeming, anything can happen

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has been a mammoth read, at 866 pages, but very much worth the effort. The story follows Ferguson (referred to by his surname throughout for some reason) through four different versions of his life, its changes shifted by small incidents that affect the course of events, finding some things wildly different and others immutable, like his relationship with Amy Schneiderman. He becomes a writer in each of the stories, but writes different things; in one poetry, in another fiction and another journalism. It seems quite common for authors to write stories about people who are writers, not just because it is familiar to them but I suppose because most jobs are mundane, routine and separate from your everyday life and therefore to include them in a novel would be tedious. Our hero Ferguson is born in 1947, the same year as Paul Auster himself, so I assumed there is some element of nostalgia, if not autobiography going on. I felt that the book was also an excuse to write about that turbulent period in America's history, the prosperity of the 50s and the political strife of the 60s. In one story he is in the thick of the political protest and in another a more dispassionate observer. Like John in 'Prayer for Owen Meaney' Ferguson is saved from the Vietnam draft in one story by the loss of a finger in an accident. It is another book that is very much about relationships; some are solid throughout the book, like his friendship with Noah, others are more and less involved, like with his aunt Mildred. The bond with Amy takes many forms, in one they have a long intense relationship, in another they become step-siblings, but she is there throughout his life as the person he loves. 

His childhood summers are spent away at camp, where he forms a bond with a boy called Artie, who's sudden death has a huge impact in one story.

"Noah suddenly butted in. Boys, boys, he said, speaking in a deep, early funny Father-knows-best voice, stop this senseless quarrelling at once. We all know who the best centre fielder is, don't we? Ferguson and Dubinsky both turned and looked at Noah, who was lying on his bed with his elbow on the pillow and his head propped up on his hand. Dubinsky said: All right Harpo, let's hear it - but it better be the right answer. Now that he had their attention, Noah paused for a moment and smiled, a goofy yet inordinately beatific smile that lodged itself in Ferguson's memory and was never lost, recalled again and again as he passed from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, a lightening bolt of pure, wild-eyed whimsy that revealed the true heart of the nine-year-old Noah Marx for the second or two it lasted, and then Noah ended the confrontation be saying: I am." (Part 1.4 p.102)

Here he loses an early girlfriend, taken back to Europe by her parents. This quote is included for Monkey, because of the mention of the Belgian girl, because this was the unofficial name of the character she portrayed in the production of Hansel and Gretel at the Edinburgh Fringe

"He saw her only once after that, a farewell date on Wednesday, an exceptional school-night outing that his mother allowed because she knew how important it was to him, even giving him extra money for cab fare (the first and only time it ever happened), so that he and his Belgian girl would not have to endure the humiliation of being chauffeured around by one of his parents, which would only have underscored how young he was, and since when had anyone that young ever been seriously in love?" (Part 2.1 p.132)

Ferguson and Amy:

"Nevertheless, for all the things they did and all the things they saw, the best part of those Saturdays was sitting in coffee shops and talking, the first round of the ongoing dialogue that would continue for years, conversations that sometimes turned into fierce spats when their opinions differed, the good or bad film they had just seen, the good or bad political idea one of them had just expressed, but Ferguson didn't mind with her, he had no interest in pushovers, the pouting, nincompoop girls who wanted only what they imagined to be the formalities of love, this was real love, complex and deep and pliable enough to allow for passionate discord, and how could he not lover this girl, with her relentless, probing gaze and immense, booming laugh, the high-strung and fearless Amy Schneiderman, who one day was going to be a war correspondent or a revolutionary or a doctor who worked among the poor. She was sixteen years old, pushing towards seventeen. The blank slate was no longer entirely blank, but she was still young enough to know she could rub out the words she had already written, rub them out and start again whenever the spirit moved her." (Part 2.1 p.142-3)

On being Jewish, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it affects him. Here his friend has asked him if he celebrates Thanksgiving:

"Ferguson was so bewildered by Dougie's comment that he didn't know what to say. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might not be an American, or, more precisely, that his way of being an American was any less authentic than the way Dougie and the other boys were American, but that was what his friend seemed to be asserting: that there was a different between them, an elusive, indefinable quality that had to do with black-hatted English ancestors and the length of time spent on this side of the ocean and the money to live in four-story townhouses on the Upper East Side that made some families more American than others, and in the end the difference was so great that the less American families could barely be considered American at all." (Part 2.3 p.188)

I love the way books so often recommend other books. The post title comes from John Cage's book 'Silence', given to Ferguson by a fellow Princeton student, I cannot imagine a higher recommendation for a book:

"when Ron learned that their new friend from the Jersey swamps had never read a word of Cage's writing, he jumped to his feet, walked over to the bookcase, and pulled out a hardcover copy of Silence. You have to read this Archie, he said, or else you'll never learn how to think about anything except what other people want you to think." (p.594) 

The good thing about a long book is the chance to become thoroughly engaged with the character's lives and this book taxes the reader just a little by shifting their lives and relationships, showing how people's strengths and weaknesses change with their experiences. Having said that, although I enjoyed 4 3 2 1, I preferred Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' which does the same thing to completely different effect. I was also left with one question, why do male writers find it necessary to mention to size of a woman's breasts? He did it enough times for me to remark on and be irritated by it.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

acquiescence and compromise

I am not sure if the emotional intensity of Elizabeth Smart's 'By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept' was spoiled by reading it three pages at a time with my breakfast. This is definitely poetry, for all that it appears to have chapters and some minor narrative progress. The book is an internal monologue charting the highs and lows of the early years of her love affair with poet George Barker. It seems the most surreal of ideas to fall in love with someone's writing and for that to become a real tangible attachment to the person. We don't learn anything about George from the book, but his Wikipedia page says he had fifteen children with an unmentioned number of women, including Elizabeth and his two wives, and the two descriptive words 'catholic' and 'bohemian' seems somewhat contradictory. But the book is not about him, it is about love itself, and the power it has over those possessed by it. Prepare for a small cascade of quotations.

Her thoughts on their first few days together:

"So we drive along the Californian coast singing together, and I entirely renounce him for only her peace of mind. The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives.
Who do I not jump off this cliff where I lie sickened by the moon? I know these days are offering me only murder for my future. It is not just the creeping fingers of the cold that dissuade me from action, and allow me to accept the hypocritical hope that there may be some solution. Like Macbeth, I keep remembering that I am their host. So it is tomorrow's breakfast rather than the future's blood that dictates fatal forbearance. Nature, perpetual whore, distracts with the immediate. Shifty-eyed with this fallacy, I plough back to my bed, up through the tickling grass." (p.18)

After the first time they make love:

"Gently the wood sorrel and the dove explained the confirmation and guided my return. When I came out of the woods onto the hill, I had pine needles in my hair for a bridalwreath, and the sea and the sky and the gold hills smiled benignly. Jupiter has been with Leda, I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars." (p.25)

Contemplating the feelings of Barker's wife Jessica:

"But the gentle flowers, able to die unceremoniously, remind me of her grief whose tears drown all ghosts, and though I swing in torture from the windiest hill, more angels weep for her whose devastated love runs into all the oceans of the world.
What did she cherish as her symbol, and how did she protect herself from panic when her ship pursued the month's-old storm, and she fought the cancer which was her knowing grief for her lost child? I have broken her heart like a robin's egg. Its wreck reaches her finite horizon." (p.35)

When they are arrested (for crossing the state line for immoral purposes):

"But you care about justice, inspector, or you wouldn't be where you are?
I don't make the laws, he said, it isn't up to me, I have no authority. He smiled, but he was afraid of his smile and went away with a thin-lipped man and read the letters we had written.
They're only literary letters, I said, about things we both liked.
But you're a Communist? he said.
No.
But you've taken part in Communist activities?
No.
You have friends who are Communists?
Not more than other sorts.
He repented his smile and was severe in result. The thin-lipped man was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire. He sneaked through the streets at dusk to warn the hotel.
The two policemen who had arrested us and brought us over the deserts together on a bench, like minor schoolboys, washed and brushed and well-behaved, to return to their wives and calm households and their suppers, while we hurtled through confusion into tragedy because of their caprice on the Arizona border." (p.50-1)

On the disapproval of her mother:

"Then my mother's clutch held me every way, with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism, and made me long for my annihilation. Can even Freud explain the terror of that clutch, the inescapability of its greed for authority, and why it was stronger than the North East wind, memory, reason, or Pre-Cambrian rock?" (p.66)

On being apart:

"Philosophy, like lichens, takes centuries to grow and is always ignored in the Book of Instructions. If you can't Take It, Get Out.
I can't take it, so I lie on the hotel bed dissolving into chemicals whose adventure will pursue time to her extinguishment, without the slightest influence from these few years when I held them together in human passion." (p.84)

Weeping at Grand Central Station:

"But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to shreds, seeking escape on every impossible side? The senses deliver the unbearable into sleep, and it ceases, except that it appears gruesomely at the edges of my dreams, making ghastly signals which wear away peace, but which I cannot understand.
The pain was unbearable, but I did not want it to end: it had operate grandeur. It lit up Grand Central Station like a Judgement Day. It was more iron-muscled than Samson in his moment of revelation. It might have shown me all Dante's dream. But there was no way to endure." (p.103-4)

It is like a greek tragedy, such melodrama, I found myself lurching between sympathising and wanting to tell her to pull herself together. If she was your best friend you would warn her that she was wasting her life on him. I loved the fact that she relishes every moment of what she is experiencing, the good and the bad, almost basking in the heat of the emotions; as she says in the quote above, she does not want it to end, like exquisite misery. I think I was more taken with the miserable passages than the besotted ones, maybe I'm just old and cynical now. As I said you get nothing about George, so I was left to wonder what it was that she loved about him, the book does not even tell you that, it is as if the love is all inside her head and has little to do with the human being he is. I think it would be better read in one sitting, and at just over 100 pages it would only be an afternoon. This book was written during the war and was relative unknown for many years. She went back to creative writing much later in her life after rising her children alone, she sounds like a fascinating woman and certainly someone to read more of.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

a duck-fart in a hurrycane

'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell has been sitting around the living room for quite a while; what an utterly brilliant book. Not one story but six, linked by slightly intangible factors that come together as the pages pass. I confess I had all but forgotten the first story by the time we finally returned to it, but that's almost the strength of the book that he manages to get the reader completely engaged with each narrative so quickly. There are six stories: a lawyer takes a sea voyage in 1850 across the Pacific, letters to a friend by a young man in the home of a reclusive composer in Belgium in the 1930s, a young woman investigating corruption and safety at a nuclear power plant, a middle aged publisher ends up in a rather scary retirement home to escape the attentions of some small time criminals, a corporate Korean 'brave new world' where fabricated humans do all the drudge work on the promise of a Hawaiian retirement, and a post-apocalyptic future where humans live a nasty, brutish and short life and the heroine of the previous tale is worshipped as a god. When we reach the last story the book then dives backwards through the others, picking each one up where they were abandoned (sometimes mid sentence) and bringing each to their (somewhat) satisfactory conclusion. 

I found the book satisfying because it made an interesting point about stories, about how real they can feel when you are in them, but then from one step removed you suddenly realise they are just stories, and that the history of human beings is just layers and layers of stories. Wanting to be remembered or whatever by history is pointless because no matter how big your impact or your contribution, one day you will just be a story. I didn't write many quotes down, which is usually a sign that I am embroiled in the narrative. Each story was so unique, but it was not like a series of short stories, the links were subtle but they were important enough to make the book a complete whole.

"To men like Ayres, it occurs to me, this temple if civilization. The masses, slaves, peasants and foot-soldiers exist in the cracks of its flagstones, ignorant even of their ignorance. Not so the great statesmen, scientists, artists and, most of all, the composers of the age, any age, who are civilization's architects, masons and priests. Ayres sees our role is to make civilization ever more resplendent. My employer's profoundest, or only, wish is to create a minaret that inheritors of Progress a thousand years from now will point to and say, 'Look, there is Vyvyan Ayres!'
How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes because winter is eternal and because if one didn't, the wolves and blizzards would be at one's throat all the sooner.
Sincerely,
R.F." (p.82 Letters from Zedelghem)

In the far distant future the world has returned to ignorance and superstition, lacking knowledge and technology, the people in awe of the Prescients who arrive periodically by boat to trade. In this central story Zachry goes on a journey up the mountain with the visitor Meronym. Here they discuss what will happen when they reach their destination and his fears of a mythical figure of Old Georgie, and the reader is left in no doubt that their history contains some cataclysmic events that have wiped out the relevance of all previous lives. I find it is often the case that fiction about the future is laced with not so subtle messages about what humans are doing to their world. I liked the style in this story; the notion of what it might be like to write down speech for a culture that was no longer literate and so had lost formal conventions of spelling and grammar:

"Meronym said the weather was way more scaresome to her.
I spoke my mind: You don't b'lief he's real, do you?
Meronym said Old Georgie weren't real for her, nay, but he could still be real for me.
Then who, asked I, tripped the Fall if it weren't Old Georgie?
Eery birds I din't knowed yibbered news in the dark for a beat or two. The Prescient answered, Old'uns tripped their own Fall.
O, her words was a rope o' smoke. But Old'uns'd for the Smart!
I mem'ry she answered, Yay, Old'uns' smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an' made miracles ord'nary, but it din't master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o' humans, yay, a hunger for more.
More what? I asked. Old'uns'd got ev'rythin'.
O, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay. Now the Hole World is big but it weren't big 'nuff for that hunger what made Old'uns rip out the skies an' boil up the seas an' poison soil with crazed atoms an' donkey 'bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an' babbits was freakbirthed. Fin'ly, bit'ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar'bric tribes an' the Civ'lize Days ended, 'cept for a few folds'n'pockets here'n'there, where its last embers glimmer.
I asked why Meronym'd never spoke this yarnin' in the Valleys
Valleymen'd not want to hear, she answered, that human hunger birthed the Civ'lize, but human hunger killed it too. I know it from other tribes offland what I stayed with. Times are you say a person's b'liefs ain't true, they think you're sayin' their lifes ain't true an' their truth ain't true.
Yay, she was prob'ly right." (p.286-7 Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After)

Even though things worked out for our characters I was left with the idea that we are all, in the grand scale of things, duck-farts in a hurrycane.



Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Mathematical Poetry

In celebration of the United Nations World Poetry Day I give you (partly for Monkey who is a fan) PI by Wislawa Szymborska:

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
the pageant of digits comprising pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief - a mouse tail, a pigtail - is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurements two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
to continue.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pandiagonal magic squares

The last week started on Monday evening with Simon Armitage (cool portrait on his website, do go and see), a Manchester Literature Festival event to launch his new collection 'The Unaccompanied'. Julie and I have seen him several times before and it was an excellent and entertaining evening, where I resisted buying the book. 

Monkey and I have been hard at work learning the capital cities of the world, so she made me a birthday cake with a map on it; she was disappointed to be unable to fit in Greenland once America was stuck on, but Africa is excellent. There were candles to mark specific capitals that I mainly failed to get right.
Then we did a charity shop trawl around Chorlton and came home with quite a substantial pile of books. I am particularly pleased with Paul Auster's New York Trilogy and Sebastian Barry. Candide and the two Asimov are for Monkey, and Ulysses is just to sit on the shelf for that moment when I feel inspired to tackle something hard.


Today Julie took me out to Elizabeth Gaskell's House to see a performance called 'Exploding Women', part of the Manchester Histories Festival, produced by the dynamic duo LipService Theatre. The show presented the chequered history of Manchester women of science, including Caroline Birley, Marie Stopes, Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker and Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw (The pandiagonal magic squares are one of Kathleen Ollerenshaw's significant contributions to mathematics.) We also had an interesting conversation with one of the volunteers at the house, about Mrs Gaskell's friendship with Charlotte Bronté, and, after my unexpected enjoyment of Emily Dickinson's biography this time last year, I am definitely inspired to read her biography of Charlotte. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The General and the Guest

Tish, Monkey and I descended on London yesterday with a couple of hundred thousand other people to protest the destruction of the NHS. In its nearly 70 years the National Health Service has provided cradle to grave care for the people of Britain; it is a straightforward redistribution of resources that allows ordinary people to go through life without the threat of ill health and destitution hanging over them. It seems bloody obvious that it has been a huge benefit to both the people and the economy of this country but its systematic dismantling by successive governments in recent years has slowly undermined the founding principles. Nye Bevan must be spinning in his grave.

It was a long coach ride there and back again, and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is a very heavy book that I didn't want to carry around with me all day, so I found 'Embers' by Sándor Márai on the TBR shelf and had consumed it by the time we got home. A Hungarian writer who moved the America in 1948 his work has not been translated until much more recently. 'Embers' is the story of two men, Henrik and Konrad, one the wealthy son of the Officer of the Guards, the other the son a Spanish Baron reduced to penury to support his son's education. A friendship forged in military school becomes a lifelong bond, broken, some 41 years before this tale unfolds, by Konrad's abrupt disappearance. The aged General sends the carriage for his oldest friend and they dine together one last time as blue candles burn down, flickering light on the room that is untouched since their previous meal in the company of Krisztina. 

This is a beautiful, intimate book about a friendship, but also about friendship itself, that the General talks about at length. Mostly the General talks, I did not feel that we got to know his Guest much at all, he says very little, but partly he is there so that the General can talk, can expunge the memory of their parting and its consequences. Set in the early years of the Second World War, that is barely mentioned, the book portrays the dying of their era, the end of the way of life that the aristocracy had entertained unchanged for centuries, a life where honour and duty are the guiding principles. The writing in the book captures this era so well, you can almost hear the crunch of the carriage wheels and feel the chill from the abandoned rooms in the neglected castle:

"He got to his feet and stood in front of the sway-bellied white porcelain stove that had once warmed his mother's bedroom. It was a large stove, at least a century old, and it radiated heat like some indolent corpulent gentleman intent on mitigating his own egoism with an easy act of charity." (p.21)  

I loved this piece that felt like a critique of the British; Konrad describing what happens to people when they live 'in the tropics':

"The English know how to defend themselves. They arrive with England in their suitcases. Their courteous arrogance. Their reserve. Their golf courses and tennis courts. Their whiskey. Their evening dress, that they change into every night in their tin-roofed houses out in the middle of the swamps. Not all of them, of course. That's just a legend. Most of them turn brutal after four or five years just like the others, the Belgians, the French, the Dutch. The tropics eat away their college manners the way leprosy eats away skin. Oxford and Cambridge rot down. Back home in the British Isles, everyone who has spent time in the tropics is suspect. They may be respected and honoured, but they are also suspect. I'm convinced that their entries in the security files are annotated with the word 'tropics', the way others would be stamped 'blood disease' or 'spying'." (p.94-5)

After a lot of circling round and reminiscing we finally we get to the issue in hand; Krisztina, the General's wife. I think he is a writer of his era, because he 'others' women, they are not the same as men, virtually another species. He repeatedly talks about how only men understand and experience true friendship. And his wife is this 'thing' that he has. He protests as length that he is not interested in knowing about the nature of their betrayal, but the more he goes on about it the more you know that it does matter to him, even now they are old and Krisztina is long dead. It is as if he knows nothing about women, so he cannot write about her, and as so often in this kind of book she is merely a symbol. It is what it is, and as a reader I think you have to read books within the context of when they were written. But I think that the General does not see that the pride and arrogance that are his inheritance caused his reaction to the betrayal and led to the wasted life he has passed, waiting to get his revenge.

"And I know Krisztina's days and nights, her body and soul, as well as I know my own. It's a crazy notion, that you and Krisztina ... and I am almost relieved when I make myself examine this notion. It must be something else. Whatever happened is deeper, more mysterious, less comprehensible. I have to talk to you. Should I have someone observe you? Like the jealous husband in a comedy? I am not a jealous husband. Suspicion has trouble taking hold in my nervous system, I am calm when I think about Krisztina, whom I found the way a collector finds the prize of his life, the rarest, most perfect object in his collection, the masterpiece, the goal, the meaning of his existence. Krisztina does not lie, Krisztina is not unfaithful, I know all her thoughts, even the secret ones that are thought only in dreams." (p.184-5)

Like 'Expensive People' it is just one side, we never know what Konrad and, much less, Krisztina were thinking and feeling. The General does not even know what it is that he wants. In the moment of betrayal he lost the two people he loved the most. He missed them and longed for them all the rest of his life. It is almost as if he just needed his Guest to listen to the story. Sometimes there can be neither forgiveness nor revenge, there is just the story.


Expensive People

'Expensive People' by Joyce Carol Oates has been my breakfast book for a month or two, slow going for such a tiny book. I don't have many books so yellowed, desiccated and disintegrating with age, and only costing 35p (when this edition was published in 1972). It reminded me somewhat of Lolita, a narrator telling their story, one side of the events, their own particular interpretation of the events, and even more unreliable because this narrator is a child, trying to make sense of life and utterly failing. It is also the tale of the parent/child relationship from the point of view of the child, the story of what happens when a child cannot rely on their parents.

Richard likes to spy on his parents; he sits on the landing and listens to their rows, their conversations, their telephone calls, their comings and goings, this is the crux of the story:

"I'll tell you about it: years of anguished, guilty spying. I had to spy - how else could I have known what life was, or who they were, my parents, what they were? So I spied and I learned and I tabulated, calculated, speculated. But at these special times when we were together I thought that i had somehow, magically, captured a man and a woman from another land, foreign and exotic and not quite speaking my language, who were tamed by my power and love and who walked obediently after me, robust and comely and healthy as horses. Such fine horses! These were my true parents. The others - the dissatisfied Natashya Romanov, minor writer, and blubbering breast-beating executive Elwood Everett - were nothing but cruel step-parents." (p.20-1)

He informs us on the first page that he is a murderer. For a while I expected it to develop into more of a mystery, but it is the story of his childhood, the petty traumas and the more significant ones, that drive him to this one dreadful act. It is his explanation, his justification for it, and he is asking the reader (whom he addresses directly) to act as his judge and jury. 

While it is both his parents that he watches, it is Nada, his mother who draws the utmost devotion, she is this strange misunderstood person, unreliable, who has left them before, and will do so again:

"And she stood, quiet sand serious, looking at me the way she looked at Father or women with their hair in rollers out on the street or the messes neighbourly dogs made on our lawn. Her face was magnificent and pale, her eyes dark,a little demented, as if tiny curving pieces of glass had been fitted over them for some weird theatrical purpose. Oh, I don't know! I don't know what she looked like! I watched and watched her for years. I stared at her and loved her. I have photographs of her in my desk drawer that I finger and caress and still I don't know what she looked like; she passed over from being another person into being part of myself. It was as if Nada, my mother, had become a kind of embryonic creature stuck in my body, not in a womb maybe but part of my brain. How can you describe a creature that is lodged in your brain? It's all impossible, a mess ..." (p.84)

He loves her but often feels of secondary importance to her, being taken along on her adventures almost like a dog, but he doesn't mind, because his adoration has doglike qualities. I so often felt sorry for him, though he never seems to pity himself or wish for a more normal, predictable life. Here his thoughts when Nada takes him to the library:

"A lovely library - how I love libraries, any and all libraries, those sanctuaries for the maimed and undanceable, the lowly, pimply, neurotic, overweight, underweight, myopic, asthmatic ... Few are the flirtations in a library, I insist, though Nada never had to search far for an adventure. Few are the assaults, physical or verbal. Libraries exist for people like me." (p.85)

I think his narration is unreliable for different reasons, mostly because he often does not understand what is happening, and you get such a strong sense of his insecurity, his confusion. Here, part of the story of the dog Sparky, one dog, but also several dogs who they all pretend are the same dog:

"What kind of a day? Misty, mild; spring. Nada dressed in beautiful new suit, new gloves and purse in hand, ready to press the button and raise the garage door and drive off, destination unknown. Yes, I can see her there. In a minute she will leave.
Happy days are all one big blur of confusion, but so are unhappy days; in my sordid life, all days were blurs of confusion. But this was a happy day and blurred as usual with my shouts of joy and Sparky's little whimpers and his fuzzy, downy stomach (much more downy than the soft blonde down of Nada's arms) and his caramel-candy-coloured coat. He was delicious enough to eat! I hugged Sparky in my clumsy arms and helped his wave goodbye to Nada, who drove out and away, and I didn't turn aside from his wet leaping tongue.
And then ... not a minute later there was an aqua laundry truck." (p.127-8)

Slowly and surely, the years of his childhood pass. During another of her repeated absences he reads the forbidden stories that she has published. His feelings for her are eroded; not his love for her, but his sense that he knows and understand her, and the scene begins to be set of the denouement:

"You who've never read the secret words of the familiar, the domesticated people you love, and who've never snuggled into their brains and looked out through their eyes, how can you understand what I felt? It's as if I had opened a door ands Nada not as she wanted to seem to us, but Nada as she really was, a stranger, a person Father and I did not know and had no connection with. We are accustomed to people existing in orbit around us, and we dread thinking of their deaths because of the slight tug we will feel when their presence is gone - we'll be drawn closer to the rigidity of darkness, space, death. We are accustomed to these smaller planets always showing the same sides to us, familiar, predictable, secure, sound, sane, accommodating, but when I looked through Nada's eyes I knew that I had been tricked, that she showed only her narrowest, most ignorant side to me, and that she had cheated me all of my life." (p.160)

His experience after the event, of nobody believing his confession, seems to sum up the surreal nature of what he does, almost like an out-of-body experience, and his sense, throughout the story, of never being sure of what is real and what is not, of the truth of anyone's emotions or actions:

"I tiptoed to the staircase and went upstairs. Nothing creaked. At the top I waited. I was good at waiting. A kind of sunny haze enveloped me, and I stood there waiting and not-waiting, thinking that Nada and I were alone in the house, all alone, and she did not know it. I was in a kind of agreeable trance. Later, when I was to recount all this as part of my confession, they checked with my maths teacher, Mr Hale, and to my amazement he told them that I hadn't been absent that day! according to his records, this 'Richard Everett' had had perfect attendance up until the time he stopped coming altogether. But I insist, my readers, that I was absent, yes, I was absent from class that morning, and all but absent from even this perch at the top of the stairs my mind was drifting and wandering." (p.196)

It turns out the disintegration of his trust was totally justified, and things were not as they had appeared. A thoroughly disconcerting book, but Joyce Carol Oates is always a writer to recommend.

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