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Greatness

Trying to get Celine out of my system is a bit like having a stubborn virus that just won’t give up, that keeps coming back and annoying you just at the time you thought you’d finally got over it. Lugging that madman around in my spiritual kitbag is a nuisance I can assure you, dear reader. While I am trying to find some other little nugget of wisdom to guide me through my day and my life, out pops the crooked grin of that very, very crooked fellow leering up at me…

“Will you go away, please?”

“No.”

“Well, I am just going to ignore you, you dirty old man.”

“I am the elephant and you are the gnat. Here is a jar of vaseline to help you through the experience.”*

“Thanks ever so much.”

“The pleasure is all mine.”

“I will come back to you, later…when I’ve done this, and I’ve got some time to kill.”

“You always will…”

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “greatness” – in literature, and any other way. Partly this was prompted by a remark in a comment on one of the posts to this blog that Shakespeare is “over-rated”. That made me think. To me Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, and I have felt blessed by the fact that he wrote in my native language. Unlike Celine, who wrote in a French argot already passe by the time he picked up his pen, Shakespeare’s English is recognisably the English we use today.

That’s misleading, and it matters both for our appreciation of the man and his work, and for our understanding of what greatness is and is not. Shakespeare’s English is recognisably but far from precisely our English. Language changes over time in lots of ways – in the words we use, in their meaning, in grammar and punctuation when writing, in accent and more when speaking. Chaucer’s “English” is unintelligible to us today, or nearly so – and may have even been to Shakespeare, who was born less than two hundred years after Chaucer’s death.** So it is quite natural that about four hundred years after Shakespeare shuffled off, his English is quite a bit different from ours. Most editions of Shakespeare “modernise” the poems and plays, and the skeptic is not wrong to say this opens a door to changing our perceptions in ways that editors may not have intended and that would astonish any Elizabethan or Jacobean including the Bard himself.

But the fact is that we want to understand Shakespeare, which is why we go to all that trouble to make him “accessible”. And we want to, because something in his work has an appeal that goes beyond even its limitations, whether of language, or other aspects of his work.

Here is a very current example that has been in the news in the past week. In Leicester, in England, the bones of the last Plantagenet English king, Richard III, have apparently been discovered under a carpark. Richard was the subject of the concluding part of a cycle of eight plays by Shakespeare***, and his character all these years later is indelibly associated with the play. We do not know whether the real Richard was all that phyically deformed as the hunchback Shakespeare made him; if he was really so evil as all that; if he caused the two young boys under his protection in the tower of London to be murdered; if he had his brother “drowned in a butt of malmsey”…there are many legends surrounding this last Plantagenet whose death in battle marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty and symbolically the English renaissance.

Whatever the truth, Shakespeare’s version is OUR version. He has so coloured our imaginations that no “real” Richard can ever crawl out from under the blanket of evil tossed so artfully onto his crumpled corpse.

Richard ruled for only a few years; Macbeth, whose reputation Shakespeare similarly set in concrete forever, ruled for 17. The evidence for Macbeth’s villainy is dubious, and for Duncan’s saintliness, equally suspect.

We can know that Shakespeare had his own reasons for casting these two monarchs as evil. Richard was head of the competing house of York for the crown of England held by the Tudors who ruled for much of Shakespeare’s life in the person of Elizabeth I. Macbeth was the loser of a struggle for the Scottish throne, whose victor’s family came to London to rule Scotland and England as James I for the last fifteen or so years of Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare plainly had very strong  reasons for writing these plays the way he did. The politics of his time made pleasing the powers that be important for many reasons including life and limb. Yet knowing this doesn’t reduce our appreciation of Shakespeare; if anything, it enlarges it, or so say I. We can be aware of the dodgy history and enjoy the portraits of Richard and Macbeth even more: these are universal, they reach from some cultural substrate so deep that they touch and affect all who encounter them. If Richard wasn’t the evil man Shakespeare made him, some man, somewhere, was, is; we feel it in our souls.

Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew he was “one out of the box”, a unique sensibility whose writing would last and last. Jonson’s remark that he was “for all time” was a summary of what others thought. There was something, that is to say, that in his own time set him apart from the other poets and playwrights whose work crowded bookstalls and the theatres: Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster and Tourneur…these were writers who were gifted, who jostled for attention with Shakespeare, who knew him, collaborated with him, and competed with him for attention, favours, patronage, audiences…Scholars and people who are really into it – yes, that includes me – read these others today, but talented though they were, they did not match the Bard, they knew it, and so do we.

This case, for Shakespeare, only puts flesh on bones that are as yet unidentified. If we say that Shakespeare was a great writer, what are we then saying? What is this “greatness”, not only of Shakespeare but of any person we call great, of any writer?

In classical times – meaning the Greeks and Romans – if anyone ever thought that a writer, or indeed a philosopher, would be considered “great”, I haven’t known about it. Then greatness was pretty much military, and was about “honour” – dying in battle, even in a lost cause, that was great. And it was desirable…die in battle, conquer the known world, and your memory would live forever. Writing a dialogue on love that would be read two thousand five hundred years later, or a play about the love of a wife for her husband so fine and noble she would die for him, that was not great, though the gesture was.

In classical times the literature that remains to us shows many men aiming for greatness, and by it they meant a lasting memory in the world at large. Over time, that basic idea has stayed but we now  pass out the gong*** of greatness rather more broadly, and more easily, as we do “genius”. As one of the characters in my novel Evilheart says of contemporary Germany, “There are so many geniuses!” Greatness in the arts is a given; great painters, poets, sculptors, film-makers, musicians, composers, and writers surround us with a healthy regard for their talents.

Yet if we take “greatness” to mean “lasting” and “popular” there aren’t that many great writers, and the crowded landscape of 20th century literary greatness bestowed by critics acting as self-appointed holders of the right to invoke “common consent” is likely to be seriously depopulated by the time the 22th century rolls around.

Does it matter? Well, I reckon it does matter. We need – and want – scales to judge merit, and “greatness” just happens to be at the top of the scale. Yet we discover the acme too easily.

Sadly, the top end is getting crowded by the new technology combined with human nature, and the market. Evilheart was in fact prescient – there are so many geniuses! E-publishing – like this post you are reading – means anyone who can string two words together can write a book, and that probably means, write a novel. And nearly everyone has friends and they will review the novel and give it five stars or whatever the maximum is, and shazam! another great writer. You can’t go higher than the highest can you? This phenomenon has become a problem in that anyone who might review books on a more sensible basis risks hurting the author because so much lesser quality work gets the highest mark possible. My way of dealing with this is to give five stars to anything I like, and not review anything I don’t.

Greatness as I’ve already said in literature is about “lasting” and “popular”. “Lasting” implies value – that it is worth something, so people keep reading and/or seeing it in the case of say drama. And “popular”, when combined with “lasting”, implies something more too – that the value that is there is accessible. So a great writer reaches us, the common herd, and affects us, reveals things about reality, about life, about what is important, that we had not realised, and goes on doing it. When Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare that he was not merely of the age but for all time, he was saying that – that Shakespeare had somehow penetrated the mysteries of life and come back to tell us about them, and that repeated exposure to him yields more clues to the mysteries.

We don’t know much about Shakespeare the man. His life story isn’t a complete blank, but the “facts” don’t really yield much about what kind of person he was. Jonson – again – referred to him as “gentle” in such a way as to imply he was known as a very decent chap. But that’s about it. What we get about him from his plays  is his sensibility, his way of looking at the world, through the language he uses, the plots he chooses, the heroes and villains he uses and abuses.

Yet accessibility has its limits as a definition of greatness. Shakespeare put bums on seats in the theatres – he had something for everyone. But part of that something was a secret, coded message or messages that only initiates in the cults of the time Shakespeare was presumably part of or at least aware of would understand. Ted Hughes wrote memorably of this in his amazing book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but there are other takes on it: that he was a closet Catholic the most prominent, but also a “Rosicrucian” British imperialist, or a member of pagan cults sprung up as a result of the translation of the great Greek writers…People argue about this now, but what seems to me to be important is that Shakespeare delivered even on this level, without leaving the “groundlings” who just wanted a good story, out of the loop. It’s all there for you – you don’t have to do anything but sit back and enjoy the most superficial story unfold before you. But if you want more, there is more – always. The measure of Shakespeare’s greatness is that there is always more; he was not just “the spirit of the age” but also “for all time”.

There have been other writers who captured the flavour of their time, and beyond, people recognised at the time: Balzac in France, Mark Twain in the United States (“the Lincoln of our literature” another writer called him, and truly), Dickens in England…Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia. Others were perhaps less lauded in their own lifetimes, their worth discovered only later, sometimes much later.

In our time? Perhaps I am jaded, but I don’t see many novelists who have emerged since 1945 with that sort of cachet apart from two of the “Celinists” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass – and Solzhenitsyn. With the 20th century barely receding over the hills at the back of our consciousness, the writers who were lionised in their own times have for the most part fallen away. In my mind there are few post-war writers, in any language, who will be read in a hundred years. Yet at the same time, we find five star greatness virtually everywhere we look.

This evident contradiction is partly, I think, because of cultural changes. Poetry, for example, has become rarified, inaccessible to most people. The truly popular “poets” work as musicians, and it is likely that Bob Dylan’s work and possibly Leonard Cohen’s will be listened to for generations. Dylan is the one artist of our time whose work has something of the cachet that Shakespeare had in his time – someone who is recognised by his peers, writers and public, as expressing “the soul of the age”. Yet Dylan, whose art is partly based on a conscious artlessness that throws his words into focus, is often treated with contempt by the “educated” and ignorant.

I know that my books aren’t “great” and I don’t think that in two hundred years, as Celine was so certain he would be, I’ll be “helping the kids through high school”.  My aims in writing are to entertain and to provoke interest – in Shakespeare and  Dostoevsky among others, but in lesser known characters I think people might get something from: Berdyaev, Giordano Bruno, the whole renaissance “white magic” movement. There’s moral force, too, of a sort, and my interest in evil, what it is and what it means – the obverse of greatness.

My wee list of great writers troubles me – so many of them had personal foibles that set them apart too. Celine and Dostoevsky were virulent anti-semites, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice plays to anti-semitism too. Tolstoy was more than a bit of a nut. Solzhenitsyn had, shall we say, very unusual political views of the “Great Russian prejudice” variety. Balzac? A reactionary. Twain and Euripides seemed on the side of the angels – unless you count Twain’s Mysterious Stranger…it does matter: if we say that greatness involves deep penetration into the “meaning of life”, how can we square the wisdom with the weirdness?

We are back to the beginning and that ratbag in my kitbag.

“In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school.”^^

This is the first post I have written on wordpress but the twentieth of this blog, which is mainly about writing. The posts will be copied back to Goodreads, or they’re meant to be. But if they aren’t I will copy them myself.

You are a great reader if you’ve got here – ha! How many stars would you like? Forty-three? It’s a good number – take them. You can get them in any shape you like from the star shop, spray paint them new colours if you like, and stick them  in delicate patterns on the door of the fridge.

Thanks for reading.

*This is a joke deriving from Celine’s so-called pamphlet that is the subject of my previous post.

**Shakespeare wrote a play, Troilus and Cressida, that was also the subject of a long narrative poem by Chaucer, so it is assumed the playwright was familiar with the poet. But there is little if anything of Chaucer in Shakespeare’s version.

***gong: British empire expression for award.

^Machiavelli through his analysis of statecraft, The Prince, had become a synonym for evil by Shakespeare’s time – he died about forty years before Shakespeare was born – and he is referred to in that way by the Bard on a few occasions. But the Italian was also a poet and playwright and arguably wrote the first renaissance play, Mandragola, and a second, Clizia. Both are sex farces. Machiavelli was not the great writer that Shakespeare was, but then neither was anyone else.

^^From Celine’s Rigodon, his last book.

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2012 in influences, random chatter

 

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Dead Reckoning

This blog is notionally at least about writing and most of the posts have been about the writers and thinkers who have influenced me as I’ve gone about writing my novels, and how this has worked in practice. Fiction writers all however, even the most shallow or cynical, are really on about life and how it is lived. Lately I’ve been thinking and writing about other aspects of influence in this way – what comes to us by direct, lived experience, and how writers might or might not transform this in their books, what makes writing worth writing, and reading worth reading.That brings up the ultimate of the ultimates – the death that comes to us all. As I write thrillers, death or the threat of death is a key element of all of my books. And it is unknowable, unless you count experiences of people who have died and been brought back to life, or have had “near death” experiences.There is something these seem to have in common, in particular the “clear white light” seen/felt in the middle of the brain/mind featured in the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead – a peaceful, very calm and reassuring light. This experience can be explained in a range of ways from the most basic materialism to highly religious, and it can be communicated so as to make sense in all these.And after death? Writers do write about “after death”, sometimes quite strangely. Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo is about a man who dies midway through the book yet who continues to interact with the living. B Traven’s long short story “The Night Visitor”, also set in Mexico, is about a man who comes to the narrator night after night to complain that the narrator’s dog is eating his leg. There is a grave nearby that has partly fallen in and the dog has been feasting on the remains inside; when the narrator closes it off, the night visitor stops coming…These fantastic notions contrast with a more dour attitude like Celine’s. The French novelist has a scene in one of his novels showing the family of a dead man visting his grave and having a picnic; Celine describes what is happening to the corpse below as the bugs and worms do their work.

All these, fantastic and realistic, do not square up with the usual western attitude to death. Norman Mailer, in a long meditation near the beginning of his book about the moon shot, Fire on the Moon, argued that the expedition was an attempt by the scientific, rationalist west to abolish death. The idea came to him, he claimed, as he could not see well and used his nose to work out what was going on, yet in the Nasa headquarters there was no smell…no smell equals distaste for our physical nature, equals abhorrence of death equals attempt to abolish this unpleasantness. Perhaps I am being unfair to Mailer as this was one of the best things I ever read by him, a marvelous account and probing analysis of both American and western values. And not just “no smell”, Norman, but “some smell”…deodorants change the way we are perceived, and how we think about other people.

When living in Hawaii – obviously many years ago – I saw Elizabeth Taylor in a supermarket in the Kaimuki district; it was during one of her liaisons with Richard Burton. She was genuinely beautiful, pushing her trolley along. She hadn’t become a parody of herself yet – indeed she had shown she could really act in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where she starred opposite Burton, and won an Academy Award. I think Burton pushed her to excel; he had a commitment to his profession that inspired her, as perhaps Marilyn Monroe got from Arthur Miller, and when I saw her calmly making her choices of fresh foods from a cooler, I admired her for that, much more than for her assured yet understated poise at the controls of her shopping machine. (In case you are wondering, no one approached her, something that is unlikely to happen today anywhere in America).

What struck me most about Liz, though, was something I had read in an interview before this “near celeb experience” about her relationship with Burton that coloured how I saw her in the flesh, and appreciated her as an actress: that till she’d met Burton, she hadn’t realised that people could be so dedicated. He would not bathe for days while preparing for a part, and actually pong! She had never met anyone like that before.

Weeelllllllll…I understood that completely. To be confronted with real life after a lifetime cossetted in Hollywood pseudo-reality, dressed up with deodorants and perfume and hair grease…Eddie Fisher, her husband when she met Burton, could hardly compete.

And in my own life, the fiction of Hollywood was only an exaggerated version of the America of the time: real people disguised themselves with hair grease, and deodorants, and incredibly silly haircuts and clothing. The Beats, and then the so-called hippies, took this America by the short and curlies and gave it a good shake, and whatever shortcomings these two movements (the latter the child of the former) may have had, westerners are all, Americans or not, much better off for their contribution. We’ve got our bodies back, with their sweat and smells and wrinkles – creases! – and if there is still a great deal in life that is unhealthy and a masquerade, today’s world offers more personal freedom and more opportunity to be “real” by a great measure than that era so wholly make-believe only those who lived through it would believe it.

So: real life meets real death; the two are “obverses” of one another. Celine’s most famous dictum was “the truth of this life is death”, so perhaps it’s hardly a surprise. But we want it to be a surprise, I think. We want to avoid it, as Mailer claimed.

In my writing, I want death to be real, not deodorised, but I’d like readers to find in my accounts of dying, or murder and suicide and natural passage, something more than shock and awe, something more than “verisimilitude”: I want to provoke reflection, about life and death, about what this means in readers’ own lives.

Naturally I have my own opinions about what everyone should think about these things; the Kantian imperative operates in all of us to some degree. But for me it is less important that people agree with me about how to live, or what death means, than at least that they are prompted by what I write to think about their attitudes, and perhaps change them.

My own ideas are still worth something, I think: that whatever the truth about “life after death” in the sense we usually take it, there is a life after death for each of us, in other people, and that is intimately connected with how we live. Do you, dear reader, care about how people will think of you after you are gone? If you do, you will treat others decently, that your memory, as it lingers, will be a kindly one. If you don’t, it’s immaterial. Doctrines of “enlightened self-interest” would suggest that you should be a nice person anyway, but it may be that this selfishness as a desire for a happy life beyond the grave is as good a basis for a “moral” life as any.

And it is clear – say I – that we do linger on, that it is not just our genes if we have children that carry us forward but our personalities. Those who love us, or who very emphatically don’t, have us there, in themselves, and however they are changed by their perceptions of us, mixed up no doubt with their perceptions of other people and of the world, we are there, in them. We persist, whether we like it or not.

In me there are many people, and they jostle for position, one leaping into prominence because of something they, or someone else does, or I do, only to be shoved roughly aside by another, more relevant, more instructive, possibly enraging, perhaps more loving.

In my writing this is usually put as memory, and reflection. Alex in Evilheart is profoundly affected by his woman Lisa, or at least believes himself to be – but his nemesis pushes himself inside of him at least as strongly, and stays there. The Kleiber Monster features a villain who carries on inside two of the characters for half a century, only to be vanquished at last by his own son – and not replaced – while those loved and gone remain. Savonarola’s Bones has several characters who work themselves into the fabric of the living after they have passed away. Demented has one character in particular whose entire life from boyhood is dominated by his dead father, and another who is confronted with a traumatic realisation as the father who’d lived within him was revealed to be…shall we say, somewhat unlike the image. The Russian Idea, finally, counterposes these elements of personalities – those who we know live within us, and those who do not, but who are there in real life, unknown to us.

And the new one? Kaos has these elements too, these passages of the dead into the living in an active way, but with new and I hope very different twists. While I honestly think my books satisfy my own demand that they be moral tales in a “frivolous” genre, they must satisfy the rules of the genre first, and when in a tight corner, as Raymond Chandler once advised, have a man come through the door with a gun…

Maybe this makes sense to you, dear reader. I hope so. If it does – 20 stars, in any combination of colour, shape and size you like; you can peel them off their backing and stick them near the vents in your PC case. If you don’t understand it – 50 stars! You stayed the course despite everything. You might have wanted more Liz Taylor. Sorry.


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Published on September 01, 2012 02:33 •

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter, Uncategorized

 

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Something even more completely different

This blog is about writing, and for the most part it’s been about the writers and thinkers who have influenced me as I’ve gone along. There are more of these than I’ve written about so far, but rehashing the past, while interesting to me and I would hope to those who drop in to read these slim offerings, is not going forward really.And my thinking has been zapping along in different directions lately prompted by all these posts about the past.My new book, which is just shy of 50,000 words, has the working title of Kaos. Its theme came to me while I was working on my previous book, The Russian Idea, which dealt a lot with Russian religious philosophy, in particular the thinking and beliefs of Dostoevsky and Nikolai Berdyaev. Berdyaev wrote a book with the same title as my novel.Over about a year before and while writing The Russian Idea I read a lot of Dostoevsky and Berdyaev that I had not read for a long time, or had never read: Berdyaev was a very prolific writer and I read or reread at least ten of his books, and many of his articles, while reintroducing myself to Dostoevsky through several of his masterpieces and newly through his journalism, and some biographical accounts. Sinking into a writer or thinker in this way can give the feeling for the mind of the person in a way that reading a single book, or reading a book now and again, can not do. My immersion therapies in writers and thinkers tell me that you can come to feel you really do understand what was going on in the mind of the person…and when you don’t, when you are troubled, prompts you to keep going. There is a nagging feeling that something eludes me about Shakespeare, and that adds to the mystery of the man, and encourages me to keep reading him, and about him, and his time, and the intellectual movements associated with him, or even alleged to be associated with him. Ditto “secretive” writers like B Traven and Celine.

There is a lot to this: questions of language, its “grammar” and history, of translation, of attitude, of cultural nuance and perceptions, and the more you go into it, the deeper you go, the more amazing it turns out to be. Take one example of this: “a” v “he”:

In the Arden edition of Hamlet edited by Harold Jenkins, there are numerous examples of “a” when “he” or “it” is meant. In a note, Jenkins says the “a” is a colloquial rendering of “ha” for “he” that was common in Elizabethan drama. To get this, both the “a” and the “ha”, to bring it into oneself, to live with it, so that one reads or hears it spoken in performance as natural and “correct” (because it is), is to bring the Elizabethan age, in this intimate if tiny aspect, into one’s heart through imaginative understanding. As I have written in an earlier post, it means not only that Shakespeare reaches out across the centuries to communicate with us, but that through this kind of understanding, we are able to “talk back”, to respond creatively. It’s teriffic! It’s thrilling! We are taken out of our time, delving deeply in another, only to find, when we surface, that we are in our own place but with an enriched understanding that spans the centuries while telling us something about “now” and about ourselves. That’s what being “universal” – “for all time” as Jonson had it about Shakespeare – means, sez me.

This is a long way around to get into the aura of Dostoevsky and Berdyaev that I was living in while writing The Russian Idea but may help explain how while writing that book, I was prompted to want to write another one by my feeling for the moral universe of this pair, in particular Dostoevsky, and to want to write a book something like he might want to write today (so say I) – not in terms of his genius, which of course I do not share, but in terms of his concerns, which I do, even if I find some of his urges unpalatable.

This is not the first time one of my books has been prompted by a previous one. The Kleiber Monsterled me to write another book, Tobi’s Gift (unpublished) because I felt I had not dealt with something frontally enough. And that led me into new places that prompted Savonarola’s Bones.

Demented, however, the book that followed Savonarola’s Bones, was not prompted by its predecessor, but sprang out of another set of concerns and experiences. What this says to me is that each successive novel is not, or not necessarily, the “sum” of an author’s life to that point – in style, in theme or focus or what have you, it may not only not be an advance, but may even be worse than earlier work, and often a “sideways shift” into something new and different, but not necessarily better. Second novels are said to be the most difficult books for fiction writers, as the first one may all but leap from the mind to the page, and many second efforts are disappointing to the public as well as to the writer. Evilheart, my second novel (the first is unpublished), was very hard to write, and despite many revisions over a decade, is far from perfect. Though I think in some aspects it is an excellent book, in others it remains very disappointing to me.

But even later works can be poor. Raymond Chandler’s last book for example must have been an embarrassment to him, and is certainly so to his memory. Any writer would – or at least should – find that worrying. Certainly Kaos is worrying me in that sense: much of the first draft seems quite shockingly written, and I know that later drafts are going to be pretty hard work if the thing is going to be worth reading, and hence worth bringing into public view.

So I am not sure about this one. The premise is good, and as with my other books, has something to say about the world around us and how we might navigate our way through the sometimes tortuous moral maze that can be any individual’s life: the choices that confront us, the temptations we are asked to avoid, or invited to sink ourselves into, never to emerge…as I write, I am not sure if the anti-hero becomes a hero, or if he is a hero who becomes an anti-hero: this delicate balance is something that ultimately is going to define the book, and understanding how to express both of these elements of the human personality warring within an individual, so that one emerges at the end to vanquish the other, is the greatest challenge in writing I have ever faced: words that, as it were, “face both ways”. Is that Dostoevsky peering over my shoulder, shaking his head in vigorous disapproval, wagging his finger at my poor offerings? Perhaps. I am trying my best, Fyodor! What’s that you say?

If you are reading this, you can award as many stars to yourself as you wish, provided that none of them is purple.

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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter, Uncategorized

 

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Popperian

“Popperian” is a word. It is not quite so exotic as “Bohm-Bawerkian” but it is nonetheless pretty impressive according to me. It would be great to work either or both into my fiction, and perhaps I will manage it one day.Naturally it would be great to discover in a future life looking down on some admiring soul as she or he writes “Evansian” (pronounced e-VAN-sian, thanks) and love her or him for it. Is this likely to happen? No. My paltry contribution, if any, to literature and the life of the mind is a shrunken pea next to these two great intellects. This does not worry me, though it does worry me that I may not reach out and touch the people I would like to touch through my writing. Like all writers, I write to be read, and in the vast seas of literature now washing around the planet, it is not easy for one’s public – assuming it exists – to spy what a writer has to offer and snap it up, sharks for style…Popper must have known he would have a public when he was writing the book that led to his fame –The Open Society and Its Enemies. This amazing extended essay – my version came in two volumes, each with an elaborate set of notes in tiny print to back up the main text – took the stick to Plato, Hegel and Marx, and anyone else the future Sir Karl had in his sights while he toiled away at Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Popper’s book was not published till after the Second World War, but had an immediate effect, particularly in relation to Plato, whose reputation has never really recovered from the trashing Popper meted out. Popper’s basic thesis was that thinkers who advocated closed systems, with roles attached to various strata in society – as for example in Plato’s Republic – were enemies of freedom and dangerous to society. Of his three targets, he had the greatest sympathy for Marx, who he saw as motivated by the harsh conditions for the vast mass of the humanity around him in his time – but, he believed, not merely wrong, but seductively wrong in the worst possible way. Nowadays even Marxists must sympathise with Popper’s position in the wake of Stalinist atrocities reflected wherever that monster’s example has held sway – Mao’s China and Saddam’s Iraq but two…all accounting for millions of deaths.

What Popper argued most forcefully was the unknowability of life, the messy, haphazard way things happen. Supposing an inevitability to social development, he said, was wrong in theory, and terribly wrong in practice. Dostoevsky’s prophetic novel Demons, showing ideologues ruthlessly condemning innocent people to try to fit reality into the mould of their ideology, comes to mind.

Popper’s argument about society was a correlative of his ideas about science, that gave his name its “ian”. But it is the social aspect that is most compelling to me – even if, as some may say, he really got it wrong about Marx. According to this view, Marx was betrayed not by his own ideas but by their interpretation by his presumptive followers, be they “vulgar Marxists” or worse, Stalinists. Marx never claimed to know what socialism would be like, this argument runs, on the unsurprising grounds that since it was an entirely different kind of society, he would be unable to picture it. And he was careful, as his friend Engels was careful, to point out that “relapse” from a later stage of civilisation to “barbarism” was always possible: like Spengler later on, they recognised that societies rise and fall, and what this might imply. There is some force to this argument though there is also a great deal of merit in the criticism that Marx wanted to have it both ways; “socialism is inevitable, but I don’t know what it will be like” sounds kind of weird really.

To me, trying to figure out the right way to live, to have a philosophy that sorted things out, Popper has been a shining light. He allows me to see life in all its astonishing, hilarious and tragic uncertainties and dimensions, to take in what is worthwhile in thinkers like Marx and Plato – he could find nothing at all virtuous in Hegel – while not falling prey to dogmatism. And when I am writing, or working on writing, Popper’s steely gaze scans my lines as I try to reflect my ideas in interesting stories. This has worked out – or not – in different ways in all my books. The Russian Idea, my most recent novel, shows something of a Popperian at work in Vladimir, Nadya’s father, while Kathe, the heroine of The Kleiber Monster, is meant to reveal the agonies of the Popperian, existentialist reality. In neither case does Popper come into it as a name. Nor does he figure explicitly in any of the others.

Whether Popper would approve or not – he died seven years before I first put e-pen to e-paper – his example shines for me in another way. He stood for things, at a time when doing it was difficult intellectually and dangerous personally. But even if this weren’t true, his ideas are important, it seems to me, for any writer wanting to deal with ideas in any way at all. Many writers are in his debt without ever having heard his name.

As for stars and lollies, I reckon a Chupa Chup for anyone who’s got this far, but ten yellow and four purple stars that may be stuck on the case of the PC. Thanks for reading.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter, Uncategorized

 

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“Something completely different”

Yesterday I read a “blog” on the British Telegraph website about a human named Lehrer, who is not the satirical songwriter/singer/pianist Tom Lehrer but another one, Jonah, aged 31. It seems this fellow, who was working for the once-revered New Yorker weekly magazine, had resigned after digging himself a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, just before leaping in.His spadework related to having made claims about quotations from Bob Dylan in a book calledImagine. Lehrer is apparently one of these instant science gurus who tells us astonishing things about the world by linking apparently unrelated “facts”.In this case Lehrer made up the facts about Dylan. The quotes he quotes were made up, and when he was quizzed about them, he lied. Pressed, he lied some more. Eventually he had to admit he lied. His career prospects, which must have seemed quite remarkable up to that moment, now look dim. If you, dear reader, happen to encounter him mopping the floor somewhere later in life, flip him a tip in recognition of the effort he must have spent climbing out of that hole.In recent times – the past twenty years or so – manufactured stuff has appeared in newspapers and magazines with big type over it, only to trash the reputations of the people who created it. There was a case in the Washington Post, another in the New York Times, and finally in the Guardian in Britain. These are all well-known and at least at one time highly-regarded titles, of a liberal bent. It makes one wonder – well, it makes me wonder – what it is in the cultures of these institutions that let these mountebanks in, and once in, to blaze, if briefly, in the firmament.

This is not plagiarism; the writers in all these cases did not copy others’ work – as I have done in the heading of this post, which is a steal from the Monty Python television series so famous no one would ever think I was claiming it as my own. No, they made things up. In Lehrer’s case, he made things up to support a case he could not otherwise have made – “facts” that did not exist to support “facts” that may or may not be true.

We don’t like this. Well, I don’t like it. Yet there is another way of making things up that I do like, that has fascinated me for the whole of my adult life, and that I have even done a little bit myself.

Two of the writers I’ve written about in this blog as influencing my work (and me) are Celine, and B Traven. These very different people lived their literary lives behind a mask, or masks. Traven manufactured a series of them and even now, a lifetime after his death, there are different accounts of who he really was. The obsessive secrecy may originally have had a political motive, but later on…so his “nom de plume”, something many writers adopt, went much further. I admire the man for it.

Celine was more elaborate, and in a way more interesting. He was a doctor, and his real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, Celine being his mother’s first name. The one word was his original nom-de-plume. When he was outed, shortly after the publication of his first book, he dropped the pretense, and many of his later works were published as by “Louis-Ferdinand Celine”. “His” character in his books, which are a bizarre kind of fictionalised autobiography, is usually called Ferdinand.

Celine manufactured a whole lot of stuff about himself that Traven never needed to do. He made up facts about his life, made up opinions he held even, to keep the public at bay. When he discussed writing, he held forth with ideas he almost certainly never took seriously. And when the guard dropped, and a peek at the “real” writer and thinker was somehow revealed, it was unclear whether it was, in truth, the dinkum oil*, or another pose.

Celine’s attitude in this was that the work is what matters, and the public’s craving for insights into the personality of the creator should not be satisfied. It should not matter if he was handsome, tall, short, ugly, if he believed in witchcraft, or whatever. Each work should stand on its own.

There is of course something in this that is true, but Celine so mixed up his own life and opinions with his work, that it often seems like special pleading. The anti-Semitic ravings of his pamphlets are known, from other sources, to reflect his real views, and his mockery of them within his works becomes a kind of defence against the attacks he must have known were bound to come, a peculiar false modesty: “Don’t pay any attention! Only, do…”

Well, as I said earlier, there is something romantic, something attractive to me about these secretive personalities, and I’ve had a slash at this on my own. In 1984, I wrote a non-fiction pamphlet and self-published it in the country where I live, New Zealand. New Zealand law requires three copies of everything published to be sent to a central clearing house as part of building a national “collection”, complete with “bibliographical details” about the author.

As it happened, I did not want too many people to know who wrote this pamphlet. Armed with Traven’s example, I made up a character, gave him another birthdate, and sent the required three copies up to the National Library. They swallowed it, and the book was duly listed under the nom-de-plume.

Imagine my surprise when, several years later, I picked up a book on the same topic in a bookshop and, flicking through it, suddenly hit on the nom-de-plume. There was an index and my goodness, this fellow I had created had morphed into a great number of entries, a sort of weird guru whose knowledge was used as a stick to beat the targets of this new author.

Later on I used the name to keep up the reputation of my creation in shorter pieces for various radical publications, but in 1992, I put him to bed finally and forever (well, I think so anyway). He had an interesting life, and in future may become a tiny footnote in a tiny corner of the intellectual history of my adopted country.

How far does my wee creation, or B Traven’s various disguises, differ from this Lehrer fellow’s? They are not in the same league, I reckon. The ideas I put forward were real ideas; they didn’t rely on the identity of a made-up author to be true or not: they stood or fell on their own. Traven’s books are good novels, or not, whatever his real name and whoever he really was. Lehrer’s “facts” are not facts, just as his “quotes” are not quotes.

Celine’s case is a bit different. He made up a “real” persona no one was meant to take seriously – or that’s how I see it – at the same time he made up a fictional one “not meant to be taken seriously” but actually at least partly meant to be taken seriously.

But he was, after all, writing fiction. We may know that his characters, his “Ferdinand” and others, espouse his views, whatever gloss he puts on them, but we also know that his books are fiction – novels. I think Celine felt that the harassment he got because of the anti-Semitic views he expressed in his novels was unfair precisely because they were novels and hence “not true”, a view as naive as his beliefs about Jews.

For Lehrer, then – no comfort. He too is “completely different”. Nice mop technique, Jonah.

Make as many stars as you like out of moonbeams, and stick them in your imagination. Dear reader, you are fabulous!

*dinkum oil – the real thing. Traditional Australian slang sometimes heard in NZ.

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Published on August 04, 2012 16:14 • 23 views • Tags: anti-semitismb-travencelinejonah-lehrermonty-pythontom-lehrer

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter

 

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Wittgenstein

Ludwig! What an amazing fellow! It may seem strange, dear reader, to jump from the ancients to a modern philosopher, but to me, Wittgenstein returned philosophy to the place it held for the ancients – not an interpretation of the world but a guide to how to live. And he did this in a particular if perhaps peculiar way.Yeah sure – the interpretation of the world bit still matters. It’s ok. For any real philosopher out there who may be reading this, I’m happy to admit that my take on Ludwig is my own. I’m writing about what he means to me, not about what he means.The book that got me on Wittgenstein was Philosophical Investigations, a hot little number that was unfinished and obviously unpublished when Wittgenstein died. It lacked the craziness of Wittgenstein’s first published work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; in place of the latter’s arrogance there was an odd sort of calm, even serene sense of purpose.

What Wittgenstein did in this book, it seems to me, was to locate philosophy as “practice” in society, through his arguments about language, obviously a creation of society, and hence immersed in (as he put it in the forward) “the broad stream of social life”. Before and while writing Investigations, Wittgenstein had had long discussions with a colleage at Cambridge, Piero Sraffa, a Marxist and friend of Antonio Gramsci. Sraffa tired of Wittgenstein, but nonetheless the key element of his contribution to Wittgenstein’s argument is fundamental: we conduct our philosophy within language, a social construct that changes and develops, and as our language changes, our thinking changes with it: what is possible, what is not possible, how ideas can be expressed, what makes them sensible, or not…all part of some form of language or other. So there is something in our language which sets boundaries as to what we can think, and when those boundaries are reached, there are the limits of our thinking – till they are widened, or crushed, or altered.

Moreover, these rules, or lack of them, or limits or lack of them, are rooted in our society. They are not “out there” somewhere beyond us, but here with us and in us, in our “social gristle”.

So while other philosophers were on about whether free will exists or not (for example), or syllogisms, Wittgenstein was on about the rules of thinking as rules of language, thinking as, if you like, the expressions of those rules.

Once this is understood, philosophy changes completely, and Wittgenstein was notorious in hisTractatus days for claiming that once philosophical practice is seen as a form of language “game”, then the problems of philosophy others found vexing would simply disappear.

I don’t think this is right: what they do, is to appear in a new light. But that light is truly different, revolutionary, a revelation. It is no surprise that “linguistic philosophy” is now the major philosophical approach in western universities.

Karl Popper took the Tractatus to bits in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and rightly so: Wittgenstein’s method there was much less sophisticated than it was in Investigations. Popper, writing in New Zealand as a refugee from Nazism, may not have known that Wittgenstein had repudiated his early work, so that he was pricking at a balloon already punctured by its inflator.

What this has done for me is, as I wrote at the beginning, to return philosophy to the notion that the Greeks had of it: that it wasn’t to decide if the world exists or not (for example), but to decide how to live, the right way to live. Systematic philosophy – that can be said to have begun with yet another of Socrates’ pupils, Aristotle (via Plato), took philosophy by stages away from this, and while fields like ethics have been a concern of philosophy always, somehow it has not been the same.

With Wittgenstein, all the balls are back in play, on the broad pitch of our social life.

This is inspiring to me. It is not troublesome, even if it is wrong: I just like it, as I love language in general – the way we make and use words to communicate – and this language, this “English”. I like the feeling that, when I am writing, it is not just me writing, that there is something bigger than me, that is pulsing through my feeble brain to create what “I” create. Of course this is true of everyone, of the most childish rant to the most sophisticated analysis, to the expression of abstract thought in symbols indecipherable by me. But it makes writing a really exciting thing to do: to consider, as I do it, where my words and expressions come from, and what they are likely to be taken to convey by someone I have never met, in another part of the world, perhaps (as I hope) in another era, long after I am gone.

And that makes me a terrific reader too! When Shakespeare reaches out to me, or Euripides, or Plato or Epictetus, any of these old fogeys from long ago, it stops being a one way street: these people are communicating with me, but the way they do it is creative, and their work is not just “as they wrote it” but “as I read it”.

Maybe Wittgenstein himself would think this is all tosh. I don’t know. I hope not, but if he were to suddenly appear in my lounge and commence laughing at me, it would be ok. He sifted through my thought, and gave me this idea.

When I was in Vienna on a cycling tour more than a decade ago, I visited the house he had partly designed (it was then an embassy), just to have a look…it was a modest modernist affair; it had combed through the architectural dictionary, added a few wrinkles, and moved on…

Thanks Ludwig!

Anyone who has got through this deserves more than stars – have eight of these, and add some lollipops from the local dairy…don’t get through them all on the same day, hear?

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Published on August 04, 2012 01:23 • 17 views • Tags: language,philosophyreadingsraffawittgenstein

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in random chatter

 

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Stoics

“Stoa” is the Greek word for porch, and the Stoic movement in philosophy stems from the alleged fact that its founder, one Zeno, taught outside in the shade of a porch of a public building in Athens. Zeno is reckoned to have been a pupil of a pupil of Socrates, leading the Stoics to claim Socrates as the originator of their school – they were not alone, as my previous post on Plato says.Legend has Zeno living till the age of 99, when he hung himself after a hangnail got infected; Diogenes Laertius* says he actually held his breath till he died when he stubbed his toe. Neither of these seems a very compelling advertisement for the virtues of a philosophy, though the infected hangnail story only suggests that he knew he was going to die so made quicker work of it.Whether any of this is true is probably irrelevant. Stoicism gained in popularity till it was practised widely during the Roman era, and one of the emperors, Marcus Aurelius, was a follower. HisMeditations are still worth reading. Seneca, a playwright, statesman and philosopher, was also a Stoic.

But for me the greatest of them all was Epictetus, and not just because of his philosophy. His teachings were recorded in shorthand** by one of his pupils, Arrian***, and later published, and it is that, the immediacy of his teaching rendered as he more or less spoke, that is so attractive. What Plato pretended to do in his dialogues Arrian really did do – wrote down what Epictetus said, and later published it.

Of course what Epictetus had to say matters. He was a dab hand at exploding his pupils’ arrogance and putting the case for a virtuous life, and how to live it. As we now understand the word Stoicism isn’t an easy option in life, and Epictetus is an exemplar. He was a slave who was freed because he didn’t turn on his master when he was tortured about the master’s possible treason; it must have hurt at least a little bit…

That really grabbed me when I first encountered Epictetus about fifteen years ago in an 18th century translation by Elizabeth Carter. He was so passionate about life, about thinking, about goodness…self-denial was in his bones. It wasn’t because the worldly was bad, at all, but because goodness was elsewhere…it was actually preferable to be good, not some kind of penance.

And Epictetus admitted frankly that he failed on a regular basis to live up to his teaching, and I liked that. It gave me hope for my own sometimes dissolute life.

For a while I thought to write a book incorporating this great man, till I discovered that Tom Wolfe had already done it. But he’s been a guide to me in a way other classical philosophers have not been: an existential example of how to live. He helps me to focus, to concentrate, when I am writing, to keep at it when I have lots of reasons to wander off and sink myself in the pleasures of life (and yes, the flesh).

* Diogenes Laertius wrote a history of philosophy to his own time – ca the third century AD – that is worth reading. Its most interesting bit is the long excerpt from the writing of Epicurus, as we know of this philosopher’s writing effectively only through it.

** Arrian apparently devised his own shorthand to take down what Epictetus said. He published the notes when someone else put some of them out, having originally intended only to publish a digest of his teacher’s thought.

*** Arrian also apparently wrote a history of a military campaign.

Five stars and a smile. Put the stars on the back of your monitor…it is ok to do this.

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Published on August 04, 2012 01:20 • 21 views • Tags

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in random chatter

 

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