Power

It is two thousand years since the poet, Ovid, died in a remote, uncivilized and cold boundary of the Roman Empire. Exile is not meant to be enjoyable and Ovid missed the pleasures of Roman life.

His relationship with the emperor, Augustus, and more specifically the power struggle between them is one that many writers have faced.  A quick search online reveals lists of writers who have been censored and harassed. Prestige alone will not protect an author from severe punishment.

The cause of Ovid’s exile is mysterious but it seemed to stem from a clash between Augustus’s decrees on civic morality and Ovid’s facetious ridicule of the emperor’s policies. Dictators dislike mockery and Ovid lost to Augustus but the extent of Ovid’s power, or rather, his influence, his ideas, was seen as no small threat to the emperor.

Like many powerful figures Augustus was concerned about social cohesion; governing a compliant population poses less risk than one in which the state is questioned. Ovid’s imaginative satire diminished the emperor’s status; humor is a dangerous weapon, and it produces a potent feedback loop, encouraging ideas which corrode dictatorial supremacy.

Ovid admirer, Shakespeare, is probably the best English writer about power.  He understood its range and force, its tone and allure, and also its transitory nature. Richard II traverses power’s vain omnipotence through to abject loss and ultimately to death. Prospero exercises magical power when his temporal power has been taken by his brother; Rosalind and her cousin, Celia, discover power in disguise and exile.

Lady Macbeth urges her hesitant husband to the throne, while Margaret of Anjou berates her spineless husband, Henry VI, to prosecute the full power at his command; Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, exults in the dread power of her son and fears him when he is exiled. Then there is King Lear, who, still believed he was powerful even though he had vested the sources of power to his daughters, Goneril and Regan. And it is Lear’s fool who taunts him, the conscience, which sees past the status, and pulls him down to earth.

Writers often have the last word, it is a salutary concession, and it’s true of Ovid. Even though he was banished and endured parochial life, he kept writing; his texts, and the ideas, were read and debated by successive generations.  For Augustus, and it goes for all of his descendants, omnipotence has a fixed duration. The fatuousness of censuring and imprisoning a vivid imagination is certain in the long run.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

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Transcribing mundane occurrences seems a contemporary habit, one that technology has enabled and expanded through digital connectivity, but this type of writing is about four hundred years old.

Personal writing was enabled by literacy, and the availability of paper and ink at reasonable cost, which allowed people to write about their own lives, in letters and in diaries. With the advent of personal writing, documenting the minutiae of daily life became customary.

Adam Nicholson describes the evolution of this genre through the diary of Ralph Josselin, a farmer and vicar, in which everything Josselin expressed carried the same significance: falling off a horse, standing in a puddle of water, the treatment of a bee sting.

The purpose and role of such extensive and thorough noting is, according to Adam Smyth, an acknowledgement that God may intervene in ordinary life. For Josselin, a Puritan, all the markers of God’s presence in the world, and in a humble existence, are necessary in order to interpret, to decipher, the probable path and ultimate outcome of one’s own life.

Writing is a determination of meaning, it prioritizes significance in hierarchies worth the creative effort and reflection. The physical act of writing organizes and sets the order of that meaning. It also determines the value of the text being read, of being re encountered, and of being reinterpreted, either to another or to the author-self.

Diaries are loaded with meaning. Not just a record of a day, either good or bad, but an unburdening; the utterances serve to mitigate distress, to rectify wrongs, to an uncritical reader: the diarist and author.  Even today the diary is close to the original personal writing that Josselin invented.

Even though they record the ordinary and trivial: the frustration of standing in a queue, or an unpleasant bitter coffee, the updates made on social media platforms are not like Josselin’s (or any of his contemporaries) everyday journal.

The motive is not the same. The act is facile. It is a personal expression, or more properly an individual assertion which reflects society now. Just as gossip in not conversation, tweeting an impression, the pleasure of meeting an old friend, or an upgrade on a flight, is without a teleological foundation, which grounded everything Josselin committed to paper.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Essence

Margaret Atwood and Mike Myers make almost identical understanding of how Canadians consider their national character, its identity and essential traits. They see character formed out of landscape and climate, chiefly the winter, which can be deadly. The social bond required to endure the harsh winters is something that individuals shared and through that annual experience, the national character was created. It is, they say, this collective experience which is transmitted and manifested in the culture.

This internal sense and understanding of geography and climate is something which non-aboriginal Australians have expressed as the core of its distinctive character, although, in the southern hemisphere, it is the heat and drought, and with it much disappointment, which tends to shape attitudes and character.

The quest for identity is not one that old countries and old cultures struggle with aloud, not often anyway. As Myers says, a French a person knows who they are. It is perhaps more complicated than that facile absorption of historical tales, now with the forces of globalization, immigration and nationalism causing upheaval to beliefs and the current status quo.

Even so the idea that high annual rainfall, or a largely arid interior, is the catalyst for the creation of cultural essence is knotty: as soon it seems convincing, another perspective makes it appears less than conclusive.

Beethoven’s 6th symphony is a prime example of programmatic music which depicts or evokes or guides the listener to an object with its structured titles. The first movement: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside is cheerful, but the label is not necessary in order to understand it.  The title is a cultural artifact of the era. Inferring action and objects, as this aristocratic woman does while hearing the first movement of the Eroica is largely a leap of the imagination. Any such correlation is stretched to incomprehension in the late string quartets; the Viennese woods are inaudible in opus 131.

We create meaning and explanations and will invent them if needs be. The English are noted for conversations about the weather and their refined semantic gradations for various types of rain. Yet Englishness is more than precipitation just as being Canadian is not simply living through sub-zero winters; or Australian endurance through droughts that persist for a decade and more. Perhaps that other former British dominion, New Zealand, has a different outlook on the question.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Pleasure

A relatively familiar view of the future typically cleaves to the Orwellian 1984 template: miserable with constant shortages and the state, or a variant of the state (corporations sometimes fill that space), controlling its subjects: their capacity to think and setting a boundary on owning their personal and emotional life.

Contrast that unhappy forecast with Neil Postman’s 1985 paraphrase of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think, for what Huxley feared was there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance, trapped in a trivial culture and man’s infinite appetite for distractions. Thus in Brave New World people are controlled by inflicting pleasure: in short, what we love will ruin us.

In Postman’s 30 year old book the target was TV, but he saw something from a then 54 year old book, which is now over 85 years old, and somehow, not only captures the distraction that TV offers, but also Instagram, binge-viewing, box sets and the multitude of other apps and devices which beguile the lazy time in 2017.

The distinction between the text and image, one in which the image is clearly victorious is central to Postman’s thesis. The virtues of text versus the corrupting effects of edited images persists; it gives opinion writers a ready topic and fuels inter-generational debate.

The intriguing question is whether Huxley had accurately defined oppression, in a similar sense to Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, through gratification, passivity and egoism. It may be that the blank but self-conscious stare of the selfie subject demonstrates Huxley’s perspicacity.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Translation

In The Hidden Bend, the Ukrainian mother, Nastasiya, is in New York and dealing with authorities in a language, English, which she barely speaks. She has an appointed translator to explain facts to her and to carry out her decisions, but otherwise, she is mute. She is restricted in her own mind.

Another character in The Hidden Bend, Piers, escapes to France and finds a similar linguistic barrier but without a translator. His real translation problem is the woman he is with and the difficulty in sharing with her the same sense or meaning.

The Hidden Bend’s Asian soldier character has a more nuanced and treacherous translation problem: the words that meant something during the revolutionary war have changed meaning after the revolution. And the alteration in meaning threatens him.

The problem of definitions and of language more generally was part of a few stories in Nine Avenues: Spoken and Heard and most ostensibly in Dictionary.

In My Wife the idea of translation is taken further through the detective story of the narrator in Europe, amidst languages he does not know, interpreting the behavior and rationale of people at a certain time in order to solve a historical puzzle.

And in Corporate, specifically in The Complete Story (With Notes), the piece is a narrative about making stories, about choices and how several items are converted into the bits, character and episodes, which constitute a story.

When tropes keep recurring the reason for them may be intrinsic. In my case it may be moving between different dialects of English: America, Australia and England at various times, understanding and negotiating idioms and definitions, later adding other languages, and perhaps the seed for this translation leitmotif is clearer.

 

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Computer

Every year a major dictionary will produce a list of words coined that year which have instantly attained currency. These words are often related to social, technological or political situations. Some will last; many will be forgotten in ten years, along with the circumstances of their usage.

Now think back to the 1650s and spare a thought for an editor when he, and it will be a he, read these words for the first time: holocaust, ambidextrous, literary, prairie, migrant, and computer. He would have needed explanatory notes to understand what they meant. Perhaps he thought to himself, “This buzzword is not an improvement and my printer is confused which is costing me more in print costs. And besides, computer is not very durable. It won’t last.”  Anyway, prairie is a French word, a meadow, so here it is English absorbing (stealing) words from elsewhere to fill a gap or augment choices.

Some of those words retain the initial meaning when Thomas Browne created them. Computer, though, has been transformed a lot. Even in the last 50 years computer signified something different to what we now refer to, and its definition then was of an electricity sub-station sized object. But those were the days when hardware was man’s work and software was written by women.

What is notable about Browne’s vocabulary is that he saw the need to make a word to describe and articulate his scientific work. He recognized a phenomenon for which no word then existed. This underlines what Pinker says about language and psychology: that language is not the limit of thought as a Viennese proclaimed. It is also more substantial than using an extant word for something resembling another object: cell, for instance.

Apart from giving us the vocabulary to do science and technology and engineering, Browne was a debunker. His Pseudodoxia Epidemica – superb title – refuted common errors and superstitions: “That there are different passages for Meat and Drink, the Meat or dry aliment descending by the one, the Drink or moistning vehicle by the other, is a popular Tenent in our daies…”

We could do with an updated version of this book and make it available to the lifestyle, health and pseudo-nutritionist experts.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Throwing

What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humor? Awkward and dull is the answer.

Sharing a sense of humor is like playing catch: in throwing a ball one person tosses it and the other is ‘supposed’ to throw it back, but some people don’t throw it back, they pocket the ball.

As a simile of transmission and connection it applies in other spheres too: business, music, drama, research, sciences and politics too, when, in the political case, an idea has to be shared between people.

In the last three days Theresa May, and her erstwhile advisers, might reflect on rules and connections, and the way her prospects are evolving, she is going to have plenty of time to contemplate what those links mean.

But in all likelihood, it will be the last thing on her mind although in the campaign propaganda it was revealed that she was very funny, not just moderately amusing, but very funny; this quality was relayed to tell people she was able to make connections, to throw the ball back.

The failure to follow the rules of humor is deeper than someone pocketing a ball: it is a deficit which the beholder does not recognize because they do not see such things. It’s akin to a gap, a complete absence, in some way. It is true of political parties, in their inability to understand their own types of deficiencies.

The analogy of throwing a ball game comes from Wittgenstein. He liked to interpret things, or illustrate arguments and questions, in the form of games and rules: the ‘supposed’ is critical, and like meaning generally, if another person doesn’t follow, or know the rules, it’s impossible to connect.

His own sense of humor, in English at least, was peculiar. He fixed on certain words and repeated them frequently, which gave him a release from logic and order, and a lot of laughter. He liked the adjective ‘bloody’ and would use it whenever he could and in every possible variant. A good thing he never tried to make a living as a gag writer.

Perhaps Theresa May will repeat ‘strong and stable’ and fall about laughing, if not now, then in a week or two.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Technology

Evelyn Waugh was proud that his 1930 novel Vile Bodies had the longest telephone conversations in an English (country, not language) novel to date. It may be that American novels did it first, in hardboiled fiction, but I haven’t found a reference. 1920s Hammett has telegrams sent between offices but no telephone calls.

Through A la recherche du temps perdu Marcel Proust has many telephones and telephone conversations, though they are reported, not reproduced. Starting from the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, he says he had one installed so he and Bloch could chat; he talks about the technology and even something like video calls in the future. There is a section called Albertine au telephone. His telephone conversations with the Verdurins’ telephonage (like ‘telephoning’) a word that has died since his period and use.

In the 1930s Italian cinema made the telefoni bianchi films: sophisticate comedies, the white phone represented style and status. For most viewers at the time these were aspirational and completely unrealistic.

These cases indicate the network effects. Phone penetration was slower in England than in America. Proust’s characters were rich and acquired phones early, Proust was listened to operas on his; Waugh’s characters are mostly middle-class and the phone entered their experiences later.

The short story Corporate is conveyed in emails, complete with email headers, addressee email, CC and subject lines and also the typical misspellings. While this presentation appears new it is closer to the epistolary novel, of a Pamela (1740) or Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782).   I carried this story for a while before I had the idea of writing it as an email thread, the corporate communications of our era.

In The Hidden Bend technology establishes dividing lines between characters: the Ukrainian character, Yeva, is studying advanced computing; another character, Piers, use of technology may seem primitive until it is understood that the narrative is set forty years before. By contrast the Asian soldier is almost defined by machines; he is an able mechanic: radio-tape players and cassette tapes are the mobile music systems in his time period.

None of these books are really about technology, not in the way science fiction treats technology, that is central to the work and determining the plot.

It may be that in future, just as the telephone became universal, the technologies of the future which people will use are advances in communication and transport: driver-less cars which find a parking space every time.

New technology fascinate and in the last 20 years the use and access of technology has made the novel seem a tad dowdy, less exciting, than competitive formats.  Book design acknowledged web design layouts and principles and movies have incorporated in-screen email and texts to display the technologies viewers know. It remains for readers to choose.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Blanket

Imagine hearing the same words and phrases over and over again. These words are not the everyday phrases that grease social interaction, but claims, sanctions, or rebukes: liar, not legal, politicians’ abuse, another cover-up, not the principle on which this country was founded, and so much more, and worse, of that kind. Hearing these phrases again and again would engrave them on the mind.

These phrases are angry and defiant; verbal assertions of power, or rather the lack of power, which can only be corrected by calling out the political and legal and components of the corporate structure for their apparent malfeasance.

That is what listening to years of (virulent) talk back radio would be like. Uncontested opinions, assertions, the marginal and substituted instead of the verified, form a parallel but almost barely recognizable world.

Suggestion becomes reality, and over long periods, attitudes are molded and modified to the frequency of the message. It’s the essence of propaganda and PR and marketing.

In opposition to that language is a progressive group steeped in the merits of education, which sees itself as a bulwark to antediluvian opinions. Moreover it strives for change, in the ways language is used, and to that aim it compiles lists of books and phrases which are codified in terms of their potential harm.

Some of the books and authors on these lists form peculiar companions. Virginia Woolf was on one danger list and initially I couldn’t see why she had been thrown in with such an infamous crowd.

The reason she’d been listed is her novel, Mrs Dalloway, has a psychologically distressed veteran as a character.

Putting this book on a list is a prophylactic measure, yet that the event in the book which may cause anguish is fiction; in reality Woolf actually committed suicide. Reading her work will involve reading about her life, and her development as a writer, which is often the way books are taught, and that would make her biography a cause for harm.

When books like this are considered harmful, for whatever intention, there are hundreds of others which could also be added. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is potentially huge.

When two diametrically opposed groups use language to make the world match their ideal it’s almost a secular reformation – counter-reformation struggle. Language folded, mashed, wrapped, rumpled, and enveloped like an infant’s comfort blanket.

Such distortions are thought to be historical, like the internecine battles of the Thirty Years War (without the defenestrations of Prague), not the present social reality. But it is now. Faulkner was right, the past is not even the past.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

1976

Mention the year 1976 to a British person and they will drift to fond memories of summer days filled with blazing sunshine and heat. For anyone who actually lived through those glorious weeks, it is spoken of in a different tone of voice, somehow younger and more vital.

Psychologists have other interpretations as to why that summer – apart from being statistically above the national average temperature – is so well remembered. Among several memory biases, fading affect bias may be one reason. Positivity effect too, occurs in older adults when they look back on their experience.

America was experiencing another type of euphoria in 1976, celebrating 200 years since the Declaration of Independence. Not being subject to aristocrats can lead to happiness in the sense of not being oppressed and Americans had a good time.

In France too, 1976 is a significant, though generally, overlooked year. It isn’t of the same order as 1870, when an army and emperor were defeated at Sedan. That downfall was later inscribed in the phrase, ‘N’en parlez jamais; pensez-y toujours!” a motto of pledged vengeance.

The 1976 event I am talking about is known, ominously, as The Judgement of Paris. Not quite like the Treaty of Westphalia, this judgement was a unanimous decision by eminent French wine critics that the American wines in their review were undrinkable, but they had, in fact, given the highest awards to those American wines and given the French wines the lowest scores. National honor bruised. Expertise tarnished.

This story is not about new world wine winning or so much winning, it expresses, rather, our fallibility, that our judgements are not entirely reliable. We live in an era, we are told, where no one trusts experts anymore, the so-called technocracy. The loss of trust is over several dimensions: the data itself, the statistical evaluations, the media and organizations which convey it, and, ultimately the potential benefits for special interests.

When well trained palates and brains cannot tell the difference between types and styles of wines from other parts of the world it suggests we may have a higher than realistic view of our own abilities. Maybe the Judgement of Paris was a 21-sigma event; maybe it occurs more often, but is not reported, in which case, it is not rare.

Fortunately French wine making did not cease, no vines were uprooted in panic and despair, wine critics learnt some humility, and the knowledge that American wine was very pleasant meant everyone adjusted their world view accordingly.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.