Recycling

When a clock battery’s life had finally passed into the great hereafter I took its lifeless carcass to the local library where battery and mobile phones recycling bins accept dangerous corpses.

Turning to go, I noticed that the library had put two trolleys of old books – books that presumably could not keep their shelf space in the library – opposite the battery recycling bins. These were giveaways. This unofficial recycling exchange seemed an opportunity too good to ignore. I picked up three books, one of them a collection of journalism by Will Self.

The articles in the collection first appeared in print about twenty years ago; from about the mid-90s to the new millennium; mostly about a London remembered in various guises.  The articles have revived the period and the preoccupations of the time.

Popular culture came to power and got inside no 10. Having changed governments after eighteen years Britain had a 1960s revival complete with band rivalries, ersatz thought it was. The commentary and reviews of those Mancunian recyclers, Oasis, were, and are, still quite true; as too, is the analysis of that consummate maker of homages, Tarantino: a recycler in all but name.

The Internet was expanding but still seen as something which only a small group of compulsive, socially awkward, men would use. A supercilious evaluation of the technology, and its terminology, and of course, its core users then, could not stop its relentless growth, not even on a 33 kbps modem.

Although most of the articles in the anthology are nearly a generation old: just saying generation is chilling, the curious effect from reading these dispatches from the previous millennium was its familiarity. Nowhere was there an observation, a custom, which is not still part of life today.

If a similar collection of journalism from the 1970s had been reread in the mid ‘90s, a greater sense of change and lived experience would be obvious. Fewer choices and availability of choices, such as, dining out, international travel are two examples. In 1975 just 52% of British homes had a home telephone.

The comparison with today, and in relative terms, with the mid ‘90s is quite clear.

Having found that the past is not really another country, they still do things as we know it, I shall return this book to the library and recycle it for another person to read. They may find something in this representation of 1990s Britain which is different, exotic even, and new.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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Arguments

Why do people choose to do things against their own interests?  This question is a theme in Thomas Frank’s discussion of politics and why some ideas hold a mysterious appeal when they do little for their adherents.

The answer comes through Frank’s observations: lack of information, ignorance, misunderstanding, but most of all belief, belief in the invisible hand, in the status quo and in grace. Belief renders information and analysis irrelevant; it has no purpose and value when it conflicts with commitment.

Belief delivers a positive feedback loop, it ratifies that the idea is virtuous in itself.  That may be sufficient with some subjects, the ethical perhaps, but an inchoate understanding of complex information, and the logical and critical analysis by which to examine perspectives, only produces assertion. A convinced believer denounces opposing ideas, typically through reductionist characterization and ad hominem assassination.

Ideas are not bad, ideas are just seeds and may develop, mutate, in different potential directions. Fault lies with the arguments, the propositions and logic which articulate an idea.

This distinction becomes more apparent when an idea is expressed by an advocate but it is obvious that it is not much more than assertion. The cement of an argument is missing and consequently it is unconvincing in some part, or an obvious fallacy.

Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth discussed the influence of bad ideas and complex data in the Washington Post last year. The authors examined the Brexit vote and the political ramifications, taking it must be said a highly rational analysis to the referendum, which would not have been commensurate with the voters who exercised more emotion, even some animus, in the booth.

They argued that a bad idea has a duration. When voters realize that the idea has done them no good they can change it through the political system. Their metaphor of a put option, i.e. an option to sell a stock/asset when the collective no longer want to hold the stock, the political idea, is a neat rhetorical device though, in reality, it seems nebulous. Bad ideas, in their terms, hang on, despite political changes, sometimes because a change of advocates can make the idea presented differently more palatable, or appear so.

From these interpretations a dichotomy emerges between the qualified technocrats with their rigorous analytical method and others, reliant on axioms, on statements of belief, the antithesis of the method and language of the experts. The implications for politics and social development are numerous and volatile.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Cant

The headline is not a Faulkneresque omission of the apostrophe but rather a nod to political language. Over the holiday I read a few books on American politics, including the Wolff book, Fire and Fury, which is getting a lot of attention. While that work is useful in threading the events together, it is conventional and light on insight.  The other books I read elucidated recent events in historical context with deeper analysis, accounting for the sociological, economic and demographic forces.

Among the discussions which filtered the shifting themes of the political movements one thing stood out, and one that is the essence of the multiple fractures in the US: linguistic use, which extends beyond mere vocabulary, or tone and style.

As it is characterized from multiple sources, one group (conservative) prizes authenticity above any other quality. This is manifested in a straightforward way of expression. This feature is coupled with a deep and consistent reading of scripture which adds further emphasis to honesty in all speech. Those empty phrases at the beginning of statements: To be hones; Speaking frankly, may actually signify something.

Opposite that diverse assembly of political forces, is a more eclectic group and the language used by its speakers is technocratic, complex, occasionally ironic – it signals sophistication; highly educated, and unavoidably pretentious in some instances. Yes, we cant.

The authenticity, and by implication honesty, of each group as it defines itself versus the other, is distinguished by the way it uses language.

The antagonism, and consequently the political divide between the authentic and ironic, is manifested through many issues and cant is not exclusive to only one side, but it is rare for the authentic group to adopt it, (though not their political operatives); or else it would be to act in a way that is dishonest.

This divide in linguistic usage is seen in other countries, certainly in the political oppositions which seek to challenge the status quo. They call out the experts and the phrases they use as phony.

Cant is a display of status, a form which attempts to manipulate by flattery and empathy. Self-righteousness masks all its various defects. It is therefore not surprising that one of its greatest exponents, Oprah Winfrey, should now be touted for political office. If and when Wolff comes to write about that White House, should it happen, he may risk dehydration, due to the flow of tears.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Reading

It is widely known that boys are reluctant readers. The data supports the view too. It was with this fact in mind that Claude Chabrol’s well-crafted tale of his initial reading of Madame Bovary struck me as very unusual.

Chabrol went on to make the best film adaptation of the book and it’s not too surprising that a boy should read – or try to read – such a novel; after all Bovary was classified as a smutty book, or perceived as one, and his first reading was when he was thirteen, an age when looking out for raunchy pages is part of adolescence.

The way Chabrol tells the story he was not just interested in Madame Bovary, he was truly hooked in the way that some things possess the entire being. The odder part of his infatuation is that he was so utterly bewitched by the novel that on the occasion of losing his virginity all he could do was rush home and resume reading again. Not for Chabrol the need to share his milestone experience; perhaps brag to signify he was no longer a mere boy; no, he had another woman waiting for him.

To add to his adolescent obsession, he says, in his rush to get home, he lost a clog. The additional detail over the lost clog (sabot in French) is potent; the clog is a synecdoche of peasant, and of the authentic France.

Chabrol losing footwear to get back to his book should be a jacket blurb, not just for Madame Bovary but for any great novel: “So good, I lost my shoes!”.

One wonders what Chabrol’s accomplice turned to when she got home. Did she confide in her diary, do some homework, or have domestic duties to do, such as wash and peel some vegetables for the pot au feu which her grandmother had begun when the Germans first came in 1871.

The director Billy Wilder imagined the lot of the man who let his apartment to the couple in Brief Encounter (or as a French friend once called it, ‘Brief Accountant’). His question turned into the film, The Apartment.  It seems in Chabrol’s version too, Emma Bovary has once again supplanted another character. Her egotism is timeless.

As I said, Chabrol’s story is well-crafted: it completely avoids the physical detail, and ignores the emotional impressions of what occurred in the woods but like the textured and crafted paragraphs of Madame Bovary, the book, the clogs and that the event occurred in 1943, combine into a tale of French symbolism. Chabrol’s intention was to articulate the influence of the novel on him, in spite of all other elements. Hunger and sex are the two strongest forces but Chabrol implies, excellent writing too. In that he may have assumed too much of Emma Bovary’s style.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Updates

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.