Sunday, 27 December 2015

The physiognomy of football managers #2



Should we call him 'Roberto' or 'Bob'? Indeed, Roberto Martinez has spent virtually his entire playing and mangerial career in England. He is 'Anglo-Spanish,' rather than 'Spanish.' Can we ascertain this when we look at him?

It must be said, though, Roberto seems more 'Spanish' in appearance - and this indeed is reflected by his teams' style of play. Roberto has helped make English football 'sexier.' This is evident when we look at Roberto's physiognomy: he sports an immaculate suit, wears a Rolex watch, speaks eloquently and is quite likely best groomed manager in the entire premier league.

Roberto is very animated on the touchline. He prances about a lot. He always directs incomprehensible hand signals and gestures at the players. This is most likely a sign of narcissism. Do the players really know what a square, plus four and a wave mean - all signaled by hand gestures? Don't football players have a reputation for being a bit thick, anyway? This is most likely a showcase for the cameras which all are, conveniently enough, perched right next to the managerial dug out.

We can tell by the way that Roberto grimaces that he is brave and that he is a poet. Indeed, he is very articulate and well-spoken. Let's not forget that football managers aren't the leading exemplars of articulacy. They are prone to dishing out tired sound-bites and platitudes such as 'we played with belief'' again and again and again. Let us not forget, either, that English is Roberto's second language.

Why is Roberto, then, a brave football poet? His teams so far haven't been blessed with the highest budgets. He is swimming against the current. The remedy for that would be the old tried and tested English way: lump the ball forward and defend. But no. Roberto plays innovative football with flair, with gusto and - poetically - with danger. When Roberto was at Wigan Athletic, his motto was 'Sin miedo.' Wigan Athletic were relegated from the premier league at the end of his tenure - with the lowest budget - but won the FA cup. This really was a romantic fairy tale. And it was led by the premier league's poet.

We can certainly tell all this when we look at Roberto. When he looks at the field, he is a man on a mission. Yet no-one finds him insufferable - quite the opposite. Unlike his counterpart Brendan Rodgers, Roberto does have a sense of humour and is a very nice likeable chap. Even when his teams enter a losing streak - and this does happen now and again with his teams, even Everton - we can't bring ourselves to get angry with Roberto. How could you?

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The physiognomy of football managers #1



What does the figure of David Moyes tell us about him as a person? First of all, let us make a clear distinction between his two tenures as football manger: Everton and post-Everton.

His two tenures do confirm that Moyes is worthy of the epithet 'Brooding Dave.' The difference between the two tenures is very simple - it is one of confidence.

Moyes has always been static and immobile whilst on the dugout. Beyond those blue, cavernous eyes we can positively ascertain that he is a passionate, glum and solemn figure. He cares about one thing and one thing only: football. His unrelenting energy is driven towards that direction. His mind is racing. He is not thinking about sophisticated tactics. His mind, on the contrary, works on rather binary terms: win/lose. The outcome of a football game determines the outcome of his feelings and his frame of mind. Although not sophisticated when it comes to tactics, he knows that he can transfer his passion onto the players. He has grit and his team plays with grit. He is hard-working and team play with a similar ethic. Hence, they are organised and tough to beat.

Moysie is a working class kid from Glasgow. We can see this when we look at him. We can see that he has been marked by his upbringing. We can see that as he statically stands in the rain, bellowing instructions at his players. His upbringing has informed his values. Hence, he is a Methodist and a Labour supporter. Beyond that, he only cares about his football. We can see that as he stand on touchline. He is tenacity personified.

Once he moved to global multi-billionaire extravaganza that is Mancherster United, things changed for Moysie. He continues to brood, as is his wont. Except that he now cuts a rather glum, flummoxed and confused figure. He is overwhelmed by the new circumstances. He frequently scratches his head, dumbfounded. He is no longer fighting against the current as an underdog. He has all the resources at his disposal. Nevertheless, the circumstances are not propitious for Moysie. As such, he looks miserable and terrified. Will the tenacious Moyes make a come-back? Sadly, Moyes seems to think that he is more flexible and talented than he actually is. He is suitable for a team with a mid-table budget vying for Europe. Beyond that he cannot manage a global monolith like Man U, nor a Liga team like Real Sociedad. He needs to fight against the current. He needs to be in miserable circusmtances. Otherwise, wonderful circumstances make him miserable. Hopefully, he will come to his wits and realise that he a lot more parochial and one-dimensional than he thinks himself to be. We need the real David Moyes back on these shores.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Nausea: A Personal Assessment



Nausea is a book that impressed me a lot. I class it as formative reading. In this brief post, I will not make arguments as such. Rather, I am going to write why this book had an emotional impact upon me when I read it. I am going more for a ‘cheesy op-ed’ vibe rather than a ‘scholarly’ one.

When I read Nausea, I had scarcely imbibed any philosophy. I have read a little more philosophy since. Hence, I did not have the remotest framework to understand the ‘philosophical thesis’ expounded by the text. ‘Thesis’ sounds problematic given that this is a novel, not a philosophical tract.

Apparently, this is the closest a work of fiction has come to being called ‘a philosophical novel,’ according to Iris Murdoch. Surely, a work of philosophy is more ‘holistic’ than fragmentary or plural. It offers a thesis. Nausea is more plural in that there are little tid-bits here and there of philosophising scattered around the text. Surely, a novel can be ‘philosophical’ in so far as it draws from philosophy, but it is not philosophical in that it doesn’t use the same methods. More often than not, a ‘philosophical novel’ brims with arguments, but it doesn’t offer a single thesis which is arrived at inductively. My idea of an exciting novel is one which is completely against the idea of having a thesis. My idea of an exciting novel is one which is ambiguous and anti-didactic. A novel that has any philosophy in it derives its material from philosophy and plays around with it. You can broach philosophical questions in a much more haphazard way. You don’t have to do it properly because the novel is a form without rules. Anyway, let’s get abstruse theory out of the way. Basically, at the time in which I read it, I did not fully extrapolate the existential argument propounded by the book.

Nausea is the kind of novel that appeals enormously to angsty teenagers. Why? Well, because, to state the obvious, teenagers feel alienated and angsty a lot of the time… When I read it, I felt as if I ‘saw’ my life mirrored, to use a crass metaphor, in that of Antonie Roquetin, the protagonist of the book.   

Roquetin completely detaches himself from others. He is a former academic and historian. He leads a subdued existence where he goes for walks across the sea front, writes in cafés and studies at his desk. The title ‘nausea’ refers to the way in which he can no longer derive any satisfaction, or even any feeling, from anything. In a very striking scene, he jabs his hand with a knife. It bleeds profusely, yet he is utterly passive about it. He goes to galleries and he is utterly unmoved by the paintings he sees. He detests music and calls people who go to concert halls ‘mugs.’ He no longer sees a former lover. Every now and then he experiences pangs of ‘nausea.’

Basically, when I read this novel I was also a recluse and terribly alienated. More than anything, over the years I have also felt immunised from ‘enjoying’ anything in the most elementary level. I am going to give a few anecdotal examples. I equate certain types of behaviour as being ‘childlike.’ I feel as though I am seeing the mind of children trapped within the body of adults. It is just adults having fun. When I go to clubs and I see people dancing, I see it as an utterly childlike expression. I feel the same bemused reaction when I see people take ‘selfies.’ It makes me think of them as being ingenuous. How can they go along with trends which seem so utterly artificial? Worse still, I feel as though time passes extremely quickly. While I am isolated in my room, everyone outside is busy having fun. I find their idea of fun utterly perplexing. The next thing I know, all the people I know are busy having children and getting married. Meanwhile, I am still in my room, utterly frustrated because I have not achieved the goals I have set for myself. Hence, I find the sense of alienation that Roquetin experiences, and his immunity to ‘satisfaction,’ very relatable.

I found this novel a far more relatable experience than Camus’ The Outsider. I think that’s down to the fact that Mersault is such a wooden and two-dimensional character. Mersault, although an intelligent and educated person, is perhaps so immunised that he cannot really even bring himself to articulate his sense of alienation. He reacts to his environment, ultimately, in a very primal way. The universe is absurd and there is no universal moral imperative, but Mersault merely reacts to this by murdering a group of people in a completely random way. Roqeutin, meanwhile, retreats into introspective despair. Psychologically, this makes for a much richer experience.

Ultimately, I am not entirely ‘mirrored’ by Roquetin. He is much more educated than I am. I am perhaps closer in spirit to the character ‘The Autodidact.’ When Roquetin meets The Autodidact, he finds him to be a sweet, and ultimately deluded, character. He has no real education, but he is determined to read as much as he can and build a belief system in the process. Roquetin looks down on The Autodidact, but still views him with some affection. He describes him as reading every volume in the library and, once that happens, he will ask himself ‘and now what?’ This goes completely against the grain of the vision that Jorge Luis Borges had in his story ‘The Library of Babel.’ In that story, all of the books ever written are held there. In addition to that, every single variation of an individual book is held there. Books containing gibberish are held in the library. Once one reads every single book, they reappear. Hence, Borges is saying that one can never attain complete knowledge, even if one were some sort of divine entity capable of reading the entire canon of human knowledge. Knowledge keeps growing. One’s perception of something is always open to re-evaluation. Sartre’s view seems a lot more pessimistic than Borges’. Perhaps one can never attain true knowledge, but even if one did – so what? Perhaps, what’s more important is to stake a political position and to gain experience.


Perhaps disappointingly, the novel ends in a clichéd way. Roquetin proclaims (I am paraphrasing here) ‘Oh, I will leave reclusion and my study area! Oh yes, I will become a writer – a novelist!’ This is somewhat similar to the ending of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, which is similarly sentimental. But then, Joyce is so creative with his use of language in those passages that it remains worthwhile. Anyway. Nausea is one of my favourite novels for a number of reasons and one of the most important books I read in my formative years.

Monday, 14 December 2015

More scepticism please


Case closed. I know what I am talking about. It is difficult to broach a subject with someone who claims to have all the answers. It is just as difficult to do this with someone with a religious fundamentalist as it is with a scientific fundamentalist. Someone who is a Christian might not even be an expert on theology, but he is resolute that the Holy Bible has all the answers, it has a factual basis and that it is a reliable guide for an ethical lifestyle. Meanwhile, an expert on theology might say that the Bible is just a series of myths, that they are not logical and rational propositions and that these myths can be interpreted in a logical and rational way. A scientific fundamentalist would say that science can be used to solve anything and it is the best method as a result. They might not say this because they are experts on science or philosophy, they often say it because a guy in a lab coat told them so. If you claim otherwise – that science cannot solve everything – you might even be accused of being a creationist! (This happened to me recently.) Surely it is healthy to talk about everything, to question everything and to have a plurality of disciplines and discourses. What a few members – not all members! – of the scientific community end up doing is that they shut off all discussion of these issues. Even when non-experts have conversation – and I am not an expert on philosophy or science – all discussion is shut off because of an allegedly consensual view. Is that scepticism?

Science, surely, is empirical. It analyses causality; it doesn’t interpret it. It’s not really about meaning in the sense that language connotes meaning. Science is extremely laudable. We wouldn’t have better living standards without it and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this without it. That’s all functional. It’s how, not why! Science can explain why I am here in the sense that it can explain the psychogenetic features of perception. It can explain the nature of the physical world. Again, that is all descriptive. It doesn’t explain what something like consciousness means, or the nature of my existence.

So, science is surely empirical. We need facts to ascertain how things as they there. Science can empirically tell me that this really is a computer and that I really am typing on a keyboard. It can tell me how this computer works. But is everything empirical? When we speak about the ideas that language connotes, they have no empirical basis in the same way that this computer or a chair has an empirical basis. Metaphysics cannot be empirically proven because my thoughts are not in the empirical world of cause and effect.  

When we speak about morality, I have values and moral judgements that precede experience. If you try to scientifically reach an absolute truth about morality, you get to really murky territory. If I have a political bias, I might find certain things about universities morally repellent. I might think that fees are extortionate and that students become mired in debts. From a moral standpoint, I might say the there is a duty to provide welfare to attenuate all this.  Someone from a different political persuasion might say that, no, students have to work and pay for their debts regardless of the circumstance as they themselves have made the choice to come to university. So, you can have a moral framework to inform a moral argument, but the moral argument is driven by values and principles which precede experience and hence are non-empirical and non-scientific. The only way to resolve that is dialectically. You have thesis, antithesis and synthesis. How is that scientific? If you were to say that we could use scientific methods to solve these problems, then you are still doing philosophy because you are working with abstract ideas. When someone like Richard Dawkins says that we should use genetic engineering to prevent children with Down’s Syndrome being born, surely this is morally objectionable. You don’t judge the morality of scientific experiments like eugenics through science either.

How can science have a say in aesthetics? (Science has tried its hand at this recently.) You can scan a painting and say it has certain features. That’s just a description of shapes; that’s geometry. It can’t really say how these shapes have been put together to create a desired effect and whether it is good or bad. What about the messages and ideas connoted by the painting? Again, this is impossible. Aesthetically, you might ascertain that a painting is, for example, about the quest for transcendence or about injustice. Those are concepts and concepts are removed from experience. If you say that that is meaningless because it can’t be empirically tested and, is hence, not there, you are wrong because concepts tell us something about experience and hence have meaning. All art is representational (it can be of a concept or a real object or a real life event). The artist has used his intention to represent and/or interpret his perception of something. In this sense, it is expressing something metaphysical and conceptual and is removed from experience. These are ideas which aesthetics explores and that can’t be empirically tested.

Confusion arises when science makes enormous leaps. These leaps should be welcomed by everyone. Science makes progress because its knowledge is cumulative. Philosophical questions are timeless and perennial. We always ask why we know what we know. Epistemological questions like those are philosophical, not scientific. Ditto to morality, aesthetics, metaphysics, ontology and on and on and on. The reason why it hasn’t led to any ‘findings’ after thousands of years is very simple – its problems are insoluble. If you want findings, then yes, by all means, go to science. I don’t understand why, for instance, finding how the universe came to being discredits philosophy or even theology. On the contrary, it makes more of a case for them. It leads to more questions and more speculation. If I learn what the causal factor of the universe is, then that makes me think about my being here and the existence of other objects in a different way. You can theorise why there is something rather than nothing. Theologically, it has implications because you can work existing theories and ideas about creation around it.  When Stephen Hawking claims that ‘philosophy is dead,’ this is an example of that confusion. It seems to imply that morals, ethics, epistemological questions progress in the same way that science and technology do. If you make the claim that they do progress, then you still doing philosophy.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Too fucking bad



It's funny. You read articles in printed media saying 'This book reads like one of those piddling blogs on the internet no-one reads.' Or you often read a published writer claim, 'Hah, I'm so great! I read all of those unpublished novels and - ha, ha, ha! - I can tell why this piece of shit didn't get published!'

Well, fuck. I'm no fucking artist - who am I kidding? But then, people feel a need to label you and it embarrasses me beyond belief. I feel a burning need to write books. I feel a burning need to read high-brow novels and philosophy books. When people hear this, they say, with a grin on their face, 'Oh, so you're a writer!' or 'you're an intellectual!' Ufffff. I usually reply, 'no, I am a pseudo-intellectual!' Even then, when I say that I feel like I'm being unfair to myself because I really don't feel like I'm pretending or that I am trying to impress anyone. But then, I don't feel like I have the, uh, intellect to be an intellectual, nor the ginormous critical abilities, nor the knowledge to merit this label. I feel like I am limited, but still curious enough to want to look into this stuff. I try to avoid mentioning what I do with my time when I meet people now. Even then, people ask me what I do with my time and I have to be honest, no? I don't go out that much - I actually spend most of my time indoors reading. The label 'writer' wouldn't bother me so much if it meant what it really meant - just a descriptive term. But it's so fucking loaded and carries so much gravitas that it pains me to identify as one. 

I've been getting really fucking bitter of late. When I read columnists and journalists, it actually pisses me off. Most of them write so much fucking shit and write so fucking badly. Most of them don't have a line - most of them don't have anything to say. They just want fifteen minutes of fame! I actually respect those columnists who don't write very well, but they at least have an ethos, a 'philosophy.' I hold them in much higher esteem than those dullards who write these anodyne formulaic pieces which don't really say anything.

It all comes down to competition, ultimately. I am not in the slightest bit competitive. An established journalist either is where he is because 1) he was a pest and annoyed a lot of editors, 2) he published a lot of crap in university papers, took a lot of apprenticeships and arrived where he is or 3) daddy/mummy paid for his internship at a newspaper after he finished his degree at Oxford. It's not in my nature to do any of that stuff. Well, if I could do the last one I would, but my parents aren't that rich/posh and I didn't go to Oxford.

In my first year of university, I was miserable. I was in this corridor, surrounded by people I couldn't connect to at at all. They didn't really read anything - even though a lot of them studied literature. The girls completely ignored me. One of them I saw is now writing articles for the Huffington Post. (She followed career path no. 2.) When I read her pieces, I thought - 'why, just why, are you publishing this? Honestly! If you want a career, why don't you go into accounting or something?' There was another guy who stressed me beyond belief next door to me. He was very, very loud and kept me up all night. He had his pretensions. He is having some success making inordinately loud You Tube videos. They are not creative, or funny, or inventive, or anything really.

I am currently working on a novel I am 99% sure won't get published. Actually, I am pretty sure I am going to lose the faith of my current readership of 6-7 friends! Even they will lose interest! I actually think it's much, much, much better than my previous stuff, but it's just too fucking opaque and obscure for anyone to read and enjoy (anyone apart from me...). This is the kind of novel the most niche publishing house in the whole world wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Ok, that publishing house might have very noble principles, but at the end of the day they still want to sell copies of what they publish and try to profit. There is no possible demographic you could market my book to. It's a bit too much even for the most rarefied weirdo. The best you can hope for with these kind of books is to make the critics tell everyone 'Ah, this book has literary quality - read it!' When that happens, thousands of people buy it to decorate their living rooms, but they never actually read it. The thing is that my book doesn't have anywhere near enough 'literary quality' to reach that elevated status. I'm sure that it would get poor reviews everywhere - if it were even reviewed in the first place.

I mean, it's healthy to think 'look, I'll just do my own thing - if I get published, good - if not, ah well.' The thing is, when I see all of this crap getting published it does make bitter. I do want people to read my stuff. At the moment, hardly anyone is reading it. My fiction, for instance, has a readership of 6-7 people. I do think that I have some original and unusual things to offer. I really want people to read my stuff. The problem is that it is probably a little too original and too unusual - and lacks 'craft.' Too fucking bad.

The thought of having some dull job terrifies me. It means that I probably won't have time to write. The thought of doing a PHD is worse. Recently, I've stopped caring about academia - and I received the lowest mark for a piece of work since my first year as an undergrad. I'm just fed up with it. Staying in the fortress of academia is like a death sentence. But then, the glowing comments I've received for some of my essays might be telling me that I'm more of an academic than an 'artist.' Ech.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Woody Allen land

Ah, Woody Allen. There is only so much Woody Allen a person can take – even me. I actually enjoy some Allen films that are universally reviled. Often, though, the acting is so wooden, the dialogue so poor, the philosophical premise so sophomoric and the scenes so cloyingly unfunny that even the most hardcore Allen aficionado recoils in horror in his seat.

The reason why I – and others – have such a strong stomach for a lot of these films is that in many ways it is a tailored fantasy for a specific type of person. Woody Allen land is completely removed from reality. But so am I, in many ways. I am shy, neurotic, anxious, horny and self-obsessed. I really like to randomly shift conversations to big philosophical questions. I write, I listen to jazz and I am a loser
.  
In Woody Allen Land, this would make me the centre of attention. Beautiful pristine girls would chase me all the time. They would revere me for my ideas. As it stands, if I, say, give a seminar presentation on a topic I am passionate about, a girl is unlikely to suddenly become infatuated with me. In Woody Allen land, the thing most likely way to get a young impressionable hot for you is to give an original interpretation of Critique of Pure Reason.

Woody Allen Land works like that, but the real world most certainly does not. Girls, even uber studious/clever ones, would rather you impressed them through different methods. As a semi-autistic person, I do not know how to read these situations most of the time. I do not know what to say. Recently, I was with a nice girl I really liked. I tried to ‘chat her up.’ My brain was not co-operating at all. I couldn’t think of what to ask her. I ended up asking questions about her PHD… Then, another guy on the table, asked her a blindingly obvious question that had not crossed my mind… ‘How close do you live to Rome?’ …

I have started getting really self-loathing recently. I looked around my room the other day and thought ‘you wanker’. I am 25 and I am still a student. I keep waking up very late in the day. I keep telling myself I shouldn’t do this. I am studying topics that I was really passionate about aged 16-22. (I would rather read about philosophy, political theory, history and religion than keep studying literature and film my entire life.) I want to move on, but I am stuck in this protracted adolescence. I looked at my room and thought, ‘Fuck me, you even have that clichéd Caspar Friedrich painting displayed in the centre of the wall, you pretentious turd.’ I only realised recently that I am actually quite handsome after I have overheard girls speaking about me. I thought for years that I was ugly. That only makes me more depressed. Then I realised that self-hatred is, again, one of those clichés about neurotic Allen-types and that makes me hate myself even more.  


So, for a shy cerebral man who can’t make any progress in getting a date, he can watch a Woody Allen movie and find it really, really comforting. You might be a loser, a failure, a cruddy writer, a pretentious idiot etc. etc., but you can watch this and feel better.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Poor Mr. Pickles


I rarely look back at my school days with any fondness. Ok, there are some aspects that I certainly look back on with great fondness. These were school breaks and truancy. That still doesn’t really constitute school, does it? By definition, both involve getting as far away from school as much as possible.  I have great memories of my school friends, with whom I would arse around in breaks. I socialised with them because we were the school’s consummate misfits. There were the stereotypical nerds who socialised with each other because they liked stereotypically nerdy things – namely, video games. With my circle of friends, at the time we didn’t share the same interests. (Was there any one else in school who shared my obsession with Frank Zappa, Beefheart, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Stravinsky and Ravel? Go figure.) We were not stereotypical nerds. We all had our own interests. The thing that tied us together was that we were all very weird and very individualistic. I look back on my prolific truancy with fondness, too. I would usually do it alone. I would go to the woods and the countryside and get uber introspective about everything. As befits the stereotype of the sensitive adolescent, I had a notebook where I wrote dreadful poetry. In the class room, meanwhile, you would usually find me asleep. If I happened to be awake, I certainly did not pay attention to the dreary dreary drivel been taught.

I had certainly lost the will to live in the class room. I am sure that if I went back in time now – I am actually really qualified seeing that I have a first class degree! – I would still struggle. It was just oh so mind-numbingly dull. I had extremely long, messy, wild hair. It was not intentional, nor was it a statement. I hated the barbers and couldn’t bring myself to go to one. I was droopy. My eyes were half-shut. My mouth was ajar most of the time. I looked comatose, brain-dead and ‘out there.’ My clothes were too short on me – again, I couldn’t bring myself to get new ones – which gave me a dishevelled appearance. In short, I did not care – and the appearance I projected confirmed that. My abysmal academic performance, coupled with my tousled appearance, must have led my teachers to think that I was extremely stupid. Oh, if only they knew that when I truanted I was contemplating my very existence whilst looking at fronds, horizons and meadows! As much of a cliché as that is, at least I was not smoking dope!

Several of my teachers were unnecessarily horrible to me. You could say that they bullied me. (The students, to their credit, did not do this, even the rough ones. On occasion, they would tease me. At worst, this would be mean-spirited, but that’s as far as it would go.) I have horrible memories of my English teacher, whom I’m convinced deliberately gave me shit grades for certain assignments because she didn’t like me. She picked on me in class all the time. She thought that she was being witty and that she was beyond this demonstrably Neanderthal specimen. I would usually respond with grunts and monosyllables and she would priggishly claim, ‘Oh, Simon I was being ironic.’ (I remember thinking in my head at the time – I really should have said it – something like this: ‘No, you were not being ironic, you were being sarcastic. By your dubious metric, everything is ironic. This table is ironic, this English class is ironic, my being more intelligent that you is ironic. Stop calling everything ironic and learn the basic definitions of the words and concepts that you use, you stupid bitch.’ But I didn’t say it, so there.)

Anyway, so I can’t forgive her. I don’t think I ever will. But then I started thinking of another figure, a certain Mr. Pickles. I remember him stating with glee, ‘Simon will not come back to do sixth form!’ By lord, this guy is a heartless monster – as bad as that English teacher!

But then, as I thought about him and I realised what a sad, pathetic and tragic figure this guy really is. I could only feel sorry for him. I looked him up and found his Linkedin profile. This only compounded those feelings. I even felt sorry for him when I saw his profile picture. He has a bald oblong head. He wears glasses. He bears an insincere smile. He is well-groomed and sports an immaculate suit. (He looks vaguely similar to Eric Pickles.)

The thing is, Mr. Pickles at the time didn’t really teach anything. In the ICT room, as befits the context, ICT teachers gathered there. But then, they would also shift over there all of the useless hangers-on the school did not know what do with. They had no real function. Most of them just laughed and bantered next to the computers and occasionally enquired as to whether you needed any assistance. Mr. Pickles was different. He approached it like a belligerent army officer. He patrolled all of the computers. He always caught me looking at different websites completely unrelated to the work. (Usually, these were actually quite arcane essays about composers like Edgard Varese. Later on, I found that I could write academic essays with relative ease, maybe because I spent so much of my time poring over this type of writing so early on.) He would apoplectically shout at me. This was at the start of year 10. By the end of year 11, I was exactly the same. My portfolio was strikingly skimpy – and I ended with a lowly U in ICT. Still, Mr. Pickles seemed pleased about this. He clearly didn’t like me.

At the time, my head was filled with angsty adolescent ideas. (Have I moved on from then? Read this blog post and go figure.) I always spouted the buzzword ‘conformity.’ Mr. Pickles embodied the very idea of conformity. His Linkedin profile only confirms this. When he wasn’t patrolling ICT classes, he would teach PSE. These classes easily ranked as the worst. Oh, to think of all the platitudes and quasi-moralistic advice that those idiotic teachers dished out!

Mr. Pickles didn’t really study anything at university. He went to Nottingham Trent and later Sheffield Hallam where he obtained degrees in ‘Education’ and ‘Careers.’ I found a letter where he writes that being ‘well-groomed’ is of the utmost importance, as is ‘responsibility,’ ‘attendance’ and ‘punctuality.’ (I easily violated all of those precepts.) He is still in the same school. Most of the teachers, I learned through my snooping, left. They probably became chronically depressed there. Mr. Pickles, quite clearly a careerist, has risen in the rungs and is now assistant head teacher. His prime ambition, it is clear, is to be head teacher.

His main role, from what I gather, was in ‘careers.’ Well, he almost wrecked my life and seemed quite intent on doing so. I went through a pretty rotten period after I finished school, but in time I overcame it. But how can I begrudge Mr. Pickles? This rather sad tragic figure? Although he is sad and tragic, I’m sure that he is perfectly happy. You have to have a modicum of intelligence to get depressed. To get depressed, you have to think about specific things again and again and again. I’m sure Mr. Pickles is perfectly content, instructing bored teenagers about the value of ‘career choices’ and ‘responsibility.’ He is not aware of what an idiot he is and of the idiotic guff that pours out of his mouth because, again, that requires intelligence. I actually feel sorry for him.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Notes for a novel

It is set in a world in the future (or non-future). It could well even be a parallel reality. This is left unclear.

The human body and the human mind are seen as means to an end, not as ends in themselves. Men objectify the female body and women objectify the male body. The body is just used for procreation and for sexual gratification. The mind is used to propagate ideas about natural science, philosophy, maths, general theorising, moralising and creative endeavours. The mind is used, generally, for ‘pure’ ideas. Even creative endeavours are generally seen as a systematic endeavour, not as ‘expression’. Novels, for example, aim to approach problems - societal, theoretical, philosophical, moral, etc. - and solve them.

The intellect and sex, once seen as polar opposites, are seen as integral in this society. Sex is often referred to as ‘dialectic copulation.’ Argument is seen as the interchange and debate of ideas. Sex, meanwhile, is seen as an interchange of energy.

Concepts like ‘love,’ ‘empathy,’ and ‘affection’ are seen as hokey and outmoded. There are no relationships, or even friendships. The nuclear family does not exist. New-born infants, who are invariably created by accident, are reared in blocs. They are given basic training in language and arithmetic. After they hit a certain age, they shown certain books and told to pursue their main interests.

The economy works in different ways. There is a total end to commodity fetishisation. The love of objects is, again, seen as ‘hokey’ and ‘outmoded.’ Books and music albums are completely stripped of any kind of marketing appeal. They have no covers. This means that the person purchasing albums and books engage with the ideas on a ‘pure’ level. They don’t fetishise the packaging. The kind of cultural posturing associated with global capitalism - i.e. behaving and dressing in certain ways because you have certain cultural tastes - is put to an end. One simply listens to music or reads certain books because one has an interest in the ideas that they propagate. All cars look the same. All computers look the same. Clothes largely look the same. Etc. Most sectors of the economy - and all unskilled labour - are completed by robots. The society is a mixed economy, though private enterprise is heavily regulated. This does not stress anyone, as there is hardly any entrepreneurial incentive anywhere. There is no real ‘competition’ anywhere. Selling one’s body for sex is seen as a healthy and noble practice, not as something illicit. Sexual promiscuity, and the financial transaction of sexual promiscuity, is encouraged.

Parliamentary politics, meanwhile, is much closer to the Athenian model. There are no ‘politicians’ as such. People go in and out of parliament and determine policy. The discussion is more theoretical than practical. There is no partisanship. Parliament is more like a giant seminar room.

The society is founded on the assumption that human beings can overcome any supposed limitations. Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ is taught and is seen as being wrong on every front. As this is not a demagogic or fascistic society, Hobbes is not ridiculed or bedevilled. He is simply seen as a great thinker who did not get things right. Humans are autonomous agents. Although the society is collective, it is also very libertarian. Humans have a great deal of freedom. There is no ‘social contract.’ Although people are, to a degree, limited and flawed, they are constantly pushing themselves to achieve new goals. Meanwhile, society is also collective in the sense that wealth is distributed equally, there is no competition and people constantly meet each other and engage in seminar discussions.

The novel sees all this as utopian, not dystopian. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Ambivalence


How sure are you of what you preach? Even as I make this grand pronouncement, I feel ambivalent. Maybe I am sure of what I preach. Then again, I may have doubts.

Now what’s wrong with that? If you think about it carefully, you’ll find that we are all thoroughly ambivalent. There is always a tinge of doubt in anything you say. Your professor is ambivalent when he claims (I am going for a somewhat generic example) that the French Revolution means this. Your girlfriend/boyfriend might be ambivalent when she/he says I love you. What is love? Am I sure what love means? Your partner must surely 1) feel besotted by other people every now and then and 2) get the hots for other people. But then, how do we distinguish love from lust and love from infatuation? Every time you try to arrive at a position, you become embroiled in maddening semantics.

So this makes me a sceptic. Good, then. We should really revive the type of scepticism practiced by the Ancient Greeks, not the scientific community. I can, say, go to Canterbury cathedral, have a lovely experience and admire the sacredness of it all. I can go to a scientific conference and agree that science is useful in some regards. That still doesn’t mean that 1) I believe in God or that 2) I believe that science is the most enlightened field of study. I can look into these two fields, absorb what I like from them and emerge with a wholly wishy-washy synthesis. This is true scepticism. When a lot of scientific thinkers claim that they are sceptics, they are being completely disingenuous. How can they claim to doubt everything and often make ludicrous assertions claiming (for instance) that science can solve anything, we need to follow science to have an enlightened society, etc.?

But we want absolutes; we don’t want callow relativism! Still, my ambivalent tendency would ascertain that some things are absolute and others are relative. That in itself is (callow?) relativism! There is a type of intransigent relativism peddled by thinkers foisted upon frustrated undergrads/postgrads the world over. (I have in mind the Holy Trinity of French post-modernism: Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.) If you were to claim that everything is relative, that in itself is a absolutist statement! Surely, if you were truly ambivalent, you’d say – look at I’m not sure, I think that morality is absolute but knowledge is relative. This stuff over yes, the other stuff over there no.

Ultimately, we are all ambivalent about everything. The real reason we say we aren’t is down to politics. It’s that simple. When it comes to party politics, I for example might be a synthesis of a conservative, a socialist and a liberal but I will support party X because I believe that it will have positive outcomes (a practical conclusion) or that they may match my own political beliefs (a more theoretical one). If I am an academic, I might assert that knowledge is relative despite having many reservations. If I suppress these reservations, politically I will rise in the echelons of academia. As an academic making claims to be a relativist, the more absolutist I am about my relativism the more I will prosper. If we act in certain ways, concretely define why we support X policy, we become less ‘embroiled in all these maddening semantic definitions.’ We also present a clear and cogent debate, although we repeatedly have reservations about our arguments.

If this weren’t the case, how come do people change their political affiliation all of a sudden? How is it possible to have a complete 180 degree turn? Are you really capable of believing stolidly in Marx and then being a fervid believed of ‘neo-liberalism’ the next? All thanks to an epiphany? Surely, as a Marxist, one would have seen elements of truth in a certain amount of market freedom and entrepreneurialism. (I think that most people feel happy for someone when they open their own niche business and make a living off it.) Upon becoming a right-wing ideologue, you might see elements of truth in Marx’s analysis of capitalism. You might recognise that widening inequality isn’t good and that some measures, albeit non-Marxist ones, must be taken to curb it. A statement of a political affiliation is largely a pose, albeit a useful one. As stated above, it contributes to a cause and it can be helpful in offering the most clearest possible label for your type of thinking. This is even the case if you claim to see the world in black and white terms. You might claim to believe that 1) capitalism is rotten to the core and we must foster a class war to overthrow it, or 2) if we let the upper crust get as rich as possible that wealth will trickle down without any kind of state intervention. But, even if you claim to think in these binary terms, you will realise that, upon introspection, there are a lot of shade of grey in your thinking. Tell all that to an ideologue.

Complexity


I like complexity. I like complexity for its own sake. I am not altogether sure why I developed this curious predilection. This might entail a fascination for hard subjects like maths and science. As it happens, I do not have an aptitude for mathematics. Actually, I am pathologically stupid at maths. I am sure that if I did have a knack for it that I would have pursued it. I would probably spend all day racking my brain over labyrinthine equations. When it comes to science I find that I have a disturbing apathy towards natural phenomena. I read something written by David Berlinski recently. Please, for the love of God, don’t look the guy up. You’d be wasting your time. The man is a poseur and a wind-bag, albeit an entertaining one. Anyway, this little bit of writing sadly resonated with me: ‘I have never been particularly eager to know how it is that the universe was formed, or how a magnet works, or why, for that matter, water flows downhill. … There it is—a certain implacable lack of physical curiosity.’ (Unlike Berlinski, I am interested to how the universe was formed, but that’s down to ‘teleological’ arguments about philosophy than any interest in nitty-gritty science…)

I had an amusing and interesting experience recently. I was about to call it epiphanic, but I won’t get ahead of myself. I went to a celebration of Chile’s independence (18th of September). I ran into a computer science student. In these situations – in gatherings – one of the following outcomes will transpire: 1) I will stand awkwardly in a corner of the room, or 2) I will strike a conversation with the nerdiest boy in the room. So, in this particular gathering, I ended up the entire night speaking to the nerdiest boy in the room. We prattled at each other about political theory, philosophy and other tangential topics.

At one point, I looked at young children playing. I wistfully said something like, ‘I was once like that – completely carefree, childlike, spontaneous.’ He was visibly annoyed by what I said. He beamed back with ‘Stop talking about thing as if they were transient!’ As is my wont – I swear to God that I do it naturally, not to show-off – I did a bit of arcane name-dropping. I mentioned Heraclitus. (Yeah, right! Mentioning a name like that in a conversation is really natural!) I said that, for Heraclitus, a guy who lived 500 years before Christ, everything changed constantly, but that there was an underlying order governed by reason. He replied with, ‘For you, everything is the meta of the meta of the meta.’

He is right. Which leads me to the following. I like to look for underlying complexity. Surely science looks for underlying complexity, right? I look for it in topics in the humanities. I get excited by classical and jazz music where a lot of musical activity transpires simultaneously. (Organised by quite a mathematical structure. My mathematical ineptitude is probably why I never became a composer, an early dream.)  I get excited by arty and ambiguous films which are open to endless scrutiny. I get excited by huge, sprawling, digressive novels. My ambition is to write such novels. I am writing one right now. I like to read – and write – dense complex books for fun.

It has become clear to me that I am a tad too over-ambitious. I become attracted to complex subjects with little in the way of introduction. As an undergrad lit student, I always went for complex interpretations of texts. Although I graduated with a first, my lecturers must have sensed when reading my essays that I was getting ahead of myself most the time. These trained scholars, must have seen my essays as confused, hyperlexic and over-ambitious.

So I look for complexity in the ‘meta of the meta of the meta,’ not in empirical data or anything like that. It might mean that I have a scattered brain or that I am crack-pot. It might even mean that I am interested in pseudo-complexity! I see it like this: immerse yourself in the sea of complexity in a dense symphony, a novel, a film or a philosophical tract and you may emerge confused, enlightened or you simply be a richer person. Constructing something similar – i.e. a complex novel – is even more enlightening, confusing and enriching. So there you have it. This why I like complexity for complexity’s sake.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Impressive recent reads #3

The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer



Reading this tome was a mammoth undertaking that took me the best part of a year. Although Schopenhauer is renowned for being overwhelmingly pessimistic, I found his view of the world, to a degree, to be life-affirming.

The basic crux of his argument is as follows.To an extent, Schopenhauer agreed with Kant's distinction between the phenomenon (subjective perception, 'appearance') and the thing-in-itself. The thing-in-itself is external reality and, so Kant said, unknowable. We cannot know the thing-in-itself because we are limited to our own experience and our own subjective perception. Space, time and causality, for both philosophers, are 'a priori.' We have a predetermined understanding of them. We do not need to acquire knowledge to perceive any of these categories. As regards causality, even small children and animals already, for instance, know that they should not jump off a table. Schopenhauer argued that there is a underlying energy that powers all subjects and objects. It powers the whole of nature. It resides within 'the thing-in-itself' and it resides within ourselves. There is a pantheistic bent to this, though Schopenhauer is an atheist and sees nothing divine to it. This is what he called the 'will.' It is often characterised as 'striving,' which is instructive. The will seeks satisfaction, but it is constantly denied. The subject is constantly dissatisfied. The whole of nature is in a constant war of attrition. It 'wills' and it 'strives', but it is unsatisfied.

Schopenhauer divides the work into four parts. In the first, he examines epistemic questions ('The World as Appearance, First Aspect'). He concurs with Kant that time and space are a priori. An innate understanding of space, time and causality endows us with 'sufficient reason' (as in rational mental faculties) to process phenomena with no prior experience. All physical phenomena also needs a 'sufficient reason' for it to occur (i.e. the necessary causal relations and whatever intrinsic substantive qualities). In this section, he examines physical science to explain the perception of reality and to ascertain how we know what we know. Ever the systemiser, he uses logic to explain how the mind perceives certain objects and words and how it retains some objects and words to the detriment of others.

In the second section, he explores ontology ('The World as Will, First Aspect'). Here he explores the way in which 'the will' runs through everything. As it runs through ourselves, this means that both subjectivity and objectivity are interchangeable both in terms of perception and causality. Schopenhauer reveals his characteristic pessimism when he reveals that willing is a unsatisfactory, even painful, process. The whole of nature is willing and regenerating itself, with little purpose other than procreation (and misery!).

In the third section, Schopenhauer explores aesthetics ('The World as Appearance, Second Aspect.') This part is particularly enjoyable. Art, for Schopenhauer, represent 'Platonic Ideas.' By this he means that it expresses universal truths that are outside reality. It is outside space and time and outside a casual nexus. He explores all of the arts and ranks them in order of importance. Music is the 'purest' form of art. By this he means that it is informed by pure mathetmatics and doesn't have a shred of language or reference to the natural world. Essentially, art lets us see appearance in a way that is more subjective and removed from the every-day.

In the final section, he explores ethics ('The World as Will, Second Aspect'). Since we are all willing and eager to satisfy our own dreams, this implies that we are all selfish and amoral and do not care about the need for others. Here Schopnehauer specifies that we need to be compassionate. When we do this, we are 'denying' our will. Finally, Schopenhauer considers asceticism to be the 'highest' form of existence. By taking on poverty and not caving in to bodily desires, the individual 'denies' the will and takes control of his own volition. It is also a higher form of existence than art, since the former is a fleeting pleasure (and only a fleeting 'denier' of the will) and does not lead to an ethical lifestyle.

Schopenhauer is not a big a name as he was in the early 20th century, where he was generally a favourite of artists rather than philosophers. I find this a bit surprising in that a lot of his ideas are proto-Freudian and proto-Darwinian and they shape the discourses we have today. (As a whole, we are not that big on metaphysics or idealism any more, though. Those who are don't tend to be atheists.) His ideas on desire definitely foreshadow Freud. Despite Freud's dissection of sex, he was still overly moralistic and aimed to curb overpowering desire. He built 'psychoanalysis,' instead of celebrating asceticism. His ideas definitely foreshadow Darwin. The idea of the whole of nature 'willing' and striving for procreation has obvious parallels with natural selection. Admittedly, these ideas were gaining traction in Germany at the time. This is why Darwin was accepted far more swifyly than in the UK. This did have nasty implications, obviously, as it led to Social Darwinism and, ultimately, to Nazism.

There is a very interesting appendix where he offers several counter-arguments to Kant. Kant had an argument about a series of causes, with no beginning or end, which stretch back and forth into infinity. This would be the case if a human mind had no knowledge of causality. I can't remember Schopenhauer's objection to this, but I find the original argument fascinating. One of the central arguments here is that it is the intellect which mediates the perception of reality. This is instead of the mind simply perceiving reality and the intellect henceforth categorising it into an abstract concept. We actually use abstract concepts to make sense of objects.

I find philosophy to be at its most fascinating when the author systematises all of his beliefs. It feels as though he is trying to make sense out of everything he has ever perceived and read about. (In Schopenhauer's case, it did. He wrote this volume age 25, made small modifications before he died and wrote volume 2 during this period as well.) I like it when a author develops the idea, views it from different angles and questions the central idea's logic and cogency. I have grown to like this rigour, although it's certainly a lot more taxing to read than fiction or other non-fiction books. This book is still more readable, I am told, than stuff like Kant and Hegel, both of which I hope to approach one day.

The reason why I find the book life-affirming is that, for all of the pessimism, it's largely true. And, for all of the hopelessness, it's somewhat hopeful. If I have some sort of lofty ambition, I won't be able to realise it because there are other competing subjects and objects operating in a causal chain with their own lofty goals. Schopenhauer's individualism claims that we can attenuate this through art which is divorced from reality and, in more extreme cases, through denying our own desires. If we follow the latter route, we surely henceforth become more moralistic and compassionate. This is an account of the world which emphasises idealism (i.e. that pereption is generated thanks to thought rather than matter) whilst also recognising the reality of the physical world, the reality of our ontological selves (i.e. we are largely greedy and bent on personal gain) and the need to attenuate this through beauty (art) and compassion.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison



I liked Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man because it is a book about racial politics and identity that doesn't lapse into preachy didacticism. The central character has ambitions to learn and write. Despite his erudition, he is thrown out of university for a minor incident. He is told that he is meant to be subservient, that he shouldn't be proud nor even have a personality. This is so simply because the lead character is black.

Once more, this is a book that celebrates individualism. The character joins a white Trotskyite group campaigning for racial equality. The protesters claim to use 'scientific' language (the Soviets did claim that dialectic materialism was a science). Enlisted for his brilliant oratorical skills, he finds himself at odds with them despite his ability to communicate effectively with the black community. He finds their collectivisation disingenuous. They are members within a collective and go under aliases. He finds that this goes against desires to affirm himself as an individual. He also finds that they have no understanding, nor even any genuine empathy, for the black community.

More than anything, I found that you do not need to be from a racial minority to connect with this book. This book will resonate with anyone who feels alienated and detached from others. Ellison writes wonderfully and there are some lovely Biblical speeches.

Los Siete Locos/Los Lanzallamas by Roberto Arlt



Arlt really isn't a good writer. The metaphors are clunky, he writes prolix sentences and the prose is completely flat. There is a sense in these books that he is simply writing as fast as possible to get the book down on paper. He says as much in the introduction.

I think that people do overstate all of the existentialist stuff when writing about these books. There's plenty of death-of-God-gloom here and it does predate Sartre. What mainly excites me about this book is the socio-economic context. The characters are all poor and have megalomaniacal intellectual schemes. They want to create a utopian socialist utopian ruled by Christianity. They want to finance it by finding a pot of gold in the Andes and by owning all of the brothels in Buneos Aires! All of the characters are eccentric (or 'locos') and have their own revolutionary intellectual pursuits. This is really grimy stuff. Afflicted characters, prostitutes, madmen - this is Dostoyevsky in the streets of Buenos Aires!

The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone



This book is a little odd. It is a ad-hominem indictment of Socrates, a figure who we only know about through second-hand sources. The author is a political journalist, not a historian.

Athens was the birthplace of democracy. Socrates was an anti-democrat. He was a metaphysical orator who did not partake in politics. He was a complete crank. However, he did teach figures like Critias who went on to found the League of Thirty who mounted a coup against Athens. When democracy was restored, Socrates was brought to trial. Stone argues that, whilst Athens was not correct in trialing Socrates and sentencing him to a death penalty, Socrates did not do himself any favours. Athens was a democratic society and extolled free speech. Socrates was anti-democratic and his beliefs were an affront to its democratic values.

What I found surprising when reading the book is that I found absolutely no ideological core to the political belief systems of Plato/Socrates. They want society to be led by someone 'who knows.' There is very little more to this beyond 'the meek must be led by the strong' kind of stuff. Meanwhile, all of our judicial systems and parliamentary politics are indebted to the Greeks. Theirs was even more advanced in that it was more participatory and direct. Democracy was a nascent idea which was already largely well-formed. Whilst Stone constantly invokes Stalin and Hitler, at least they turned to horrible justifications and appropriated thinkers to build a thought system which were incoherent.  

The problem I found with this books is that Stone constantly looks at events in antiquity from the bias of 20th century attitudes and values. Socrates and other thinkers are judged by our standards. Worse, he invokes recent despots instead of placing these thinkers more closely within the context of their times. Also, from what I gather Socrates is more well-known for his moralistic teaching and for his metaphysics than for his politics (as Stone writes, he largely abstained from politics). Still, the book is written with flair and it was fun to read.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Why is experimentation dated?

It is tempting in clichéd journalistic parlance to write off experimentation as dated. Its apex was the 1960s and it stubbornly persisted in some quarters in the 1970s. It is seen as a naive and juvenile enterprise. It has little substance. It is nothing more than a cold intellectual exercise in formalism.

A term dished when defining experimentation is 'avant-garde.' The meaning of the word is to radically break conventions and staid practices. In a uber-ironic post-modern art-world that can seem a little trite. The word is, in fact, a little trite. What is the point in breaking all rules when the rules have largely been broken? What's the point in offending pieties when we live in such a liberally permissive society where no-one is ever shocked anymore? Everything about the term is clichéd. The desire to destroy the past and to insult a conservative agenda is in itself conventional - and boring. Shock in and of itself, with no accompanying form or content, is vacuous and childish.

The commercial art world is laughable in this sense. It has institutionalised the avant-garde. It is now respectable to break taboos in a badly framed photographed or an inchoate painting. Many people flock to the Tate to see works by Emin and Hirst. Their work embodies the avant-garde in the way I outlined it in the paragraph above. Both Emin and Hirst mount gratuitous art objects and installations. Or photographs. Or sometimes paintings. Whatever it is they do, their output is the same. It aims to slap the viewer in the face. The viewer is unruffled as he is used to being smacked constantly by other media. The motive, though, is laudable. There is a need, it seems, to institutionalise the edgy and the offensive.

What would the avant-garde of the 1920s, 30s etc. have said about this? No doubt, they would have been horrified. Theirs was largely a clandestine operation. They were effectively terrorists, launching bombs at a po-faced art establishment. The art world, and the avant-gardism it celebrates, now is the establishment. What's more, the avant-garde in the early 20th century was, apart from the shock value, interested in just making something interesting and worthwhile. Most of the artists were poor. It was generally made because the artist felt a desire to make it. Now the avant-garde in the art world can be often be the equivalent of becoming a banker in the financial sector. You can make pots of money. Most importantly, you have to be an astute entrepeneur. You have to know how to sell your specious object.

This is a shame. The desire to experiment, regardless of its putative claims to shock or innovate, is written off altogether. Experimentation is consigned to a by-gone era in cultural history. Why is this? The commercial art world is in a bubble of its own. It is a financial sector, not really a cultural one. Experimentation in film, music and literature is often written off now.

I remember reading an obituary somewhere of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. It said that his career started with a bang. His music had an audience. It was trendy. Ligeti kept composing arcane pieces nobody cared about. The obituary (I never think an obituary should pass judgement on its subject in this manner, but nevermind) said something like 'The world had moved on and he hadn't.'

I find it distressing how so many people are reluctant to see modern classical music as a continuation of their Romantic forefathers. It is seen by many as an anachronistic 1950s fad. People have moved on from it.

Although post-war composers like Boulez and Stockhousen used the rhetoric of the avant-garde, their music can be seen as an addition to the canon, not an act of destruction. Boulez did heckle at supposedly passé Stravisnky concerts and did assert that the 'Mona Lisa was dead.' He largely moved on from that. Stockhausen, meanwhile, retreated into obscure reclusion. Anyway, both composers added new ideas and new ways of thinking. Their work isn't empty nor gimmicky. (Someone like John Cage might be.) On the contrary, the opposite is true. When you first hear a piece by either composer, there is a sense of sonic overload. It is packed with ideas. When you hear it for the first time, you are overwhelmed. That's part of the attraction. You hear the pieces again and again and you start to hear structures and arrangements. You wouldn't be able to understand all of it. To do that, you would have to have deep understanding of music theory and maybe have some mathematical nous. That's also part of the attraction. They're densely layered works you will never fully understand. They're not cold. They're often energysing and visceral. I find that my mind in particular is exhilarated in the intriacy behind the construction, the aggressive force with which it is played and the strange angular beauty of the voices. It's a shame that it's increasingly uncommon to place, say, a piece by Elliott Carter next to one by Bach. Both are great, so why not?

The literary novel is said to be a dying breed. I hardly think that's true. There is a lot of respectability surrounding people like Jonathan Franzen and there is quite a big market for it. The greatest attraction for literary writing is to have a very individualistic voice and world-view. Increasingly, creative writing courses spew out impeccable writers who are not particularly individualistic nor do they write with a philosophy. If they write a post-modern novel or poem, it feels like a class assignment. Avant-garde poetry and literature has always felt to me like an externalisation of your mind into something scattered. There is a formula behind that now. How could you possibly formulate that? I sense that when I see avant-garde poetry here and there.

I feel that there is less of a need now for ambitious novel of ideas. Publishers are scared. They lose money if they push for something with ambition. The current state of the world is open to myriad analysis and insights. The effective media like these have on our minds is unprecedented. Why can't we have more novels analysing all this? I am aware that there are many. The problem is that they do not seem to have as much grip on the reading classes as the work of, say, Pynchon did in the 1970s.

I'll end with a few words about film. You could say that the golden era was the 1970s. Financial backers were willing to take risks on 'auteurs' with ambitious projects. That kind of complete control is less common today. Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorcese are one of the few remaining directors from that generation. Many arty films hardly ever profit, so why pump money into them whilst trusting some crazy guy? The arthouse market is fragmented. That, in a sense, is a good thing. There is so much to see and there are a lot of great young filmmakers around. It's just tough to find them - unless they get the help of a distributor.

It is easy to make the assumption that art films are a relic of the 60s. Or that contemporary classical music is cold and intellectual. Or that an experimental novel cannot be compulsively readable. We do have a certain advantage over the cultural era of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Although silly chicness is present now, it does not necessarily mean that it taints the perspective of the artist. Many films from the 1960s no longer get made - and with good reason. The desire for experimentation can be seen as a far more modest one. Instead of breaking taboos and upsetting older generations, it can be seen as a way of exploring interesting ideas in a more unorthodox and idiosyncratic manner. Why should that be dated? Isn't it an impulse shared by many people who aren't even artists?

Friday, 11 September 2015

Just be promiscuous with me!



I recorded this way over four years ago, aged 20. The worse thing is that hardly little has changed. I was very much right to be so anxious and gloomy about my future prospects regarding girls. This is worth hearing for a few laughs - it's so pathetic it's funny. I don't think I'll ever change!

Friday, 4 September 2015

British subversive cinema

Britain and cinema. Sigh. For many cinephiles out there, the two just don't go together. Jean-Luc Godard once cruelly and unfairly quipped 'you could only lose hope in British cinema if you believed in it the first place.' (Inaccurate quote - that's how I remember it. Don't kill me. This is just any old blog on the old inter-web, not an academic paper, so I can get away with this kind of sloppiness!) Cinema is a modern invention. It is an art that spawned out of the dawn of modernistic progress. Cinematographic equipment was a landmark discovery. So much so that it is no exaggeration to rank all kinds of optics as one of the greatest scientific inventions of all time. When cinema came in Europe, before Hollywood became the major industry that it is today, it was a new and exciting art. This was alongside radical politics - fascism, communism, psychoanalysis etc. were wildly popular with those bohemian werewolves who congregated in Viennese and Parisian coffee houses.

Put that alongside the UK and the two don't quite fit. The UK has never really had a tradition of radical politics. (If you were a Marxist, you generally joined the Labour party, which was largely founded to attenuate those radical impulses and to realise them in a more compromised and pragmatic fashion.) The UK had, and still has in many ways, a deeply ingrained class system. You could make the claim, without being at all controversial, that it is the most valuable country in the history of literature. Shakespeare, after all, graced these shores, as did Dickens. But then, British literature has always being considered far too parochial - still is. As great as all those 19th century novels are, I was put off from reading them as a teenager. It's only now, in my mid twenties, that I would dare pick them up and read them with relish. As a teenager, why would I want to read about upper class frumpy housewives, balls and men wearing top-hats? I wanted to read about sodomy, transgression, porn, violence - all of that exciting and lovely stuff! (Or metaphysical philosophical fiction or dystopian fiction... you get the picture. The kind of stuff that excites idealistic, angry, shy, confused, cerebral, reclusive, lonely and neglected teenage boys....) I knew even then that many of these novels satirised class divisions etc. But then, British satire struck me - well, it still does - as a little too gentle. When modernism came along, Britian was quite possibly the top player. (Although Ireland had both Joyce and Beckett, which would put anyone to shame...) But... but... you still can't shake off the pungent whiff of parochialism when you read most of the British modernists. Virginia Woolf might be the best example. Stream of consciousness, temporally non-linear, wordplay etc. etc. - all that kind of stuff. Yet she thought literature should be refined and well-mannered. The content - or lack of content... - was straight out of the most tedious and execrable 19th century novel. About the only reason why she didn't think Joyce was quite the best thing since Shakespeare, from what I can make out, was that she thought his toilet humour was naughty and that it made her squeamish.

Hence, the cinematographic medium and the British sensibility just didn't seem to be made for each other. Granted, the UK made some really great films. But then, they suffered very much from the Virginia Woolf syndrome... or from everything else I was talking about in the paragraph above this one. The brilliant Ealing Studio films summarised this perfectly well. A land of quirky eccentrics, with a peculiar sense of humour, a fondness for a cup of tea and for fish and chips... and always getting into scrapes. They were brilliantly funny and they made for brilliant cinema. But that hardly meant that Britain could even begin to dream that they could compete with what countries like France, Germany and Italy were up to at the time. I really like the Ealing studio films, but those films maybe are a bad example. Maybe I should have cited something with a bit of gravitas... Brief Encounter is often cited as one of the best British films. Great film. It's a film I can watch many times and enjoy. I think that the real reason why I like it is that it makes me nostalgic for a period in history I never lived in but some of my grandparents (mainly on my maternal side) did. (Actually, my parental grandparents went to the UK from Latin America to fight in the second world war. Like me, they also had British passports. So they were there at the time of the film. Don't know why I'm even mentioning this in parentheses.) Real life wasn't quite like that, but that's how the media represented it at the time. People spoke stiffly and bookishly. Very politely. Very posh and deferential. Plummy accents. Because I've now spent so much of my life with my nose buried in books I find that I  speak a bit like that now. Actually, I get that a lot now! 'Why do you speak so posh?'

 Interestingly, because things were so up-in-the-air at the time, social mores broke down a lot more and there was a lot of infidelity. Aha, the nuclear family was under threat! After the second world war, the Labour Atlee government wanted to end deference and class division. They didn't quite succeed (ironically, Thatcher really was the death knell to deference...), but they did give us the NHS and the welfare state. Anyway, however interesting I might find them, let's put an end to these convoluted digressions. The main point I'm trying to make is that Brief Encounter is a product of its time - shows a period in history wonderfully and has a lot of Rachmaninov, trains and people drinking tea. It's really nicely filmed, too. Though however well-plotted the drama might be and however fully realised the characterisation is, it's still a little... soppy, no? More to the point, it is a film about infidelity. Because of the time it was made in, and because it is British, it didn't go all the way to satirise and subvert these social mores which were suffocating and restricting moon-eyed housewives.

Hence, Britain could never really overcome this type of parochialism. This was even the case when it tried to be a little more cosmopolitan. The Third Man, another contender for Best British Film Ever, is actually a better film than Brief Encounter. It is set in Vienna just after the end of the mighty Second World War. This is the problem when Britain ventures abroad, either in its books or films: it can only see foreign cultures or anything outside it through the prism of unmitigated Englishness. (Or Britishness. Or whatever. Those are very fine distinctions.) Although the film is about a black market after WWII in Vienna, we hardly get a perspective on the locals... Again, very English. (Or British. Scots aren't as parochial, though. We have the term 'Little Englander,' but have you ever heard of the term 'Little Scottishman'? No! So, I vow, so as not to offend any Scottish readers, if I have any, not to call Scots parochial!) It is very English to go to foreign countries, do quintessentially English things and not take an interest in the culture of the place you're visiting. So it is no surprise that when Carol Reed took over his cumbersome 1940s camera equipment that, when it rolled in the streets of Vienna, that he should not take any interest in the context in which his film was set? Also, would the film be as historic without the fabulous presence of Orson Welles? I think not. Is Orson Welles an Englishman? I think not. The iconic 'Cuckoo Clock' monologue was ad-libbed by Welles; it wasn't in Graham Greene's script. Welles might have been posh and Waspish. But he grew up in the United States, a country founded in the midst of the fervour of the American frontier, the gold rush and Enlightenment politics. Because he grew up in such conditions, he had more of a cosmopolitan outlook. The whole of Europe loved him to bits. So it took all that to push something within really 'great film' territory to something within 'best British film of all time' territory. And let's not forget the terrible legacy of British imperialism. We see this in the Powell/Pressburg films. Brits go abroad and everyone does everything they can to ensure these lovely people with their lovely plummy accents get the best possible treatment. These films came out only a few decades after having plundered many third world countries. When the hero in a Powell/Pressburg flick makes friends with even a German or Frenchman, it is presented as something very exotic indeed. But how could the UK even begin to understand the rest of the world when it cannot understand how much it did to destroy it?

So there we have it. All this is a relative shame. There is so much material in Britain for the subversive to rip to shreds. Many subversives have. The problem is that most British people - and, by extension, most British artists - are so steeped in British culture that they can't recognise that the things they have grown up with for years are very peculiar. They also don't realise that most of their little traditions are horseshit. What other country of the world is so obsessed with its pomp and circumstance? How can it cling on to the House of Lords and its silly wigs for cripes' sake? All this makes them myopic when it comes to critiquing their own culture.

The aim of this blog post is to point out that there are some British films which can be subversive. This makes them unusual. And exciting. And, for all of their edgy material, you could easily say that they are all quintessentially British films! These three films are If.... (1968) by Lindsay Anderson, The Devils (1971) by Ken Russell and Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh. Why do you need to look for one of these seditious artsy-fartsy French (pseudo-)intellectuals when you can occasionally find them in your own backyard? Take that, Jean-Luc!

If.... came out just when the May '68 revolts in Paris were going on. To many, the film tapped in to the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping across Europe. It would, I think, be a mistake to equate it with anything going on in Paris. This is a very British revolution. The Parisian students were Marxists, Sartrians, Foucaultians and ascribed to a load of nonsensical theory that melded a whole swathe of academic disciplines and that no-one really fully understood. (If you went up to, say, Lacan and asked him what his theories meant... if you told him 'cut the bullshit, give me a straight answer!'... and he gave you an answer... I don't think that you'd leave particularly convinced...) The revolts in this film are a response to years of rigid social codes, deference and the imperiousness of the upper classes which had gone in Britain, well, forever.

So, what 'theory' informs the revolts led by Malcolm McDowell and his fellow peers? Let's drop the word 'theory'. It's largely nonsense. What thought informs their revolts? The lads in the film, in many ways, are what I was like aged 17, except that they show their emotions and aren't pathologically shy. They are full of angst, nihilism and seditious contempt for their authorities (the 'dons' who lead their boarding school). Like many a young angry thoughtful boy, they start thinking about death, rebellion and nihilism. Unlike the purely Marxist revolts in Paris, the students in this fictional film take an interest in mysticism and religion. At the beginning of the film, one of the students enthusiastically sputters about an experiment in asceticism (the topic of my masters dissertation, which I will start writing and have finished a year away from now). This is the young pseud we have inside all of us but, over the years, undergoes a gradual death. Mine is alive and kicking, as you might tell. (I don't understand why anyone would want to grow out of all this adolescent stuff - it's great!) So, the 'thought' which leads to the revolt is largely a brew of Nietzsche, Freud (plenty of all that 'unconscious' stuff - more on that later), a smidgen of revolutionary Marx, religious mysticism and anthropological thinkers (like Levi-Strauss, maybe?) who prompted posh idiots/academics to impartially look into foreign cultures. There's some brilliant African music ('Sanctus' by Missa Luba. I urge you to look it up. You won't. So here it is.) that the McDowell character takes an interest in. It's used to great effect.

The film doesn't celebrate revolution because it believes in the idea of a better society. That's a very socialist idea. This isn't a socialist film. It celebrates revolution because it destroys a society that is decadent and repressive. It wants law and order to degenerate into anarchy. (By anarchy I don't mean in the collective organised sense. I mean in the everyday use of the word - pandemonium on the streets.) We must bear in mind that all the hippie-dippie 'let's make love, not war' stuff was turning into something nastier in parts of the world. The drugs these flower power kids were taking were turning a lot of them into psychotic murderers. Think of Charles Manson. Paul Thomas Anderson's Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice makes this point. The idealistic political yearnings of this generation evaporated very quickly. The 'hippie dream' collapsed. It collapsed because of all the drugs they were taking and also because their free-spirited lifestyle just wasn't financially sustainable. (The film is a very literal adaptation, apparently, so by extension it's really Pynchon's idea. I haven't read that particular Pynchon book, so I'm going by what I saw in the film.) Going back to If.... .... ('Jesus'! you're thinking. Your eyes are rolling! 'Just stick to the bloody film you're meant to be writing about!' Aha, I retort! These tangents are relevant! Anyway, reader, you are right to an extent. And I really shouldn't assume what you are thinking. I may or may not know you. Most rude.)  So, this is a nihilistic conservative film. (I must admit, I am partial to a bit of jargon. Especially when it is italicised.) It is individualistic, not collectivist. It doesn't care a jot about improving the lives of others. It sees humans as intrinsically flawed, not good. Nothing can be done to improve humans. Everything, essentially, sucks. What to do? Get some machine guns and start shooting people.

So, like Freud and like Nietzsche, Lindsay Anderson believes that there is an evil animal lurking inside all of us. My favourite scene in the film is where McDowell character/friend go to a café where a sexy young girl serves them some yummy coffee. (Coffee back then was very yucky in the UK, so I'm told. One of the things I am thankful to Thatcher for is good coffee. Daft point, I admit, but the good coffee you can get hold of in the UK is thanks largely to globalisation. So that coffee wasn't yummy, it was yucky. Instant stuff. It just looks yummy because it is served by a sexy young girl. Geeeesh.) McDowell/compadre reveal said inner 'evil animal' (sounds trite, I know, but people do generally resort to this kind of language when discussing all this unconscious stuff) when approaching the girl sexually. McDowell puts the 'Sanctus' record on. (This bit is odd. He goes to a jukebox. How on earth would any old café in 1968 have an African record available? ...) The girl starts talking about how 'sometimes I think that I am a tiger. When I look at my eyes in the mirror they get bigger and bigger. I like tigers. Grraaaar!' They start to hiss at each other and to chase each other around the room. After that they have sex on the floor. What makes me slightly uncomfortable about this scene, I  must admit, is that Anderson recourses to African music to represent the id. (I am more than comfortable with the raunchy sex...) There is a sense here that Africa is baser and more animalistic. British imperialism covertly at work again?

And, of course, another thrilling bit is saved right for the end. You know that I said that a lot of British traditions are 'horseshit' before, right? What's so thrilling about the closing sequence is that it giddily, childishly even, says likewise. It essentially says 'You know, deference is a stupid idea, as is class. A lot of British traditions, actually, are fucking stupid. You know what? Let's blow it all up. Let's send them all to hell.' And they do. There is a lot of humour in the film. Before, there are a lot of absurd 'what the fuck is going on?' moments. Here it just gets ridiculous. It was pointless for Monty Python to parody this scene. The entire sequence is incredibly Pythonesque as it is.

It is easy to write If.... off as an inordinately dated relic with no relevance to the present day. That would be a huge mistake. These public schools, as you well know, still exist. They are thriving. Their students still graduate and get all the best jobs in politics and in the media. The politics in the film at a micro level still applies. Buggery, bullying, petty competition and psychological abuse still take place in these schools. As a matter of fact, with digital media, it is accentuated. (At Eton, parents have been urging teachers to teach their children about the alleged dangers of internet porn at sex ed.) At a macro level, the kind of hierarchical structure we see in the school still persists. For all of the efforts of 1960s political idealism that this film is associated with, the privileged few still tower above the many. (Ughr. Horribly put. Sorry.) In fact, income inequality is a lot worse than it was in the 1960s. In fact, the historical period in which the film is set is actually the high point in terms of equality and wealth distribution in the UK.

And this is where things get weird get weird and uncomfortable. If.... is David Cameron's favourite film. I know what your reaction is - 'he's trying to be trendy and cool.' (I'm really not selling this film to you, am I?) I think not. This isn't like Gordon Brown trying to get down with the kids by saying that he liked the Arctic Monkeys. To point out the obvious, Cameron can see himself in these characters because he also went to a posh boarding school. To dig in a little deeper, could Cameron see If.... as his ultimate wet dream? I don't think Cameron is particularly fond with being deferential to these old fogeys from the Second World War. He is the party's moderniser in that sense when it comes to social issues. He did, after all, send his party into cahoots by legalising gay marriage. Perhaps he, too, relishes the idea of getting machine guns and grenades and killing all the old-fashioned teachers he had at school. (If (!) a film were made about people getting machine guns and grenades and blowing up poor people on benefits, perhaps that would knock If.... off its pedestal for Cameron. But he wouldn't own up to liking that particular film, would he? And, after he slashed funding for British cinema, it is not like that film is going to be made any time soon, is it?) The film also is ambiguous about the bullying that goes on in boarding schools. Perhaps Anderson looks back on that somewhat affectionately, or at least a little ambivalently? And Cameron, having no compassion, does so too?


If.... (1968)

And now let's move on to Ken Russell's The Devils. The reason why I think I'll have less to say about this film is that I am at odds to explain why I like it so much. It's bizarre, 'out there,' fantastical, exciting, thrilling, funny - all that stuff. But why? Ineffably so, in many ways. But there's no good for me to write a blog post about a film (well, maybe less than 1/3 of a blog post about a film...) and for me to say 'oooooh, it's so ineffable and mysterious.' So I will try to explain why I like it.

I just noticed that I said nothing about the visuals in If, either about the cinematography or its mise-en-scene.... (There's quite a bit to say about that. It alternates between black-and-white and colour, out of pecuniary expediency rather than an intentional aesthetic choice.) So I'll start talking as to how The Devils is such a visually ravishing film.

It is somewhat tawdry, yet elaborately baroque. The director Derek Jarman built sets for the film. In the image below, you can see how a nunnery is made out of materials for a toilet. (Obviously, this is very sacrilegious...) There are many ridiculous, somewhat camp, costumes. So that accounts for the tawdriness. The main reason why I want to emphasise the visual aspect of the film is that it reminds me of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, a painter that I am very fond of. There is all of the sexual stuff - nuns are dying to have sex with priests, Jesus Christ wounds are licked and everyone is  fucking right-left-and-centre - so there is a sense of this very sanctimonious society going down a moral, as well as a literal, hell. Bosch painted during the Renaissance. As such, his painting were cryptic cautionary warnings. They were definitely preaching piety. They were images portending an apocalyptic hell. Yet many of his images have led many critics to view him as a forefather of surrealism. You could easily look at some of his images and mistake them for something by Salvador Dali. They look surreal to us now, but there is no way, considering the epoch in which he lived, that Bosch espoused the worldview of the surrealists. The Devils not only looks like a Bosch painting because of these resonances. (There are alligators been thrown into furnaces, for example.) It also goes to great lengths to capture the density of a Bosch painting, the level of detail. It suffused with the symbolism, which is the inevitable baggage which comes with Catholicism. Many scenes are crowded with ridiculous figures. There are tonnes of statues all over the place. I can look at a painting by Bosch for hours because I keep spotting new things. The Devils is pleasing on the eye because it is has a similar kind of visual richness.

Russell converted to Catholicism a few years before this film was made. I'm not sure how seriously he took it. I think he liked the spectacle, the abundant iconography, of this religious denomination. I think this aspect of this filmmaking is perhaps is why I'm not so keen on him as a director. I saw his film Mahler. By God, was that crap! I was especially keen to see it because I like Mahler's music and I really like novels and films about the lives of composers. I have written a few short stories based on composer biographies. But these fantastical scenes were so outlandish and ridiculous... ughr. I've been warned that his film on Franz Lizst is worse in this sense, so I'll steer clear of that. In The Devils, this kind of visual 'spectacle' is a lot more controlled. It stands out from the rest of his output for this reason. Though many critics have also criticised this film for being overblown, too.

If you want to be transgressive, religion has to be one of the easiest targets you could go for. You can do something aesthetically really bad, offend religious pieties and still get lauded. Piss Christ by Andrés Serrano consists of a crucifix of Christ... well, submerged in a glass of piss. Just a photograph of that. End of story. And, because of the silly commercialised art world that I've vented my spleen on in this blog before, it attracted a lot of praise. If you want to be edgy, raising a middle finger to the church is a facile way of going about that. Religious pieties are sensitive. They are deeply entrenched. Most religious people, it goes without saying, get easily upset if you say something blasphemous. Most of of our taboos are because of religion.

I'll just develop that last sentence a little bit more. Transgression involves the overcoming of taboos. Since most taboos have been installed by religion, all transgression in a sense is about the upsetting of religious codes and practices. The Devils isn't gratuitously blasphemous. It's hard to say that about a film which involves a nun's sexual fantasy about licking Christ's festering wounds. The Devils principally wants to understand the (here comes a veeeery convoluted phrase - apologies) psychology of the madness in religion. (Couldn't think of another way of phrasing that more succinctly. Well, I could. And it would take about ten minutes. And I really should go to bed now.) The nuns in the film are crazy and sex-obsessed. Psychological studies have revealed that religious people do have a tendency for all kinds of hallucinations. This is a film about religion, for sure. But it's also a film about a descent into madness and paranoia. The idea of taking a vow of celibacy is a bit problematic. Just masturbating every day of your life would make you a bit crazy, wouldn't it?

There is a conflict between good/evil, justice/deceit, piety/sacrilege etc. in the film. What I like about seeing a lot of those Renaissance paintings, of seeing devils whispering naughty things into the ears of angels, is the level of conflict and tension. It's two polar worlds at war with each other. This is why I found the bits I read of Milton's Paradise Lost so exciting. I think that if you transferred the same level of tension in one of those paintings into the narrative of a motion picture, you would end up with something like The Devils. A war between heaven and hell. This is despite the fact that nothing supernatural happens. The principal priest is accused of witchcraft by a horny nun infatuated with him. Once she finds she can't get to have sex with him, she grows to resent him. The priest is sexually promiscuous, impregnates a young girl, she finds that she he won't do anything to help her and she also plots against him. He breaks another major Catholic piety by getting married 'for love' with a sensitive and pious girl by having a secret ceremony in his house. ('Aha!' you say. 'So only now you are divulging something about the plot! Some people do watch these films mainly because of the story, you know?' Well, so do I. I am partial to a good yarn, too, and I like the story in this film! I already promised not to tell you what you are thinking because I already said that it's 'most rude.' I have broken that third wall a lot of times in this blog post. And it's not like I'm being remotely original or interesting with it. Woody Allen made it mainstream when he addressed the camera in Annie Hall. It's even a bit of a cliché now! Ahgr!)

The film is based on events that occurred in 17th century France, in a town called Loudon. The horny and irreverent priest was called Urbain Grandier. Many heroic religious figures who confront authority and get accused of blasphemy go on to become saints. The whole Loudon affair was a little too lurid, even for a denomination as obsessed with sex and death as Catholicism, for that to happen. Many theologians, occultist weirdos, historians and philosophers have since written at length about the event. It has been dramatised a lot. This particular version was based on the play by the 'author of ideas' par exellence, Aldous Huxley. (He was a fucking clunky writer, though. If you have both great ideas and you don't write clunky prose I salute you, sir! Or madame.) Huxley also wrote a long essay (longer than this stupid blog post, I can guarantee - it was a whole book!) on the topic and it informed Russell's film, too.

I mentioned the word 'lurid' in the paragraph above. The whole film could be said to explore the aesthetics of luridness. (I think that I'll just italicise a phrase of mine when it just gets too ridiculous.) There are lot of gory wounds. There's a lot sex with gory wounds. As a result, this film tends to appeal to horror fans. As a matter of fact I think it is even considered by most to be a horror film. If this film appeals to any film scholar, it would appeals to a scholar of horror films. David Cronenberg, the main go-to guy if you want to know anything about 'the aesthetics of luridness,' is a huge Ken Russell fan. (He is also very scholarly for a film director, let alone one who makes horror movies.) Cronenberg is fascinated with people who become obsessed and who develop sexual fetishes for wounds and gory stuff. Cronenberg is an atheist. Atheism is a very variegated field, if you can even call it a field! (It's not as a matter of fact. Most atheists are blassé about being atheists. When you press most of them about it, they just go 'meh.' It's only a select few who develop whole thought systems around atheism.) Cronenberg looks at these pathologies almost from a psychiatric point of view. How does a crazy fucked up person develop a sexual fetish for yucky wounds? Russell is a Catholic. Wounds and all that gory stuff are central to Catholicism. If nuns develop sexual fetishes for wounds, then it's because that means they get turned on by the figure of Christ. If you think about it, that's not at all odd. (In the secular societies which Cronenberg dissects, it is.) They spend their whole lives locked up in convents. Like the rest of us, they are human. Like the rest of us, they have sexual proclivities. Like the rest of us, they get horny by looking at certain sensory stimuli. If they are homosexual, they'll get horny by looking at other nuns. (Lesbian nuns. Exciting. For the love of God, let's not get into that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) If they are heterosexual, they'll get horny by looking at whatever male sensory stimuli is available to them. If they see many figures of Christ, they'll get horny over that. Christ is also a figure they revere more than any other. They are told that they shouldn't even think of him as a human; they should look at him as someone who transcends human limitations. It's taboo to look at him sexually. Breaking taboos is exciting to anyone, especially in repressive clerical societies. Hence, they'll get horny over the figure of Christ and they'll have fantasies about licking Christ's wounds. Many nuns must have wanked themselves stupid over that thought for thousands of years!

In many ways, you could argue that only a Catholic could appreciate this film. 'What?! This film is an insult to all Catholics! It is blasphemous!' Well, oddly enough, I think that I'm in the right on this one. So does none other that Mr. Revered Transgressive Author himself, J. G. Ballard! When David Cronenberg's adaptation of Barllard's cult classic Crash came out, there was mass uproar in parts of the world. Where did this uproar take place? In the UK. In the US. In Germany. In Scandinavia. It took place in Protestant countries. Ballard claimed that protestants couldn't handle Cronenberg's provocative adaptation because 1) Catholics have death at the centre of their religion, 2) Protestants have a grey view of the world where you can never have fun whereas Catholics, to some extent, do allow themselves to have some fun now and then, largely out of frustration and 3) they don't put much emphasis on free will. When The Devils came out in the UK, it was also very controversial. (It was a big hit in Japan, though, because they like their gory sex over there. Japs have such great taste.) But then, protestants are such dullards, aren't they? Theirs is such a desiccated world-view. Luther said (again, I'm just going by memory, so this is once more inaccurate): 'I believe in free will, but it's only for grazing and milking cows.' He took all the passion and excitement out of Christianity. Now that Europe and the US is secularised, that means that they just inherit the Protestantism of years gone by. If they criticise films like Crash and The Devils, they do so out of moral outrage couched in Prostestant rhetoric. The real reason might be, and I am speculating here, that British cinema is largely a bit dull because of its Protestant heritage. Britain is also very parochial, not only because it is an island but also, again, because of its Protestant heritage. This is perhaps why someone like me, who was raised in a Catholic country like Chile, is pulling his hairs after living 13/14 years in the UK and can't wait to leave.  This is also, perhaps, why I chose as an undergrad to study something with a more cosmopolitan slant like Comparative Literature. Modules in English courses largely looked tedious to me.
   
If you were a Marxist and, as a result, were a dialectical materialist, you'd be inclined to read a lot of the historical accounts in Loudon as a farce. Huxley was a bit of a hippie-dippie guy (or a proto-hippie-dippie guy...) with mystical inclinations. Most Marxists, come to think of it, wouldn't even be interested in this in the first place. Most Marxists are extremely well-read, but I think they'd just gloss over this historical incident. Anyway, Huxley was something of a mystic. He was, however, someone with a training in biology and he came from a family of distinguished biologists. He abandoned a career in biology because of poor eye-sight. Anyway, he is one of the commentators of this event who read it from a materialistic stand-point. He said that the people who mounted the accusations on Grandier manufactured them. 'Aha,' you say! 'Anyone would think that! Anyone with half a brain would think that!' The thing is, dear reader, is that it's only since very recently that we don't believe in spirits and miracles and all that stuff. That's why it was so novel for Marx to say 'I am going to look at history from a materialistic standpoint. What's more, I am going to do it dialectically.' So, Huxley, who was not a Marxist, but came way after Marx, said that in his essayistic book about Loudon. (He was interested in Marx, though. The main character in Brave New World is called Bernard Marx.) And Russell incorporated it into his film. Although a Catholic, he sided with Huxley. And although he was a Catholic he did have a wild imagination, so he also saw Grandier as a heroic figure. If Ken Russell had been the pope - he wouldn't exactly have been a model figure considering that he he drank a lot and had a lot of wives - then he might have beatified Grandier.  



The Devils (1971)

So there we have it. I thought I wouldn't write very much about that film, but I ended up writing more about it than If.... .... Now onto Mike Leigh's Naked. I know that this will seem daft. No, it will seem disingenuous. No, it will seem like I am having you on. And, by the time you have finally finished this interminable drivel, you'll have thought: 'This guy ripped me off, even though reading this crock of shit was free. I want to punch him in the face.' Anyway.  I really think I'll really have less to say about Naked. I can't say with any certainty because, well, these things just seem to groooow. It's like that cliché those writers say when interviewed: 'Oh, well, you know. I, I.... I don't really know what my novel really means, you know. I started writing it and it just grew... the end result really surprised me. These characters took a life of their own.' And you, dear reader, may have been reading me for way over six or seven years. You might have thought that a lot of my posts have been a bit humourless, but you do expect a degree of self-control and discipline. By the time you finish reading this, you'll have thrown the towel in. You'll cease to read my blog. This is a pretty radical stylistic change on my part. I had a tiny little audience and it will have deserted me after this. How could I have possibly held your attention for this long, anyway? 

The reason why I think I'll have less to say about Naked - I promise I'm not bullshitting you with this one - is that I only saw it once, six years ago. It struck me as an overpowering piece of work. After all these years, I'm really itching to see it again. The other two films I wrote about I saw for the first time a few years later and I have seen them twice. So with my little analysis-cum-waffle below, I'm relying on fairly hazy memories. I did see a few scenes from the film on You Tube to refresh my memory earlier today, though.

The main thing to write about is the main character, Johnny, played the magnificent David Thewlis. Johnny is a street-philosopher, a tramp and a rapist. He is aggressive, intelligent, a bully and a misogynist. I generally identify with unusual fictional characters and this is no different with Johnny. I would probably have ended up something like him now if I hadn't gotten my life back on track aged 17. (Minus the raping, I hope.) When he speaks, his words are just a stream of unmediated bile, a violent riposte to a world he hates and that seems to connive against him. There was one line that struck me in one of those You Tube videos. It struck me as one of the horrible things I would say as a 17-year-old: 'No, I wasn't fucking bored. I'm never bored. That's the trouble with everybody, you're all so bored. You've had nature explained to ya' and you're bored with it. You've had the living body explained to ya' and you're bored with it. You've had the universe explained to ya' and you're bored with it. So now you just want cheap thrills, and you want plenty of them, and it don't matter how tawdry and vacuous they are as long as it's new, as long as it's new, as long as it flashes and bleeps in forty different fucking colours. Whatever else you say about me, I'm not fucking bored.' This signifies a kind of restlessness I shared at time. I felt restless to learn, but I was just overwhelmed by the body of knowledge. Still am. Other people's complacency unsettled me. Fads unsettled me. The educational system I had just gone through was bemused by me, didn't know what to make out of me and had branded me an idiot. I was angry against this world which I perceived  as idiotic and that seemed to perceive me as idiotic. 

Johnny baulks at the idea of ever being 'bored.' For all of his snide cynicism and sarcasm, he is a Romantic and idealist. He is a rugged individualist. To be bored in such a rich world teeming with knowledge, to him, is a crime. To divert oneself with faff, to him, is a crime. He won't compromise and take on a job. He thus ends up on the streets. I remember being 17, with long unbrushed hair and dishevelled clothing, and very much looking like a tramp... I remember walking past the streets at night and seeing middle-aged women ironing in their cosy living rooms in front of the TV set. Seeing this, for some reason, filled me with rage.

His character might seem incongruous. A philosopher, rapist and a tramp? Surely philosophy is incompatible with the other two? People who read too much philosophy, who are already a bit mentally unstable as it is and who think too much can end up being psychopathic. This can lead to, perhaps, something nasty like rape. Someone as staunchly individualistic and non-conformist as Johnny, can easily end up on the streets. I'm not saying that this warped logic applies to everyone. I'm not generalising here. This warped logic applies to Johnny. The character, I am saying, is believable. 

Ok, I'll admit that calling Johnny a philosopher is a huge stretch. But that's only by modern standards. And educated standards. (Come to think of it, all sorts of crap seems to qualify as philosophy, especially the 'pop' variety. A lot of new age drivel calls itself 'philosophy.') A philosopher is someone who is incredibly rigorous and logical when presenting an argument. Johnny isn't at all rigorous nor is he logical. When he rabbits on about his strange and complex ideas to strangers, he is led to a myriad unconnected thoughts. He is led to some rather mystical conclusions. And to some conspiracy theories. But then, philosophers generally just have conversations with other philosophers. Most of them are academics. They are Ivory Tower types, not tramps scavenging the streets. This, largely, wasn't the case in the 19th century. A lot of philosophers then weren't academics, they were like novelists. (Ok, so Kant - 18th century guy - and Hegel might represent the archetypal academics. But then there were people like Rousseau, another 18th century guy, and Schopenhauer.) Johnny might have felt more at home at some point in Ancient Greece. He would have led the lifestyle of a tramp, but people would have paid attention to his utterances. He may have garnered a following. Others may have started mimicking his lifestyle and deliberately chosen destitution and his demeanour. Philosophy then was largely seen as a way of guiding life. It was ethical. It was not seen as some abstract, almost mathematical, enterprise in solipsistic self-absorption. It was just one big thing trying to understand everything. This is very much Johnny's prerogative. Now philosophy is more modest and compartmentalised.   

So this is Thatcherite Britain in a nutshell. This is how an individualistic society repays the ultimate individualist. This is how an incredibly intelligent guy ends up in the bottom of the rung in the most veritable meritocracy. You see a similar kind of despair in a lot of social realist films depicting working class people in 1980s Britain.

Mike Leigh is drawn to the dregs as well as the polite middle classes. This is one his films about 'the dregs.' A lot of his films involve characters who are messed up and struggle to make ends meet. A lot of them live in shabby apartments or end up like Johnny. The real poetry and the real philosophy lies with these people. In a society as deferential as the UK, most poets and philosophers are Oxford graduates. And that is why there is oh so little subversion. 


Naked (1993)

So, a few closing remarks. What makes these films subversive? If.... is about destroying tiresome conservative British practices. It argues that destruction is healthy, necessary and beautiful. I mainly used the word 'transgression' when looking into The Devils. Let's be a bit discerning. What's the difference? 'Transgression' is about overcoming barriers. It is about breaking moral codes. It is about doing something society thinks is forbidden. It is definitely more moral whereas subversion could be seen as being more in the realm of aesthetics and politics. I also, perhaps rather weakly, argued that it is subversive because it came out in a protestant country like the UK and thus offends British sensibilities. Naked is subversive, in many ways, because it is a positive treatment of an anti-hero. In this case, a rapist.   

I like this new style. It's sillier. It reads like this: You get together to drink coffee with me. After I have finished drinking black coffee no. 2 I am high as a kite. You tell me, 'Simon, please talk to me about British subversive cinema. I am all ears. I won't interrupt you.' So I prattle on and on for an hour about British subversive cinema. You have brought recording equipment with you. You press the play and pause buttons on and off. You transcribe the recording. It is an incredibly laborious process. You end up with this. But I must say, I prefer this type of writing. It is very much on an academic topic. If I were to submit this as an academic paper, though, my lecturer would return it with a shit mark and would tell me: 'I really enjoyed reading this, but you didn't adhere to academic standards. Hence, I have to give you a shit mark.' (The lecturer would own up to enjoying it because he/she secretly would like academic writing to be this way.) I wouldn't be able to get it published in any publication. The person who runs whichever magazine, if pressed, would tell me: 'A few of your ideas here are vaguely interesting. Most of them are just eccentric. The article is an unstructured mess. Go back and work on it a lot. Come back with the tenth draft. Only then will I read it again.' That's why blogs are such handy devices. Fuck writing in a faux-academic style. Fuck writing in a faux-journalistic style. You can write like this.