Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Silence

We are in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. We are over-saturated with media. When we access the internet, we open eight or nine tabs at a time. We are barraged with advertisements constantly. (I shudder to think of the total number of adverts I will see once I pass away. Thousands. When I go to the cinema I now take my glasses off when all the ads are screened. I also try to watch as little TV as possible.) This is post-modernity. It is loud, frenetic and disruptive - like a premature ejaculation.

I am becoming increasingly interested in the sages and ascetics of ancient antiquity. They would go to remote places, isolate themselves for decades, live frugally and engage in a conversation with 'God.' That is completely anachronistic in post-modernity.

What I think allows us to get away from this is silence. Silence allows us to distill the density of information and to focus our attention on one particular subject. It is escapist, in this sense, and also very helpful to help us focus our minds on a task.

In reality, silence is impossible. When we turn music off, avoid all distractions and put on ear plugs, we hear our heart beat, our breath and draughts. The quest for total silence is impossible to attain. This is what John Cage was getting at with his much-ridiculed conceptual piece 4'33. The piece isn't total silence. When the piece is 'performed,' the audience will make sounds. They might find the situation ludicrous - or, having spent a lot of money, 'ripped off' - and jeer. Otherwise, and this is the case now that the piece has been consecrated as part of the classical repertoire, cough and fidget in their seats in submissive reverence. The piece, then, isn't comprised of total silence. The piece consists of whatever sounds the audience makes.

Monks, mystics and ascetics slow the rate of speed they might experience as members of a society. This 'rate of speed' is particularly frenetic in free market societies. A contemporary monk, therefore, is overcoming a lot more distractions than one from antiquity. Ascetics deny their own nature. They take vows of silence, endure bodily mortification and abstain from sexual urges. Having taken complete control of their own desires, they therefore attain complete freedom.

Noise is exceedingly stressful - and ongoing. It can be escaped by visiting nature - the sea, woods, fields, etc. Here we find a serenity missing in the city. I find it necessary to do this at least on a weekly basis. Otherwise, the noise and stress of the city proves too much and I go through phases of anxiety and depression.

Silence, then, is the best conduit for introspection. It helps us to focus our attention on an isolated aspect of something. (Otherwise external noise is providing us with a something entirely different.) In post-modernity, it is also the optimal way to approximate the freedom attained by ascetics.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Astral Weeks


Astral Weeks by Van Morrison is one of the few albums constantly hailed as 'the best of all time' which thoroughly deserves the adulation. It sold little upon its release, but has since outsold most of what was on the charts at the time. It is a timeless record and, unlike a lot of rock music, has longevity.

It would still be a stretch to solely call this album 'rock.' It feels more like an amalgamation of Celtic soul, folk and jazz, Van Morrison's lyrics flow like milk, as does the music. The lyrics are suffused with recurring imagery and verbiage. The music ebbs with panache. Van Morrison sings about 'if I ventured in the slipstream, beneath the viaducts of your dreams' which alludes to idea of movement. Musically, motifs reappear throughout the album. The album is so holistic because of the way it fluidly modulates and the way in which it is self-referential. It is not a wad of songs bundled into a nifty little package, which is what a lot of rock records essentially are. Nor is it, as was fashionable upon its release, a gimmicky concept record. In many ways, it is a perfect artefact which reveals more to you the more you hear it.

Many of the songs are narratives. They recount the stories of a transvestite in 'Madame George,' Morrison's infatuation with a woman in 'Ballerina,' a stroll through Belfast in 'Cyprus Avenue.' Morrison called it 'a kind of opera,' yet that still feels perfunctory. The lyrics are poetry, articulated with cadences and musical accompaniment which enhance the sense of awe Morrison experiences. The movement of the music and lyrics are stated appositely by Morrison at one point: 'from bumber to bumber, stepping lightly.'

The session musicians were drawn from jazz groups as well as rock. Van Morrison hardly addressed them and brooded in the corner of the studio. But they really caught onto his songwriting. There are also a number of arrangements which complement the songs beautifully. The addition of the harpsichord adds a sense of wistfulness to Morrison's narration in 'Cyprus Avenue.' The string arrangements add a sense of buoyancy to the lugubrious tones of the bass and the strumming guitar. It is all harmonised, and gells so seamlessly, that it boggles the mind how it was recorded so swiftly. But then, a lot of the best jazz records are recorded quickly. For instance, all the tracks in Miles Davis' Kind of Blue were recorded in one take. Yet the playing and the symmetry, as in Astral Weeks, is so immaculate that one has the impression that there must have been some kind of telepathy involved.

Lester Bangs wrote the following about the record: 'Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.' This is an excellent description of the record. Morrison is expressing a series of epiphanies, or numinous moments which are difficult to explicate in any way other than poetry. In this sense, Van Morrison is very much the J S. Bach of rock. He writes music that consecrates the sacred. Through the non-representative medium of music, and the abstractions of poetry, he expresses a sense of transcendence and awe.

Friday, 9 January 2015

New year's resolution

Come the new year, I told myself that I would write a daily rant on Facebook. It didn't quite work out that way, but I did write a few rants. I wrote 6 of 'em and I have supplemented them with some ramblings/babblings/insights/what-have-you I wrote a few weeks prior.

1.



As soon as you sell education, it turns it into a worthless commodity. Universities are now effectively shopping centres. With little wisdom or knowledge to impart, they are awash with business courses and shopping precincts. Ludicrously, they seem to have more clubs and dance halls than libraries stocking books. Instead of teaching how to think critically or originally, universities principally teach students to be consumers.

2.

Public discourse is pretty much nothing more than sloganeering. Public figures and every day people carry placards online. It is completely absent of the nuance and ambiguity of a thoughtful essay. I always feel uneasy when people post partisan slogans. It contributes little to the cause you subscribe to and doesn't create interesting discussion. Now that all public pronouncements are made in 140 characters, reading sprawling novels like War and Peace will seem very antiquated indeed. We can't get away from the constant dross of advertisements and loud sloganeering; we can only immerse ourselves in it even more.
My slogan is:
DEATH TO TWITTER

3.

'Meritocracies' claim that the most able will be able to work their way up to the top. How do we calculate merit? In our capitalist societies, it is the market. The market does not favour merit. It favours mediocrity. As a musician, you will work your way to the top only if you make the most mediocre music because market forces dictate so. And so on and so forth for all professions. It would only make sense to call this hare-brained term 'mediocracy.' It pisses me off when people claim that this is the most egalitarian economic model around and it pisses me off even more when people say that the person who did the most for social mobility was Margaret Thatcher. Most people with my definition of merit struggle to make ends meet. Some even live with their mothers.
DEATH TO MEDIOCRACIES

4.

'If....' is a film which argues that destruction is beautiful. It doesn't celebrate revolution because it believes in progress and the idea of a better society; it celebrates it because it destroys a society which is decadent and repressive. The film is actually suffused with a nihilistic conservatism. It wants to liberate the human through random acts of destruction and senseless violence. This is my favourite scene from the film, as it is charged with a primal and deviant sexuality.



5.

At a time of slash-and-burn austerity, I don't understand how anyone couldn't be interested in the prospect of English devolution. I understand it even less when people argue that it creates 'weaker' states. Germany is federated and has plenty of welfare spending. This is what UK federation would bring - a bit more statism and a more vibrant economy in the north. It is an especially moot point considering that public spending has gone back to the 1930s.

6.

The writers that literary critics prefer are the American realists. They will cream over anything that Jonathan Franzen writes. What guarantees literary quality for them is well-rounded characters and naturalistic dialogue. The underlying ideas are of no real importance. If this is your attitude - get another career! You should instead make a living out of building intricate clocks. When I read a lot of those writers I can't get over how staid and lifeless it is. I would much rather write an ambitious novel that's flawed than write an unambitious novel which is perfect.

Older ones:

7.
I like to visit woods and cemeteries. No-one visit those places. Neo-liberalism cannot conquer those place and never will. Neo-liberalism will attract masses of people. That's why high streets in city centres are such horrific places. That's why clubs are such horrific places. That's why multiplexes are such horrific places. The places in western democracies where neo-liberalism does not pervade are barren and desolate. There has been such a fundamentalism from right-wingers that they want to privatise and commodify education and health care. You can't commodify death and you can't commodify nature. (The soviets hubristically thought that man was greater than nature. They ended up with Chernobyl.) Both nature and death greater than man. Man will never be able to transcend either. That's great. Plus, Joseph Conrad is buried in Cantererbury's cemetery. That's neat.

8.

A lot of English intellectuals believe in determinism. It's hardly surprising. Just look at English society. Have a cup of tea in the morning. All shops close at 5. (Compare this with Catholic countries which believe in free will - all bars and caf├ęs are conveniently open at this time.) Everyone goes to bed early. Watch TV. etc. etc. It happens every day like clockwork. I don't really understand the main premise behind determinism. There are causal connectives which determine the way our brain works. Therefore, we have no freedom of choice. That makes no sense to me. Can't these causal connectives enable our free will? I don't see how this precludes free will. How on earth does this explain consciousness? The main people who peddle all this stuff are extremely boring thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones. They say it's all nature and not nurture. The reason why its leading intellectuals espouse determinism is because English people themselves are robots.

Plus, there's this....

9.

This is my current 'books to buy' list. Due to other commitments - and stacks upon stacks of other books in my cupboard - I will be very surprised if I get to read all of these within the next decade.
BOOKS TO BUY
Culture and the Death of God – Terry Eagelton
The Aesthetic of Music – Roger Scruton
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine – Roger Scruton
False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism – John Gray
Enlightenment’s Wake – John Gray
Austerity Britain: 1945-51 – David Kynaston
The Order of Things – Michel Foucault
Peacemakers Six Months That Changed the World: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War – Margaret Macmillan
Julian – Gore Vidal
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor – Paul Stephenson
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
The First Philosophers: The Pre-Socratics and Sophists – Robin Waterfield
Capital in the 21st Century – Thomas Picketty
The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD – Richard Fletcher
The Third Chimpanzee – Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond
Averroes – Mahjid Fakry
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Zona: A Book about a Journey to a Room – Geoff Dyer
But Beautiful: A Book about Jazz – Geoff Dyer
Europe Central – William T. Vollman
The Royal Family – William T. Vollman
America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy – William Blum
Essays – George Orwell
Against Interpretation and Other Essays – Susan Sontag
Parminedes – Plato
Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt – Marcus O’Dair
Sculpture in Time – Andrei Tarkovsky
Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer – Paul Schrader

Pax.