Archive for October, 2019

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

October 28, 2019

912W443LLKL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Here’s a book I haven’t read for nearly forty years, since I worked on my thesis. Written in 1915, Gilman’s novel presents a socialist, feminist and (involuntarily) separatist utopia, a product of the early twentieth century wave of feminism, and rediscovered by the second, in the 1970s. It’s set up as a three-man expedition who have heard rumours of a dangerous women’s world, so they have to go there, of course. It turns out to be somewhere in an Amazon-type region, on a lofty basalt plateau cut off from the surrounding jungle, so suspiciously like the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It develops along the usual utopian lines: the visitors from outside discover a well-ordered land of peace and plenty (though a good number of fairly traditional feminine traits still remain there), and they (the men) are initially imprisoned by the women, cannot believe there can be no men, quickly reveal themselves to be rather silly in their attitudes, and have to learn to understand this new world in which they find themselves.

They learn the language and then there is the usual exposition, complicated by the naturally assumed superiority of men from our world and that particular time period. There have been no males of the human species in Herland for two thousand years; parthenogenesis spontaneously developed; there is a cult of maternity which has become their religion, and, the men are told, because there was no outlet for it, sex and sexuality were sublimated, suppressed and quickly vanished from the human experience. The feminists of the 1970s who produced rather different separatist utopias will have found this last development unsatisfactory; the concept of lesbian sexuality is not even hinted at here.

As the men learn – or not – we do come to feel, though it’s by comparison with our own society, that there’s a bit of a feel of the ant-hill or beehive to the world of Herland, happy and healthy though its citizens are, and the exposition ultimately becomes rather tiresome and tedious, just as in many other utopian novels.

I found myself wondering how convincing Gilman’s male characters were; they are types rather than personalities, and perhaps do represent attitudes from a century ago. The women of Herland are aware of the problem of stasis, which must be present in any utopian world, and are debating whether they want to re-establish a two-gender society, now that they have been presented with the potential and opportunity. Romances are developed (rather woodenly) between the three men and three women, marriages contrived (1915, remember!) and the awkward problem of sex and sexual desire rears its head, for the women are basically both uncomprehending and shocked when they encounter it…

As utopias go, it’s an interesting one, asking more questions than it answers, really, and casting a shadow on the world as we know it, which must necessarily seem dark and defective by comparison. Gilman raised the broader question of the differences between male and female attitudes and approaches to many aspects of life, living and society, and foreshadowed much more complex and challenging novels of the 1970s and 1980s where such issues are brought into play much more forcefully – thinking of the novels of Suzy McKee Charnas, for instance.

Worth a read if you happen to come across a copy… didactic rather than entertaining, and Gilman sets herself up for a sequel, which I have not taken the trouble to track down.

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

On rank insanity

October 25, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

When I read that there has been a survey of over 4000 people, that shows that over 70% of ‘leavers’ and nearly 60% of ‘remainers’ think that violence towards MPs would be an acceptable part of achieving the Brexit or non-Brexit that they want, I no longer recognise that country I was born in and have lived almost all of my life in. I am utterly ashamed to be part of it. My father found a haven here during the Second World War, and then eked out a difficult existence after it, when he and his compatriots were basically surplus to requirements for a lot of the British people. I cannot imagine what he would have made of the current situation.

I make no apology for saying that I have always regarded the idea of leaving the European Union as an act of rank insanity that will impoverish us economically and culturally, and further diminish our standing and status with the rest of the world (although that last may not be such a bad thing). I am proud to have been a European citizen for my entire adult life, and will feel the less when I am only a British one.

No British politician has behaved honourably in this entire proceeding, except perhaps the Speaker of the Commons. The referendum was only ever an attempt to reconcile warring factions in the Tory party, and Cameron was an idiot for allowing it, especially when the parameters were so vague. Farage is a racist and a hypocrite who can protect his family with citizenship of another EU state and fill his pockets with an MEP’s salary and pension. May was out of her depth, Johnson is another liar and hypocrite. Corbyn has dithered and played games just like his opponents, and the Lib Dems do not shine any whiter even if they do espouse what I ultimately hope for. Over my lifetime, our politicians seem to have become ever more self-serving and venal.

I honestly now have no idea what to hope for; although I’d class myself as reasonably intelligent, I find it almost impossible now to make any sense of all the permutations of possible outcomes, but unlike Johnson and his ilk, I don’t just want to ‘get it over with’. I would like the country to find its sense of tolerance again, and to treasure that which it can be proud of, especially the NHS; I would like us to be in the centre of the scrum, struggling to make our Europe a better place. At the moment, I honestly think that if I could rewind the clock some 30 years, I’d leave; certainly I’m rather envious of various friends and acquaintances who did…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth

October 7, 2019

91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I am trying to avoid spoilers in this post, as it’s such early days…

Well, the two years’ wait for this, the second volume of the second Philip Pullman trilogy, has been worth it. And I assume there will be another couple of years to wait for the final volume: this one breaks off in medias res, ‘to be concluded’… Here are some of my initial reactions.

The broader picture begins to emerge with this second book. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, wasn’t quite for children, but was centred on children approaching adulthood as central characters. The plot and the narrative style was appealing to a younger and an adult audience, with a huge canvas of different worlds and varied plot-lines; it seemed to be almost leading younger readers towards adult themes and ideas, centred on the power of religion and the difference between innocence and experience.

Readers passionate about that series will have hoped for more of Lyra and Will, and the many worlds. La Belle Sauvage, the first in the second series, was a curious bridge, in a way, taking us back ten years in time to Lyra and her importance even as a baby in the grand scheme of things, and as the Will-Lyra story was ten years in the future, not a word of it in that book. Here, in The Secret Commonwealth, we leap forward to ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, but remain firmly anchored in Lyra’s alternate universe. And eventually, various characters from La Belle Sauvage re-emerge and take their places in the story. Mrs Coulter is missing, but her brother is a key character in the plottings of the Magisterium…

And we are now most definitely not in younger readers’ territory: Lyra’s adult world is much darker, and the plot and events of this novel are much darker, even if we found the idea of the research station at Bolvangar separating children from their daemons quite spine-chilling. Part of me felt that I was losing out with the absence of the different universes, but I’ve accepted that Pullman is doing something different here, in this more adult alternate world, which is much more ‘real’ and less fantastical. Lyra is now a grown-up, in her world: it’s a different world from that of her childhood.

In this world the tentacles of the Magisterium are extending in every direction as they attempt to prevent what would seem to be the potentially liberating nature of the knowledge of Dust being known, researched, spread. And the semi-underground opposition known as Oakley Street work to thwart the Magisterium and to protect Lyra and others as they seek out knowledge. The Secret Commonwealth feels like a thriller at times, fast-paced and exciting, unputdownable on this first reading…

And yet, the ideas are still very much to the fore: Pullman wants his readers to think about their own world…

Daemon as soul? – personality? – consciousness? In His Dark Materials, children are horrified at the idea one might be separated from one’s daemon. In The Secret Commonwealth, the world of adults, we discover it’s not an unknown thing: people lose their daemons, fall out with them, separate voluntarily, sell them for money. There are even philosophers who would have you believe they do not exist. This is the new strand to this book: Pan and Lyra have fallen out, are estranged and go their separate ways, although seemingly on the same quest. He feels she has lost something, forgotten a key aspect of herself: are we back in the search for the meaning of Dust, the contrast between child and adult, innocence and experience? I think so, on this first reading. And everyone who is separated from their daemon seems minded to assist others like them.

Topical ideas germane to our own world abound: Pullman explores the idea of those in power undermining the nature of truth in order to disorient, confuse and ultimately disempower people, and also the notion that the enemy’s power comes from its absolute certainty of being right. And, as a good writer should be, Pullman provokes our reflection without wandering into being didactic.

I can’t wait for the final volume – but I’ll have to, obviously…

What did I learn from teaching?

October 1, 2019

I’m really looking forward to the new Philip Pullman novel coming out later this week. There was a very interesting interview with him in The Observer: I always find his reflections on his career as a teacher thought-provoking, and today he has had me reflecting on the question: what did I learn from my students?

It’s a very difficult question, and not just because a teacher is on the other side of the fence, supposed to be teaching rather than learning. But over the years I learned that my students wanted to be taken seriously, to be listened to. They deserved this, and it was their right. As my experience and confidence developed, I realised that anything might be said or discussed in my classroom, as long as the students could approach the topic as sensibly and as maturely as they were able. Staffroom conversations with colleagues led me to realise that not everyone could or wanted to do this.

I had my opinions and beliefs, and if I expressed them, students expected to be able to question, and expected me to be able to justify. One of my favourite call-outs to students being, ‘Evidence?’ I had to provide mine. There was a phase where politicians were touchy about teachers indoctrinating students, and I was once taken to task by a parent who felt I had been biased in criticising Margaret Thatcher. I explained that I was wont to play devil’s advocate, and to challenge students with a range of opinions – they knew I did this. Other opinions are available. My job was to get my students to think.

Respect was earned; good behaviour was earned. I can honestly say that behaviour was almost never an issue in my classroom. I know I spent most of my career in a grammar school, but students anywhere are not angels, and others did have disciplinary issues.

My students didn’t have to like me, or my subject, and not all of them did; I learned not to take this personally, although it never ceased to sadden me when a particularly interesting and promising student did not choose to take English on into the sixth form.

There was only one moment of epiphany, which took my breath away and left me temporarily lost for words. It came towards the end of my career, with a year 11 class; they had almost come to the end of their allotted time of compulsory education, and we were reflecting on the purpose of school, education and what use they felt it had been to them thus far. A propos of I cannot remember what, something about what they expected from their teachers, I suspect, one of the female members of the class said, ‘But sir, you respect us and we respect you.’ Noises of agreement came from others, and she must have explained further. I didn’t know what to say; I felt very humbled, because I had never consciously looked at the nature of our relationship like that. The weight and the responsibility of my position came home to me very heavily.

I think in the end if there was one thing I learned that summarises all that teaching students taught me, it was to be myself in the classroom, not to pretend to be someone or something else. They didn’t get all of me – no-one ever does, if you think about it – but what they got in the classroom was a true slice of me.

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

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