Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

March 7, 2023

      I’m really not quite sure where to start with this remarkable novel, and I can’t fathom why it’s taken twenty years and a book group choice to bring it to my attention. Influences: the focus on mediaeval times and integration of philosophy into a novel inevitably reminds me of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. The astonishing plot structure, hooking the reader with a major event and then immediately dropping it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a massive explosion in London: how did that happen? The writer teases, and you have to read and piece so many things together to get there and understand. And the interweaving of the three plot strands and the cutting from story to story in such a skilful, cinematographic way…

I was also hooked because of the setting in an area of Provence I’ve known and loved since my student days; I had vivid pictures in my mind as I read. Pears linked in to my interest in Roman history, church history and the Renaissance as well. Two things stretched my credulity just a little too much: the likelihood of Oliver the poet gaining access to the Pope and having such a powerful influence in him, and also the chance encounter between Julia the artist and Picasso.

So three stories are interwoven, from the start, each with a male hero and a significant female: a Roman aristocrat striving to sustain what remains of Roman civilisation in Provence in the mid-fifth century as all around is collapsing; a troubadour poet at the time of the emerging Renaissance and the arrival of the plague epidemic in the mid-14th century; a dilettante French intellectual in the 1930s as Europe lurches towards the inevitable crisis. The similarities in their situations and in their concerns are gradually revealed as the interwoven stories develop, and the 20th century character gradually unearths and pieces together the history of the other two characters.

The women are equally significant: one of the last-surviving Greek philosophers, a woman briefly glimpsed by a poet who instantly is love-stricken, and an artist seeking inspiration and originality.

Where is truth, is one of Pears’ questions, as multiple versions of his characters’ pasts are unearthed, explored, theorised about. How much is lost over time, drifts into myth, or is deliberately distorted for others’ purposes. An even bigger issue is the idea that good people should strive to preserve the values of civilisation while the world around them crumbles into chaos. This is a difficult task, and fraught with compromise and betrayal, as each of the characters must discover; characters who we warm to and come to like have their very dark moments; we may be shocked, and at the same time we much acknowledge our gratitude at never having been tested in that way. Surrendering to barbarism is actually quite easy; it creeps up on you.

Pears digs deeper, though: what, exactly, is civilisation, and is it worth preserving? The perspective of the good or the worthy is restricted by their own time; later generations will look differently, judge differently. Each of the three male characters sells out or compromises himself in order, supposedly, to preserve that which is dearest to him, and in the grand scheme of things the enormous betrayals achieve very little. Interestingly (or significantly), none of the female characters does. In some ways, I found this a profoundly pessimistic novel, because so true to the human condition, it seemed to me.

It is a novel of ideas, and yet the characters are also vividly and convincingly drawn; I was surprised and moved by how Pears developed the initial flirtation between Julien the intellectual and Julia the artist into a powerful relationship, and what it ultimately led to. It’s a very thought-provoking read, at least to me; I shall hope to return to it some time soon, not least to try and unpick what Pears’ imagined characters explore about God, the soul and our purpose as human beings. Anyway, highly recommended.

On the impossibility of utopia (final part)

February 8, 2023

Human nature

Most of the utopias I’ve read operate on a relatively small scale; we have a planet with 8+ billion people to look after. It often seems that, as a species, we are pretty capable of being good to each other and co-operating quite effectively on a relatively small scale, but on a macro level, not so much. How intelligent a species are we, in the end? There’s a fairly widespread awareness, at least in the West, of just how badly and terminally we’re fouling our own nest, but do we have the ability to do enough about it, in time? Who, what kind of human, survives the coming collapse, if that’s where we’re heading?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a fascinating novel in many ways, and we have now reached the stage in terms of scientific and technological development where much of what Huxley envisioned can actually be put into place if we wanted to do so, as Michel Houellebecq notes in one of his novels (Atomised, I think, but I’ll stand to be corrected). Everyone in that society is happy, with everything they want in terms of work, food, entertainment, drugs, sex. There’s a carefully planned reservation to which malcontents can be exiled so they don’t spoil things for everyone else. My students used to be horrified when I pointed out that the novel is a utopia; it took a little longer for them to perceive the real message, which is that the inhabitants of that brave new world are no longer humans as we know them…and is that a bad thing?

Here in the West at least, for better or worse, we prize individualism above pretty much everything else, and in a world of individuals there are misfits, who are exiled to a reservation in Huxley’s novel. I must go back to an important novel I last read some forty years ago when I researched my thesis, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. A feminist utopia is imagined in its pages, of which I remember very little except that a key character explains that those who refuse to fit in, who repeatedly cause problems for everyone else, are executed. Forty years ago I found that statement both chilling, and also blindingly obvious. Even in a utopia, we are back in the times of eliminating kulaks as exploiters of the people…

I have to say, I feel pretty depressed having reached the above conclusions. I do not see how we get out of the mess that we are currently in, although I also accept that we don’t actually need to replace the current mess with a utopia: anything would be better. And, at the same time, we should not delude ourselves with the enormity of the task facing the species.

On the impossibility of utopia (part 3)

February 7, 2023

Taking my reflections on utopias a little further…as I’ve noted previously, some utopias make an attempt to show the reader how we got from our world today to the perfect future state; some don’t bother with this, but just take us there to show us it.

Taking just two examples, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia shows how California and other Western seaboard states secede from the Union, fight a short defensive war which they win, and then proceed to build their ecologically-run society. That’s all very well, as far as it gets, but while your citizens enjoy their utopia, the rest of the world goes to hell on a handcart all around you, and you can’t avoid the deleterious effects. And, were the rest of the US serious about putting you back in your place no matter what cost, they would.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed has rebels secede from an ultra-capitalist society and establish a different one on a conveniently habitable moon. Conditions are much harsher there than on the home planet, but at the time the story is set, the committed colonists mostly put up with this and concert their efforts on making a different, better and fairer world. They are at least physically distanced and separated from what they have fled. But, once again, if it were worth it, I think we are meant to realise that the home planet has the resources to muscle in and take over…

Here is a major dilemma: the utopia needs to be everywhere, if it is not to face ongoing existential threat. And if we start looking at our own home planet, then the odds on building a better society begin to look insuperable.

Marx was right

Capitalism has established a hegemony. It controls the entire planet, to all intents and purposes. There is no real alternative on show, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Yes, Cuba soldiers on, but pretty much ignored nowadays. The so-called communist states were far from perfect, as their disappearance demonstrated, although that collapse was actively sought and helped by the USA and its allies, but while they existed, an alternative system for running an economy and a society was on public view for people to see, read and think about, and judge for themselves; not any more – it’s merely history and a failure now, in the public discourse. There is so much wealth and power and so many vested interests embedded in the current system that imagining how it might be subverted or defeated defeats my imagination. One would need to start by ensuring a state of sufficiency in all essentials for everyone on the planet before looking in other directions, and that isn’t about to happen.


This is – as someone once remarked – the least worse system of government we currently have, but as events increasingly show, it’s very manipulable in the service of vested interests, and a sham in many places. If voting changed anything, they’d have abolished it. Another problem with the token democracies in which we live is short-termism: governments will not commit themselves to the necessary long-term planning and decision-making which might eventually lead to the creation of a better world, because they are constantly looking over their shoulders at the next election, when they might lose power. Then, if we consider the – in many other ways highly flawed and highly controlling — Chinese system, that government can put long-term plans into effect and make things happen, such as the plans they are working on for reducing pollution, or developing far-flung regions for instance. But we in the West are not going to voluntarily adopt such approaches.

Here another problem appears: we are attached to voluntarism and consent, however flawed and manufactured these are. Just supposing a convincing majority in a Western society voted for thorough and radical, far-reaching change, economically and socially. Would the vested interests allow this to take place, surrendering their power and influence, hoarded over centuries? I don’t think so. At this point, the question of ways and means comes into play. Violence to achieve change? It’s arguable that that was what finished the Soviet experiment before it had hardly started.


The United Nations is a great concept per se; we need far more international co-operation if we are to overcome our problems, but the UN is not much more than a talking shop at the behest of the great powers, who use and ignore it as it suits them: look at the history of the last twenty or thirty years. So many nations – over 200 – all wanting and needing very different things, not all starting from the same place.

To be continued…

On the impossibility of utopia (part 2)

February 6, 2023

A tabula rasa helps, and this is the basic premise of one of the most important utopias of the 20th century, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. A planet governed by fairly ruthless capitalism (ie our Earth) has a spare, habitable and yet uninhabited moon, and when rebellion against the system reaches unmanageable proportions, the rebels are allowed to depart from the planet for the moon, where they gradually construct a radically different society, which they have been engaged in doing for several centuries by the time of the novel. What is particularly effective in Le Guin’s novel is the admitted difficulties of working out how to build and sustain a society run on very different lines from our own; she considers the world of work, housing, childrearing, relations between the sexes, and relations with the outside world; it’s clear nothing is easy or straightforward, everything must be fought for and everyone must be constantly vigilant; there are malcontents and misfits. And yet, the society of Anarres (the moon) is definitely utopian, and at the same time does not exist and never actually can; what Le Guin succeeds in doing better than most writers is getting the reader to engage with the ideas and reflect them back on our own flawed world…

The issue of coercion rears its head: what do you do with those who don’t fit in or don’t want to fit in? It’s a long time since I read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and I have been promising myself for a while to return to it, but the one detail I still recall from the utopia she imagines is that ultimately those who do not fit in and who violently oppose the new society are put to death. Chilling, and yet the logic makes sense when you are inside the text…

Ultimately what comes across is humans’ ability to be nice to each other and co-operate meaningfully on a relatively small scale; the problems arise once you move to the macro level. And I have wondered if some of these difficulties are an inherent consequence of capitalism and the shortages which are an inevitable and necessary part of the societies it creates: capitalism cannot eliminate inequality and shortage per se.

Utopias as presented in fiction are not democratic, at least in the sense in which we currently understand democracy, ie regular voting which changes very little, a veneer of choice and control, relying on experts and individuals having power without accountability or responsibility. Real utopias would seem to require constant vigilance and constant engagement on the part of members, or else an acceptance that there is not the freedom to behave in certain ways or to make certain choices, that famous freedom from and freedom to that Margaret Atwood explores (among other things) in The Handmaid’s Tale.

To be continued…

On the impossibility of utopia (part 1)

February 5, 2023

I’ve done a good deal of reading of utopias (and dystopias) over the years, written about some of them academically and consequently done a fair amount of thinking. The problem always is, how do you get there? Not so much in terms of reaching a physical place as transitioning from the current, awful state of the world to a better one. And writers sometimes just present you with the perfect society without telling you how the inhabitants got there, or else present the change vaguely and unsatisfactorily.

And yet, this is the crucial issue, surely. If you think about it at all, a better society involves quite a lot of individuals and groups losing out in different ways, in terms of wealth and status particularly. Wealthy and high-status people tend to have the power, the organisation and the brute force to sustain their position, for it is always potentially under threat, and they are not likely to give up that wealth and power voluntarily. So the logic of change is potentially violence and bloodshed, and this may negate attempts at bringing change about, representing too high a cost…

There are a number of ways in which ideal societies might come about. There might be a rational decision to arrange things differently, either in one country, or across the world. If one country does this, what is the reaction of others, particularly of the new alternative is perceived as a wider threat. Although not much about the Soviet Union was utopian, the very notion that here was an example of a large nation trying to do things in a radically different way was perceived by many capitalist nations as a threat and they worked tirelessly using a range of different schemes until they finally brought about its demise. As a result, the world is now a worse and far more dangerous place. So, a rational decision might be allowed within one country, or opposed; how one would begin to convince an entire world to do things differently is impossible to imagine. I submit the relative impotence of the United Nations as currently constituted, and the world’s total inability effectively to deal with the climate emergency.

One region might secede and try to arrange their society differently. The best example I can call to mind is in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging. The majority of the inhabitants of the state of California feel driven to leave the Union to pursue the construction of a more radical and ecological society. Not everyone within the state agrees; the rest of the USA doesn’t and there is war, which eventually leads to a stalemate and the Ecotopians are allowed to pursue their utopian dream in peace, at least as far as the end of the novel. At some level this is quite a convincing scenario, given that the novel and its premise are rooted in our times (well, the 1980s, but that will do).

Other authors locate utopia in an undiscovered region of Earth, such as Austin Tappan Wright’s masterpiece Islandia, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s rather older and more flawed Herland. With such texts a writer can present their perfect world and how it works, and then have it discovered by outsiders who mentally compare it with their own (ie our) world; ours usually comes off far worse. There is usually some attempt at showing the origins of the new world, but the distancing created by hiding the utopia somewhere, detracts from any effectiveness in the explanation of the changeover.

To be continued…

Milton, Blake and Dust in Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 15, 2023

Pullman acknowledges his debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that nowadays eludes many people, for a number of reasons: it’s in verse, it’s very long (12 books), it’s about religion, it’s written in 17th century English, which is a little different from today’s, though far from impenetrable. Milton’s aim was to write the ultimate epic, the story of creation, and the redemption of humanity by Jesus’ death. He tells of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of the first humans, tempted by Satan.

Unfortunately for Milton, Satan takes over the story, becoming rather more of an interesting hero-figure than God or his son. And the question of the Fall also becomes double-edged: before it, Adam and Eve mimsy around the Garden of Eden blandly doing the gardening and having rather wet and innocent conversations, and a bit of very dull sex. Our feeling tends to be, well if this is paradise, I’m not sure I’m all that interested. The temptation is to take the forbidden fruit, of the knowledge of good and evil, after which they become humans as we know them: sex and arguments and blaming each other. And the real question is, why was the fruit forbidden? Because, is Milton’s and God’s answer, and that’s that… and we humans have become what we are because we have that knowledge. There are consequences: death. Adam and Eve have no idea what it is and cannot imagine it; we are the only species on the planet that knows of death and can contemplate it… And while I’m on with the Miltonic parallels, clearly there is an intended resemblance between Asriel’s armed camp preparing for battle with the Authority, and the building of Pandaemonium in the second book of Paradise Lost.

Pullman is fully aware of the importance of this difference between innocence and experience, and how it shapes us through our lives. There are things which happen to us which change us irreversibly, and which we cannot easily explain to others who have not experienced them. How do you describe to someone innocent the experience of an LSD trip, or sex for the first time, or indeed what love actually is? And, of course, you can’t rewind from any of these points, or turn back the clock: you are now changed, experienced. I have often felt that it’s perhaps easier for adult (experienced) readers to overlook this liberating aspect of Pullman’s stories, whereas they may perhaps be more eye-opening or life-affirming for younger readers. I don’t know for certain, of course; I’m on the wrong side of the fence here.

So in His Dark Materials, there are forces – organised religion – who would have humans remain permanently in a pre-pubescent state of innocent obedience, easily controlled. And the rebellion Pullman visualises is one against this tyranny, which might install the republic, rather than the kingdom of heaven. The more I think about it, the more utopian I find this notion, as well as extremely attractive. The idea of humans taking control over their own lives and their futures, rather than kowtowing to external forces, is one which has been revolutionary through the ages, and sadly, we are no nearer to achieving it…

Here is where Milton and Pullman overlap, for me: the crux is free will, which Christianity says we were given as a test: would we freely choose to obey and serve God, or would we wilfully choose what we shouldn’t and take the consequences? Milton feels the first humans made the wrong choice and it had to be rectified; Pullman lauds that choice, and has his Adam and Eve figures willingly give in to temptation and not regret it.

Dust. There is a serious amount of philosophical, even theological argument woven in to the novels; we don’t have to worry too much about it or strive too hard to comprehend it all. There is a serious information dump about Dust and its link with the Christian notion of original sin in the final chapters of Northern Lights, in conversation between Lyra and Asriel, and I’m still not sure how convincing I find this, given Lyra’s supposed age at this point. The concept is further developed in The Subtle Knife, where the arrival of Dust is linked back 33,000 years, presumably to the time of the first emergence of human consciousness in our species, which is where Pullman seems to situate the mythical Adam and Eve event and the original ‘Fall’. I’ve still not completely fathomed the significance, several times iterated, that things began to go seriously awry three centuries ago with the making of the knife: I can’t fit this timing in to a historical event, though I suppose we are at the start of the Enlightenment and the scientific era…perhaps a more astute reader can enlighten me here. Clearly these two dates are significant to Pullman’s ideas, and the second Fall, in the world of the mulefa, has the effect of reversing something.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

November 22, 2022

     I have long been intrigued by this Roman emperor who was also a philosopher. His meditations are rather hard to read in these modern times, because of the style of writing way back then, and also the need for quite comprehensive notes to explain so many points and references, even to someone with a reasonable classical education. I have been listening to a good Librivox recording, which has made them rather more approachable and accessible; they seem to have been designed for listening, in a similar way to the Qur’an which is intended for recitation rather than reading.

He enjoyed an extremely powerful and privileged position, in the years before the Roman Empire became so large as to be unmanageable; he clearly had the luxury of unlimited undisturbed time to think, to philosophise and presumably dictate his thoughts to his slave… He comes across as a thinker, someone wise, but also someone endowed with large amounts of common sense. He reflects on the purpose and meaning of life, and its counterpart, the inevitability of death, and how a mortal can face and come to terms with that necessary eventuality. Nothing new there, we may think, but here is one of the first to try and articulate a response. And it’s interesting that he continually returns to this particular issue a number of times; I found myself thinking, here is a man – an emperor, but still a man, and aware of this – who is at some level wanting to understand and to rationalise his fears: for me, this made him more human, somehow.

He’s also interested in the nature of the universe, fate and resignation, and his position is that the gods determine everything…

At some level, he’s interested in the same things that I spend a fair amount of time wondering about. There are wisdom writings in most religions and cultures, and some are rather more accessible than others. I’ve found that with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, there’s an awful lot of chaff and not much wheat to glean once the tribal histories of the Jewish people, their wanderings and the misdeeds of their kings are stripped out. And although the Qur’an doesn’t spend as much time on history, is is very repetitive, as a book originally designed for public recitation will inevitably be.

The Wisdom books of the Bible, on the other hand, I have always found attractive and thought-provoking, and as I’ve read more widely I’ve come to realise that they contemplate similar notions to, and say the same things as did Confucius and the Buddha, and various Greeks and Romans, and Marcus Aurelius joins them. For my money, the orientals are rather too enigmatic – again, it’s a different mode of expression that it’s harder for us to tap into. The Greeks and the Romans are a lot more straightforward, in acknowledging that there are things they don’t understand, there are powers above and beyond us, that we humans are limited in what we can do and mortal. And they have no sense of there being a life after death either. For me, the jury is out on that one, but increasingly I do think that the idea of a hereafter is part of the attempt of religion to comfort us in facing the awful and inevitable end.

In a nutshell, if you’re a fan of the Preacher, aka Qoheleth, aka Ecclesiastes, you’ll probably enjoy Marcus Aurelius.

Karen Armstrong: The Case for God

May 25, 2022

     I do find Karen Armstrong’s writings on religion fascinating and thought-provoking, as you can see; there’s a lifetime of research and exploration there, by someone seeking to understand and explain, as far as this can be done, and I can identify with this in a number of ways.

This book is much more approachable than the previous one. Her starting-point is our changing understanding of what God is, and the problems this presents in our modern and would-be rational age, leading to responses such as fundamentalism and atheism. She outlines how in the ancient world there was no belief in a single supreme being, along with an acceptance of God as something inexpressible and incomprehensible, which we now want to rationalise and tie down and explain…

The ancient Greeks launched the Western pursuit of Reason: there was a rational explanation for everything if it could be found or worked out… and the philosophers’ quest for understanding of the world and the cosmos seems to have been focused on the right way to live. Humans were rational creatures, carrying within them a spark of the divine.

The section on language, and the changing meaning of the word ‘belief’ was fascinating; the Greek and Latin words translated now as ‘belief’ were in earlier times more about a sense of trust and commitment in God, than about unquestioning acceptance and assimilation of a set of dogmas defined by other humans. From about the 4th century onwards, Christianity began its shift towards insistence on doctrinal correctness. And once the idea of creation ex nihilo gained acceptance, then God and the universe were separated… Belief in literal truth of scripture rather than scripture as allegory to help us see, led to the ongoing separation between spirituality and theology. Armstrong explains that we participate in a mystery, whereas we solve a problem: nowadays we try to turn the mystery into a problem which we can then solve.

I decided that, in the end, this book and others by Armstrong are of course yet another 21st century rationalist approach to the exploration of spirituality and religion. Inevitably: this is what we do in our present world and time; there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just our version of the aeons-long human quest. We are necessarily creatures of our own age. So much of the book is about clever people wrestling with the (still!) ungraspable in the attempt to explain and understand, when this seems by definition impossible. Armstrong earns my respect for being engaged for so long, and bringing forth so much enlightenment. For her, religion is a practical discipline, is not easy, and is about living intensely in the her and now. Amen to that.

Richard Holloway: Waiting For The Last Bus

April 6, 2022

     I enjoyed Richard Holloway’s autobiography Leaving Alexandria, and also his book on spiritual journeys and our need for religion Stories We Tell Ourselves, so was interested to come across Waiting For The Last Bus, which is essentially the reflections of a man in his eighties on the inevitable approach of death. It is a brave piece, for it takes courage to accept and explore the implications of one’s impending departure from the world; it is also a very common-sensical book. Here is nothing new, nothing stunningly revelatory: he owns his thoughts and reactions and shares them, and we are led to realise that we are the same, the same applies to us. This is the human condition; it’s just that many of us are quite good at avoiding the obvious…

Holloway is honest about the way the old may envy or resent the young. He also avows bafflement at the state the world has got itself into nowadays, a feeling which speaks to my condition, underlining my growing feeling that we are perhaps not such an intelligent species after all. And his writing is laced with many wonderful and apposite literary references, musings, and questions. He is good on the importance of forgiveness.

For a man who held high office in the Church of Scotland, and whose faith left him (see Leaving Alexandria) he comes over as spiritual rather than religious, open rather than closed in his thinking, questioning rather than answering. At times I felt it was mere brain candy, wistful even though full of obvious truth, and yet I felt my reaction was churlish, for there are many in the world who do not know how to wander through these streets through which he entices and leads us.

I like him for the way he, like me, sees religion as our human response to our own mortality, our awareness of it, and our struggle to come to terms with it, to interpret it as best we can (which is not very well!). And in and among his thoughts I came across the clearest explanation of the Hindu concept of reincarnation that I’ve ever read…

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

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