Posts Tagged ‘Aldous Huxley’

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

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Reflections on utopias (1)

August 21, 2018

I’ve been thinking about utopias again, more specifically utopian novels and their flaws and defects, prompted by what I think I’d have to call the only really religious utopian novel I’ve come across. Driving around the country, I’ve been listening to Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szyrma, a Polish-English nineteenth-century writer. (Yes, another of those Librivox audiobooks!) Very briefly, an Oxford student meets a mysterious person whilst travelling in France. He meets him several times in different places, and we quickly get the impression there is something uncanny or unusual about him. He’s eager to travel widely and learn as much as he can, and clearly knows very little about Earth, its people, nations and habits. He effects an almost miraculous, and never-explained rescue of the narrator from the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. He’s clearly a very spiritual creature and is given an introduction by the narrator to a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and who eventually uncovers the secret, that the mysterious person is a visitor from the planet Venus. Shortly after this, our visitor leaves Earth, after having allowed the vicar a glimpse of life on his home planet. Several years later a detailed communication is delivered, relating Aleriel’s travels to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other worlds.

Eternal life?

Venusians live for ever, and spend much time worshipping the Creator in huge temples; they do not know war, violence, famine or poverty, and so Earth clearly comes off pretty badly by comparison. Martians are not eternal, but they have a similar spiritual reverence for the Creator, and have at some point in their past been visited by the ‘Holy One’ who taught them how to live righteously; they have constructed themselves a utopian society of plenty and stability, and once again Earth looks poor by comparison: whilst Martians have heeded the teachings of their Holy One, the implication is that on Earth we have not responded to those of Jesus Christ. This idea of a Creator and a spirituality common to three planets (and, indeed, taken for granted) is quite well developed if a little overbearing and hectoring at times. However, because of the nature of utopian writing, fascinating theological issues that writer such as such as James Blish raised in A Case of Conscience are unvoiced.

I remember years ago being shocked by the utopian world of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time because they made the choice to execute people who would not conform to the ways of their perfect society; the Martians do the same…

Kill the misfits?

And so I am back with all sorts of questions that utopias raise, that last moral one in particular. If you have carefully and painstakingly built a perfect society of equality and plenty, based on fairness and sharing and so on, and one or two people refuse to play, and challenge, or behave ‘anti-socially’ and thus perhaps endanger the future of that society, do you have any alternative other than to – in some way – remove such people? Huxley, in Brave New World, could not fully face up to this and their rebels were exiled to various islands where they could be supervised to ensure they did not contaminate the utopia. But if someone really does not want to belong…

The broader picture is that utopias do not do democracy, which we all know from our experience is flawed enough, but is supposed to be the least worst system we have available. Again, if you have constructed a perfect society, why would you give anyone the opportunity to vote against it, and downgrade it? There are arguments current that less democratic, or even authoritarian societies – the Chinese Communist one for instance – may have a better chance when it comes to dealing with the ecological and environmental crises the planet faces, because they can plan and act for the long-term and are not hamstrung by short-term electoral game-playing in the ways that our democratic Western societies are.

Can utopia be a human place, or are its citizens/members inevitably no longer humans as we know them, having lost various rights which we currently imagine to be crucial to our existence and our freedom? Look again at Brave New World, where the problem, it seems to me, is not that society’s control of its members per se, but the fact that a new race has been bred and conditioned, which we would not recognise as human if we met them. Whether or not we might like to live there, and whether or not we could live there, are two additional avenues of speculation. To be continued…

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

Making sense of it all…

July 29, 2017

I occasionally have moments of existential doubt about all the reading I do; I realise I could be spending large chunks of my life doing something else – though I have no real idea what – and I realise that one day all the carefully garnered knowledge and developed opinions will be no more than fading and ultimately extinguished electrical impulses in a no longer-existing brain… which is, I suppose, the ultimate fate of all human existence. Angst-inducing, nonetheless.

So what is it all for?

I’m a pretty fortunate human being, comfortable and retired, living in a peaceful part of the world at the moment. And I see all sorts of mayhem going on all around me, from the obscenity of warfare such as in Yemen and Syria, to the effects both current and feared of our species’ wrecking of the planet’s climate and environment; I see the rank stupidity of politicians and businessmen the world over, and the manipulation of ordinary people by selfish elites pursuing power and money. In short, something verging on dystopia.

I also look around and see marvels of human achievement: the exploration of space and the landings on the moon are my favourite examples, along with the achievements of writers like Shakespeare, the music of Bach and the paintings of Turner. I see the stunning beauty of the planet. And I find myself thinking, how have we managed to make such a pig’s ear of so much? does it always and inevitable have to be like this? Is this what the Fall was about – knowledge of good and evil?

And this is where my reading seems to come in: I’m trying to understand how we have, over time, sold our souls to the pursuit of money, riches, material goods; how we have allowed small cliques to take power, take possession of resources, oppress and kill others. And at the same time we have praised sages, wise men and religious leaders who have exhorted us to do the opposite, and not done it…

If we ignore the past, we are condemned to repeat it, said someone once. That’s it for the factual side of things. Now for the imagination:

Writers of fiction imagine things. They imagine and describe people, their world, their behaviours. And they help us to understand why people behave in the ways they do as individuals. Maybe we end up wiser at the end of a novel or a play. Writers of science fiction, and utopian fiction, go even further: they attempt to imagine and to bring to life how things might possibly be different, better.

Very often, they merely imagine the blissful future state, however, but are not able to imagine the transition from now to then, from our present to their future. Sometimes their future may seem rather dubious: who would want to live in Huxley‘s Brave New World? (Answer: quite a few of my sixth form students, at various times in the past…) Sometimes writers do try to move us from now to the future, and the way there is not smooth, is sometimes bloody.

And how do we know we will like that future? and if we do, how would we ensure it stayed like that? Given that there are so many different kinds of people, what do we do with those that don’t fit, or don’t want to fit? In Huxley’s world, the lucky ones were exiled to an island and closely supervised to see that they did not contaminate the rest of the utopia with any mischief. In Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time, misfits were put to death…

So I’m doing all this reading and thinking in order to try and work out how the world might be better in future, how the human race might live peaceably with itself and the rest of the species we share a planet with… in a future I’m not going to be a part of. But, it seems to me, it’s in the nature of human beings to want to think, explore, invent, discover, and through my reading I’m merely taking part in that enterprise; through this blog I’m sometimes sharing where I’ve got to with my journey; I don’t expect to make any earth-shattering discoveries, but I can remain hopeful. Is that enough? If I hadn’t done all the reading I’ve done over the last fifty years or so, I’m sure I’d have quite a few spare years, but I wouldn’t be me, and would I do anything more useful with that time?

To be continued, I suspect…

Dystopia time again

March 28, 2017

51VHe12RxJL._AC_US218_Margaret Atwood’s novel has been clearly on the radar ever since it was first published, but is making waves again since the election of D Trump in the US, and is due to appear as a TV series next month. I’ve also spent a year or so working on a study guide to the text, for sixth form students, which has recently been published. There was a film made by the German director Volker Schlondorff in 1990, but it’s a film that’s better passed over because of its gratuitous change to the ending of the novel.

So I’ve been reflecting on twentieth century dystopias more generally; Atwood’s novel for me sits alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three novels all have pertinent things to say about the current state of the world, from radically different perspectives. To many of us, the present situation in the UK and in the US verges on the alarming – or am I being too cautious? – and revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden among others only increase our feelings of paranoia.

51OG8UQrofL._AC_US218_Orwell’s new-found relevance is obvious, with the huge growth in surveillance, both by the state and other organisms, of all citizens, made easier by the development of the web and mobile technology, and justified by authority in the name of security against terrorist threats. Smart TVs now do perform the functions of Big Brother’s telescreens, your mobile will reveal your location, and everything you do online is likely to be logged somewhere… and yet the state does not need to stamp out dissidence in the way Orwell imagined – a boot stamping on a human face, forever – because Huxley’s vision coincides, and has made such violence redundant.

51VS8inU1TL._AC_US218_Huxley’s future is even more sinister, in many ways, because based on hedonism: offer humans pleasure, through sex and drugs, and you can render them passive slaves, incapable of rebellion because they are totally uninterested. It’s hard not to feel that in some ways and in some places this is already happening: alcohol is cheap, recreational drugs are available, sex is a commodity to many, and there are so many shiny shiny consumer durables to distract and use up one’s money, before being thrown away and replaced – ending is better than mending! One learns that there are so many people who cannot conceive of being without their mobile phone or online 24/7, and who are totally uninterested in any security threat or monitoring of their lives via these desirable devices.

The fact that I can still say that Atwood offers a gender perspective on current dystopian trends feels patronising at the same time as its truth underlines the still-existing inequalities in what some would have us believe is a post-feminist age. Perhaps her vision is sharper viewed from the USA where the fundamentalist Christian right wing is still hell-bent on restricting access to reproductive rights and maternity leave; some of the language used and the proposals made by various public figures recently have been truly shocking. In Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, after the right-wing coup, women have been openly objectified and commoditised, under the guise of freeing them from the worst aspects of their lives now. And, of course, it’s men who have been kind enough to do this. All in the name of religion, too. It will be interesting to see what aspects are foregrounded in the TV series; Atwood said at the time of the novel’s publication that she wrote of nothing that wasn’t either happening or possible already – back in 1985. She didn’t let men, religion or feminists off the hook…

It’s worth comparing how the three novels are differently presented, too: Orwell offers a traditional narrative, but filtered brilliantly through his invented language Newspeak, which shapes the alternative facts for the regime, Huxley offers a non-linear, modernist narrative, jigsaw-like in places, but Atwood is probably most original and experimental. Offred’s narrative is her mind, her consciousness and her emotions, fragmented like her life was before, and is in the new times; it has both a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality as well as an immediacy which bring us up short. Atwood allows her to revel in words and language, to ask sharp questions, and to shock us…

Here we have three very powerful novels, more relevant today than they have been for some years: we should read, reflect and let them inform our conversations and actions. Here’s your essay title:

Which of these three novels do you think is most relevant to 2017? Justify your choice.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

On 1984 and alternative truth…

January 27, 2017

51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_51vs8inu1tl-_ac_us174_51he12tg6ml-_ac_us174_Suddenly, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is back in fashion, and particularly for its focus on the abuse and manipulation of language. But before we get into all that, a few reminders are also timely: it’s not a book about the dangers of communism, as many think. Orwell was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and his target was totalitarianism of all colours, states where there was no rule of law, and where all information was under tight government control, where the lives of citizens were strictly regimented in the service of the state.

One thing which eludes many of today’s commentators on Orwell is the obvious fact that 1984 has been and gone, and its nightmare world has not come to pass. At one level, I’m stating the blindingly obvious, but you had to be alive and a reader of the novel before 1984 to know and understand its full prophetic power all those years ago. And in those days, there were totalitarian states aplenty, both in Eastern Europe, but not forgetting Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal and Pinochet’s Chile. A good deal of the novel’s power to scare has been lost in the thirty-three years since that ominous year.

The dangers facing our world are rather different more than seventy years later, and social stratification, consumption and hedonism as ways of controlling people, as portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are rather more likely to be realised. Certainly the genetic manipulation necessary to produce the different social castes of the novel are well within the capacities of today’s scientists, as Michel Houellebecq noted in his novel Atomised, which tangentially considers some aspects of Huxley’s masterpiece.

It seems to me that Orwell on language, truth and manipulation is much more relevant. And let’s not get misled by the ‘alternative truth’ offered by Trump’s idiot advisor. Orwell doesn’t show us any alternative, which implies different versions between which a choice is possible. In the Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith is in the business of creating replacement truth, with then becomes the only truth through the eradication of every vestige of the previous truth. And memory has nothing to do with truth; memory is deadly dangerous. This replacing of one truth by another is carried out whenever necessary: truth becomes fiction and one’s compass is lost.

The danger to us today lies in our media, which is not narrow and state-controlled, but rather so wide, so amorphous and so focussed on triviality that it swamps truth and the search for it, blurring the boundaries between news and entertainment so that everyone – or enough people, anyway – are so totally disoriented they haven’t a clue about important issues, how to vote, or the consequences of their vote… A good deal of the manipulation is deliberate: the media are controlled by big business who increasingly render governments powerless because business is transnational.

Language has always been abused, and Orwell is good on this in his essays, which are often overlooked. Governments and politicians of all types, democratic and authoritarian alike, twist words and give them new meanings – collateral damage = killing innocent civilians, friendly fire = killing your own troops by mistake – examples abound. I think that the advertising industry has a great deal to answer for here: they have led the way in abusing the language in order to sell stuff and make money, and politicians were quick to follow suit.

As Chernyshevsky (and Lenin) said, What is to be done? Demand media accountability – only in the UK, as far as I’m aware, do we allow our media to be controlled by non-Brits. Mistrust or avoid all advertising as far as possible. Use an adblocker, avoid Google. Ask questions. Challenge politicians. Challenge anyone who repeats lies and disinformation, whenever and wherever. Seek reliable media wherever you can, and keep yourself informed…

Robert Lee Hall: Exit Sherlock Holmes

June 21, 2016

51d0C5nHaNL._AC_US160_I’m an incurable Holmes addict. Now that I know the canon thoroughly, I’ve begun to explore the imitators, and there have been plenty of writers who took Conan Doyle’s heroes and wrote stories of their own, extending the characters and the stories with varying degrees of success; I’ve reviewed several in this blog at different times, including Anthony Horowitz’s two novels, and the collection of stories about the rivals of Sherlock Holmes that dates from the 1970s.

Horowitz’s Moriarty takes as its premise the idea that the arch-villain did not perish in the confrontation with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls; so did this earlier novel. Although Conan Doyle did not originally intend either man to survive the fall, public pressure caused him to resurrect our hero after a number of years, by inventing a semi-plausible escape from death and an account of the intervening years, and if Holmes could have escaped death then surely so might his rival. And, whereas Horowitz focuses on Moriarty alone, to the exclusion of Holmes and Watson (and the great deception of some expectant readers) Robert Lee Hall brings us Holmes, but with a difference.

I’d never have come across this novel or known of its existence if I hadn’t been on holiday; it’s one of those books you come across in a holiday cottage, left for those holidaymakers without their own reading matter (or who’ve finished it all, like yours truly).

Apeing Conan Doyle’s style is difficult for a non-Victorian writer, as we find with Horowitz’s The House of Silk; Lee Hall begins well, quite convincingly, but pretty soon, after he’s got his plot under way, he lets go of careful attention to the style, and it rapidly becomes sub-par twentieth-century prose.

Watson, aware only that Moriarty is on the loose again and that Holmes must vanish because he is in imminent peril, finds himself investigating Holmes’ mysterious past and discovers that Holmes is not really who he seems to be, and that he has deceived Watson many times over the years of their friendship; it’s an attempt at a meta-narrative of Holmes’ life and career, and, lest I spoil the plot for anyone minded to try and track down a copy to read, I shan’t say too much other than mention a link to a writer contemporary of Conan Doyle’s, namely HG Wells, and a sideways glance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

I’m glad I read it; it was compulsive, kept me engaged to the very end even as I kept finding faults and flaws in the style and language; it was a very interesting tangent to take on Holmes and Watson and their relationship, and, in the end, I could only wish that it had been rather better written.

There is the canon – the sacred texts from the real Watson via Conan Doyle; there are the rivals in similar vein, and there are the imitators. With all that, I think I have a few more years of fun and entertainment to come…

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.

 

 

On curiosity

February 6, 2016

Are you a curious person? Are you always asking questions? Do you like to learn something new every day? Some of my former students may well recall my offering them a new fact for the day, or announcing when I had learned something new from one of them.

Curiosity must be an essential attribute of human nature, otherwise we would never have got where we are today. There is general curiosity, and then there is a more intellectual sort of curiosity, on which I’ll concentrate today. Literature is full of examples of curiosity, and not all of them beneficial: my first example is Marlowe‘s Faustus, who is so keen to learn everything he can, and have the answers to all the questions which have so far eluded human understanding, that he sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power: foolishly, he thinks he will do well from the bargain, whereas of course, he comes off worse. And when he gets to ask all those burning questions, the devils are elusive, putting him off and distracting him, because knowledge is good, of course, and leads one to God… which is where Faustus may not go.

On a rather lighter level, Lewis Carroll‘s Alice is always asking questions (as children do), particularly about words. And for me, Mark Twain‘s Tom Sawyer has always been a symbol of curiosity, accumulating a rag-bag of random, accurate and inaccurate knowledge which he shares willingly with others and makes up when necessary…his eagerness to stick his nose into things leads him into all sorts of innocent and not-so-innocent scrapes.

And then, in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, where everyone is oh so happy! where are the questions? where is the intellectual curiosity? Completely gone, as John the Savage learns to his dismay, horror and disgust, for he is surrounded by happy beings who are surely not humans in the way we recognise them. Questions challenge stasis and lead to disorder.

The ultimates in terms of the human quest for knowledge, for me, have been the real event of the first moon landing back in my younger days, and the fictional Star Trek, with humans boldly going where no-one has gone before – to find out.

And I often wonder what is happening, and may happen to intellectual curiosity in the days of the internet, and instant access to knowledge. Already there is evidence, some anecdotal and some more researched, that many younger people see little point in learning or memorising facts when they are instantly accessible on a device that is always to hand, and, perhaps of greater concern, that curiosity itself may be waning when, again, any information that may ever be needed can be instantly sought and retrieved. Maybe this isn’t terribly significant in the greater scheme of things and in the longer term, but we cannot know whether this is so now, and tomorrow may be too late.

As a teacher, I always found it easier both to motivate and to respond to students in whom I detected curiosity, the need to ask questions, to know and to understand, to question me and to challenge me: they were driven by an urge which I recognised and valued. And yes, I tried to inculcate this into more reluctant students, and did not always succeed. I found it rather saddening when students came to apply to university and played safe, choosing subjects that they thought would guarantee secure and lucrative employment afterwards, rather than choose – in a good number of cases – subjects they loved and were genuinely interested in. Then there were those students who, though extremely able in their fields of study, failed to impress interviewers at top universities because they didn’t have that questioning spark, that intellectual curiosity that was being looked for, and I could see how our education system, with its increasing focus on marks and grades and league tables, especially in the state sector, was depriving those students of the ability to enquire and to challenge…

I don’t ever see myself running out of curiosity, as it were; I’m already putting things mentally on hold until my next existence because there’s so much out there I find interesting and exciting. I’m fascinated by the idea that there was a time – several centuries ago now – when it was still possible for one person to know everything that there was to be known… and it cheers me that I can still be mentally blown away by an idea like that.

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