Posts Tagged ‘The Dispossessed’

Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia

May 5, 2019

51i-FvQSB0L._AC_UL320_    A1pKb0cRToL._AC_UL320_    I’ve often written about utopias in posts, and I finally re-read Ecotopia, the most recent one I know of, after a long time. Callenbach wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, setting it 1999, with his hero visiting a country which had seceded from the US in 1980; he is the first American reporter to visit Ecotopia (the two countries do not have diplomatic relations) and the book takes the form of reports he sends back to his New York newspaper, interwoven with a more personal diary of his stay in Ecotopia.

In structure and presentation it’s no different from many other utopias: the visitor travels around the country, meeting people and learning how the place works and how good it is, comparing it with his native land, gradually being convinced of its advantages; it’s no surprise at the end of this novel that our visitor elects to stay… What interests is how close many of the concerns of the novel are to those which today’s world needs to address, and I’m somewhat mystified as to why this novel seems so rapidly to have faded into relative obscurity. There was a prequel a few years later – Ecotopia Emerging – which I once had a copy of, but seem to have mislaid or disposed of.

Ecotopia is basically hippyland – I oversimplify grossly, but anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will know what I mean. The social cost of everything is taken into account, which our traveller finds hard to understand: who is ultimately responsible for the problems, issues, illnesses and other socially harmful consequences of a product or an action, – its producer or consumer? A question surely very relevant today. The economy aims for steady state, not growth, the country is decentralised, recycling, re-use and repairability are at the forefront of all consumer products, and the inhabitants of the country are committed to living in balance with nature… the only contemporary issue missing is climate change.

The two different perspectives the reporter offers us: ‘official’ newspaper articles and a ‘personal’ diary, complement each other and we are able to see him unwillingly seduced into accepting the attractiveness of the alternative model. Ecotopians have gone a long way towards equalising gender roles (though there is absolutely no mention of homosexuality or gay rights, and interracial issues are sidelined by the idea of separate development and decentralisation) and I found myself perceiving some similarities between this society and that of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s better and rather better-known novel The Dispossessed. The main difference is that there is no outsider in the same way in her novel; rather the hero from the utopia visits the non-utopian outside, in a sort of reversal. Women played a major role in the original revolt which led to the independence of Ecotopia, and have a leading role in its government. Decisions are made through consensus.

It is still ‘America’ and so Ecotopians have not given up on guns… and with an American author and American setting, none of the solutions are socialist or communist: at the most there is vigorous state direction or control of some aspects of the economy, and this is explained and justified in American terms. But there is a national health service, though it’s not called that. There is a little background to the origin of the new nation and the transition to it, including the inevitable economic dislocation, although this material was clearly the subject matter for the prequel mentioned above.

Utopias, and indeed all SF novels set in the future, date quickly, and the most glaring example in this novel is the absence of the internet. I was also struck by the absence of what I would call ordinary people – we never meet any working-class Ecotopians, and ugly, elderly or uneducated ones, and I cannot believe that everyone in the nation was hippified, beautified and educated in only twenty years… it’s a lovely but very bourgeois, middle-class future society.

Most novels fade into well-deserved obscurity quite rapidly, but here is one that raises questions and issues still salient today, that chimes with many of the things being challenged at this moment, and yet it already in some ways appears as quaint as Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia of 1887 set in the United States of the year 2000: Looking Backward. Perhaps every generation needs its utopia, in which case, what is today’s?

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

Ursula Le Guin

January 24, 2018

I knew that one morning I would wake to the news that Ursula Le Guin had died, and that did nothing to lessen the shock of this morning’s news. A woman who had been the greatest living writer of science fiction is no longer with us.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my acquaintance with SF began during my childhood; at university I moved on to adult SF, and it was then that, moving on from the rockets and intergalactic exploration, I first encountered her work. Many people have enthused about her Earthsea trilogy, which is more fantasy than SF; I did enjoy it but have never felt the need to return to it, although it is still on my shelves somewhere. It was what I call her speculative fiction that always attracted me, and in my research degrees, I spent a serious amount of time and space exploring and analysing her work.

The best literature, and the best SF, makes you think. Otherwise, what’s the point? Speculative fiction asks the ‘what if?’ questions that attract the curious, and with her anthropological background, Ursula Le Guin encourages us to think about aspects of our humanity, our gender and our sexuality. Other writers have done the same, but I think she was a pioneer in the field.

Over time, Le Guin created an entire universe – the Ekumen – populated with a number of different worlds, all homes to slightly different variants of human beings, at various different stages in their developments as societies and civilisations, perhaps all descended originally from one race, the Hainish, after whom all the stories and novels in the group are known, the Hainish cycle. Some communication and some actual contact between these worlds has become possible. This huge canvas allows Le Guin to explore a range of different issues that plague our world, such as gender and sexual differences, reproduction, political organisation, wars and violence, authority, the environment…

My two favourites have always been The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. The former explores how society and economy is and might be organised, using a planet whose society largely reflects our current capitalist world with all its oppressions and evils, and its moon, to which those who reject such a way of life have fled. We see the difficulties they encounter on a harsher world, trying to build a more equal society along anarchist lines: their way of life has always seemed challenging but more attractive to me, and to many readers. As a writer of speculative fiction, Le Guin is encouraging us to imagine, to think other ways of being and to accept that they aren’t easy or utopian, but they are possible and available to us with effort. And, unlike some writers in the broader genre, she writes well, creates vivid places and characters with which we can fall in love, with whom we can empathise.

The Left Hand of Darkness works differently: we humans cannot ever become the andogynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen who randomly assume male or female gender on a regular cycle. But we are pushed to re-think many of our attitudes and preconceptions about biological gender and social conditioning through the Earth-born character’s experiences as he visits the planet. It’s a marvellous story, a masterwork of the imagination.

And then there are all the other novels and stories, not just in the Hainish cycle. And all her essays, which I have not yet read, but which are now on my list, along with a re-read of her fiction. I have warmed to her humanity, her humane-ness if you like, I have been made to think deeply, and I have been entertained; I cannot ask any more from a writer. A day to be sad, and deeply grateful.

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

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