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Sunday, 26 August 2018

Review: Kapka Kassabova Border

It’s much easier to read a book about something you already know something about; harder when you are ignorant and so have to simultaneously read and store new information all the time. Knowing nothing about Thrace (Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish) I thought I would find this book hard, but most of the time it is very readable and at times moving. I struggled a bit with the constantly changing cast of characters.

In the most general terms it is a book about how people find it hard to get on with their neighbours, and quite often are forced to reject them even against their wishes, and how borders end up not just fortified with leylandii but barbed wire and machine gun posts. It’s also a book about how easy it is to turn young men into killers.

In this context a wonderful chapter about a hopelessly ecumenical Greek orthodox priest (a cadre not noted for ecumenism) is both beautifully written and deeply moving:

“ ‘Thrace without borders. Just as it should be,’ Father Alexander said when I first visited them at home, dropping in without notice. I hoped they didn’t mind, I said.
‘Mind?’ Alexander said and bit into a cheese pastry. ‘We only like guests who drop in without notice’” (page 154)

I can see how it merited its shortlistings and prize. I was a bit surprised to find a number of repetitions which are not stylistic but  failed copy and pasting – something which an editor should have picked up.

The Return of Radical Philosophy

I had a partner once who teased me whenever I informed her that I had worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased. Yesterday I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been resurrected. The old one was started up in the early 1970s and ran to two hundred issues before shutting up shop; the reincarnation is on issue number two. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy -  I had the thought (in my own head), Isn’t the expression radical philosophy a pleonasm?

All philosophy tries to get to the root/s of things, to get beyond repetition of conventional wisdom,  reliance on unchallenged assumptions, polite acquiescence in received ideas. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover that they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others with that fact, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar as to become too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick and you will find that it hurts you more than it hurts the root. (Apologies to Dr Johnson).

In any case, to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is a very limiting way of thinking. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book (the only one of his I have read) Changing The Subject and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s) that when a scientific revolution occurs, it’s not just a theory which changes. It is the questions asked, the bits of the world which seem in need of study, the definition of the subject itself. Geuss is casting the history of philosophy as having a similar dynamic. But in the case of both science and philosophy, that does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is “philosophical” art and literature which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or to persuade us that we would be better off if we shifted ourselves into a different world. Wordsworth seeks to refresh; Shklovsky and Brecht seek to shift, seek to tap into a sense that "something's missing". 

On the internet the other day I came across a Marxist writer describing me as a “one-time radical”. I smiled and retorted in my own head, You’ve probably been banging the same drum for decades. I’m sure it’s very comforting. But there’s a world out there which changes all the time and it’s quite important that we dig in the new places, not just the old familiar ones. The old songs are comforting but philosophy has never been a comfort zone.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

It's Official: I'm an Author

It's official. I'm an Author. This morning I googled my name (in scare quotes) and there on the right side of the page is a recent photograph of me, my name, and the word "Author" - all selected by Google without human intervention, as far as I am aware.

It remains only for the Author to tempt some people into reading his Books, which languish unsold everywhere from Amazon to Waterstones. Time to do your bit to support the Judgment of Google!

Review: Olga Tokarczuk Flights

On my desktop there are a dozen or more folders containing a few hundred Word docs which claim to be essays, chapters, very short stories, vignettes, aphorisms, plus many more beginnings of the same. I am convinced that since they all come from the same brain, I ought to be able to arrange enough of them into something which could Pass as a book. So far, I have yet to convince anyone else, and not really myself either. 

Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights has given me fresh hope. Her publishers, in original Polish and in this English translation, have allowed her over four hundred pages of compilation – and they are very readable! Her bits and pieces can be loosely arranged under such superordinate themes as “Travel” (which is converted to the title Flights) and “Anatomy” and surely if I scratch around a bit I can find a couple of overarching themes for my stuff.

Most of us nowadays read books (if at all) in fits and starts, and Tokarczuk’s book slots perfectly into our habits. I have been reading a couple of sections – they all have helpful bold titles  to break up the text – and then turn, as one does, to check emails and the latest bits and pieces which make up the day’s World  News. It has all felt quite seamless. This is the way to go, I tell myself. Now you have a weapon to beat sceptical editors!

Tokarczuk has the cast of mind of an obsessive and like many obsesssives, she has accumulated a splendid cabinet of curious bits of knowledge: “The shortest war in history was waged between Zanzibar and England in 1896, lasting thirty-eight minutes” (page 109). I loved that and immediately linked to the kind of Wittgensteinian puzzle which undergraduates used to ponder and may still ponder (though “pondering” does not really capture youthful minds): Can you be in love with someone for thirty eight minutes? Does the concept of being in love apply only in relation to something which is a bit more enduring than that?

You could say that Tokarczuk’s book is “about death” because it contains a lot of dead bodies, usually preserved in formaldehyde or subject to other techniques of preservation (the author catalogues many with considerable panache). You could say it is “about love and loss” because there are the beginnings of quite long short stories spliced into the book which fit that category. You could say that it is “about being a middle-aged woman” because there are wistful  asides on the subject, scattered through the pages, just as there are scattered remarks about Catholicism and Communism. You could say that it is about human lives without a centre, the fact disguised by endless displacements (flights).

Or you could just say that it makes an interesting and unusual book to pick up and put down, on a train journey, on a flight. But the absence of a main plot line is probably disconcerting for the reader who likes to be drawn along for two or three hours without a break and wants to feel that they are travelling to some destination.