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Thursday 13 September 2018

Review: Jacqueline Yallop, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves

This is an interesting, well-written book about top end collecting in Victorian England, nicely presented with big print and proper spacing. The arguments are developed through case studies of five wealthy and determined collectors and particular emphasis is given to the developing relationships between private collectors and public collecting institutions (museums, art galleries). Two of Yallop’s collectors double as public servants and one as a dealer. The chapter on Charlotte Schreiber is the most interesting, especially when it develops a modest but well-grounded account  of how and why some forms of collecting were consistently regarded as the preserve of men but some niches were offered to female collectors in areas like chinaware. I would have thought a monograph could be made out of this chapter. There is no discussion of lower forms of collecting and though this is a book about Victorian England, the words “stamp collecting" nowhere appear.

The title is misleading. All of her subjects move away from magpie collecting towards a more informed and structured approach. None are hoarders in any pathological sense. Though they benefit from the proceeds of Imperial looting expeditions, they generally display a high degree of probity in their actions.

There is one puzzling discussion of fakes in chapter 17 where the example chosen (a bust of Flora attributed to da Vinci) is not in any obvious sense a fake or a forgery, just work someone has done to amuse himself; no one appears to pass it off as a da Vinci. The narrative offered supports only the conclusion that the work was misattributed; no one seems to have had any intent to defraud. Indeed, the principal victim is the expert who attributed it in the first place.

I noticed a couple of mistakes. At page 264, “George III” should read “George IV”. At page 281 a mid-century transatlantic crossing time of fifty days is given. With the introduction and development of steamships, crossing time dropped from about ten days in the 1850s to about seven days in the 1880s.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Change

I am being a bit cheeky. The long academic essay below does not belong here, but I am parking it here on 11 September 2018 as an experiment. I will report on any interesting results.

Update 1: As at 12 October 2018, this page has had 27 visits; on Google, when placed in inverted commas "A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change" returns only this page.
Update 2: At 4 November 2018, 43 visits; see also the Blog on this site for 4 November 2018 which gives a bit of explanation of what I am doing.
Update 3: At 10 December 2018, 71 visits  - the highest number for any Post here since September 2017
Update 4: At 18 September 2019, 88 visits. Still just one Google result for the title. No emails to the author ...
Update 5: at 18 April 2020 still on one Google result. Headline essay title changed from "A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change" into "A  Cognitive Theory of Cultural Change"

A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Change
Trevor Pateman

Abstract: An atttempt to demonstrate how and why cultural change occurs continuously and  independently of any social dynamics and simply as the result of the working of ordinary cognitive processes understood here without recourse to specific versions of cognitive theory. 


The past is a lost world. We know so little about it. Of all the trillion upon trillion conversations, speeches, sermons, invocations, recitations, chants, songs, concert performances, which took place before the 1870s (at the earliest) hardly a trace remains. Their sound is recorded nowhere; the memory traces which they left are gone because everyone born before the 1870s is dead. Only where something was written down in a musical score, the text of a play or a prayer, or an entry in a diary, does something remain. The farther back in time we go, the more reconstructive (and hence at least partly speculative) is any attempt to reproduce the sounds and gestures of the past. We can reconstruct the conversation at a nineteenth century country house dinner table guided by what we read in Jane Austen; an eighteenth century concert fit for a king guided by a musical score; a seventeenth century theatrical performance guided by all that Shakespeare researchers can tell us; a sixteenth century speech by Queen Elizabeth the First as handed down in the history books …. but in the end only one thing is certain, that somewhere we will have got it wrong. We are guessing – we are theorising and we are improvising. There are no Big Data such as we now possess in sound and visual recordings and even those, I will later argue, are fraught with problems.

I am making an important assumption. Surely, you might say, there is at least a possibility that person B who heard it from person A passed it to person C who then passed it on to person D, and so on down the line so that a twenty first century rendering of a prayer may be sounded out in pretty much an identical manner to the way it was sounded out ten or twenty generations ago.  I don’t believe this is true and rather than just say Haven’t you heard of Chinese Whispers? I want to use this essay to argue that case.
In logic, if A implies B, and B implies C, and C implies D … all the way through to Y implies Z, then it follows that A implies Z. Logical implication and entailment just is a transitive thing.
But if I understood my mother when she talked to me, and she understood her mother when she talked to her, and that mother understood her own mother …. it does not follow that I would understand my 26th great grandmother if she were still alive to talk to me. Indeed, it is at least very likely that I would not understand.  There will be a failure of transitivity.

Such failures arise in two main ways. First, the things I want to speak about are different to those my 26th great grandmother wanted to speak about. My vocabulary is different, full of words which would be to her incomprehensible neologisms. Likewise, her vocabulary included words which have fallen completely out of use and which can now be found, if at all, only in specialist dictionaries. It is a perfectly general truth that the world we inhabit changes and the words we use to talk about our world change with them, sometimes very rapidly, sometimes more slowly.

Second, the way we speak changes over time under both external and internal pressures. Pronunciation, accent, intonation patterns, all change – indeed, are changing all the time, never stop.

These simple ideas can be given expression in terms of very simple set theory. There is a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of all the possible utterances which I can passively understand should they be addressed to me. That set changes over a lifetime – in my late teens I could understand utterances in Swedish because I had learnt some Swedish but which I would no longer understand because I have forgotten what I learnt – but importantly the set includes most (perhaps all) of the utterances which my mother ever addressed to me. But my set does not perfectly overlap with her set, not least because the world has changed a great deal and now includes the internet, emails, and so on indefinitely. Included in her set were most (perhaps all) of the utterances which her mother addressed to her, none of which were ever addressed to me because this grandmother was dead before I was born. Probably there were things which my grandmother said which I would not understand if by some extraordinary means I could hear them now.

I can even give a sort of proof. Recently, going through things which belonged to this grandmother, I found the printed prayer which stood like a photo in a frame on her bedroom dressing table. I looked at the back where I found printed the words MOWBRAYS’ DEVOTIONAL GLAZETTES G 7. Well, I know that Mowbray is a big religious publisher confirmed by the later words A.R.MOWBRAY & CO Ltd. London & Oxford – something which has not stopped the company putting the apostrophe in the wrong place, useful evidence that the decline of civilisation did not begin last week. And I know the word devotional. But what about this glazette? I’ve never come across the word before. It sounds like it has some connection to gazette, but what connection? So I google and for the first time ever, Google really struggles. There is no definition of the word on offer anywhere but there are a handful of other uses which Google finds on ebay, including uses to brand-name early (1890s – 1910s) picture postcards which have a glazed surface – what we would now call a laminated surface. So here we have a word which my grandmother would have presumably known and understood but which, unaided, I did not. And here we are only talking about the very, very recent past.
It takes only a bit of imagination to see that over time, the sets of all possible utterances which a person in generation Z can understand have migrated so far away from those which a person in generation A could understand  that there is eventually minimal or no overlap at all. There is a more or less complete failure of transitivity. Or, to put it in the language of set theory, sets migrate. If this is true of language, then it will be true of many other forms of expression. That claim requires some fleshing out.

Why is it not possible for a singer in an oral culture to orally transmit a definitive version of a song to an apprentice singer who then in turn passes it on to the next generation apprentice, and so on, indefinitely?

First, and not at all trivially, a singer may not care at all about a definitive version and from performance to performance may vary in all kinds of ways the song they sing. The singer acts creatively, improvises, but is also affected by how much they have had to drink, how much they like the audience, and so on through an indefinite range of possibilities. So an apprentice has to somehow figure out what is essential to learning and reproducing “the song” and what is incidental. And there is no guarantee at all that all apprentices will figure out in the same way, even if they have never heard the expression “cover version”.

This is really a way of introducing the idea that in relation to cultural transmission or reproduction, there is always and inevitably an inescapable moment of interpretation. That idea can also be expressed in the claim which tells us that a theory (an interpretation) is always underdetermined by the data which support it. There is always more than one way to skin a cat.

Second, it is extremely rare for something like a song or a dance to have only a unique performer at any one moment in time and for that unique performer to have a unique apprentice. At any one time, the performances of a living group of performers are attended to by a group of apprentices. When a culture is dying, one way of showing that is to point to the fact that the group of apprentices is smaller than the group of established performers. But dying or expanding, the performances of current performers constitute a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of what constitutes the empirical reality of a particular song. When a couple of centuries ago (or less), ethnographers began to collect the words of folk songs one of the first things they had to cope with was the huge variation between versions of what were,  in some sense, renderings of the same song. The set which made up a song was not only fuzzy; it was positively indeterminate.

I once encountered a real-world near-demonstration of this truth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, men from the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland found employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada which traded with the Inuit population of the north. Some Orcadians also served on whalers which hunted in the Canadian north. These men left behind not just babies but fiddles and the knowledge of how to play them. Long after the Orcadians left, there continued to be Inuit fiddlers playing Orcadian music. In 1978, holidaying in Orkney, I found myself one evening attending a unique, first-time-ever gathering: a group of Inuit fiddlers had travelled to Orkney and they were going to play their fiddles. Then some Orcadian fiddlers were going to play theirs. Then, it was hoped, the two sets of fiddlers would play together. Well, they tried and they partially succeeded but you would not have called it a successful jam session. Cultural drift had taken Inuit and Orcadian fiddlers in separate directions and after a period which could have been no more than 150 years, they were playing differently from each other. But in between, sons had learnt from fathers in unbroken chains. The line of descent was there but the music had migrated enough to create quite a lot of  intransitivity.
But suppose there is just one performer and one apprentice, and suppose the performer is an obsessive about maintaining just one version of a song, a dance, a prayer and boxes the apprentice’s ears when they deviate ever so slightly from the standard? Surely this can stop the set from migrating, stop later versions from becoming intransitive with earlier ones.

I have six inter-connected arguments to offer against this possibility. One I develop through the concepts of foreground and background. That is connected to what I call the sample book problem. Then there is the important problem of forgetfulness. Then there is a problem of context which is often overlooked. There is a problem of finite intelligence. And, finally, there is the problem of unique experience.

Human beings, constructed as they are, can only attend to some things at any one time out of all the possible things which could be attended to at that moment. They can, in fact, only notice some things out of all the possible things that could be noticed. About these things to which they attend or which they notice, they can say at least something, though even then it may be sketchy and not very informative. Nonetheless, it is a whole lot more than can be said about all that was not attended to, was not noticed.

There is a foreground of experience - things we notice - and a background of things we don’t. Quite often, we can change our focus of attention in order to pull something out of the background and into the foreground. But not as often as we may imagine and quite often we only do it when prompted.

This is not just a fact or truth about perception. It is perfectly general. Everything we experience and everything we do is handled within the frame of foreground and background and there is no avoiding that fact. The consequences are multiple, not just for everyday life but also for things like artistic creation and political understanding.

The contrast of foreground and background is played out very obviously in relation to spoken and written language. Parents, teachers and ministers of education habitually foreground some bits of language as particularly important for children to learn. They emphasise bits of pronunciation, bits of grammar, bits of punctuation as things which are very important to get right. Quite often, these foregrounded features are selected with a view to stopping some incipient change occurring. They are conservative measures.

You can only practise so much vigilance. No ordinary parent or teacher or even minister of education can be googling all the time. As a result, some changes get past even the most vigilant defenders who are thus always in the position of King Canute, unable to turn back the waves. Change will happen even on those language fronts you have opted to foreground and defend.

Worse, there is the background of language use still to consider, all those things which aren’t being attended to. Here change happens unnoticed even by those who pioneer the changes. They just do it without knowing that they are doing it or why they are doing it. I will give an example from written language. Recently, I was reviewing articles and chapters I had written forty or fifty years ago. As I turned some of them into new Word documents, I realised there were things in them that I now write differently. Decades ago, I would have written U.S.S.R. and N.A.T.O. and B.B.C. and so on indefinitely. But nowadays I don’t do that. I write USSR, NATO and BBC and so on indefinitely. But there was no point at which I was conscious of dropping the stops and I did not know that I had indeed made this discontinuous change in the way I type until I got involved in reading my own old work. Likewise, there was that point when – like many people –I stopped speaking and writing Roumania or Rumania and switched to Romania. Don’t ask me when or why.

So in the background, even though it involves things which we do quite consciously – as when we sit down to type – changes happen which are not reflected on or brought into consciousness at the time they occur and may indeed not be noticed until much later. Historical linguists come into their own studying such changes but what is happening here is not specific to or confined to language. All things change, whether we like it or not or whether we notice it or not. And All does mean All, even those things we may imagine are under our own control. To return to language, if you think there is something called The Queen’s English or BBC English which does not change, just try listening to a fifty year old recording of a BBC radio broadcast or a fifty year old Queen’s Speech.

So far, the argument amounts to this. Everything we experience and think about is handled in terms of foreground and background. We have a bit more control over foreground but not enough to prevent change even when we are trying to prevent change. We have less control over background, often none at all, and background changes all the time and sometimes very fast. Change goes on in the background willy-nilly, as I have already suggested with the example of pronunciation. We are capable of changing things in the foreground and liable to change things left in the background. The dynamics of change are different in the two cases.

In the foreground, we are liable to influence from others (often massively so) but when we make a change it is often (perhaps always) of a discontinuous nature and involves a decision on our part, as when we decide to quit smoking and move from being a smoker to being a non-smoker which in turn makes us an agent within a broader cultural shift. But when something in the background changes, unknown to us, it often does so in a way which has a sort of continuous character. So we start to say “Hi” instead of “Hello” on a few occasions, without knowing why we pick those occasions, and then we start to use “Hi” more often and, perhaps eventually we move to a situation where we become a monoglot “Hi” user rather than a monoglot “Hello” user. But we didn’t decide to do this. We still understand what other people mean when they say “Hello” but we just stop using “Hello” ourselves.

(The contrast between continuous and discontinuous change is important. There is a long history of theorising about the contrast, with the science of geology having been a major site for the early discussion. Nowadays we are most familiar with the idea from the way we contrast analog with digital. Think of clocks).

How does all this apply to the single performer with a single apprentice? Suppose it is a singer and a song. The singer has a unique voice profile (as modern technology knows) and it changes through time: an old man does not sound like his younger self. The singer can’t do much about this and almost certainly discounts it and consigns it to the background when teaching an almost certainly younger apprentice. The singer can only foreground so much of the song and its singing and inevitably some things will pass unnoticed. Maybe the singer takes four minutes thirty three seconds (on average) to sing the song and the apprentice takes four minutes thirty one seconds. If you don’t notice and stop that, then the song has already changed. In contrast, when the singer foregrounds something, like a drawn out note or word, then that does mean that the apprentice may well get their ears boxed for getting it wrong.

There is still a double problem. The poor apprentice has to understand what they have got wrong and find a way to correct it. Because of the ubiquity of the need for interpretation, the apprentice has first to correctly identify what the singer is so agitated about. The problem is analogous to that children have when their speech is corrected and they have to grasp what it is that it is being corrected. Not so long ago, I listened to a young child reciting numbers from one to twenty with complete accuracy. But at the end, his father intervened to say No, not twen-ee, it’s twen-tee. The child was completely baffled by this piece of linguistic correction which had absolutely no connection to the task he had set himself of reciting the numbers in correct order. How was the child supposed to know that though living in south east London he was not supposed to speak like south east London?

Even if he had been a budding theorist of cultural arbitraries, there would still be the problem of converting advice into successful practice. Children do often get it right in the end, though it probably has little to do with advice they are given, and as anyone who has ever learnt to drive a car will know, giving advice is more easy to offer than to act upon.

Worse is to come. In oral cultures, singers forget today what they prescribed yesterday or, perhaps to make it more plausible, they forget next year what they prescribed this year. They have no sample book outside their own heads and we all know that our memories are constantly re-organising themselves. They have no means of comparing the sample which occurs to them today with the sample which they were using yesterday, let alone last year and which is almost certainly completely forgotten.

But suppose there is a real sample book in the form of a voice recording, even a film which shows all the accompanying gestures and so on?

The very same problems recur even if they seem less severe. Eliminate the possibility that the singer says they were having an off-day when the recording was made, there is still a problem of determining what is foreground and what is background in the recording, what matters and what does not matter. If the singer looks up at a certain point, does that matter or is it just because a bird was flying overhead at that moment? Then again the apprentice has to convert what is available in the recording into a new performance which uses the apprentice’s unique voice rather than that of the recorded singer, and so on.

Sample books do not solve any problem in some automatic way; they have to be interpreted and a regress can only be stopped by making a decision: this is the way we will do it. And decisions, one might say, are fatal to the integrity of cultural transmission. The decision indicates what will be allowed to Pass and what will Fail. But on a different day, or with a different judge, it is entirely likely that the bar would have been set higher or lower.

Imagine the teacher listening to the apprentice and eventually declaring That’s it! or perhaps merely That will do! That’s a decision, not something completely grounded in the sample in the teacher’s head. Nor is there any guarantee that next time around the teacher will come down in favour of the same version; the teacher is capable of forgetting the sample used last time and also capable of unconsciously modifying it. The mind is always at work, in one way or another, and it is the mind at work which makes all culture unstable even in what we might think of as an otherwise unchanging world.
There is a further peculiar problem created by the fact that all our activities have a broader context.

Background and foreground are separated by temporary boundaries – things move in and out of focus, the change triggered for many different reasons. But even when something stays for a long time in background, even deep background, it exerts an influence on what goes on in foreground. I use a hypothetical example to develop the argument.

Imagine a culture in which it is expected that certain utterances will be produced in a voice which is loud, clear and decisive. Maybe when a prayer is spoken or a sentence handed down by a judge. But suppose that in the wider culture there is an unmonitored and untheorised drift towards quieter forms of speech. The explanations could be purely external and chance. Maybe people are living in a police state and fall into the habit of talking in whispers; maybe more and more people work in open plan offices or live in apartment blocks with flimsy party walls. Whatever, people are talking more quietly. In this situation, the priest or the judge who continues in the old way will begin to sound ridiculously loud rather than impressively loud. Quite unconsciously, but affected by what is happening all around, an officiant shifts towards dropping their voice by a decibel or two. Should their audience contain an old-school office holder in retirement, that person may be saying to themselves Speak up! Speak up! because they happen to be outside the loop of an ongoing, broader cultural change.

It is in such continuous contextual interaction that I think we may find part of the explanation of cultural changes which it seems no one intended but which have happened anyway. For example, if a broader culture gravitates towards greater informality of style, then that may provide a kind of push towards making things like weddings and funerals more informal, even though those are things which most people might be happy to regard as governed by tradition and to be kept going in their older forms. Context is not a sinister force, but it is a powerful one.
The fifth argument goes like this. Our brains aren’t big enough and the time available to us is so short that it’s not possible for every bit of cultural material to be given foreground attention. That implies that those who want to stop cultural change cannot win every battle because they can never have enough troops to deploy. There aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone to stay on high reflexive alert to more than a small number of things which may change if not attended to.

To write English properly, you are supposed to master apostrophe rules. As it happens, they have a rather complex and confused structure which make them very difficult to learn without a quite disproportionate expenditure of effort. Very few people master this glass bead game. In this case, there is a long-term dislocation between a set of rules which tell you what you are supposed to do and what is actually done. The most likely resolution is that the rules will eventually be abandoned.

The problems which arise from limitations of time and intelligence can be seen in comic form in the desperate, expensive and futile attempts which English schools make to make pupils conform to school uniform rules. The Deputy Head goes on offensive against jewellery but misses what is happening to finger nails; they switch to finger nails and miss what is happening to skirt hems; they focus on skirt hems …. The only sound conclusion available is that they never will succeed because they never can. To a disbelieving audience, King Knut proved that claim a very long time ago.
Last but not least, people do not share the same experience set, the set of things which happen to them and which provide the raw material for their minds to work over, interpret and act upon. Experience sets are unique to individuals. Every day and all over the world, many millions (maybe more) people use or hear used the word Heathrow but only a very strange fluke would ensure that over time they have identical sets of Heathrow experiences. In all probability, they hear the word pronounced in different ways and out of that experience they have to fashion their own pronunciation, much affected by the language context from which they are working – Cantonese, French, Russian…. Very few will head to the online forum where such things are discussed and even then the effect will not be decisive.

We do not have a Big Data set which harvests the sounds of each day’s token utterances of the Heathrow type. There is no central depository, only the experiences of millions of individuals. A linguist with a sample of all the utterances will be able to sort them into sub-types – for example, the sub-type HEATH-row with stress on the first syllable and the sub-type Heath-ROW with stress on the second. The linguist may be able to hypothesise that the distribution of sub-types has shifted over time, the first pronunciation (American) overtaking the second and original English pronunciation for reasons much connected to patterns of global aviation. So we have the beginnings of an account of cultural change. The only sure thing is that it would be absurd to suppose that the continuously updated pie chart breaking down Heathrow pronunciations into their variant forms could have remained unchanged even over the short period of time in which the airport has existed.
The lines of argument developed in this essay apply equally to the understanding of changes in beliefs, belief systems, ideologies. Those who wrote the religious texts on which many cultures have relied probably thought that they were settling things for the future. In fact, as everyone knows, they simply provided data for an indefinite number of ever-changing  interpretations. The human mind seems to like nothing better than the challenge of a text.  This inherent instability in what in some cases are presented as unchangeable belief systems has one major advantage. It also allows for scientific progress and revolution. Of course, there is also an external dynamic provided by migration, war, conquest and economic change. But even without that external dynamic to prompt it, human minds are always churning.

© Trevor Pateman 2018

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

The following (improved) version was posted on 19 July 2020 and replaces the original 2018 piece:

I had a partner who teased me whenever I informed her that I’d worked something out in my own head. She had a sharp ear for pleonasm and so I made attempts to avoid being teased.

Recently, I discovered that the journal Radical Philosophy has been revived. The old one started in 1972 and ran to two hundred issues before running out of steam. This morning in the shower - and nearly fifty years after contributing to the first issue of the original Radical Philosophy [1] -  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 the repetition of conventional thoughts, the reliance on unchallenged assumptions, the polite acquiescence in received wisdom. That does not entail that philosophical conclusions must end up being sceptical in character. You may dig down to the roots and discover they are very strong and hold up the tree very well. Your task then becomes that of re-familiarising others, of getting them to look afresh at what has become so familiar that it is too much taken for granted. Take a look, give that root a big kick, and you will find it hurts you more than it hurts the root.

But to confine philosophy to just sceptical and non-sceptical versions is too limiting, anyway. Raymond Geuss titles a recent book Changing The Subject (2017) and broadly speaking argues that philosophers repeatedly change the state of the question. Marx was very explicit about the change he wanted to make: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. [2]

It’s a commonplace in the philosophy of science at least since Thomas Kuhn’s work (1950s – 1960s)[3] 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 possessed by a similar dynamic. But for both science and philosophy, it does not exclude the claim that they aim at truth.

There is art and literature which might be described as philosophical and which also tries to dig down to the roots, either to refresh our understanding of our world or suggest we might be better off shifting ourselves into a different one. William Wordsworth seeks to refresh, to re-imagine our familiar world, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday as Coleridge puts it in Biographia Literaria

In contrast, there are those who use literary and theatrical techniques of estrangement or alienation to upset our habitual responses, hoping to lead us into questioning the normal, into imagining a world different from this wearying reality of ours. In the recent past the names of Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht [4] are closely linked to such an approach, but the techniques are not new. They are deployed in a long procession of older works in which the morals and manners of other cultures are held up as mirrors to our own.

Of course, art and literature and philosophy too are often enough produced as comfort food, offering no challenge and packaged like candy. On that, my philosopher’s advice is to refuse substitutes and only curl up on the sofa with real ideas and fairtrade chocolate. [5]

[1] “Sanity, Madness and the Problem of Knowledge”, Radical Philosophy, 1, January 1972, pp. 22-23.
[2] . The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, dating from 1845.
[3]  Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
[4] “English Formalism and Russian Formalism”, in my Materials and Medium: An Aesthetics (2016), pp. 71-80.
[5] Here Dr Pateman enters into competition with Dr Peterson who in 12 Rules for Life (2018) recommends a masculine diet of Heidegger and fry-up breakfasts. Cousin Medicine publicly despairs of us both but  kindly whispers, Peterson’s diet is much worse.

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.

Friday 27 July 2018

John le Carre A Perfect Spy

Each man kills the thing he loves.

When his mother Dorothy disappears from his life and her adored substitute Lippsie kills herself, Magnus Pym blames himself twice over: to lose one parent may be someone else’s fault; to lose two re-directs the finger of blame back to oneself.

In Bern, Magnus Pym betrays his father-substitute Axel and back in England betrays his actual father, twice over: once when he hides the fact that he is studying Modern Languages, not Law, at Oxford and a second time during the Gulworth North by-election when he passes incriminating evidence to his father’s nemesis, Peggy Wentworth. His father only confronts him with the former betrayal, but the text is heavy with the suspicion that he has guessed the second.

In my edition, the bravura narrative of the Gulworth North  by-election takes up pages 396 to 439. It is being written by Magnus, holed up at what will be the end of his life, writing his autobiography addressed to his son. At the end of the Gulworth narrative, le Carré writes, “It was dawn. Unshaven, Pym sat at his desk, not wanting the daylight. Chin in hand he stared at the last page he had written. Change nothing. Don’t look back, don’t look back. You do it once, then die” (page 440).

It seems to me entirely plausible at this moment to imagine not Pym at his desk, but le Carré. He has just written forty pages of remarkable Dickensian comedy. He has also offered an extraordinary portrait of his father, both the real one and the fictionalised Rick Pym. And through the character of Peggy Wentworth, haunting his father and telling her tale to Magnus, who is also le Carré, he has an epiphany about his father’s character which leads him straight to betrayal.

The novel runs to 680 pages, cutting constantly between past and present, and cinematically between scenes occurring at the same time in different places as the net closes on the fugitive Magnus Pym. The author remains in full control throughout: a clue handed to Jack Brotherhood at page 166 is not turned to account until page 367, just the kind of thing one would expect an accomplished writer of spy fiction to deliver.

But it’s not really a work of spy fiction. It’s about love and loss and betrayal, ambition and defeat. It’s about growing up – a Bildungsroman in the tradition of Goethe, evoked more than once but most explicitly at page 292:

            “…he imagined himself as the young Werther, planning his wardrobe before committing suicide. And when he considered all his failures and hopes together, he was able to compare his Werdegang with Wilhelm Meister’s years of apprenticeship, and planned then a great autobiographical novel that would show the world what a noble sensitive fellow he was compared with Rick.”

A Perfect Spy is a great autobiographical novel, the prose driven (and thus driving the reader) by extraordinary intensity of emotion (none of the main characters are less than intense) which often enough finds expression in remarkable turns of stylistic inventiveness. So the young Magnus discusses radical politics with his father’s loyal lieutenants, the gay couple of Ollie and Mr Cudlove, and it is

            “…heartily agreed over stolen canapés and cocoa that all men are brothers but nothing against your dad. And though political doctrines are at root as meaningless to me today as they were to Pym then, I remember the simple humanity of our discussions as we promised to mend the world’s ills, and the truthful good-heartedness with which, as we went off to bed, we wished each other peace in the spirit of Joe Stalin who, let’s face it, Titch, and nothing against your dad, ever, won the war for all these capitalist bastards." (page 192)

Here the intimacy of discussions over cocoa is doubled by the style in which the formality of Magnus turns into the informality of Ollie and Mr Cudlove and the different voices harmonise to sing that all men shall be as brothers.

When it was published in 1986 and John le Carre was fifty-five, the same age as Magnus Pym, Philip Roth described it as “The best English novel since the war”. I am not widely read enough to know if that claim stands up if repeated in 2018. I can only say that there are not many 680 page novels which have held my attention like this one, which I have now read three times.

In the essay “Never Mind. E Weber Love You Always” included in my book Prose Improvements (2017), I discuss the themes of unconditional love and salvation as they figure in A Perfect Spy.