Category Archives: philosophy

I Went to the Library Because I Wanted to Read Deliberately…

I have never read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, though of course I have heard of it – and now that I come to it I’m ashamed I took so long.  We Brits are scandalously behind when it comes to reading American literature: of course we read Henry James and have a stab at Hemingway and Pound (aren’t Pound and Eliot more British in spirit anyway?) but as for me, I am terribly behind on my US classics, only coming to Walt Whitman late and never having touched Faulkner.

All is not lost! for I am only sixty and it is probable that many years remain in which I can rectify these omissions.  In that spirit, I went to the library and happened upon Walden which, though I have only read fifty or so pages, has already blown my mind.

First, I never knew that there were so many quotations in it – for just as every line in Withnail and I is quotable, so every page of Thoreau has something in it that you didn’t know came from thence.  On the first page I read a line familiar to me from Dead Poets’ Society:

‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.’ *

That idea of living  deliberately, thoughtfully, not just being swept along by the mainstream, is very appealing – though it does of course mean living a very stripped-down life.  Still it’s good to question which of the things you regard as necessary to life actually are.  Is a car necessary?  Is a job necessary?  And if so why?  You may come to the conclusion in the end that you do in fact need all these things; but at least you’ll have thought about it: and as we all know, the unexamined life is not worth living.  (That’s Socrates, not Thoreau, but still.)

A few pages later I came upon this:

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the  music which he hears…’

Everyone knows that line, as well as this one:

‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

I had no idea that Thoreau was the source of these; and now I do, I want to read more.  I’ll keep you updated as I go…

Kirk out

*I guess Thoreau didn’t go on holiday by mistake?

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Work is a Seven-Letter Word

One of the best cartoons ever about work is Dilbert:

It’s a somewhat less benign version of W1A, the recent BBC series taking the piss out of itself by itself.  I recently had an epiphany about this where it struck me that Theresa May is exactly like the character on W1A who has been promoted beyond her abilities, has no clue what she’s doing and goes around saying ‘Yes, exactly yes.  The fact is, this has to not happen.’  W1A is a terrific series which may come in for some more detailed sitcom analysis on this blog – but today we’re talking about work.  W-O-R-K, work.  A t-shirt I’ve seen on sale proclaims ‘You don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism:’

No automatic alt text available. and it’s probably true: most people work because they must; because without the money that work provides they wouldn’t be able to do the things they most enjoy.  Like eating, for example, or wearing clothes.  Some people dream of a time when they don’t have to work; a time spent like sitting by a pool with a martini or working on your garden. But for most people work and non-work are clearly defined.  Even if, like a teacher, say, you take work home with you, you know when you’re doing it and when you’re spending time on leisure.  (Yeah, I know, ‘leisure?’)

But when you are a self-employed writer with very few (if any) actual funded projects on the go, you have to define both your hours of work and what actually constitutes work.  For example, I am about to go to my weekly reading group where we read and discuss short stories and poems.  Is this work?  On the whole I think it is, since it introduces me to new authors and sharpens my critical faculties.  But often when working I can appear to be doing nothing at all: staring into space, chewing my pen or doodling on my pad. Then again, if I’m on Facebook, is that work?  On the whole, I’d say no – it’s a distraction.  But occasionally I can see stories that give me ideas, or join an argument which helps me to hone the expression of my thoughts.  So it isn’t always worthless.

And how many hours should I do?  At the moment I’m doing about five or six hours a day.  But to me, six focused hours are as good as ten unfocused hours: as critics of the ‘long hours’ culture have pointed out, more time does not equal greater productivity.

And what about this blog post?  Does that count as work?

Kirk out

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Shorthand and (Stereo)typing

In the old days everything was simple.  Your social status was immediately obvious because your clothes, your accent, your demeanour, everything about you – all spoke of your position in society.  Though there was some level of social mobility, it would have been almost impossible to ‘pass’ as someone of a different social class, else there would have been no ‘Pygmalion’  – and even no ‘Educating Rita.’

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/pygmalion/summary.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085478/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl

The advantage of this (if you want to see it so) was that it operated as a kind of shorthand.  You could tell at a glance who someone was and how you should treat them.  They could tell at a glance how to behave towards you; whether with deference or brusqueness, whether to give an order or hail you as a fellow.  It made life easier and more straightforward.  It also made it terrible.  It put people in strait-jackets; it consigned individuals to oblivion or slavery before they were born.

Even when I was growing up in the ‘sixties, three distinct social classes were still in operation.  It would not have been remotely funny for two Ronnies Corbett and one John Cleese to do the famous ‘I look up to him/I look down on him’ sketch if it had not expressed a visible truth.  (Women didn’t even figure in this scenario because they derived their social status from the men in their lives; any unmarried working women were either definitely working-class or else practically classless.)

But now we have thrown all this out in the name of equality.  I’m more than thankful for that, don’t get me wrong: the class system perpetuates privilege and injustice and ought to be abolished (insofar as it actually has been.)  But there’s a problem.  Because now that we have no shorthand telling us how to treat people, some of us are resorting to typing.  Stereotyping, that is.*  If you rely on appearances to judge the person in front of you, that’s called prejudice.  We seem as a society to be particularly bad at taking people as we find them.  We seem to need a kind of shorthand to help us with short-term encounters or first meetings.

*see what I did there?

Nowadays men know that they shouldn’t patronise women; white people are better-informed about how to treat ethnic minorities and I hope we are all much better at talking to people with disabilities.  This is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist; of course it does, but we’re more clued up about it.  We have strategies – and in some contexts, laws – to deal with it.

The problem is that the progress towards equality has taken place – in this country at least – within the context of individualistic captalism.  We may all be equal, but we are all in competition with each other.  We live in a ‘me too!’ society where everyone wants to be at the top; and we deal with this by means of competitions.  Everything’s a competition now – just look at the TV schedules.

There must be a better way to do this.  I just don’t know what it is yet.

Kirk out

PS  Oh, and while I’m mentioning ‘Educating Rita’ I must recall a brief sojourn into the limelight by a friend.  He phoned into Dermot o’Leary’s show on radio 2 to protest at the amount of rap music he played, and was invited to come on the programme and choose one word to describe a song they had just played.  Words such as ‘bilge’, ‘offal’ and ‘dross’ received an outing: the item was called ‘Educating Peter’.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s the Time, Mr Proust?

When I read Proust for the first time many years ago, after six volumes of incredibly lengthy sentences discussing ‘lost time’, the last two words of the work were so short that they hit me like a bullet between the eyes.  In time: these words seemed to sum up the entire work.  And having read it I don’t think we spend enough – er, time – thinking about time.

Time is a fascinating thing.  I don’t pretend to understand Einstein’s idea that there is no such thing as simultaneity: for one thing it’d make nonsense of songs such as ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_the_Time_I_Get_to_Phoenix

The thing is, with ideas like Einstein’s I can get them on an abstract level, but I can’t translate it into my own experience.  What does it mean to say that by the time I get to Phoenix she won’t be rising; that the two events happen separately and are unconnected?  I can’t get my head around it.

Another phenomenon which I’m sure has a scientific explanation, is the way ideas fly away when you look directly at them.  For example.  I had many thoughts this morning of a stimulating (if not simultaneous) and inventive nature, but as soon as I came into the library with a fresh sheet of paper ready to work with them, they all flew away.  I think this is like Alice’s experience in the wool shop (if it was a wool shop) where the shelves seem crowded but as soon as she looks directly at one it’s empty, though all around they are as crowded as ever.

It was the wool shop:

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite, empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

This is surely familiar to anyone creative: you have a million ideas all crowding into your mind but as soon as you sit down with pen and paper and try to summon them up, they become terminally shy.  So it was with me this morning: I had several bright ideas and almost wrote them down; however they seemed to suggest that this would be premature, and that they needed to stew a little further, so I left them where they were.  And now that I’m in front of the computer, where are they?  Hiding, that’s where, and refusing to come out.  No doubt they will come out at the most inconvenient moment, say, three in the morning.

*sigh*

Another phenomenon I’ve observed (and I’m really not sure science has caught up with this one) is this.  You may be wrestling with any number of ailments or neuroses; and then you go away on holiday.  It’s as though this fact – the fact of your going away – takes the ailments by surprise; and for once you are able to shake them off and arrive at your holiday destination free and light-hearted.  This continues for a day or two; however, sooner or later the neuroses will wake up.  She’s gone! they say to each other, rousing themselves and packing their bags; then they set off, shading their eyes against the sun to see where you are.  You can spot them, black figures charging up the hill in ones and twos – but if you are on the watch you can pick them off one by one: or at least identify and store them to deal with at a later date.

Kirk out

 

 

 

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Trans Stuff

Yesterday being International Women’s Day, I went to a women’s event at Loughborough University.  It was quite a feat getting there as there was no signage at all: fortunately a couple of security guards who (though very politely) nearly ran me over, pointed me in the right direction.  The event was called ‘From Sex to Gender: a Biological and Cultural Journey’ and as usual with these things I was seeking some kind of enlightenment.  Or explanation.  Or whatever.

Did I get it?  Well, yes and no.  Any discussion, however waffly or fruitless, can move your thought-processes along if you let it – and this was unwaffly and sort of fruitful, if you think a tomato is a fruit.  OK I’m being abstruse.  Let’s get to it: there was a talk by a Professor (male), suggesting that gender is a spectrum and quoting a book called ‘The Five Sexes’ by Anne Fausto-Sterling:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2326-1951.1993.tb03081.x/abstract

The five are, apparently, ‘perfect’ male, ‘perfect’ female, ‘masculine female’ (me, probably) ‘feminine’ male (OH, in my view) and intersex.  Fine: I don’t have a problem with the idea that most people don’t fit entirely into neat boxes labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’.

So I don’t disagree that gender – ie what you are expected to be and do as a man or woman – is socially constructed.  So far so good.  But the second half of the event was a video by a trans woman claiming that sex is also socially constructed; in other words, that we can throw out biology – chromosomes, sexual organs, hormones, etc – as a determiner of sex.  Hmm.  She claims that transgender women are not biologically male; but I’m sceptical: in trans women (including her, incidentally) you can often see features which often occur only in males, such as a pronounced jawline or a tendency to put on weight round the middle rather than around the hips.  And that’s not even to touch on ethical issues such as trans women using the strength or power they had as a male to their advantage – retaining positions of power, winning cycle races – which is what Jenni Murray was getting at in her recent remarks:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/05/jenni-murray-transgender-not-real-women-sunday-times-magazine

While the video was long on what gender isn’t, it was very short on what gender actually is.  The idea seemed to be that you are what you say you are, or what you feel you are – and the rest can go hang.

I don’t buy it – and neither did some other people there – but when I tried to raise the issue of what gender actually is, it wasn’t dealt with.  And the problem I’m finding is not that some people have certain ideas, but that disagreement is difficult.  There’s an orthodoxy emerging: the facilitator of the discussion, though perfectly pleasant, was not open-minded; she had a view and seemed to be trying to convey that view as correct.  The idea seems to be that the rest of us should just accept unquestioningly what trans people say; and as a sceptic I’m not prepared to accept anything without question, no matter where it comes from or who says it.

The video was called ‘No, Transgender Women are not Biologically Male’ and you can find it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWVRzGMVXbM

(unfortunately it’s one of those where all the pauses have been edited out, which I find makes it almost impossible to take in.)

In short, just because you can’t be precise about sex doesn’t mean we should just throw the whole thing out.  And debate ought never to be off the table.  We must have debate.

Kirk out

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A Plea for Respectful Debate

You may not recognise this guy, but you may have heard of Breitbart, a right-wing news site which he runs.  This guy is Milo Yiannopoulos, a Brit of Greek extraction who recently opined that trans people are a danger to women and children and a lot more besides.  My impression is that he is an immature self-publicist who says things mostly to shock; frankly I don’t want to give him any more time than I already have.  But it is an unfortunate fact that as far as trans people go, he and Germaine Greer are in the same camp, ie promoting disrespectful rather than respectful debate.  And I want to use this post as a plea for the latter; because we really need it.

There are things I decline to discuss.  I will not debate the question of whether women are equally intelligent to men; nor whether people have a right to be gay, nor whether people of other races are equal to ‘us’.  We’ve had these debates and come to a consensus; and if anyone hasn’t caught up, the arguments are all out there.  But the same cannot be said for transgender issues; and with the best will in the world, many people are genuinely baffled by this.  What does it mean to be transgender?  What are the options?  And crucially, where does it come from?  Is it, as some have suggested, a mental health problem or does the problem merely come from the prejudice of others?  If so, where does it come from?  We need to be free to ask these questions, else how can we come to an understanding?  It’s not good enough to say, as many have, that we just need to ‘accept it.’  I can’t accept something I don’t understand – at least, not fully.

What is clear to me is that previously you were defined at birth by your biology.  If you had female organs, you were female; if you had a penis, you were male.  End of – and any thoughts or feelings you might have to the contrary, had to just get into line.  Whereas now, it’s your thoughts and feelings that define you, and the body has to come into line, even if that means lopping bits of it off.

I’m not happy with either of these scenarios.  But I’m even more unhappy with the seeming impossibility of having any respectful debate on the subject, since I am often told that merely asking these questions is tantamount to denying the trans person’s right to exist.

Please comment.  But please comment respectfully.

Kirk out

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The Anti-Narnia

Far too much has been written about the over-commercialisation of Christmas.  People have been banging on about this ever since I can remember, but without success, for the phenomenon has now reached ridiculous lengths.  From the beginning of October I went through my Facebook news feed resolutely deleting everything that had a reference to Christmas and keeping it up until the actual beginning of Advent which this year fell on 30th November.  (Incidentally this reminds me of Nigel, the over-zealous curate in ‘Rev’ – can’t find the clip – who flounces into the office and announces ‘If I have to tell one more person it isn’t Christmas yet, it’s Advent, I shall go completely doo-lally!’)  I can’t remember exactly when the season of Christmas begins but I think it’s on Christmas Eve – and then it lasts, as the song says, twelve days after that.

But nowadays Christmas begins as soon as the summer holidays are over.  Barely is the harvest in; hardly have the children got their feet under a larger set of school desks, than the adverts begin.  You hear with dread the faint jingle of bells that announces the onset of yet another festive season; parents and teachers groan at the knowledge that they must deal with the children’s mounting excitement for another two and a half months before it can be discharged – and then the shopping begins.

Well – it seems to me that, with global warming, what we have here is the anti-Narnia.  The climate has changed so much; winters are now so much warmer than they were and Christmas so much longer, that we seem to be in a country that has fallen under the spell of some wicked wizard; a country where it’s Always Christmas and Never Winter.

I guess one advantage of not having money is that you can just ignore all the ads; the only offer I’ve been remotely tempted by is a subscription to Granta and sadly it’s too late to ask for that now.  Keep it simple is my philosophy: straightforward presents, not too many cards, and an easy Christmas meal without too many extras.  Enough food and wine to enjoy, presents under the tree and a few Xmas crackers – and I am content.

Would it were so easy to sort out global warming.  Then again, maybe it is: maybe if we apply the same criteria – cut out the extras, live more simply, have enough to enjoy and be content – we could find the answer.

Oh, and get me a subscription to Granta…

KO

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