Content May Shift During Transit

It’s a difficult thing to practise contentment; not only do you have to keep reminding yourself of it but there’s a tendency for discontent to creep in everywhere; so if you’re not careful you can end up in the somewhat ridiculous situation of being discontented about the practice of contentment. (I’m too discontented.  I don’t have enough contentment.  I must be more contented…)  And then your head explodes.

So the trick is to be contented with the degree to which you are able to practise contentment – and then, with a wave of the wand and a cry of riddikulus! you’ll be doing it anyway.  Discontent really is a Boggart pretending to be a Dementor – we need to laugh at it and it will go away.

Contentment is a necessary antidote to a society where work of all kinds becomes increasingly demanding: a society where you hit one target and are immediately presented with another.  This is sometimes seen as a virtue but according to Yoga philosophy* it’s anything but.  Discontent is the thief of life and the destroyer of satisfaction.  What is the point of achieving your goals if you never enjoy it?  I could go on and on about the need to avoid end-gaining in yoga but that’s enough for today.

*and not only yoga philosophy: Buddhism also emphasises it and it is implicit in the practices of Christianity (here‘s a blog that makes the link and also has a really good quiz to test your own level of contentment).

This is a very short blog post and doesn’t say as much as I’d hoped.  Nevertheless, I am contented with its contents…

Kirk out

 

 

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Leavis and Butthead, or The Wrong Sort of Snow (Part 1: Intro)

My F R Leavis response to ‘The Two Cultures’ has come.  I expect this is something I ought to have read years ago but never mind, here it is.  I don’t expect to be edified, I expect to be pontificated at: Leavis seems to speak ex cathedra more often than the Pope (especially this current Pope) but I shall try to approach it with an open mind.

Incidentally this reminds me of a ‘joke’ in the Readers’ Digest.  My grandparents used to get this bizarre monthly magazine and you found back issues piled up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.  I never bothered with the articles but scrolled through reading the cartoons and so-called jokes: the humour in the RD was of such a subdued and conventional kind that I always imagined a retired colonel somewhere in Sussex chortling mirthlessly over his poached egg.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the joke (this is getting more and more like one of Ronnie Corbett’s rambling monologues) – the joke, or perhaps it was intended as an aphorism, was: ‘Some open minds should be closed for repairs.’  I read that forty years ago and I still have no idea what it means (if anything) but I imagine the Colonel harrumphing in approval as he cuts into his poached egg.

Incidentally, does anyone still have poached eggs?  I’ve not had one for years; the only time you see them is in hotels at the breakfast bar.

I started this post last week, since when I have re-read Snow’s original lecture and Leavis’s response.  I am formulating a number of complicated thoughts on this which may take some time and even when they are formulated I don’t suppose there will be space for them all here.  But it’s jolly stimulating.  Basically what I think we’re looking at is a clash of two other kinds of culture; the elitist and the meritocratic.  Snow, high priest of the meritocracy, represents the future and Leavis, pontiff of elitist tradition, knows it – which explains why he reacts as he does.  Basically Leavis is fighting for his life.

But more on this anon when I’ve got all my ducks in a row.  In the meantime I’ve also gone and ordered Leavis’s ‘The Great Tradition’ (get all your books from Alibris and give Amazon the finger; they’re cheap and reliable and they pay their taxes) which I read years ago and have mostly forgotten.  (I started to read it online but I’m no good at reading from a screen.)  He chooses six authors worthy of this Great Tradition, and while the gender balance isn’t too bad (Jane Austen and George Eliot make the cut) his criteria of greatness are so narrow and elitist that one is tempted to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennett and say, ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six great writers; I rather wonder at your knowing any.’

More on this when it comes.

Kirk out

 

How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

Kirk out

 

We’re Here Because We’re Here Because You’re There Because We’re Here

The older I get and the more I look at unjust societies (which is practically every society) it occurs to me that oppression is based on nothing at all.  The ways in which women were held to be inferior were myriad: from the size of our brains to the predominance of our hormones, no matter which way we turned reasons were advanced as to why we must advance no further.

But suppose a woman did show evidence of superior intellect; suppose one or more women demonstrated their ability to keep a cool head under pressure, what then?  Would the men admit they were wrong?  Of course not!  The women would be demonised, labelled as ‘not proper women.’  Because women can’t do these things.  Why can’t they?  Because they can’t – and if they can, they’re not real women.  So there.  QED.

Someone recently told me about a car journey they’d taken with a male driver, someone they didn’t know very well.  He got lost, so she dug out the road atlas.  ‘Women can’t read maps,’ he said.  He kept on saying it with the frequency of little white lines in the road.  ‘Women can’t read maps.  Women can’t read maps.’  She persisted in reading the map and got them to their destination, folding the map in triumph as they pulled in.  ‘Well, you mustn’t be a woman,’ he said. 

There you have it, in a nutshell – and that was only a few years ago.

The absurdity of these ‘arguments’ is so clear from a distance, you wonder how anyone could possibly be taken in by them.  But the oppressors don’t just rely on argument: the status quo is maintained by force or the threat of force.  This can be physical but often it’s mental (I won’t list the ways and means because they’ve been covered thoroughly in recent decades.)  The trump card in this scenario, however, is religion.  Why wouldn’t it be?  If you can claim that you rule by divine right it doesn’t matter whether you’re a monarch or a husband or a white man or a priest, you hold the trump card now and for eternity.

It doesn’t matter whether the landscape is gender or race or sexuality or something else, the game’s the same.  1. Things are the way they are because they’re the way they are.  2. If they weren’t the way they were they’d be wrong.  3. This is the right way for things to be and 4. if you want further proof read the Bible.  Or Koran.  Or whatever.

So there.  We’re here because we’re here and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Kirk out

 

A Senior Moment?

IMG_0870

OK I’ll be honest: I qualified for a Senior Railcard more than a year ago but didn’t get one.  I resisted; I put it off, partly I wondered whether I used the trains enough to justify the expense but mainly, if I’m honest, it was seeing that ‘S’ word that stopped me filling in the form and stumping up my thirty quid.  But now I guess the sting of hitting sixty has faded a little (life in the fast lane, eh?) plus I’ve made a conscious decision to drive less and take the train more, so here we are: yesterday I filled in the form, stumped up the cash and received confirmation which seemed to be competing to get the most repetitions of the word ‘Senior’ in one email.  Dear SENIOR citizen, thank you for applying for your SENIOR railcard now that you are a SENIOR person.  Get all the SENIOR benefits from you SENIOR card… OK, I get it!  I am now Senior.  I am having a Senior Moment and will go on having one for quite some time.

When I was young the elderly used to be called Senior Citizens if you were being polite and old people if you weren’t, but nowadays nobody is actually ‘old’ because being ‘old’ is next-door to being dead and no-one wants to talk about that.  Death has long since replaced sex as the great taboo; we postpone it for as long as possible (no death before seventy, please) and most of us never see it happen.  Death is tucked away in clinical environments, hidden from view: even accidental or criminal death is very soon hidden behind forensic tents and crime-scene tape and few of us actually witness the death of a loved one.  My sister and I insisted on staying with our mother when she died (she’d been unconscious for ages) and though it was hard, I’m glad we did.  It was peaceful and I’m sure it helped the grieving process.

In the midst of life we are in death.  Oo look, I’ve gone all biblical now: but I think that’s something we tend to ignore.  We have an uneasy relationship with the dead, being unsure how to commemorate their passing (do we dress in black and look sad?  Do we wear bright colours and celebrate?) and funeral corteges go at quite a clip compared to when I was a child, so as not to hold up the traffic; after all we can’t have the dead inconveniencing the living, can we?

I have to confess, I’m not a fan of the ‘wear bright colours and celebrate’ trend.  I dislike being told to ‘wear bright colours’ (though to be fair, I dislike being told what to wear in general) because there’s an implication that one is being told how to feel – and I may not feel like being glad and celebrating: the mourning gets squeezed out, somehow, in these events.  But then I’m not a huge fan of everyone wearing black and being deadly serious.  There should be laughter and joy as well as mourning.

It’s hard ain’t it?

But this remains one of my favourite funeral scenes, containing as it does both laughter and sadness, joy and grief – and of course, poetry:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPgkl2dPqGw

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I was reading an article in the Guardian today about how hard it is to be a Muslim in public life.  You get asked all kinds of questions like, ‘Do you think the state of Israel should exist?  Do you sympathise with terrorists?  What do you think of underage marriage?’  You become the poster-girl or boy for every horrendous act perpetrated in the name of Islam – and in the end you discover, as Nesrine Malik says, that the only way to win the game is not to play.

I can totally sympathise – if not empathise – with this, because it ain’t that easy to come out as a Christian these days either, at least not in Europe.  I would never suggest that Christians get abuse on the level of Muslims – for a start, we’re not easily visible unless we go out looking like these guys (the ones with crucifixes, not the ones with breasts).  Unless we open our mouths and start quoting the Bible, nobody can tell what we are.  But if you want to suck all the atmosphere out of a social occasion and have people edging away from you fast, just try mentioning the G-word.

These days I don’t even say I’m a you-know-what: if anyone asks I tell them I’m a Quaker.  This is partly because it’s more in tune with where I am, and partly because you avoid being blamed by association for everything from colonialism to the inquisition.  Being a Quaker is much more user-friendly because either people don’t know what that means and are interested, or they do know what it means and start talking about chocolate and world peace (usually in that order.)  Being a Quaker is – well, Friendly – and unless your interlocutor is wedded to nuclear weapons or radically opposed to chocolate in all its forms, you’re onto a winner.

Then again, it’s better to stick to the outward actions rather than touching on the inner revelation.  Mention ‘the spirit’ or ‘worship’ or ‘the light’ and people will edge away faster than the tide at Camber Sands (and believe me, that’s fast.)  Why is it so hard to talk about this stuff?  Why are people so hostile to anyone, no matter how tolerant or open-minded, who expresses a faith?  I’m not Billy Graham, for f***’s sake; nor do I think evangelism is a good thing.  Quite the reverse.

Sometimes I can’t help thinking that the evangelists are all atheists now.  Doesn’t Richard Dawkins want to make converts?  Aren’t some of the new atheists more intolerant than the believers?

Discuss.  (Politely, please – rude comments will be deleted.)

Kirk out

Zen + Zen = Zen

I’ve been reading a book of Japanese Death Poems lent to me by my son.  I was quite ignorant of the Japanese tradition of writing a poem at the point of death: it seems very strange to us that someone can not only know when they are about to die but stop to write a poem before they go; but I found these poems to be a great source of peace: all of us in the West need to learn to confront our own mortality instead of running away from it and trying to prolong our lives as much as possible.

https://bit.ly/2EcHWiG

I’ve also been watching a film about the Tamil mathematician Ramanujan.  Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan is an untutored genius with a brilliant intuitive mind who regards mathematics as a sort of worship and does his calculations in the sand of the temple floor.  He has a mind as beautiful as Nash’s but without any opportunity to share his insights; however a friend takes his papers to show the local British bigwig and he gets an opportunity to go to Cambridge and study under Hardy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._H._Hardy

Jeremy Irons (how I love that man) is perfect as the atheist Hardy, a man fighting on more fronts than the War which forms the backdrop to this narrative.  Prejudice is ingrained and Trinity College refuses to acknowledge that ‘an Indian’ could be brainier than they are.  But Hardy is also fighting Ramanujan himself, who cannot understand his insistence on ‘proving’ the arguments which he intuitively ‘sees’.  Intuition, in the West, is not enough: there must be proof, especially if Ramanujan is to be elected as a Fellow.  An opportunity to explore these cultural differences is missed; in fact missed opportunities are a feature of this film.  Stephen Fry has a cameo as British bigwig Sir Francis Spring who abruptly changes his mind about supporting Ramanujan (another opportunity for drama missed) and other supporting roles are underexploited, such as Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend and co-conspirator and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell; a man sympathetic to racial equality but realistic about Ramanujan’s chances of Fellow-ship.

A sad sub-plot involves Ramanujan’s young wife, separated from him by his relocation to England.  Their separation is cruelly compounded by his jealous mother who hides their letters, so that each thinks the other has forgotten them.  But once again the opportunity for drama is missed; the wife finds the letters and we fast-forward to a reconciliation, though sadly they have only two more years together before he dies of TB.

I’m very interested in the subject of multicultural maths.  Arabic cultures were fluent in maths and much of their art is based on patterns of numbers: I wonder if we are still as arrogant today as those Trinity scholars who thought the way of the West was the only way?

The film’s on Netflix now if you want to watch it:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787524/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_7

And I have a sneaking suspicion that in Zen mathematics 1+1=1…

Kirk out