Why Oh Why Oh Why?

Every parent knows that at around three or four years old your child will go through a ‘why?’ phase. Doesn’t matter what you say, they just keep on asking why. Why is the playground? Well, it’s so children can play. Why? Because children like playing. Why? Because play is how children learn? Why? Because that’s the way children are made. Why? And so on. OH is the only parent I have ever known who has exhausted a child’s ‘why’ phase, delighting in these questions and giving the fullest possible answers until the child gets fed up and decides it’s just not worth it. I tried various tactics such as ‘why do you think it is?’ but the child was wise to that and just kept on pumping out whys until I asked myself why I’d ever thought being a mother was such a great idea. But I also think OH came up with the best explanation of the ‘why?’ phase, which is that the child just wants you to keep on talking and has fixed on the word ‘why?’ as the best way to achieve this.

But whether or not children want to know why, adults certainly do. I’ve noticed that no matter what problems I’m going through, they always ease mightily when I know why. If I can see a reason for something happening, the clouds part and the weight is lifted; even though the problem remains, it doesn’t oppress me nearly as much. And so it was last night. I went to bed later than usual feeling properly tired, closed my book and laid my head on the pillow, wishing I could do what I did when I was younger and read lying down with the book propped up beside me. I closed my eyes. Instantly my brain started jumping like a hyperactive child. I tried all the usual tricks; whole-body relaxation, mental exercises and slow breathing – nothing worked. I lay awake for ages and finally fell into an unsatisfactory doze from which I awoke around six. I was very perplexed by this. Normally as long as I’m tired enough I’ll fall asleep without too much hassle, even if I do wake early. I lay awake wondering what could be happening. Was it a delayed reaction to the jab? And then it hit me: it was the tea! Yesterday morning I had a strong pot of tea, my first for ages, and this was the result. Immediately I felt lighter and even though I didn’t go back to sleep, I wasn’t worried about it.

No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s important to know why. And that’s why philosophy matters: science can give us the how but only philosophy can give us the why. Though I must say it’s bloody annoying not to be able to have the occasional post of hot, strong tea without suffering the consequences.

Kirk out

No Such Thing as Sociology?

I had the impression that sociology wasn’t much studied nowadays, but a cursory google search found more than a hundred courses, most of them sociology combined with other subjects but still. It was very much in vogue when I was at uni and I’m sure it’s a very interesting subject but sadly for my projected blog post, it’s still alive and well: I was going to have a rant about how, now that there’s no such thing as society, we’re not encouraged to study it either so there’s no such thing as sociology. But there you go. One thing I know is out of vogue is the study of philosophy – or so I thought, but a trawl of the nation’s universities brings up a hundred places you can study it. So what is really going on here and why do we never seem to hear about these subjects?

I’m fairly certain that in society as a whole philosophy is not much valued. I mean, when you work in the money markets what use are the novels of Plato? – to paraphrase the boring guy in Four Weddings and a Funeral. What use is it to spend three years of your life questioning the meaning of existence? I actually did some philosophy, though more or less by accident, when I studied French literature; Sartre and Camus straddle the boundary between literature and philosophy so you can’t do one without the other.

There’s a story told about the famous philosopher Socrates. He was walking one day with a pupil when a man came up to him and said, ‘What’s the point of philosophy?’ Without answering the man, Socrates immediately turned to his pupil and said, This man wishes to profit from learning. Give him a penny.’ Socrates had instantly divined that when the guy said ‘what’s the point?’ he was really asking, ‘Can I make money from it?’ and answered him accordingly. So what is the point of philosophy? Is there any point? Does it have to have a point? What’s the point of a new-born baby or a cloud that sheds no rain or a flower in the middle of a concrete slab? When it comes down to it, what’s the point of anything? And what do we mean when we say ‘What’s the point?’ What are we really asking?

On the whole I think we’re asking, what does it contribute to the world, by which we mean to society. What use is a flower growing in the middle of a patch of concrete? You could argue that it gives us hope in the midst of despair but what if nobody sees it? What’s the point of it then? What’s the point of a new-born baby? Yes, it gives the parents joy but you can’t eat joy, can you? And yes, it will grow up to be a useful and productive member of society and take care of its parents in their old age, but that’s way in the future. What’s the point of it now?

Some parents seem to take that attitude to their babies, farming them out to nannies and packing them off to school until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. Some societies take that approach to women, that all we’re good for is to provide children and do all the messy jobs men don’t want to do. The point of a woman is her function; the point of a baby is as a potential adult.

Balls. The point of everything is itself. And the point of philosophy is to study that.

Kirk out

All Right, You’ve Asked for It

Responses to yesterday’s post were very kind and basically said, carry on doing what you’re doing. So I shall.

I’d like to begin by considering George Floyd’s murderer. We can call him that now because he has been convicted of murder, as indeed he should. But what struck me all along apart from the sheer wanton brutality, was the man’s name, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin is French for prejudiced, as in male chauvinist, and I can never help wondering in these cases if there’s a connection between the name and the character.

Does a name make any difference to who you are? Would I be the same person if I were called Rosemary or Petra or Delilah? I can’t imagine being called anything but Liz (if this puzzles you check out the page Why Sarada?) But while Sarada was a name I chose, I only partly chose Liz, cutting it down from my birth name Elizabeth as soon as I hit puberty. Nobody calls me Elizabeth nowadays, on pain of – well, a pretty stern ticking off.

Last night I was watching a film about my namesake Liz Taylor. Burton and Taylor is an interesting biopic, focusing on the time after their second marriage and divorce when they collaborated on Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The film points up the difference between Richard Burton, who was a consummate actor, and Taylor, who was a star. Men seem to have found her endlessly fascinating but I think I’d have had no patience with her at all, always turning up late with armfuls of shopping and a gaggle of pointless yapping dogs. On the whole I think I prefer actors to stars.

So my question to you today is, who are the greatest actors around at the moment, whether on film, stage or TV? Pick one male and one female. I’m going to go with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keeley Hawes .

Kirk out

You Can’t Watch the Same Box-Set Twice

I have yet to come across Heraclitus in my Greek studies but it was he who famously said, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ If you think about it, this is true for two reasons; first because the river is constantly moving and is not the ‘same’ river as it was even a moment ago; and secondly because you are not the same person as yesterday.

This requires some thinking about. We tend to view natural phenomena like rivers, mountains, seas etc, as fixed and discrete objects. Yet they change every day. Rivers change in a more obvious way than, say, mountains but even a mountain is different from moment to moment and never more so than in these days of climate change. (Incidentally I think people should stop climbing mountains, especially Everest which is now so litter-strewn as to become an object of global shame; not to mention the cost to Sherpas in rescuing people.) But we don’t even need climate change for Heraclitus’ comment to be valid, and even such a fixed object as a house is different in many ways from one day to the next. The air in it is different; objects are moved, even the atmosphere changes according to who is there.

The other half of the equation is the change in us. We are not the same from one moment to the next, though we imagine ourselves to be. This ‘persistence of being’ is necessary if we are to function at all; yet at every moment cells are dying and regenerating, our thoughts are changing and our emotions are changing. Even if we think we stand still or go round in circles, we are mistaken; there is no standing still and every circle is in fact a spiral, as Dante well knew.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise to find that I can still get something new from watching the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. The best novels give something fresh with every new reading: can the same be true of TV? Happily it can. For my money the Beeb’s 1996 version is the best Austen adaptation I’ve ever seen: I could write reams about the music, the settings, the costumes, the houses and the parks, but this time around it was the acting that caught my eye. Being someone who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag it’s always been something of a black art to me, but I found myself noticing more details this time around; nuances of voice and expression; the reactions of figures in the background, all of which mirror the subtle ways in which Austen herself builds up her effects, layer upon imperceptible layer. There’s very little in the way of ‘action’ in the modern sense – no car crashes or fights, no police chases, no glitz or glamour, no distractions. Nothing is hurried; the series takes its time and in six hour-long episodes (happily made in the era when an hour was an hour, not fifty minutes plus recaps and previews and trailers) the action unfolds. Though not everything in the novel is covered, no sub-plot is neglected and the ironies of the original emerge without being glaringly signposted. Those with selfish intent end up achieving the opposite of their aims; and as Miss Prism so keenly observed, the good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

I think Mary Bennett is a sort of Miss Prism and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a prototype Lady Bracknell…

Kirk out

What is Truth?

From time to time this blog will wax philosophical and grapple with the hard questions – and today we consider the question posed by Pontius Pilate to Jesus: What is Truth? I’ve always thought Pilate got a bad press; he didn’t after all want to condemn Jesus and like any politician he was just looking for a way out. In the end it was the Pharisees who killed Jesus; the Romans were merely the instrument, though god knows they were hardly pacifists.

It’s easier in a way to say what truth is not: or perhaps where it is not. It is not in government briefings, that’s for sure – these have not been so much economical with the truth as austere with it. It is not in any of Dominic Cummings’ ‘explanations’ of his recent outings (this episode of Have I Got News for You takes him apart brilliantly). There is a saying that truth will out, and sometimes it seems accurate. But it doesn’t always. Will we ever know who Jack the Ripper really was? Or why Dominic Cummings actually went to Barnard Castle?

Truth is like gold; it must be tested before being accepted as real. Truth can come from any source, though trust must count for something and those who lie for a living must expect to be routinely disbelieved even when they tell the truth (a stopped clock is right twice a day, it’s just that without another clock you can’t tell when.)

Is beauty truth, as Keats put it? And if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, does that mean truth is there also? The trouble with where we are now is that truth is plural. There’s your truth and my truth, and they run on parallel lines or else go off at tangents. There may seem to be a consensus but as social media highlights, there are raging whirlwinds of opinion in all corners of society. Yes, everyone has a right to be heard; but not all opinions are equally valid, and without proper debate the truth of them can never be tested. We’ve moved from a situation where only the elite were purveyors of truth – like dealers in indigo in ancient Rome – to a situation where everyone has their opinion and the winner is the one who can shout – or shoot – the loudest. It may look like freedom but it’s actually a free-for-all: equality plus competition equals mayhem.

What then do we need? I would respectfully suggest the following list, which is far from exhaustive:

That no-one, not even scientists, has a monopoly on truth. Truth may come from anywhere but, like scientific theory, needs to be subjected to rigorous debate and testing.

That the polarisation of debate leads to a fragmented and chaotic society. I generally do not unfriend people I disagree with on Facebook (unless they become abusive) but the tendency of Facebook to become an echo chamber tends towards the maximum.* Unless we’re careful we can spend all our time talking to people who agree with us or abusing those who don’t.

That we need open, honest and above all respectful debate. Everyone, no matter who they are or what their position in society, has the right to an opinion. But like scientific data these opinions must be tested rigorously, by being subject to question and debate. It is not a denial of someone’s free speech to suggest that they are talking bollocks; nor is it abusive to demolish their argument. But all too quickly such debates end in abuse.

That we need more face-to-face contact. People are rarely as rude in real life as they are on social media; plus the extra-linguistic factors help to convey what mere printed words cannot. Tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, body language – these all help us to understand what the other person is saying, and emojis are no substitute.

This is not rocket science. So when lockdown ends, let’s get to it!

Kirk out

* The second law of socioodynamics, perhaps?

And guess what I found after posting this? I found this:

Wealth is Wasted on the Wealthy

I had an idea or two in mind this morning but now they’ve flown, and I’m feeling a little like Fran in this clip from Black Books when, given a job as a favour from one of Manny’s underworld mates, she is asked to give a presentation with no clue as to what her job is about or even what the company does.

The rich – or at least those who comment in public on the issue of wealth inequality – are fond of saying that they ‘earned’ their money and therefore have a right to keep it, thereby implying that poor(er) folk just don’t work hard enough. There also seems to be an attitude that they know how to handle wealth, whereas poorer folk wouldn’t be able to. There may be some truth in this; a number of people who’ve won ridiculous amounts on the lottery fritter it away and end up as poor as they were before. But it’s about the mindset. How rich do you feel? Do rich people really, genuinely appreciate what they have? Or do they take it for granted and only want more? How many yachts is enough?

Of course ‘the rich’ are not a homogeneous group, any more than ‘the masses.’ It all depends on your perspective; when you look at crowds from a distance, people appear much closer together than they are in reality. So that although ‘the powerful’ (who are largely contiguous with ‘the rich’) always pull together when threatened, at other times they are probably further apart than we imagine. Like Orion’s belt, they only look like a constellation from where we’re standing.

I’m working on supposition here, since the wealthiest people I know have large houses in the suburbs and a social conscience; I don’t know anyone with a private jet or an estate or a fancy yacht, let alone any owners of multinational companies or bosses who get six-figure bonuses. (My brother-in-law did once have a boat but it sank a couple of years back after he’d spent years doing it up.)

But do rich people actually appreciate how rich they are? I suspect they don’t; furthermore I suspect that, just as I have no concept of what it would be like to have millions in the bank, so they have no idea what it’s like to worry about the rent or to choose between heating and eating. As Paul McKenna says, after a certain point it’s not about what you have but your attitude towards it. Are you poor in mind? Do you always want more? Do you compare yourself with others who have more? How rich do you feel? To be ‘poor and content’ may be a mealy-mouthed cliche but if you’re rich and discontented there’s nowhere to go. You’re on a treadmill.

So: as Fran so helpfully says, what are we doing? What’s it all about? Is this the best that we can be?

What am I doing here?

Watch the clip – it’s really funny.

Kirk out

PS I’ve recently learned the Greek for rich, which is ‘plautos’. Hence ‘plutocrat.’

I Falsed When I Should Have Trued

Joy! My Chocolate Bossa CD came yesterday. I’ve had a listen and I really like it. I shall listen again this morning.

I’ve been thinking about truth and lies. I guess, as both Liar Liar and The Invention of Lying illustrate, that most of us usually try to tell the truth most of the time. There has to be a good reason, something that trumps the truth, for us to tell a lie: fear of being sacked, perhaps, or reluctance to hurt someone. In any case as Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’ He was perhaps being disingenuous but it’s a good question and as I’ve recently found the Greek word for it, aletheia, it seems a good time to ponder it (actually to tell the whole truth, lol, I did know the Greek word already as it comes into Phillip Pullman’s alethiometer.)

But my concern this morning is with the difficulty we often have in telling lies effectively. In certain situations it can be hard to lie convincingly, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the panel game The Unbelievable Truth. It’s also on TV, called Would I Lie to You? but I haven’t watched it as I don’t like TV panel games. The idea in The Unbelievable Truth is that each member of the panel gives a short talk on a subject, all of which is false apart from five truths which they try to smuggle past. There’s obviously a great deal of skill to this, in trying seamlessly to work in five truths to a series of falsehoods; and the best players usually mislead the rest into identifying falsehoods as truths and vice versa. But what I’ve observed is that it’s often the rhythm that gives you away. Somehow those inexperienced in this game, no matter how clever their ruses, always give it away by telling a truth on the fourth ‘fact’ or by changing the tone of their voice or giving other cues. On the venerable TV series Call My Bluff where contestants had to give three definitions of a word only one of which was true, control of facial expression was key and those with the deadest pan, so to speak, killed it. So what I’m saying I guess is that the truth always wants to come through and most of us find it hard to suppress that.

All of which reminds me of this Peanuts cartoon about True or False tests where instead of studying Linus adopts a strategic approach:

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/bf/2f/ab/bf2fab50a3175e4f58f751ebc6d340ce--october--schulz.jpg

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/lilmarbar/comics/ Image removed on request

Kirk out

Earth Day

It’s Earth Day today, a day when we try to stop doing all the things we normally do which f*** up the planet but which at the moment we are largely not able to do anyway; and it occurred to me that there’s a profound connection between caring about the earth and being grounded. If you have a connection with the soil; if you walk on it, grow stuff in it and nurture it, you become quite literally earthed. You are more stable, less likely to short-circuit, less likely to fly away into realms of psychosis. Nowadays if I ever feel a psychotic episode coming on I stop whatever I’m doing and just stand, feeling myself connected to a particular point in space and time. I am also convinced that our habit of flying not only damages the planet but disconnects us in every way from the earth.

Right now though I’m quite connected to ancient Greece: yes, my long-awaited book came yesterday and I plunged right in.

It’s a little daunting as it’s designed by Warwick University for philosophy students to learn Greek so they can read Plato in the original, and has chapters on various declensions, conjugations and tenses. Greek has three voices (practically a Greek chorus, lol) – active, passive and ‘middle voice’ and an ‘aurist’ tense about which I know nothing whatsoever. But hey, if philosophy students can do it, so can I.

I get extra brownie points today because I started work at 6 am. Yes, you read that right – 6 am. From time to time I get these ideas about getting up early and working right through: this is quite unrealistic because I generally work best in fairly short bursts, but today when I woke at 5.30 and felt I wouldn’t get back to sleep, it seemed meant to be. So I dressed and got to my desk and lo! by half past I’d run out of notebook. So another careful trip to the shops is in the offing.

Incidentally from a mental health point of view I’ve found that getting up early or going to bed late can induce psychosis. These are times when other people are not around and when daily activity is suspended, so they’re good times if you want to meditate but bad times if you need to be earthed.

Happy Earth Day.

Kirk out

The Daft Night of the Soul

I think the marriage vows ought to go like this: ‘to love and to cherish, to make each other laugh, to have and to hold…’ If they were I’d have done well lately, as I’ve been amusing OH with my recent attempts at a SWOT analysis. On a sheet of flip-chart paper I’ve put things on post-it notes and stuck them under four headings: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. A SWOT analysis is a standard business practice for thrashing out problems; it’s also a good thing for individuals to do on themselves. One of the typical questions interviewers ask is, ‘What are your strengths and weaknesses?’ to which the savvy applicant will answer by listing their strengths, and if pressed on weaknesses may say something like ‘I have a tendency to work too hard.’ LOL.*

OH was amused by my SWOT analysis though because at first I had nothing in the Strengths, Opportunities and Weaknesses columns but a cluster of little coloured Threats all flapping in the breeze of the open door. It stayed that way for a week or two – but now it’s changed because I’ve added some Weaknesses. Good eh? I daresay I’ll get around to S and O some time, but for now I’ve got plenty of TW.

One of my Threats (I’m not going to list them all) is The Dark Night of the Soul. This is a fear that if I progress in life, at some point it’s all going to fall apart, so the safest thing is to stay where I am. I hadn’t quite identified this fear before, but it’s a very real one – and this morning it occurred to me that if you do fall into a black hole, one way out might be laughter. I wonder if Dante ever thought of that? There aren’t many laughs in the Inferno, but perhaps there should be: it’s no coincidence that some of our greatest comics have suffered from depression. Spike Milligan, Robin Williams and Stephen Fry all spring to mind (though Fry is of course much more than a comedian) and I’m convinced that laughter is a good remedy for depression. So maybe in Opportunities I’ll put The Daft Night of the Soul.

There! I’ve made progress already. And it’s only nine forty-five.

I’ll probably post more about this later as I think it’s important.

Kirk out

*(Only better of course, because no interviewer would actually buy that.)

Let Me Splain it to You

Just in case you’re not familiar with the word mansplaining, it refers to the tendency of some men to inform women of what they already know. A good example is this, which happened to me a few months ago. I met a man at a Council of Faiths meeting and as soon as I told him I was a Quaker he proceeded to give me a run-down of Quaker history.

The starting point seems to be that we need to be kept informed and they are the man for the job. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we might know this stuff already – that we might even be experts in our field – that, god forbid, we might actually be able to tell them something about it! No. They are like search engines picking up on a word and spewing out information on it. Except that I haven’t googled anything and I already have the information, thank you very much.

Of course as the definition above suggests, man– is not the only kind of –splaining. I may in the past have been guilty of whitesplaining, telling people of colour about their own culture or religion, though I hope not; there’s also ablesplaining, which I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you as you already get the idea.

Basically all types of splaining are about power relations. It’s about saying ‘I know more than you about this,’ even when it is blindingly obvious that the person concerned is living with whatever ‘this’ is and is therefore the definitive expert. It’s about positioning yourself above the other person, being the expert, the spokesperson.

So now I’ve explained this, you can stop bothering your pretty little heads about it…

Kirk out