Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Visit The Great Books of the Western World in My Local Library

I visited the South Australia State Library on North Terrace, with excitement in my belly. I was off to visit the Great Books of the Western World. To my astonishment, the State Library didn’t have the books. The librarian looked it up for me at Adelaide University Library website, and found them in the marvellous Barr-Smith Library.

I zipped behind the State Library, across the State Gallery grounds, down the physics building carpark and carried the bike down four steps to then cruise along the main side street of Adelaide University on my bike, my long blonde hair flying in the wind, feeling fairly astonishingly great.

I trotted down two flights of stairs and circled around the stacks of books, sneezing a little in the dust, til I found them… the complete collection of the Great Books of the Western World.

I sat cross legged beside them. The Great Books are nestled beside the stairwell window, so as I settled in I glanced up and got nice view of the young people’s legs as they sashayed upstairs and downstairs, adding significantly to the sensual pleasure of the finely printed and bound hardcover classics. I read the reading plan introduction, taking notes, rephrasing key points, and soaking up the glorious insights.

Gradually I entered a heightened state; I sat cross legged there forgetting myself completely until my legs went numb. An hour must have passed.

Then I took the books entitled “The Great Conversation” by Hutchins and “The Syntopicon, Volume One” by Adler, and went and sat down. I kept expecting someone to walk by and see me sitting there glowing and exhilarated almost out of my body and demand I leave shouting “No intellectual joy allowed here, sir!”

I read the entire “Great Conversation” book. It was irresistible; compelling. Among our contemporaries, where else can you find genuinely timeless erudition? It’s almost unknown, a forgotten excellence. And Hutchins made it seem effortless. Most remarkable, perhaps his brilliance really is effortless.

Imagine talking to such a man in person. I counted the great authors and came to 73 men (excluding the trio who wrote the US constitution; Jefferson alone suffices.) I imagined a great shadowy vault of a room where these men sat and conversed together through the ages, and the world outside the portals and the eaves of this quiet room trembled to their words. I imagined this and my body fairly shook with gratitude.

I started on the syntopicon with the essays on "Angel" and "Animal". I almost made myself late for my evening appointment reading - it was a huge rush to get to Glenelg on bike in 35 minutes. And I suspect as soon as my present batch of book reviews is done I will be spending a LOT more time by the window to the stairwell in the State Library.

Labels: , , , ,

Reading Tacitus Gives Me A Nightmare

Late last night I read in Tacitus how Germanicus died.

The significance of Germanicus to Roman history is that he was (or Tacitus makes him seem) the most decent candidate for emperor – almost the only decent person on stage at this part of Tacitus.

Apparently Germanicus never considered becoming emperor. After his bold victories in Germany, did soldiers remember Julius Caesar? Twenty centuries later, I think it. And yet Germanicus, unlike Caesar, was a decent soldier, administrator, and Roman, and no more.

His death is simple. Germanicus travelled widely, so he caught an infectious disease. Modern consciousness research as developed by David R. Hawkins validates the infectious disease view, and in addition vindicates Piso of his murder charges – twenty centuries late for Piso.

Not simple are the consequences of his death. Recall that the Romans would not have understood the infectious disease model – to them Germanicus did not simply “catch a bug”. Some darker force at work in the world was behind the death, the Romans must have felt.

And the legal case against Piso is significant too. The Roman people wanted Piso’s blood. All Piso was guilty of was ruthless political ambition - it doesn’t necessarily follow that Piso poisoned Germanicus.

I put the book aside with a feeling of deep scepticism about human political processes. How to ensure decent leadership? Was Roman decline inevitable? Is Western decline inevitable? How must Tacitus have felt, watching Imperial Rome dissolving into the tides of history?

I slept and dreamt that a great man had magically enslaved another. I watched with dread and fascination as he stripped his slave of humanity and made him into an instrument of his will. I took pleasure in the master’s evil power and felt the horror of the slave at the insult to his sovereign will.

On waking, I saw that the zombie in my dream was Rome under Tiberius.

The reason the Roman people reacted to the death of Germanicus with superstitious horror was not for the sake of Germanicus himself, but for the loss of the potential for decent leadership. After Germanicus no hope for a good leader remained, only passive obedience to an Emperor they did not love. And the shock of this loss of hope drove the Roman people to hound Piso to his death.

The ability of Tacitus to show the decline under Tiberius becomes still more impressive when you consider that Germanicus shows no inkling of being aware of the decline. It took more than the intelligence and goodwill of a Germanicus to detect the course history was taking; it took the genius of a Tacitus.

J. S. Bach’s Worldly Concerts

I have been listening through Bach’s Worldly Concerts (der Weltliche Kantaten). As I listen I read the notes and mark the distinctive features on the music files on the computer for later enjoyment. It’s amazing how much more interesting a bit of information makes a piece of music, and it becomes a obsessively interesting when this compelling music is going on in the background, demanding you make some sense of the actual structure of the music from the meagre cd notes and track listings.

In between constant typing I take a moment to reflect on how anally retentive the classical music world seems to be. Instead of translating “Weltliche Kantaten” as “Worldy Concerts”, it needs to be “Secular Cantatas”.

The German librettos remain untranslated. The sensible thing would be to post translations online and provide a link to the non-German speakers, even if they had to use Babelfish to autotranslate it’s better than battling with German dictionary in one hand and track info in the other. (Incidently, in the cantata ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’ (BWV 213) the cd notes translate ‘Wellust’ as ‘Vice’, and the German dictionary gives it as ‘Lust and lasciviousness’. Hm!)

Few of the Bach cantatas are given sensible titles – sensible in that they are easily identifiable to almost anyone. So I name the concertos after the topic – for instance, Worldly Concert BWV 203 is now known as ‘Bach’s Italian Lovin’ Concert 203’. Much better, that.

I also go through and change “recitativo” to “recital”. I was tempted to change “aria” to “song”, but the more precise translation would be an “air” which is in English is an archaism as repulsive to the ear as pretending to be a drunk Scot at an Anglican wedding, and in any case the word “song” shears off enough extra meaning to justify keeping “aria”.

The cd notes scatter the relevant information far and wide – what character is singing is in the text notes, and whether the singer is alto or tenor or whatever is on the back cover of the cd. They couldn’t have made it harder to follow the story without actually omitting the information. I put all the information together as a new title for the song, so I can actually enjoy it more later on.

I messed around with BWV 36, BWVs 201 to 210, and BWVs 213 to 215. They all rock, and they are all rendered inaccessible in various ways to various audiences by snobby or ignorant notes and complete lack of any guidance as to their enjoyment.

Classical music companies, hello? Classical music companies, do you honestly prefer to give snobby names to great music OVER speaking plainly at the risk of attracting a huge listening audience of excited common folk?

How long before we see “Bach’s Worldly Concerts” coming out? Let's just hope the Cantatas survive into the civilisation after ours.

My favorite at the moment is the alto song from the worldly concert 207; I call it the Jagged Song, because the violins do this unusual jiggering-jaggering sound throughout the whole piece while the flutes and alto do a slow swinging motion around one another like I don’t know what. The alto plays the role of ‘Gratitude’, but I have no idea what’s grateful about the piece – it just sounds weird. And that’s why I like it.

In all Bach’s work there’s nothing like the Jagged Song. Check out the alto aria in BWV 207… it’s a real trip.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Joy, Death, Misery, and Beauty: My Friday Night

Tonight I met James and Mick for an epic walk from the city to the Payneham Community Center. We took 110 minutes, half of it barefoot. What fun!

It brought back those childhood days of darting through sidestreets with friends in the dusk while everyone cooks their dinners and the moon rises and the sweet spring air intoxicates the senses til you are wild and tired and vital all at the same time.

We arrive with flowers in our hair.

Afterwards at Al Frescoes Cafe Zoe and Dave and I sit and talk about death.

Deb, Dave's beautiful wife, died just over seven months ago on February 28. Dave goes into detail, describing how his beloved's pelvis melted, for example. I force myself to sit still and say nothing. I feel so young around Dave and Zoe.

And Zoe has an medical operation next week. She asks me for some classical music to recover to and I have the pleasure of having on me a cd called "The Most Relaxing Handel Album In The World... ever!" It's exactly what she needs, and that makes me so happy.

Later, after a pizza and some reading, I take the last train home. The carriage is full of under-23 year olds.

What can I say? Obviously I am disgusted and repelled by their ill-dressed, unformed, skinny bodies, that stink of alcohol and poor hygiene. The nonsense they speak lacks even the virtue of being happy nonsense.

Misery is cool if you're born after 1985. Clever animals lost in the cracks of the world, the Y Generation are post-literate casualties of a cultural marxism that makes it seem as if all human values died sometime in the 1980s and now only senseless pleasure remains.

It makes me angry. I think of my own years of willful ignorance... I can't think clearly in the stink.

As soon as I get home, I put on Mozart's Requiem and think of the dead I love, and the living I care about. I listen to the Kyrie on repeat. Mozart's Kyrie is a fugue, which is a musical form but also latin for "flight" and I remember hearing that kyrie on my walkman while I had a terrible cold and I went running at night and I ran like a dog, trying to run from the body, sickness, and fear of death. I think of the young people in flight from reality.

As I listen to Mozart’s kyrie,
I cannot run fast enough,
Cannot bow low enough,
Cannot honor the spectacular
Human world enough

To outrun, outrun, outrun
(Forever and ever
Kingdom and the mystery be
For thine is the Glory
For this is the)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Things

Two things have interrupted my liberal humanist reading.

The first is the choice to take on book reviews for a self-help magazine.

The second is my focus on Doctor David R. Hawkins empirical ‘praxis’, from his book “I: Reality and Subjectivity”, which occupies the time I'd normally read in, with an investigation into subjective awareness.

Much of the focus has been on validating and verifying the basis of his conclusions in my own subjective awareness. My head tries to whine about how hard it all is, but in all honesty this kind of inquiry is a powerful experience of self-intimacy.

Above all I am grateful that through no particular virtue of my own I am able to explore the praxis with enough inner clarity to get some of Hawkins' concepts experientially. I am extremely fortunate.

It is springtime here, and in the green is something so beautiful. I don't know what. But I feel happy knowing it is there.

Labels: , , , ,

Bill Clinton’s prisoner’s dilemma of the stock market.

One more thing from last night:

Clinton added that the ultimate basis for the present economic recession is trying to make money out of thin air through financial instruments, rather than by investing it in someone with a sound business to produce something real.

This is the prisoner’s dilemma applied to the stock market:

The short term big gains seem to come from destructive greed. The long term medium gains come from trust and co-operation, but if you choose trust and another chooses greed you gain nothing. And worst of all, you must choose trust or greed without first knowing what others choose.

So Clinton’s solution is decent people. In the remarkable view of Mr Clinton, the world seems to be full of decent people choosing financial instruments representing real businesses over financial instruments that seem to make money out of thin air.

I have faith his view is correct.

Labels: , , , ,

Bill Clinton talks economics on David Letterman.

I am so impressed by the simplicity and kindliness in the approach of Mr Clinton seeing him on Letterman tonight. He continually plugs in his sober, off-hand way his partisan interest in renewable energy. Which was kind of dull.

But then David Letterman asks him about the economy and somebody runs electricity through his chair. Suddenly the chirpy, charming, president is back. He explains smilingly that when tech stocks lost value after the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 the money had to go somewhere, so it went into housing.

So, Letterman asks, who’s to blame?

Clinton explains that if you work on Wall Street you get paid on how many deals you do, and at the time the best or only deals going were in housing. The money needed somewhere to go. It went into housing because it had nowhere else to go. Indeed, we need new opportunities (such as renewable energy) for investment money to flow into.

The financiers used financial vehicles to stretch the money further, to leverage the money into more and more housing deals. They used derivatives, representing say 30 houses by the money it cost to buy one. They used the subprime system, which promised low mortgages for a few years to get people buying houses. The short term problem of mortgage foreclosures, oil prices, low consumer confidence, a nervous Wall Street – all these problems help point to the lack of good investments (such as renewable energy).

El Presidente waxed chirpy about the position of the incoming President. “If you follow game theory now would be a good time to take the top job, because at least things aren’t going to get worse,” he joked.

The truth is there is no-one to blame. The money needed somewhere to go. Wall St gets paid on how many deals you do. The industry requires tougher regulations, guarantees, reserves, and new opportunities (such as renewable energy). We need clean energy incentives. The basis for the housing bubble was not enough good opportunities, and too many bad incentives.

Mr Clinton quotes Churchill: “We [Americans] always do the right thing… after discarding all the alternatives.”

I reflect that Clinton touched on a raw nerve there in the American psyche. Much can be made of American optimism and energy, but the real dynamo that supports Western culture seems to me to arise directly from our experience of “hitting the rock bottom”.

Because when you consider it, there is no such thing as a rock bottom. There just arises a moment when you decide you’ve had enough and you need to change. And the joy of the United States both as individuals and a people is that they hit real rock bottoms – they frequently decide they’ve had enough and they need to change. They don’t suffer in silence. They don't let a recession become a depression if they can help it.

And I intuitively feel that the idea of “hitting a rock bottom” originates from American culture. The magnificence of folk like Mr Clinton is that they can walk through terrible times and come out the other side with their head up and their dignity, intellect, and genius intact. That’s really something worthwhile. And I feel tonight he probably inspired a lot of Americans to do the same.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reading Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws

I read Charles Montesquieu today. What a nice man!

Just the title says it all - 'The Spirit of Laws' - and you get immediately that this guy is switched on to things. Then you read and have the pleasant realization that most of his ideas have actually been put into practice in present day democracy; followed by the even greater pleasure of recognizing ideas about democracy that are completely new.

Why, for example, have we not considered eliminating a standing army (as he suggests for democracies) and conducting a kind of limited temporary draft? Montesquieu suggests either drafting the rich and independent farmers (and wouldn't they have something to whinge about then!) or else use the criminal class as cannon fodder. Edward de Bono would be proud.

Then again, some things Monty says are outright bizarre. He reckons you can't have big democracies because of two problems. First, people care less for large states, and care more for a state the size of a city. Second, the Rupert Murdoch's and Bill Gates' of this world can use their wealth to sway democracy towards their favor.

The first problem seems largely solved by federalism: we can feel patriotic about being a "Texan" rather than a US citizen, or a "New South Welshman" instead of an Australian. The second problem is simply solved by anti-trust and anti-competition laws, as part of the apparatus of economics. But then again, economics is evidently not Baron Montesquieu's bag.

But the explanation of checks and balances, and the outline of the guiding principles behind the rise and fall of democracies, monarchies and tyrannies, is brilliant and obvious the moment you read it. How could he have anticipated the bushels of bureaucrats that would arise from his simple principle of having different authorities balancing one anothers' power? And, can we do better now?

I think we can do better. Doctor David R. Hawkins' new science of diplomacy, based on consciousness research, can identify the false balance from the real now, and detect from competing authorities whom is the true, and whom the false. But David R. Hawkins' exciting work is another story altogether.

Montesquieu's writing is cool and simple. I found his distinction between the form and the substance of the laws remarkably eastern, and the subtlty of his distinctions refreshingly open-minded. He doesn't tell you, but invites you to look at it with him. Nice guy, Montesquieu.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How Montaigne Manages to Knock Out Masterpieces Without Reading Others' Work

Montaigne is really an amazing pig of a man. In his essay on the Art of Conversation he admits to not having read for more than an hour in twenty years of life, and then to having read Tacitus' Histories in a sitting.

What a freak. First he only dabbles in books for 20 years then he reads a whole book in a sitting. And that whole book is TACITUS, for goodness sakes.

Then I got thinking. How can Montaigne be so brilliant if he hardly reads? Two answers: first, he has a very good memory; second, he marks up his books with great skill. I wonder if we still have books from his personal library 400 years later? I would love to take a peek.

Another question. When he suddenly devours a whole book, why does Montaigne choose Tacitus' Histories? He says he finds Tacitus highly amusing.

Thinking of Montaigne, I read Mortimer J. Adler on how to mark up a book, and he mentions marking up Plutarch's Lives. This sparked my interest. Evidently there is good reason to be scribbling in my Roman history collection!

So I went to the shelf, took out my Tacitus and a pencil, and on the bus today I marked up chapter one on the bus.

And you know what? Montaigne is right: Tacitus is a funny bugger. What he didn't tell me, though, is that Tacitus laughs at the darkest of ironies. And when Tacitus talks about the sinister Tiberius' ascession to power his humor is positively soviet. Tacitus, the Roman Dostoyevsky - who would've thought?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chew Your Food.

“Chew your food,” Shane says.

Shane is an introverted and anxious guy. He has barely shaken my hand before he gets to the point.

“Like Gandhi did,” I respond,“chewing food into liquid before he swallowed it?'

“Like Gandhi did,” he agrees. He stands to one side of me, as if we are admiring an invisible picture together. “It’s a Gestalt thing. Gestalt therapy. Fritz Perls. Oral stage, I think. The mother gives beast feeding until the baby has grown a strong sense of individual will, then the child is ready to start the anal stage I think.”

A micro-expression of embarrassment and fright flickered across his face as he says “anal stage”. We once had a flustered conversation about Franz Kafka where I came away feeling like I had been trying to catch birds in my hands, so frightened he had seemed by the topic.

“Do you understand what I mean?” he says.

“Not at all,” I say.

“Gestalt. Perls. Fritz Perls,” he repeats, shifting from foot to foot. “The mother stops breastfeeding early. The child gets traumatized by the perceived rejection and gulps down its food. It fears it will be taken away. The result is a personality which over-intellectualises, and gulps down ideas.”

“So over-intellectualising is a way of rejecting the feminine power of physical nourishment before it has a chance to reject it. You’re suggesting that chewing my food is the cure for over-intellectualism?” I ask.

“If you chew slowly, you sit and rest, and you breathe slowly and your mind moves more slowly, and you stay still and give your thoughts time to digest.”

“I tend to gulp my ideas, then let them go for the unconscious to digest for me.”

He glances away anxiously. I have only really ever seen Shane comfortable around women. “So it all sifts down, ferments inside the unconscious, mostly forgotten.”

“Not if it’s important stuff,” I gesture at the meeting we’ve just concluded. “I get reminded all the time of it. It’s always on the boil.”

“True,” he gulps.

“So if I chew my food mindfully, I’ll have greater awareness of my intellectual digestion of ideas,” I summarise.

“Exactly,” he says, relieved he can go now.

“Thanks Shane. That’s a good suggestion. I’ll try it out.”

Food as mother; what a putrid idea.

Perhaps I am trying to please him by taking on his suggestion. I wish Shane would quit his anxious persona and speak in full sentences that stick to the rules of logic. I wish he would give adequate explanations of his context and paradigm before blurting out a suggestion or concept. I wish a lot of things, and most of them don’t happen.

I like Shane. I understand that Shane’s monkey mind drives him to extremes of anxiety, isolation and social discomfort. But I am quite content with intellectualism; I honestly love the intimate feelings of connection to tradition that a liberal education gives me. Within appropriate limits, reason is my bliss.

And tonight I try to find that feeling of connection and intimacy which I normally experience with the wonderful world of tradition as I chew my food.

I chew my food slowly. I chew my food with loving attention on the body. I chew my food and think about Shane.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ladcafio Hearn’s ‘Romance of the Milky Way’.

“…in the silence of transparent nights, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me, out of the scintillant sky,—to make me forget the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way as that awful Ring of the Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the Abyss, but as the very Amanogawa itself,—the River Celestial.”

Ladcafio Hearn is writing this final paragraph of his magnificent ‘Romance of the Milky Way’. What can I say? It’s the good stuff. The very best. The essay as a whole presents the Great Goddess and at the same time performs Hearn’s simple-hearted obeisiances to Her. What a beautiful man.

Science fiction can only apply to a very narrow band of readers – those who can accept “the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space”. Indeed, modernity and reason is a limited condition, inaccessible to most. By and large the human race lives in tradition, like a child drinking milk from her mothers breast while he sleeps, and begrudgingly becomes interested in science only by great progaganda.

Did I say “propaganda”? Whoops. I meant “education”.

How to Make Proust’s ‘Finding Time Again’ Easier to Read.

Proust rarely uses chapter divisions, and it makes the books harder to read. Having learnt that in advance, tonight I went through ‘Finding Time Again’ and found the chapters beforehand so that I have a sense of the structure of what I am reading, when it begins, climaxes, and ends, and the general nature of the settings and meanings I can expect it to lead to. My read will be easier now.

Reading Proust takes skill and a bit of preparation. Reading books that yield a difficult pleasure is a different experience from reading for casual stimulation. Most books are not complex enough to relate to as one would a real person; those few that are that sophisticated are actually revered and celebrated for their difficulty. But what is the difficulty but the normal work involved in considering the feelings, views and world of another whom you love? Such a difficulty love makes no difficulty at all.

Books that you can live with as you would a real person are the genuine AI or artificial intelligence. They might win at chess, but no computer can yet come close to ‘A la Rechere du Temps Perdu’.

So here are the chapter divisions for the new Penguin paperback translation of ‘Finding Time Again’, reverently translated by Ian Patterson. Enjoy.

1-29 – At Tansonville with Robert Saint-Loup and the Goncourt journals.
29 – 1st Paris visit. 1914. Great War starts.
63 – 2nd Paris visit. De Charlus. 1916.
118 – Jupien’s hotel.
162 – 3rd Paris return ‘Perpetual Adoration’.
226 – The Masque ‘Bal des Tetes’.
304 – La Berma
308 – Time Found Again.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Starting Marcel Proust's Prisoner.

You can imagine my disappointment with Proust after going from ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ to ‘The Prisoner’. ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is divided into small sections, 2 to 10 pages, most about 5, which function like individual dreams and mostly conform to the same structure.

(The section structure goes like this: the narrator reflects on something (or else jumps straight in with someone saying something bold, to which we could imagine immediately what Marcel’s silent response – thus inviting us to partake in the narrator’s voice as if it were our own consciousness). Then there is a short brilliant exchange of social fripperies, following by observations and jokes, more concluding social palaver, then the section concludes with a 55 word plus metaphor for which Proust is justly famous: at once the concluding sentence hypnotizes us with an image, fulfils our desire for aesthetic pleasure, summarises the foregoing with a bon mot, cracks a joke, and returns to the sublime tone which is first introduced at the start of the novel series, that of the dreaming half-awake author imagining his past back into existence. It is an incredibly subtle literary device, comparable in English to the lines in Spencer’s Epithalamion where Spencer converts the pentameter into a hexameter for the final line of each stanza, but in Proust, elevated to the status of prose poetry, the final sentences of sections concludes with a Whitmanesque precision of tone and color. They are really remarkable and deserve a piece about them alone.)

Anyway, these small sections induce a deepening sense of entrancement in the reader, and though each piece invites deep reflection and comparison to other parts of the novel, the reader soon discovers that he will become completely bogged down if he stops to comprehend the waking dream that is Proustian prose, and – if he is to ever finish the novel at all – submits to the most light reading of the sections. The resulting experience is buoyant, humorous and delicate: reading Proust quickly can be compared to floating down the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain, a kind of series of little heavens following one after another.

Then, all of a sudden, the dream ends. Marcel asks Albertine to come back to Paris and live with him. The next novel, ‘The Prisoner’, begins, and immediately it strains all loyalty to Proust to the limits.

First up, Albertine would never be allowed to come stay with Marcel. Second, Marcel would never, never, have the funds to support her in the fashion he does. Third, and worst of all, the tone of the novel reverts to the realism of the Odette sequence in ‘Swann’s Way’, a dry, almost didactical feeding-out of facts and observations about other people’s business - mostly Albertine's - with almost none of the rich wild intimacy of Marcel’s voice in the previous novel.

Maybe Marcel means to imply he has projected his inner life onto Albertine, and has become empty. Maybe – doubtless – Proust invites comparison between Swann and Odette’s jealousy and Marcel and Albertine’s codependent relationship. Maybe Prisoner needed revision it never got, Proust dying before he could edit. Whatever, the return to reality is dull, and I quit reading Proust for the last four months after finishing the superb 'Sodom and Gomorrah'.

Writing this piece has been a way of getting my mind ready to begin reading Proust again. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you decide to go sailing in an ocean of words as large as Monsieur Proust I suggest you write your impressions of it with a similar piece of writing as the foregoing, as a kind of life-jacket to keep you afloat through the rough waters. They do get choppy.

Secret Societies and Hidden Selves - Marcel Proust’s ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.

Marcel Proust starts his novel ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ with a shock, and end it with a miracle.

The shock is that the narrator Marcel (who is not exactly the same person as Proust the writer) discovers a secret society.

The modern sense that everyone belongs to a secret society, moves in multiple social circles which have little or not relation to one another, and everyone keeps secrets, is the great theme of the twentieth century novel. From the very public novels of Dickens and Eliott, from novels like Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoys where every shame is made public eventually, we pass into an altogether more mysterious social sphere with ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.

Or perhaps the notion of social spheres is useless now, and we pass into networks of social information, personal meaning shared or withheld. Whatever the case for the change in social relations in the early twentieth century, Proust is onto it in ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.

The shocking hidden world of the homosexual forces young Marcel to revise everything he has learnt about the world. Everybody is scrutinized and re-scrutinized, the past is revisited again and again in the light of the new data. The shock awakens Marcel to his own mixed and hidden motives towards others. Marcel considers why and how he keeps secrets, and ruthlessly notes how others fail to keep their secrets. The shock of that discovery reverberates through the novel.

The miracle of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is that Marcel imperceptibly adapts to the new reality, and carries us with him into a radical new perspective of human relationships. (A perspective which, we will learn in ‘The Prisoner’, the next novel on, is not without its risks).

The miracle of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is that in order to read it I must be willing to be changed. And I must be willing to accept change in and of itself, with or without meaning or purpose or even conscious awareness. I must be willing, if I am to read this book, to see the world in a radically different way from the simple, realistic narrative approach which Proust takes in ‘The Way By Swann’s’.

‘Swann’s’ is a realistic and naturalistic French novel in many respects – at least in the Swann and Odette sequence anyway – and ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ tells a story with a sophisticated perspectivism which is at once a miraculous liberation from realism, and at the same time gives a heightened sense of actual felt experience in the moment and a far greater intimacy with Marcel’s voice. I feel like Marcel is whispering in my ear; as if I share his private inner space. And that space is sacred ground.

You know, it’s funny to call Marcel Proust a wisdom writer in the same way you might a nineteenth century writer. I’m thinking of George Eliot here, who takes pains to point out the moral with the utmost seriousness. In Proust the wisdom is thoroughly assimilated into the story itself. It’s not that Proust is not aphoristic or inclined to moralize – it’s more that even the bitterest moralism is subordinate to the exquisite lightness and eccentricity of tone, which makes Marcel’s voice so hilarious throughout.

For the first time in wisdom literature, for Proust the tone of voice IS the moral of the story.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Satanist alien energy field sacrificial slave-gang scouser mass murderers on the high frontier… indeed!

Reading Peter F. Hamilton’s ‘Reality Dysfunction’. It’s a fine book. It’s strange to see the tropes of triumphalist golden age American SF transposed into the cynical postmodern British context. It’s also got some passages which are not strange so much as outright weird, even oddball.

Satanist alien energy field sacrificial slave-gang scouser mass murderers on the high frontier… indeed!

But Peter F. Hamilton really fails at representing religion accurately. His religious characters are weak and often outright culpable. The notion that humanity could split over biotech is fascinating, but not feasible: people are at once more sophisticated and more messy than that.

To his credit his utopian visions have their psychopaths and narcissists. And while he is not casual about evil – indeed he often lingers over the fruits of evil for dramatic effect in a way which is (sorry) just vulgar – he is also not entirely sincere about it, using violence for effect in a way which seem kitschy in the Dickensian sense (the child that sees the dead man’s face with a white worm in its mouth “like a diminutive tongue” is one unforgettably bad turn of phrase), and he relies on liberal dollops of casual sex to convey his characters’ values (ie, good sex to the good characters, nasty painful sex to the bad guys).

Like John Scalzi, Hamilton posits an Earth who is denied advanced technology. But the comparison is revealing: English Peter F. Hamilton sees Earth as denied advanced technology by backwards collectivist belief systems and ecological limitations (people must live in arcologies). American John Scalzi shows Earth wilfully isolated by her colonies to protect her from the social reality of constant interstellar war. Scalzi – and American SF in general one might say – stays close to the competitive and evolutionary reality of US society, and their work benefits. Hamilton shows a regressive and collectivist vision of Earth which is pure Thatcherism.

Hamilton has some moments of the purest Elizabethan Englishness when he takes us to the hedonistic space habitat Tranquillity. High culture, even royal culture, he represents by superb extremes of fatuous wealth, erudition, high art and a wild party scene – Tranquillity is superb. The reason for its founding (a royal’s long term wish to preserve human civil mores) is also revealingly English.

For the Americans, however, every self-reliant man is the center of human society. The notion of a civic center of human civilization is just irrelevant. The US might have a centre of capital (New York), genius (L.A.), or party life (San Francisco), a focus of civic business (Houston) or diversity (Miami) – but culture? “The center cannot hold”, Irish W.B. Yeats wrote, but he did not immigrate to the States to see that fear fully realized.

Anyway, culture aside, it is a fine book.

I remember a fantasy writer asked Sean Williams how long his book should be, and Sean replied “As long as it needs to be to tell the story”. Did Hamilton need so many words to tell his tale? A shorter book might have been more appropriate to the scale of the story itself.

But the condition of entry into Peter F. Hamilton’s imaginative worlds is willingness to take on the long novel. I just can’t believe he wrote three hulking great books in this series, any one of which would have made an ordinary trilogy in size. It must’ve taken years.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Cooking, Politics, and Bestiality

I attended a committee meeting tonight with paperwork and a request for funding for further work, and left with my role taken over by another, simply and efficiently. What a mix of feelings I felt!

I felt afraid I would be seen as incompetent for having simply done the bare minimum requirements for the role. I felt resentment towards myself because I hadn’t seen any need to do more just to keep up appearances.

I felt dislike for the officious woman who took over the role. I had once witnessed her verbally attack a woman in front of an entire group, and since that essentially mean act I had not trusted her, had avoided speaking to her, and basically learnt my lesson about her character flaws. But I suppressed these feelings of distrust and dislike because she got the results, and never mind that she was inconsiderate towards me by not mentioning beforehand her actions. I can’t reasonably expect consideration from her. Neither is it my place to judge.

Afterwards, I walked with Ryan and Darrel, both silly kids in a way, both in a program together so in many respects peas in a pod, and I happened to mention my distrust of verbally aggressive women, and so Darrel decided to cheer me up by showing me a bestiality clip on his mobile phone, while Ryan laughed with suppressed shame and embarrassment. I gave it back to him before it finished playing. Approving of it would have denigrated me as much as it did women.

But the science fiction writer in me wanted to discuss whether (non-uplifted) animals are capable of consent to a sexual act, and if animals as a class are not capable of consent whether bestiality should be considered a sex crime, a perversion, or animal abuse. All of this I restrained myself from saying; they just wanted to share a joke as a way of lightening up the mood after the committee meeting. I am grateful they tried to distract me from my mood.

At Victoria Square we ran into Dave, a newbie. I joined Dave and said farewell to Darrel and Ryan, and Dave and I walked up King William Street as the other two went down Wakefield.

Dave is interesting. Intelligent, articulate. We talked politics. He wanted to discuss specific injustices with emotion. I wanted to illuminate general principles with compassion. After several rounds of this we got onto personal stories and I learnt about the incidents that brought us to meeting. Bitter, strange, and hilarious tales. He missed three buses home while we spoke.

Then I excused myself and walked along Rundle Mall.

- Past two plainclothes police busting three youngsters;
- Past a crowd of workmates, all male, who had gone to dinner together;
- Past the window of a shop where I admires the glistening elegant leather man-bag;
- Past Mick and Roy, a gay couple whom I had last met on the train arguing bitterly with one another

In this way I walked down to Rundle Street East to my favorite café, Al Frescoes, and a nice guy invited me to drink my coffee with him sharing the heater at one of the outside tables. His name was Ben, and we talked about geek stuff. After my first coffee and half a second, he left, allowing me to do the written work of the curriculum I’m engaged in at the moment for half an hour.

Out of twenty one questions I answered twenty, and the last one I still need to do before I sleep. I am half way through the curriculum, and it has taken two years to get here.

Feeling good, I walked briskly up to King William Road through chilly empty streets. On the bus home I sat under the light and wrote a prayer expressing my hopes and dreams and sense of anticipation for the good things coming to me. Then I planned my day tomorrow, and I was home.

I walked across South Road and down behind the stationery shop and down to the train tracks where I picked some fresh rosemary and put it in my pocket.

At home I petted Shakti my Siamese, emptied my pockets and bags, and plugged my laptop to the power. I read online interviews with Kim Stanley Robinson for half an hour before my stomach said hello. I drank three glasses of water but the tummy wanted food.

So I heated grapeseed oil in a nonstick frypan and threw in the hand-rubbed rosemary and hand-rubbed mixed herbs. A sweet smell rose. I leaned over, inhaled, and felt great.

I added chopped garlic, ginger , ground black pepper and half an onion. As it all simmered down nicely I put on a pot of hot tap water and added oil, salt, fetuccini pasta and pre-soaked borlotti beans from the fridge. (I had forgotten I soaked the last of my borlottis two days ago and the discovery was sweet because borlottis cook fast. Not quite as fast as the pasta, which would be a bit too soft, but fast enough to cook in the pot with the pasta without reducing the fetuccini to fudge.)

Then I took the frypan off the heat and added two spoonfuls of basil pesto that hissed gently and stuck to the translucent onion.

Soon the fetuccini and borlottis were soft. I drained the graywater and threw them into the rosemary sauce and mixed them through and through. I sat down in front of the heater with Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Blue Mars' to read for company while I ate.


follow me on Twitter