Thursday, 18 January 2018

Rough and Ready Pragmatism or Calculated Oppression?

Past history can be seen as a conscious, deliberate and calculated series of oppressions by one group of another. Or, alternatively it can be seen a recourse to sensible and pragmatic solutions. Taking the latter tack, patriarchal societies in more primitive times can be seen as sensible solutions to problems set by biology and evolution. In more primitive times it would have been foolish not to use men as protectors of their women from rape, while pregnant and while nursing. The relative freedom from these very consuming (especially when life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’) female roles also made it sensible for men to take up the burdens and responsibilities of decision-making (although one can, perhaps, assume that most male rulers would have been aware of what women in his tribe thought). All of this was done in order to best guarantee the main object of evolutionary imperatives – the survival of the race and its genes.

History moved on. Technology moved on. The Industrial Revolution allowed the human race to move up Maszlo’s Pyramid of Needs. This, and, later on, the arrival of birth control, freed women more and more from the constraints of their biology (constraints not, notably, put in place by men but by evolution) thus enabling them to participate more and more in decision-making processes. This is right and proper and a real social evolution.

Looking back, though, if you make the dire and crucial mistake of seeing history as calculated oppression rather than rough and ready pragmatism you may be led to seeing the present as a time for vengeance. If you do you consent to and encourage a vindictive division in society down gender lines, the only people it can please are the enemies of the human race. How better to undermine and destroy a race which reproduces sexually than cause the two genders necessary to procreation to be at war with one another? 

Beckett’s Negative

Every day I wake and am flooded with optimism and intrigued not to say excited by the phenomenon of being alive. I know this is wrong and that I should adopt a more pessimistic demeanour consonant with the human condition, its woes and its undeniable limitations and the ultimate limitation that its term will, one day, be truncated. However, all my attempts to adopt a suitably lugubrious mien are sabotaged by a spirit at work within me which is allied to the endlessly renewing biological rhythms secretly at play, also within me. As an antidote to this foolish and wholly unjustified optimism my Doctor has prescribed me regular readings of Samuel Beckett which I have tried, oh how I have tried, with diligence and application but always to no avail. Just when I think I have achieved the requisite and proper pessimism and helplessness the biological and Circadian rhythms, between my being and which not even a cigarette paper might be inserted, renew and assert themselves in a way which spells disaster to pessimism. I find my heart continuing to beat rudely, and my breathing controlled by my medulla oblongata and my autonomic nervous system, by neither of which I am consulted on the matter of its continuation. I am a clock which has been wound up and set in motion by a dispassionate clockmaker who cares little for the consequences of his action. Hunger and thirst spur me on to enjoy the pleasures of the mouth and stomach, my digestive system functions undirected by me and sexual arousal waxes and wanes unbidden and leads to a renewal of love which has a certain inevitability about it. My desire for warmth, shelter and comfort send me gaily to work each day. Weariness sends me to sleep, sleep from which I arise refreshed and invigorated in spite of myself. Each time, then, I seek to drown myself in oblivion, it seems nature is intent on casting me afresh on a shore of yellow sands bathed in sunshine on which I happily disport myself. Sooner or later, exhausted by my struggles to look on the dark side I yield and accept the disposition towards cheerfulness which prevails in me in spite of my knowledge, shared with all human kind, that my days are limited and that my flesh may be afflicted with a wide gamut of ills. In short the life in me is irrepressible and will have it no other way than that I should greet the access of the world’s stimuli to my uniquely calibrated set of senses with a smile. For this I can only apologise. Forces at work within and beyond my control make it so. In spite of the fact that I do little exercise endorphins, it seems, continue to insist on flooding my system with an insulting carelessness as to the results. I remain irritatingly and obscenely, perhaps offensively, cheerful. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I know that I sin against my times but the flesh is weak........

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Difference

For some it is an article of faith derived from simple observation that human nature contains the seeds of kindness and of culture, seeds which will spontaneously germinate wherever humans thrive and almost before they begin to frame ideas about their existence. For others these things are absent unless imposed paternalistically from above by those with big ideas who know what is best for us. For the state has to institute years of culture, cities of culture or University-based creative writing courses. Otherwise culture will never arise of itself. The state has to guarantee and organise infallible charity for the kindness of human hearts will never provide it. Should a chink or a lacuna appear in that perfect state charity heads will need to roll. In the same way human nature will spontaneously generate religion of itself as a way of channeling the unique human need for meaning which derives from our unique status as creatures that not only feel and exist as dogs do but know that we feel and exist. In spite of this a de facto system of visible and public virtue will be imposed from above often displacing the natural religion and morality that arises of itself. We will all be expected to take our place in this system striving to satisfy its dictates; dictates that often have little to do with the real morality that operates deep in people's hearts and is private between them and their God.

All of these things are a testimony to a fussy, micro-managerial and faithless attitude towards the goodness of human nature and the belief that it will usually provide.

The two attitudes described here, in some ways, describe the difference between a conservative attitude to existence and the hyper-rational and often scientific one that Liberals subscribe to.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Shadow Cast by Modernism

It surely is the case that human nature is eternal and unchanging in many ways in spite of what progressivists might say. It is composed of repeated cycles of breathing in and out, of sleep and wakefulness, of the contraction and expansion of the heart, circadian rhythms, biological clocks, sexual attraction and procreation, and death. In these ways biological life always renews and reasserts itself. One can make a similar and good argument for our moral life renewing itself in an equally inexorable way. As a mother in labour soon forgets her pain and is lost in the new life of her new-born child the natural element in which we swim and to which we always revert as if by reflex is that of joy and hope in spite of any horrors that pre-figured it. Such renewal in history is always available to man who ant-like cannot help but set about rebuilding after devastation and setting the rhythms of society in motion again. Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hitler’s and Stalin’s death camps and the depredations of ISIS cannot repress this almost biological process.

The renewing rhythms I speak of quickly become enshrined in ritual and ceremony in human society and in the forms of art which we seem to find it impossible to do without. Thus, music and poetry, with their ability to charm away misery and reflect joy mimic the cyclical patterns of life. The pulse of poetic metre and rhyme imitates our breathing and our heartbeat. The chorus and refrain of usually sexually - (and therefore life–related) related popular song does the same imitating heartbeat and excitement. Life always reasserts itself irrepressibly in a spirit of joy, gratitude, celebration and humour. Most notably the artifice of human artistic form derives from and imitates the natural.

This is why, in spite of the miseries of the twentieth century, for example, time-honoured poetic forms never lose their appeal. Through all of the experimentation and disintegration of Modernism some well-known poets continued, with great success, to peddle their traditional wares. Such were Hardy, Edward Thomas, the Later Auden and Larkin. They picked up where Chaucer, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Keats, Byron and Browning left off.

It is true and should be said that not all of Modernism militated towards disintegration or despair. Picasso, Matisse, Proust and Joyce all produce work from an overflow of exuberance, sexual energy, celebration and laughter.

Some forms of modernism, though, get hung up on the grim miseries of human history and seem to wish to hold back the irrepressible forces of renewal to dwell on such misery. They insist of the forms of disintegration and have little faith in the oft repeated forms of renewal. This equates to a mother constantly replaying a video of her birth anguish and pain rather than attending to her growing child and the joyous life he or she represents – a scenario which is unnatural and difficult to imagine. Of course, we should learn lessons about the dangers of our moral nature from what went before but we have to fare forward with a degree of hopefulness. If and when grim events occur we can be sure they will never imitate perfectly those that happened in the past. They will always take us by surprise.

The natural rhythms I evoked at the beginning of this piece are, of course, all sited in our biology, something that pre-exists those rational faculties by some years and even when the rational faculties are mature continues to underpin them as a substrate on which they depend for their functioning.

There are some forms of Modernism that give an imbalance to the equilibrium and mutual dependency between our rationality and the biology that always contains the seeds of renewal within it. These forms insist over much on the cerebral and the serious at the expense of the natural and the irrepressibly hopeful. When this occurs as in, I would say, the Modernist work of poets such as TS Eliot and Geoffrey Hill, we move away from artistic artifice derived from the natural and biological to the artificial for its own sake. We find ourselves embracing art that is entirely self-conscious to an unhealthy degree, humourless and over-deliberate. It is mannered for the sake of being mannered. The logical conclusion of such art is the preposterousnesses of conceptual art where merely a detached idea with little or no substance attached to it is held up as real art. Eliot himself spoke of the sad dissociation of sensibility that occurred around the English Civil War post the Metaphysical poets. Strangely, his choice of form and content reinforce such a dissociation rather than militating against it and redressing the balance to something healthier. In that sense his highly serious work is a self-fulfilling prophesy in, I'd say, contributing to the alienation of ourselves from our natural selves. The unrelenting seriousness and towering grimness of Hill’s work has the same effect. It is ironic that a man who asserts the power of Christian redemption in his work should have such a strangely depressing effect. The word ‘downer’ occurs to me whenever I contemplate the spines of the books that Eliot and Hill produced. I wonder why that should be. Their God does not seem to dance or console.

Monday, 11 December 2017

The Moral Life

Does this amount to avoiding being a moral Shrödinger's cat as in being dead and alive at the same time? Jeremy Corbyn gets my goat (as you may have noticed) because he does this, entertaining two mutually exclusive ideas simultaneously. Death and life are mutually exclusive so a choice always has to be made. I'm generally with (admittedly, the late) George Michael - Choose Life.


Sometimes I feel like a metro ticket that has not been validated.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

An Experiencing Machine

A human being is, essentially, an experiencing machine that rationalises those experiences post hoc or after the event. Experience comes through the senses and the emotions as well as the mind. We apprehend in ways other than the purely rational. If you accept this it diminishes slightly the status of reason (and science). This interesting contrast in belief highlighted by the blogger, Nige, recently in his comparison of the British character with the French or European thus: "(In the British character) A preference for pragmatic empiricism and inductive reasoning, and a deep distrust of Big Ideas." Art, in all forms, of course, is apprehended by the whole person (including reason) and that is why it is so much more satisfying than Science.