Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016 - The Year in Books

2016. There may never be another year during which I read so many of the Great Classic Novels for the first time. Let me list them: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevksy, Ulysses by James Joyce, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. I also chucked in a few of the great plays for good measure: Hamlet, King Lear, and Twelfth Night (this one I'd read before, and remains a favourite), all by William Shakespeare.

As a bonus, I also had the chance to read two of the most beautiful and startling philosophical treatises: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche.

But back to the novels. It is difficult to do justice to any those great works individually, let alone all of them. Their collective influence on arts and culture in the West is practically immeasurable.

The epic scope and narrative invention of War and Peace is legendary, but it is even more breathtaking when actually read. The array of characters, the depth of their characterisation and the movements of history combine to provide rich nourishment for the soul, and reveals the sophistication and nobility of the Russian spirit.

Moby Dick was a real surprise for its intellectual ambition. One expects adventure on the high seas, and instead is given something much more: the enterprising American spirit as seen at once through its cultural links to Europe and Britain (Shakespeare looms large) and forging its own way, expanding, pondering the nature of its own spirit.

Ulysses is a juggernaut of linguistic invention and deliberate intellectual playfulness. It is perhaps the least accessible of these great classics, and perhaps also the most divisive, but its intellectual rewards are great and in a sense it remains ahead of the times.

But it is Don Quixote for which I want to reserve the most emphatic recommendation, in part because I believe it is the most easily overlooked, and too readily dismissed as antiquated or irrelevant. It is not. It is unique among nearly all of the great classics for being truly, laugh-out-loud funny. More than 400 years have not dimmed the humour. How much funnier still it must have seemed to contemporaneous ears who understood the subtler references that are lost to time and translation.

Don Quixote is not only funny, but also full of pathos. The main character centres in himself something of both the ridiculous and the sublime, and while we are treated to the former most of the time, the shape of the latter emerges over time, especially in Volume 2.

Personally, I found Volume 2 to be even better than Volume 1. Its latter two thirds are as funny as anything in Volume 1, and yet it also treats of more serious matters. I particularly marvelled at and appreciated the story's innovative reference to characters' knowledge of the first volume, published ten years before it. This is an ingenious device that seems more at home in the 20th or even the 21st century than in a novel from the early 17th century. If there can be any doubt that Don Quixote is inventive and linguistically imaginative, this fact alone should dispel it at once.

It is a pity that English readers (myself included) cannot appreciate the full craftiness of the language at work, in particular the contrast between the deluded knight errant's Old Castillian and his compatriots' modern Spanish.

All the other classics seem to take themselves a bit too seriously when we compare them to Don Quixote, and it is only when placed next to Shakespeare that we find a similar use of comic devices in great literature.

2016 marked 400 years since Shakespeare died, and all year long his works were commemorated with performances that are set to continue well into the New Year and beyond. How many of us knew that 2016 also marked 400 years since the passing of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote?

Remedy that neglect immediately, and place Don Quixote on your reading list!

2016: A Torch Gone Out

Let's wipe away 2016, but first, let's set the record straight. Was it really such a bad year? Such a sad year? Yes! It's not just the celebrities who passed away - although that had a lot to do with it.

Think about it: a terrible war in Syria, thousands upon thousands of refugees, threats of terrorism, and the sense that politics was slowly turning on its head: first Brexit, then Trump. With these undercurrents churning in our collective unconsciousness, a bit as if the poles are slowly switching, suddenly many of our culture icons passed away. In a weird and distorted fashion, they must have seemed like the visible casualties of a known but unseen undercurrent. Vulnerable heroes who were unable to bear up any longer.

Or another sign of the uncertainty of our collective future. The old guard, whose hopes can no longer sustain this new world, leaving us to work it out.

Either way don't believe the statistics. It's not about the numbers. It's the context as much as the individual stories.

First David Bowie died. Pop stars' cultural reach are almost unparalleled, but David Bowie isn't just a Justin Bieber or a Lady Gaga. He changed the rules of pop. Among pop stars he was an immortal.

And then there's Prince. And George Michael. Losing both of them is more than a mere annual tally of statistics. As individual stars they are almost peerless. If you speak to those who came of age in the 80s and ask them to pick their top 10 male solo artists, the triumvirate of Michael Jackson, Prince, and George Michael will make almost every list. In fact, many might pick them in their top 5, maybe even their top 3. Michael passed away in 2009, now we've lost the other two. How is that not traumatic?

So let's forget the whole statistical mumbo jumbo, there are simply not that many David Bowies, Princes, and George Michaels to go around.

And dare I mention one more hidden knot in this already knotted ball: Freddie Mercury. Many are still mourning the man who died 25 years ago. Who can forget David Bowie and George Michael singing for him. Feeling the pressure, anyone?


We haven't even mentioned Leonard Cohen yet. Sure, his reach wasn't as broad as those pop singers', but on a song-by-song basis it went deeper. Cohen's was an intimate art. His poetic approach ensured that he touched the soul. His career spanned six decades. Who is left alive from that generation, a singer songwriter in the same league? A few, perhaps: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon. Not many.

I can't speak for others, but there was certainly a feeling of "too soon" in the passing of many other beloved actors and cultural pioneers: Alan Rickman, Zaha Hadid, and yes, Carrie Fisher. And a sense of disbelief that some of the names and faces who have been around ever so long should have gone away: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gene Wilder, Nancy Reagan, Richard Adams.

There is no doubt, however, that it is the wider political and social unease that has amplified the significance of those passing. And this confluence of factors means that 2016 really felt like the moment when a torch went out.

The old guard are passing the gate, and those of us left behind can only wonder: where do we go from here?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Brexit and Freedoms

In this hyperstrange post-Brexit world I suddenly have many questions, and few answers. The landscape seems to change every day. One thing, however, is clear and that is that a lot more people are talking about politics in the UK than I've ever seen. It is my belief that, if good is to come of the referendum outcome, we must use the political consciousness that has been raised in its aftermath as an opportunity to enquire deeper and renew our understanding of what living in society is about. We must encourage conversations, not just with those that agree with us, but also with those we didn't know feel different from ourselves.

Rhetoric aside, what prompted me to write this post was actually a chance rereading (or listening, in this case) today of the first chapter of John Stuart Mill's classic text On Liberty. Halfway into the first chapter I realised that the social and political context he was writing in sounds eerily familiar. Here is one quote:
"In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct ... The majority have not yet learnt to feel the power of the government their power, or its opinions their opinions." (p. 16)
Unhappy with government interference, the British?? Who would have thought! And bear in mind Mill wrote this in 1859, over 150 years ago.

Ten pages later, it sounds almost exactly like a version of Big Brother and the increasing surveillance of the internet (by the government!):
"there is also in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable." (p. 26)
Wow! So if individual liberties are not a given, then surely we should have been a bit more ... But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Those who genuinely care about freedom have in recent years become complacent. Society at large has become bored because British politics is notoriously boring, and elections generally seem to be a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

No more! This referendum has put the cat among the pigeons.

Post-Brexit some feel they have gained "sovereignty" and others feel they have lost certain "freedoms".

Because of the stark differences in the two choices, some may go so far as to say that the referendum's outcome is nothing but a "tyranny of the majority", a will of one section of society imposed on the other.

Mill says the following:
"... the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it—its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself."  (p. 8)
What Mill is talking about is social tyranny, not the outcomes of political democracy. Civilised democracy, surely, is not mere populism. The referendum is advisory, and it is up to the representatives of society to follow up on the outcome in a way that is in the interests of society at large. That is their duty. And yet when many bemoan the fact that the referendum took place at all, that it was all just an internal party squabble, the argument could be made that those representatives were not making reponsible decisions from the outset. The farcical fallout has eroded the line between popular sentiment and responsible politics in a way that has taken almost everyone by surprise.

Yet this situation came about at least in part because of a laxness to campaign with conviction in favour of Remain. The Remain campaign - the side who now feels that freedoms are in clear and present danger of being lost - ran a decidedly lacklustre campaign.

What would Mill have thought about Brexit? The simple answer might be that he would be livid; but it's not quite so simple.
"In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (p. 18)
Adjust that sentence a little, to refer to a nation and its borders, rather than an individual and his body, and you have the argument that the Leave campaign has been making: sovereignty, independence from Europe, control over borders. In a word: freedom!

Of course, Mill was speaking about individual freedom, but many in the Leave campaign felt themselves united as if they were more than just an individual stating a preference. The individual on a national scale.

On the other hand, take this quote:
"The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." (p. 23)
It could be argued that the Leave camp voted to deprive the Remain camp of freedoms that the Remain camp held to be essential to their interests, and by extension individual health. But Leave would perhaps rightly respond by saying, well, we've been neglected for decades and various actions taken by selfish leaders in London has hurt our spiritual health, for decades.

At the heart of the conversation are two overlapping states of inclusion. There is the EU, a kind of "virtual state", and the UK, a national state.

What about those UK citizens and residents for whom the "body" of their chosen state is not simply the nation state, but also the "virtual state" - the EU? And what of those from other nation states within the EU, who live within the borders of the British nation state because they want to be there, who had the freedom of movement, but not the freedom to vote? It is all a bit confusing, but clearly they will feel their freedoms associated with movement and association are in serious danger of being truncated. They will feel sad, stressed, angry, unhappy. Something they had has been taken away.

How can this knot be untied?

What's clear to me is that a simple solution is not available, and the after effects of this referendum will be felt for a long, long time. We've become complacent, but now is the opportunity to go back to understand and grapple with the concepts that underpin this society, and start conversations with each other to start making this world a better place again - for all.

Mill's On Liberty is a wonderfully articulate defense of freedom, and even a single chapter provides plenty of food for thought.