Mr Dylan’s bad language

Mr Dylan’s bad language

I like to check out the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world of books in our highly literate world is so vast that any pointers to quality oeuvres that speak of different histories is welcome. It is how I discovered Symborska and Transtormer and a few others.

You can imagine my shock then, late last year, when the Nobel Committee declared the 2016 winner to be the over-celebrated bard of the 60’s, Bob Dylan. 

Shock grew to doubt about the Nobel’s claim to award distinctions, and then to searching questioning about what this meant about the culture. It was not the first unconventional choice by the committee. The year before a Russian journalist won the prize; but at least her deep testimonies of the experiences of post-communist Russia were unequivocally her own work, and she showed up to accept the prize.

Mr Dylan struck out on both counts. He did not go to his award ceremony. He had other commitments, a schedule full of the kind of unbreakable commitments made by aging rock celebrities. A rather sheepish American ambassador appeared in his stead, and duly read what she had to say was Mr Dylan’s speech.

But it gets worse. The Committee insisted that to claim the prize, and the substantial money attached, Mr Dylan must give an acceptance speech. So he did, a mere couple of days before the deadline, when he would have lost his cheque. But the aging rolling stone could not make it to Sweden; he posted his speech to YouTube, a 30 minute ramble about the great literary traditions from which he sprang, including Moby Dick.

Perhaps this is innovation? Perhaps it is a sly parody of formality from which he chooses to stand apart. Or perhaps it is lazy, arrogant and incompetent contempt.

On investigation it appears Mr Dylan was not capable of giving an authentic account of his literary craft, and too narcissistic to believe he would be found out for his failure. His speech contained dozens of sentences cribbed like a lackadaisical student directly from Spark Notes, that well known den of scholarly scoundrels. Andrea Pitzer at Slate makes the case, complete with laid out comparisons of Mr Dylan’s and Spark Notes texts on that US high school text, Moby Dick, and puts the compelling question: is the current Nobel Laureate a not very literary plagiarist?

So what does this mean for the culture? What does it tell us about the destructive flames of contemporary life that threaten to burn to the ground our precious archive of memory, history, tradition, literature and culture?

I fear it is another sign of the death of culture. I fear it is a sign of a new bourgeois stupidity that we not yet know how to fight, as Flaubert did in another age.

But perhaps I could speaking to the twisting nether, and ask this of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize: take the prize back from Mr Dylan’s slack and begging hands. It is time for Culture to mutiny against Mr Dylan’s bad language.

Waste books and epigrams

Waste books and epigrams

“The excuses we make to ourselves when we want to do something are excellent material for soliloquies, for they are rarely made except when we are alone, and are very often made aloud.”

George Lichtenberg (1742-99), The Waste Books, #22, p 8

I collected from the local library The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which features on its cover an emblematic photograph of the aged poet writing in his Vermont home in 1958, as if he were painting at an easel.

Robert Frost.jpg

Image Source: Alfred Eisenstaedt via Prospect magazine

The notebooks stretch from the 1890s to the 1970s, spanning a life’s adventure in writing that is surely both too majestic and too humble to be known as a career, and contain all manner of writing, reflection, experiment and, as suits their form, annotations. Notebook 20 dates from 1929, and begins

“These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” (The Notebooks of Robert Frost, p 267)

The thought reminds me of Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the infinite conversation, which I imagine as the eternal, if enigmatic, survival of the solitary murmuring of the great words that sustain the connection between the dead and the living. To be part of this infinite conversation is why I write. To attend to the dying murmurings of this conversation, the words that are at risk of ashen destruction in the burning archive, is why I write, and why I devote so much time, despite no show of social success or fame or even much of an audience, to this life in literature.

It comes with a moral imperative, an ordinary virtue of dignity and grace in defeat, evoked in Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito”

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
To be an old, grey, wizened and solitary man, like Frost in his Vermont home, and still to repeat these old incantations is my path of redemption.
Strange, though, that all we write is so perishable, so vulnerable to fire and neglect, and yet these impermanent notebooks endure. It is a paradox that these words survive beyond death when they are ephemeral, a temporary incantation against the chaos of the world, in which the poet-priest marks the lost place of truth and beauty in the world as if in a disappearing rite. These are words consigned to “waste books,” the flames and the mould, and not inscribed defiantly in stone like the original epigrams.

 

The introduction  to Frost’s Notebooks compares them to the “Waste Books” of George Lichtenberg.  Out of these scraps of notes, ideas, drafts, quotations, the ordinary observations of life emerged, after death, Lichtenberg, the great aphorist. The temporary words of waste books become in time monuments of soul-making.

Is the blog the new waste book? It is somewhere else surely. It does not have the  privacy of personal experiment, but nor does it have the polish and mirage of publication. Still it seeks to endure beyond its act of writing, just as Frost kept and preserved his notebooks. He dated them. He organised them. He secured them against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

So too this blog finds its way to endure, even if it is always written in a first draft, with little plan or attempt to impress, to manufacture a brand. I pen the words, and cast them adrift on the digital ocean. It is one of the ordinary things that give me the accomplishment of form without the drag of organisation. It is one of the lesser forms that endure.

“Fortunately too no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem.” Robert Frost, Letter to The Amherst Student, quoted in Notebooks, p xv

And a blog. Even if, or perhaps especially if, that blog has few readers, no great name.

The work is solitary: that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of solitude.” (Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude” in The Gaze of Orpheus, p 64)

 

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

 

 

 

Impermanence

Impermanence

There are fragments of songs from my youth stirring.

Not lyrics, but angry frustrated declamations.

No madness lasts forever.

Time, the avenger.

We are time. We are the last

Life is short, after all and full of stuff.

We are searching for a way to break you, time. To break you, mind.

Some new kind of kick.

Temporary

All will be now, dreams are too fast

You are the first

We are the last

Are the last

Black letter lies

Credits to the pop group and the cramps.

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time?

Vaclav Havel

A premonition of blogging? No, but part of a profound essay on culture as the freedom of the human spirit.

Read more at http://wp.me/p6tMLx-Dx

(I am experimenting with curating my own material here. I hope readers don’t mind)

The recurring reproach to reason

Today, I finished reading Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity, which has prompted a few posts here and here. The book ends with a series of falls from grace of modern ways of thinking about madness; psychoanalysis becomes stranded with its limitation to a small elite, only to find itself as defined as irrelevant to the great suffering of the most severely mentally ill; then the great disappointments of the evacuation of the asylum, seen as the great enemies of freedom, the great bankrupting social shames, but without any conscientious attention to the community care of the most unwell; and finally, the descent into confusion and denial of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual itself, which in its fifth edition, was abjured by Robert Spitzer and Allen Frances, the architects of its earlier editions.

Out of the collapse of the great encyclopaedia of the disordered mind, there emerged a new project – to fix all mental illness to single biological causes. Led by the Institute of Mental Health in the USA the new scientists of the brain disavowed the DSM’s study of symptoms to search for a more fundamental biological mechanism. Thomas Insel said  “As long as the research community takes the DSM to be a bible, we’ll never make progress. People think everything has to match DSM criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book” (quoted Scull, p 408).

Rather than a descriptive symptomatology, the new neuroscience believed they could build a diagnostic system on firm biological foundations. But they were to be disappointed. Despite the flashy images of the brain in action, they came no closer to really understanding the mysteries of the disordered mind or much beyond the routines of the ordered mind. And the reason is in part at least that the human mind, and madness as among the most potent expressions of that mind, is one part biology, two parts culture.

So Scull notes that the metaphysical wager that madness is an illness explicable by the body alone has not paid off. Our cures can be neither solely mental nor merely medical. They must embrace the cultures that temper, limit and excite the voices of madness within us. It is not that the pills or biological explanations will not play some role. “But will madness, that most solitary of afflictions and social of maladies, be reducible at last to biology and nothing but biology?” (p 411)

No, Scull replies:

The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness in civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or prove to be nothing more than epiphenomenal features of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been. It remains a fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself. (Scull, p 411)

 

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.