Friday, October 26, 2007

John Stuart Mill

I do find Mill frustrating. I quoted him yesterday, not favourably, suggesting his concern for the working classes was shallow. Is that the case? It's hard to know. It's difficult, because in re-evaluating historical figures you always, no matter how you try not to, take them out of their historical context.

Many of Mill's ideas are simply racist, bigoted, unacceptable. But in the context of his time, he was undoubtedly a liberal. His words may come across as patronising and shallow now, but then he was a strong voice against the establishment. Take this quote from the same piece I quoted yesterday, Civilisation. Here, he is talking about education, and in particular the institutions of education which are, principally, Cambridge and Oxford:

The principle itself of dogmatic religion, dogmatic morality, dogmatic philosophy, is what requires to be rooted out; not any particular manifestation of that principle.


He says that these traditional edifices of learning see their purpose thus:

... the object of education is, not to qualify the pupil for judging what is true or what is right, but to provide that he shall think true what we think true, and right what we think right - that to teach, means to inculcate our own opinions, and that our business is not to make thinkers or inquirers, but disciples.


Mill argued strongly against the status quo. Does it matter that his motives leave me cold, or that I think he had an impossibly confused understanding of what it is to be poor, or isolated, or not part of the elite? Does it matter that he sounds like a snob and, in some regards - notably his views on what it means to be 'civilised' - sound exactly like those he professes to argue with? Because, in the end, he was a force for good.

It's the old question: does the end justify the means? In Mill's case, I believe it does. I can't help disliking him, but I'm glad he said what he said.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kant on maturity

However, despite the post on Rousseau below, I actually greatly approve of learning. It's one of my big passions, encouraging adults into learning, especially those who haven't engaged in lifelong learning since school. Here's Kant, in a memorable description of the urge to immaturity in modern man. This was written in 1784, but if anything things have got worse. Nanny-state, health-and-safety madness, it's an increasingly infantilised world:

If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me. The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult. Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone. Now this danger is not actually so great, for after falling a few times they would in the end certainly learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes men timid and usually frightens them out of all further attempts.


The message is clear: "Have courage to use your own understanding!"

Monday, October 22, 2007

The labours of enlightenment

Meant very little to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I fear the old chap would not have thought much of me:

tell us what we ought to think of that numerous herd of obscure writers and useless litterateurs, who devour without any return the substance of the State.


Discourse on the arts and sciences

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The horror of history

So much for the redemptive power of stories (see post below on Anne Frank.) Now, let's discuss the nature of history, and of man himself. This is a quote from Judith Shklar of Harvard University, writing about Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1964:

By nature men are free, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other. Of all the "bipolarities" in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau none is more striking than this tension between natural freedom and the spontaneous march to inequality and oppression in which all men participate. None aroused more conflicting reactions in his own mind. If men are the sole authors of their ills, and not the mere victims of some external force, be it original sin, a malevolent nature or a hostile environment, then there is always hope for self-iinprovement. On the other hand, if men were alone responsible for inventing and maintaining their own social misery, they could scarcely be expected to overcome conditions they had themselves chosen to create. One could hardly hope that those who had devised and imposed their own chains, would either wish, or know how to liberate themselves. If there was no need for cosmic fatalism, there was every reason to despair of mankind's own social powers. And indeed it was perfectly clear to Rousseau that every man left free to follow his own inclinations and every society allowed to pursue its inherent tendencies would repeat all the familiar errors of the past. I t was this conflict between possibility and probability that inspired all of Rousseau's works. A11 of them are attempts to show some way out of the horrors of history.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The power of stories

Garrison Keillor, writing the introduction to the Book of American Short Stories, 1998, discusses the power of stories, the desire people have for stories to be real, the way stories can reveal truths. He talks of Anne Frank:



One October night in 1942, we learn, these Jews in hiding in Amsterdam enjoy the joke "What makes 999 ticks followed by one tock? A millipede with a clubfoot," and a great discovery dawns on us: that the fourteen-year-old Anne Frank is not keeping this diary as a testament against hatred and darkness, that is is simply a writer's notebook: the girl hopes to be a novelist. She writes: "Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a romance of the 'Secret Annexe.' The title alone would be enough to make people think it was a detective story. But, seriously, it would be quite funny ten years after the war if we Jews were to tell how we lived and what we ate and talked about here."

It was the Nazis who made Anne Frank a martyr and a symbol; she herself would much rather have been a satirist. If only she had survived the prison camp, she might have come out tiwh a novel in 1955 with a passionate love scene between a girl and a boy in an attic full of moonlight, their lips pressed close, her hand on his waist, his hand under her skirt, and in the room below, adult listening for the police at the door and hearing only the lovers' sighs from upstairs. She didn't aim to be a saint; she wanted to write stories in which real people ate the pot roast and boiled potatoes and talked about childhood, lovers, children, loneliness, and old age.


That strikes me as quite lovely, and very sad, and makes me more determined to make the most of my writing chances.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Phantom relationships and living in the past

RD Laing:

To live in the past or in the future may be less satisfying than to live in the present, but it will never be as disillusioning. The present will never be what has been or what could be. In the search for something outside time, there is an enervating sense of hopelessness and pointlessness.

To be sustained, elusion requires virtuosity: it can lead to enchanting nostalgia. It must never break down. If specific, it becomes ugly. Madame Bovary is a definitive statement of this in literature.

Time is empty. It is as futile as it is inescapable. A false eternity, made out of all the time on one's hands which drags on eternally. It is an attempt to live outside time by living in a part of time, to live timelessly in the past, or in the future. The present is never realized.


Self and others

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Children in need writing marathon

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that last year I took part in a Children in Need 36 hour writing marathon. A series of prompts every hour on the hour from 5pm on Thursday till midnight on Friday, and an hour to write a story.

I've done this twice now, and publications from the two years must now be in double figures, so it certainly works. The tiredness makes your brain work in funny ways. You end up writing stuff that comes out of somewhere unexpected and unexplained. It starts to get at the real you.

Anyway, we're doing it again in November. I'll need to get some practice in, because I haven't written much timed flash fiction recently. It really is something you can get your mind tuned into, after a while. It works, it makes you more creative.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dorothea Tanning


I posted Eine kleine nachtmusik a while back. This is another painting of hers that I think is stunning. The open doors are a recurring motif in her work. There is much to intrigue in this painting. It throws up new ideas every time you look at it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The tree of liberty

The first and last stanzas of Burns' paean to freedom, The tree of liberty. If you want the whole poem, it can be found here:


Heard ye o' the tree o' France,
I watna what's the name o't;
Around the tree the patriots dance,
Weel Europe kens the fame o't.
It stands where ance the Bastile stood,
A prison built by kings, man,
When Superstition's hellish brood
Kept France in leading-strings, man.


Wae worth the loon wha wadna eat
Sic halesome dainty cheer, man;
I'd gie my shoon frae aff my feet,
To taste sic fruit, I swear, man.
Syne let us pray, auld England may
Sure plant this far-famed tree, man;
And blithe we'll sing, and hail the day
That gave us liberty, man.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Black humor

Kurt Vonnegut, in an interview in 1974:

In the Modern Library edition of The Works of Freud, you'll find a section on humor in which he talks about middle-European "gallows humor," and it so happens that what Friedman calls "black humor" is very much like German-Austrian-Polish "gallows humor." In the face of plague and Napoleonic wars and such things, it's little people saying very wry, very funny things on the point of death. One of the examples Freud gives in a man about to be hanged, and the hangman says, "Do you have anything to say?" The condemned man replies, "Not at this time."

This country has made one tremendous contribution to "gallows humor," and it took place in Cook County Jail (you'll have to ask Nelson Algren who said it). A man was strapped into the electric chair and he said to the witnesses, "This will certainly teach me a lesson."