Saturday, 30 August 2008

"Britons for Barack."

The noughties has been a bad decade for liberals, socialists, and any political left-wingers. We’ve watched as major political parties including the Democrats of the US and New Labour of the UK have gradually shifted further towards the right (with the admirable exception of Ralph Nader). We’ve seen the control of the world’s Western super-power fall into the hands of the Neo-Conservatives after stealing the 2000 election. We’ve watched two extremely right-wing groups, the Neo-Cons and the Islamo-Facists, go to war with one another and drag the whole world down with them. We’ve seen the media lose its objectivity and transform into a sensationalist propaganda machine. Totalitarian measures and authoritarian tactics have taken over political discourse leading major countries further and further from democracy and the distant utopian dream of socialism.

To many liberals Barack Obama represents the great hope for the future. He has marched around the world shouting “Change!” and “Believe!” More importantly he satisfies the criterion of charisma and can deliver rousing speeches which ignite the public’s imagination. All over the US people are perhaps starting to think that change is possible: Barack Obama has come to stand for everything that the liberals have been missing out on for the past eight years. While he may not actually be particularly left-wing, he’s more so than John McCain. And because Ralph Nader is not going to get elected, the world needs Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States.

A lot of people in Britain view this upcoming US election with a level of smug detachment – ‘let the Americans squabble amongst themselves, we don’t live there and we can’t make a difference’. This is true but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take as active an interest as possible. America is, for good or ill, a huge influence on the rest of the world, particular the United Kingdom and other countries who signed up for the Coalition of the Willing. What happens to America eventually happens to us: America’s economy started to go down the tubes, ours followed suit; America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we marched alongside; America elects a buffoon, so do we. That’s why an Obama victory is so important to the entire world – he represents a chance for the world to heal, diplomatically, financially, and rationally.

Yesterday John McCain announced that his vice-president would be Sarah Palin, a former mayor and present Governor of Alaska. Despite an admirable environmental stance in spite of her global warming scepticism, she is ridiculously inexperienced in terms of politics and is fairly obviously nothing more than a pawn in the Republican Party’s campaign game. McCain was previously running against ‘making history’: Obama would be the first African-American president and McCain would be just another rich white man. Now a vote for McCain is also a vote for US history as Palin could be the first female Vice-President. The Republican running mate also has the advantage of soaking up the embittered Clinton supporters who wanted to see a woman in the White House. Poor Sarah Palin has been selected by the Republicans for no greater reason than having two X chromosomes.

Humanity has an unrelenting capacity towards innate conservatism and irrationality. As such, John McCain will probably be elected. Sarah Palin all but seals the deal for him. He has recognised that this entire campaign has been built on superficialities: Woman vs. Black, Young vs. Old, White vs. Black, and now by giving the sound bite seeking media Woman vs. Black, McCain has been able to give his campaign the superficiality that his possession of a penis and lack of melanin robbed him of. I, and a great deal of liberals, hope against hope that America will elect Barack Obama and the world can begin the slow process of re-embracing some level of logic, reasonableness, and intelligence after the Reign of the Neo-Conservatives.

Please America, don’t give into your fear. Make the calm, detached, rational choice and vote for Obama. Put the lies of the present administration and the fanatic right-wingers behind you. You are still as liberal as you ever were, America; you’ve just become scared. The Republicans feed that fear and manipulate you with it.

As a plea from liberals the world over, please don’t let another Republican inflict war upon the world, ruin the economy, or scare you. Vote for Barack Obama and help heal the world.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Review - The Shadow of the Wind

‘The Name of the Wind’ is a novel about tales and story-telling. The very similarly-titled ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is an evolution of that: it is, from page one, a novel about books – reading books, selling books, discovering books, even that unmatched smell that wafts from dry pages. Although, as the novel makes clear, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you...” In that sense whatever one brings to this novel is what they will get from it. It reflects whatever light is shone into it: it can be a Greek tragedy, an account of the plight of Franco’s Spain, a loving tribute to Barcelona, an involving mystery, or an extensive character-piece.

For a translation from the original Spanish, it is simply astounding how beautifully the prose flows. This is, I’m sure, a testament to the beauty of the original writing and reading it in the author’s intended language must be a treat indeed. There’s scarcely a sentence that doesn’t leap out with poetic grandeur or intimate ecstasy of perfect recognition. The narrative flows effortlessly, making perfect sense in hindsight yet being absolutely surprising in the moment of reading. In short the way ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is written is absolutely perfect.

The story itself is one that has been told for generations. It is at its heart the epitome of a tragedy: it practically fits into the perfect archetype of Greek tragedy as outlined thousands of years ago by Aristotle. All tragic stories are broadly the same and this is one that fits into the mould of Shakespeare, Homer, or Wagner. It’s an apotheosis of tragedy: an atypical cathartic narrative with perfectly-realised and emotionally honest characters. The best part is that the tragedy forming the emotional core is only a subplot and it’s around this that the rest of the novel’s world is created.

The novel is wonderfully dense; every character is fully realised with engaging back-stories and mysterious little quirks just like the people who populate this thing called reality. Appropriately for a book about books, the narrative is layered with plot upon plot which makes the novel sound as complex as ‘Catch-22’. However despite the apparent complexity, the story comes off as simple and elegant. The story seems to combine a sense of scope with a bewitching intimacy. It’s quite nuanced which, along with the poetic style, makes it a joy to read.

It is necessary to mention that this is a book that has to be bought from a second-hand bookshop. Two weeks ago I was more than willing to pay full price for it at the monopolistic Waterstones until I discovered it in a small Scottish second-hand bookshop. Reading a second-hand copy increased the enjoyment of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ enormously in a way that anyone who has read it will understand.

The greatest compliment I can give ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is that, as a hopefully young writer myself, this book made me green with envy. It also filled me with admiration and, best of all, with a renewed appreciation of the literary world – more particularly the dwindling community known as book appreciators. I am unable to come up with any synopsis of this novel as meaningful as that which the author wrote himself. “...until that moment, I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.”

Monday, 25 August 2008

"Small joys of an outdoors life."

Finding the perfect path
Carrying anything you may need on your back
Running into a low cloud
Obligatory beautiful scenery
Roads used for years long past
A winding trail
Places where nature will clean your boots
Discovering the unusual...
...the forgotten...

Thursday, 14 August 2008

"The changing face of liberty."

Although most don’t like to think so, human beings enjoy their contradictions. Human society abounds with contradictory (or more accurately, paradoxical) behaviour: morally condemning murder and supporting the death penalty; the USA’s reaction to the Georgia situation; the concept of the ‘city’ which brings people physically together and pushes them apart sociologically. This inclination to contradiction – conclination? – is perhaps why freedom is so heavily emphasised and yet our free will has been slowly transformed into something very different than traditional thinking would have it.

The key to this metamorphosis of the concept of freedom is responsibility. A looming question is can one have freedom without simultaneously having the responsibility borne of that freedom? Our society has minimised individual responsibility which has led to today’s stunted idea of free will. We have moved further away from Isaiah Berlin’s positive sense of liberty towards his negative sense probably because Berlin himself identified the positive sense with tyranny and despotism. This may not necessarily be the case.

Developmental psychology is one of the creators of diminished responsibility. Environmental factors during early development are recognised by most psychologists to have a massive impact on our subsequent personalities: rejection in childhood may lead to a fear of rejection and a needy personality in adulthood. It follows that our personalities and therefore all our choices are created by these early developmental episodes. Genetics also gives a reason to not take full responsibility: genetic predispositions can apparently cause behavioural traits. Genes have been discovered that may contribute to sexual orientation, obesity, and other factors that have an impact on a person’s choices.

Society has seen a shift since discovering these factors that make us helpless puppets of both nature and nurture. Increasingly our environment and our genes are seen to determine the course of our lives. One does not need to take responsibility for a crime when it can be blamed on bipolar disorder. A child does not need to actively pay attention when their behaviour can be blamed on ADHD.

There is also a perceived ‘litigation culture’ whereby lawsuits are seen to have become increasingly frivolous. Tabloid headlines are filled with reports of the robber who sued those he was robbing when he was injured, the obese girls who sued McDonalds, the person who trips and sues the owner of the floor tiles. Whether this culture exists or not is another matter entirely and is largely irrelevant to the public who will, in general, blindly follow the alarums of the media (another human contradiction: the desire not to be lied to coupled with the desire to believe comforting lies). The public belief system has shifted towards a belief that when one has an accident, it is not their own fault.

All these factors have contributed to a growing sense of diminished responsibility. The environment, childhood, genes, psychological disorders, other people; there is now always someone to blame. This renders someone unable to stand up and say that they made a truly free choice. Which leads to the crux of the issue: isn’t a key component of human freedom the ability to take responsibility for one’s own freely-performed action? Is an emphasis on blaming the factors around us diminishing that spirit of human free will? Isn’t true freedom the ability to do what one wants and then to accept the consequences, good or bad?

Americans love their freedom. They march for it, wave flags proudly for it, and impose it upon others. Anyone who doesn’t share their conception is an evildoer and must be stopped. Their concept of freedom however has increasingly become narrowed: while this is due in part to a restrictive and quasi-tyrannical Republican government, it is also due to this shift in attitude whereby humans want freedom but not the accompanying responsibility.

The desire for both freedom and blame. The contradiction that lies at the heart of the present liberty ethos. Until a human accepts that freedom necessarily brings responsibility, they are in a state of arrested development; locked into a contradictory idea whereby free will is the ability to move in an ever-constricting circle. I believe that people are essentially free: free to do whatever they want and perform whatever actions are within their ability. Attempts to unjustly blame actions on other people are evidence of weakness and what Jean Paul Sartre called ‘bad faith’. As he wrote (and with such gender biased pronouns: what must Simone de Beauvoir have thought!), “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Finally and proving my point about the human inclination to contradiction is the fact that this entire spiel aims at blaming a lack in freedom on blame itself. I blame an attitude amongst other people as restricting their freedom and so I shift the responsibility for freedom itself onto a prevalent idea. Maybe it’s better not to believe in free will at all.

Monday, 11 August 2008

"Nice to have something to look forward to."

Philosophy can be thought of as the study of life: the subject is the broadest one there is taking in whatever fields the student desires. Translating literally as ‘love of wisdom’, the practitioner of philosophy can therefore dip into anything that can be considered wise: literature to mathematics, theoretical physics to musical theory. Philosophy is the study of everything in life. Indeed, during the twentieth-century in Europe the discipline took a turn towards telling people how they should live: Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault, even Heidegger to some extent. These continental philosophers all gave prescriptive philosophies on the correct conduct for a human life (ironically the end result of existentialism is a decree that one should choose one’s own path rather than listen to received wisdom).

Simon Critchley propounds a different idea in his new work, ‘The Book of Dead Philosophers’. Herein he apparently argues that to philosophise is to learn how to die. The purpose of the philosophical enterprise is to accept the transient nature of life and to come to terms with the fact that existence is not an absolute. He does this by examining the deaths of various thinkers throughout history and their attitude towards it: Socrates’ execution, David Hume’s deathbed refusal to convert, and Wittgenstein, famously depressed all his life, uttering his last: “Tell them I've had a wonderful life.” There are of course many more.

Critchley’s is an intriguing idea and it makes sense when you look at his background in continental phenomenology. Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ said that the human state of existence is a constant Being-towards-death whereby the only authentic way to live is to accept one’s own inevitable death, not merely to assume it to be something that only happens to other people. Leo Tolstoy’s short story, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, gives a good summation of this attitude. Death, on Heidegger’s view, is a necessary component of life, one that defines it and makes it what it is.

The idea has vaguely romantic connotations. It makes the philosopher a person who stares death in the face, who examines it, studies it, and ultimately discovers nothing to be fearful of. Calm studied Athenians rather than brash Spartans. Life is made all the more ripe for study because it is accepted that our time is so short. It has always been fascinating to me that there is this inevitable process that occurs to every human being and yet it is a complete mystery to us. No-one knows what happens to our consciousness when we die. The Judeo-Christian idea of heaven and eternal salvation seems to be nothing more than what Plato called a “noble lie”. The scientific view of abject nothingness is absolutely inconceivable. So what happens? That’s why I look forward to death: it’s the final question, the question that we all have to find the answer to on our own. No-one will be there, holding our hand. We will all discover it. I can’t wait.

There’s also something to the fact that many philosophers have the capacity to understand that the absence of life is not a bad thing. The default position of humanity seems to be that ‘life > non-life’. Life is viewed as a rare flower blooming only in our small corner of the universe and that therefore it should be nurtured. Life is not a rare flower: in fact there is a population crisis on Earth and less human life is certainly perfectly desirable (but that’s a topic for another time). Death is not understood and so it is feared in the same way that anything not understood is feared. But ignorance of an object does not at all imply that the object is bad. Death is neither good nor bad: like all natural processes, it simply ‘is’.

Maybe it’s that philosophers are generally moribund. There is definitely a link between the study of philosophy and depression or at least a morbid personality (but as John Stuart Mill put it, “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Or maybe, as Critchley says, philosophers really do understand and accept death more readily than the normals out there. Maybe we approach it in the same way we approach everything in life; with a species of innocent curiosity, naïvety even.

The philosopher gazes wide-eyed at the world while everyone else bickers over possession of it.

Addendum: A friend and I went to see Dr. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition today which, apart from being fascinating both scientifically and aesthetically, gave more evidence to back Critchley's idea. The walls were lined with quotes from philosophers about how death is nothing to fear: they elaborated on how it is a natural process and thus has no inherant moral value, either good or bad.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Review - The Name of the Wind

I like Patrick Rothfuss. He’s sort of an academic Renaissance man having studied under any discipline that interested him while he was at university. The mere fact that he identifies so strongly with the philosopher Diogenes is enough to make me respect him right off the bat. His story is also a real Cinderella-story of fantasy writing: he works for years and finally releases his debut novel to critical and public acclaim. The man seems to be genuinely surprised by his own success. His is a real story to inspire writers toiling in those dull corridors of obscurity.

Consequently I really wanted to enjoy his first book, ‘The Name of the Wind’. I made sure I could devote proper care to its reading; I finished any tertiary and secondary books I was reading. In the space of a week I finished both ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’ (good in a plain entertainment way) and ‘The Age of Reason’ (like all Sartre’s fiction, he hides the philosophy behind mundane amounts of scene detailing) and became ready to tuck into what was hyped as the greatest fantasy debut in years.

Nothing ever lives up to the hype and while ‘The Name of the Wind’ is brilliant, it’s not the greatest fantasy novel ever. The series has the potential for true greatness so it’s hard to judge this book as it is very obviously the first chapter in a longer story. The story of this first book ends rather abruptly: it doesn’t have any real conclusion which is unfortunately unsatisfying after 600 pages. In fact the future scope of the series works against this first instalment: there’s a great fantasy-style map on the first few pages (you can tell it’s a fantasy map because the sea is in the west. Most fantasy maps copy Tolkien’s design and put the sea to the west) but within the story the protagonist, Kvothe, stays within a very small area and the reader is left wondering why such a large-scale map would be dangled before us to tantalise us so. The blurb on the back-cover also works against it: it’s basically a list of heroic deeds performed by Kvothe. I somewhat expected the narrative to tick off more than one or two of these.

I’m only complaining because I expected more – this is why optimism is a bad thing. Having heard tales of the book’s raw splendour, I was bound to be slightly disappointed.

There is a lot to like. The writing is magnificent: Rothfuss makes some astounding observations about life that strike home immediately. He’s also very good at analogy painting up some great metaphors and similies. The narrative is taut with some scenes being brilliantly tense, the characters are compelling, and the world-building is realistic. The author makes a point of establishing rules for the use of sympathy (magic) and gives a good sense of the currency of his fantasy world. This allows the reader to sympathise on a deeper level with the character’s plight as we understand what troubles are facing him, both personally and financially. Ultimately the book was successful in drawing me in. I could clearly see the tale as it was crafted around me. It was good to have a book that so delighted in the art of story-telling: it was less a narrative than a celebration of the fantasy writer’s craft. That is certainly no bad thing.

Orson Scott Card compared it favourably to Harry Potter. The comparison makes a lot of sense – brave youth, childhood trauma, school of magic, harsh teachers, good friends, etc. However while Potter has more of a popcorn-feel (good while you’re reading it but leaves you unsatisfied), Rothfuss’ debut is a lot more intellectually satisfying - although it could do with more resolution than it has. The novel works wonderfully and I really cannot wait for the next in the series if only to have more of Rothfuss’ astoundingly true-to-life writing style. Until then his blog will have to do.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Review - The X-Files: I Want To Believe

During Season 3 of ‘The X-Files’ there was a run of serial-killer episodes, many only tenuously linked to the supernatural. These episodes were not great: they ignored the basic premise of the show, they were very similar in script and tone, and Mulder and Scully tend to have less friction and therefore chemistry when they agree on the facts of a case. It thus seems strange that Chris Carter would bring Mulder and Scully kicking and screaming back into contemporary entertainment with a feature-length ‘serial-killer episode’.

The latest X-Files movie is basically a bog-standard serial-killer scripts with Mulder, Scully, and their character development layered over the top of it. It would be a poor thriller but the presence of the beloved characters brings the film as a whole up to ‘watchable’. Billy Connolly is surprisingly good and dominates every scene he’s in: in keeping with the spirit of the show there’s very little resolution about his psychic abilities. The rest of the characters are entirely two-dimensional which means that the film’s success really hinges on Mulder and Scully’s relationship.

Unfortunately their subplot never comes across as that meaningful. Their relationship is supposedly in jeopardy because of Mulder’s stubbornness and his attachment to the case (despite the fact he doesn’t work for the FBI anymore). The script hits all the right thematic buttons but ultimately falls short because the nature of the relationship is never explained. It’s hard to sympathise with something that hasn’t been explained. At the start of the film, they’re clearly not living together: Mulder is growing a beard in Nowhere, USA; Scully is a high-flying Catholic doctor. Subsequent scenes however allude to them being a couple and going to the same home at night. There are in fact only two scenes with them as a ‘real couple’ and so their relationship is both confusing and unrealistic. It might have been better if the two had been struggling to raise a child against a backdrop of criminal darkness but Baby William was given away.

One thing to mention is that there are some brilliant locations. The snowy mountains and vast open fields give a great feeling of isolation and unease. It’s a shame that there’s nothing better going on in the locations than abstract conversations about belief and various platitudes flying all over the place. Also with regards to shooting, close-ups are sadly no longer Mr. Duchovny's friend.

It’s such a shame that the X-Files mythology was virtually destroyed in Season 6. After that they limped on valiantly: there were some good episodes after the Syndicate was destroyed but not many. The writing suffered, Mulder left, Cigarette-Smoking Man died, the liquid Terminator and some woman took over, and the show died. If it had ended a little earlier and left a lot more open-ended, there would have been a hell of a lot more opportunities for the franchise. There has been talk of moving back to the mythology for a possible third movie but how realistic could an alien invasion be if to be in keeping with the shadowy subversive tone of the show?

The second X-Files movie isn’t a bad film. There are certain lines (mostly from Mulder in the first half of the film) that give a brief reminder of the witty dialogue from the show’s early days: this nostalgia of former brilliance is surely enough to give a fan justification to see it. For the non-fan, it’s watchable in a there’s-nothing-else-to-do-let’s-go-see-a-film kind of way. It’s not cinema-as-art but it is cinema-as-entertainment.