Sunday, 22 November 2009

Review - Transition

Transition by Iain Banks is a novel about the large and the small: the largeness of the universe and the smallness of human minds. One of its central concerns is how one’s view of the world informs how one treats the world exemplified in the question of how one would react when faced with the infinitude of a multiverse: would you accept something larger than yourself or retreat into self-regard and the seeking of individual power?

The novel’s plot revolves around The Concern, a secretive organisation who train elite individuals to flit between parallel worlds of the kind predicted by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. As powerful figures enact their political machinations, a number of characters – transitioning assassins, torturers, and a hedge-fund manager – are drawn into The Concern’s internal politics.

The novel is overtly philosophical and its central theme concerns the intermingling of two separate strands of philosophy. First, there is the metaphysical philosophy of parallel worlds: an infinite number of universes, some slightly different from our own like the Judeo-Islamic worlds, some massively different like the worlds without humans. This metaphysical position informs the second strand of philosophy, the ethical and political philosophy. In a scene where the powerful renegade transitioner, Mrs. Mulverhill, has taken the ‘greed-is-good’ hedge-fund manager Adrian to an alternate world where Moscow lies in ruins, she says that how he reacts to his new metaphysical viewpoint – knowing the truth of an infinity of parallel worlds – will reveal something about himself. One’s view of the metaphysical nature of the world impacts how they behave ethically towards the world: are they a single person in a larger group or a solipsistic self-important individual?

The book’s ethical philosophy focuses on self-interest. The story is set between those golden years for capitalism: between the falling of the Berlin Wall – the symbolic end of the West’s war against communism – and the fall of the Twin Towers – the symbolic beginning of a guerrilla war on Western capitalism. Banks mentions the third fall – the 2008 fall of Wall Street and the Markets – once at the beginning of the novel but for the most part the reader is left to consider the consequences of unbridled egotism and capitalism from our present position, deep in recession.

At one point, Adrian – a character whose main purpose is to show everything that’s wrong with the sociopathic self-regard of the financial ‘Masters of the Universe’ meets a girl in a bar who gives a speech on the psychology of the self-interested libertarian:

The point is, because of that or not, he decided that everybody’s out for themselves and nobody really cares for anybody else, though some people pretend to. He’s looked after ‘Number One’” – she did that fingerwaggly inverted-commas thing – “exclusively ever since and he can’t see there might be something wrong with that. In fact, he can’t even see that what he’s got there is just a single point of view, and a pretty perverse one at that; as far as he’s concerned it’s some great truth about people and life that only he and a few other realists have worked out. Thing is, he’s got a problem. Maybe he’s still infected with some tiny remnant of human decency or something, but he can only really be content with himself and his despicable egotism if he’s satisfied that his self-centred attitude doesn’t make him a freak. For his own peace of mind he needs to believe that it’s not just him, that anybody who claims to care for others is lying; maybe because they’re frightened to admit they only think of themselves too, or maybe because they actively want to make people like him feel bad about themselves.”

Selfishness is a central theme and drives the entire work: the plot turns out to be driven by one character’s ultimate self-involved narcissism manifesting itself as racism.

Yet despite the book’s overt condemnation of the greedy, self-obsessed idiots who led our financial institutions to ruin, there’s a suggestion that not all self-interest is an evil. In the parallel world ruins of Moscow, Mrs. M says, “All our best people are highly self-centred. It’s the only thing that holds them together in the chaos.” Metaphysics again informs ethics: a view of the universe as a hostile and chaotic place begets a rational, ethical self-interest required for survival.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

"The Adulthood Puzzle."

It is my birthday today. I am twenty-three.

I have never been good at life. I have persistently wondered how other people can do it so effortlessly. As a teenager I was awkward, nervous, and unable to hold a conversation or look people in the eyes for extended periods of time. I had no dreams or ambitions other than the desire to understand: understand why I was on this planet, what life was, and what I should do. So I studied philosophy. It was good for me – it was for me, as for Wittgenstein, therapy – and although I helped me appreciate my place in the world and taught me how to think, the fundamentals of life still eluded me.

Something has shifted. In the past few months, I’ve been filled with a sense of self-confidence that is alien to me. I’ve not been nervous around people, I’ve been charming and witty, and I’ve become one of the effortless people that I saw when I was 16.

Ironically, this consistent happiness has brought a corresponding anxiety: why am I suddenly and inexplicably able to cope with the world? Consideration of this puzzle has led to several possible answers:

  1. People have treated me differently since I grew a beard and this has led to a shift in my behaviour towards people. Unlikely: the beard has inhabited my face since last Easter and the unusual confidence only manifested around August/September.
  2. The absence of constant philosophy has led to an absence of confusion thus proving that the treatment was part of the disease all along. Unlikely: though I haven’t been mired in a forest of abstractions like when I studied it every day, I still think philosophically. On Saturday I wrote a book review – to be posted here shortly – laden with metaphysics and ethics.
  3. Discovering a calling has led to an increase in self-worth and self-confidence. Possible: meeting so many people similar to myself on my Masters course has made me feel less alone than I’ve ever felt. Discovering that information work is not only something I can do but that I have been doing without realising it and that I enjoy doing has been a tremendous boon to my happiness levels.

Mystery: I’ve simultaneously battled against it and sought it out my whole life. Frustrating though it is, there are mysteries I will never unravel.

It is my birthday. And for whatever reason I finally feel able to cope with life. I’m not perfect but I’m the person I wanted to be at 23. I’m happy with who my formative years have made me and I’m achieving my ambitions.

Everything is wonderful now.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

"It takes him days to move her way..."

Dear sir,

I am writing to you, to advise that there will be a delay in the processing of applications for this post.

This letter, received today, provides a good reason why I love libraries: they take things slowly. I applied for the above part-time position months ago – the deadline was early October. I had in fact long since given up hope on hearing back about it. Now, a month later, I am surprised to discover that they are simply taking their time.

Back in August when I was floating in a sea of indecision and uncertainty, I applied for a job in a law firm. Within days of my application being sent, I received an invitation to interview. Within hours of the interview, I was informed of my failure. Everything about that application moved so quickly: it was disconcerting.

Since then I have applied and interviewed for a number of library jobs and the continuing trend across them all has been the slowness of the decision process. This is far from a criticism: if a theme has developed in the writing of this blog, it’s the idea of taking life slowly. I appreciate it when people take time over weighty decisions that affect people’s lives: it’s far more appropriate than making the sort of snap ‘X-Factor’ judgements that society expects of us nowadays.

It is of continual annoyance to me that people take conversations so quickly, snapping from one topic to the next at breakneck speed. I prefer to slowly mull over topics, feel the weight of a good sentence, and I won’t bother starting a meaningful conversation unless the interlocutor and I have a good hour or so to discuss it properly. I also get annoyed when people organise events at short notice: I like to plan at least a week ahead – to know when I am doing something and to know when I have some free time.

There are some things in life that don’t need speeding up: that have to be done slowly. I believe that determining whether someone is fit for a job or not is one of those things and I love that in the information sector, employers take their time over important decisions. This may be because libraries and other information posts are staffed by people with well-organised minds who feel the same way as I do about having life laid out in an organised albeit unspontaneous fashion.

It may be that a potential employer is reading this after I mentioned this blog in a personal statement. In that case, I encourage them to take their time getting to know me and to not worry about making a quick decision.