Best Laid Plans

If you do not believe in the workings of a thing called fate (which can be tempted), I suggest you figure out a watertight plan and then see what happens to it. Yes, last Sunday’s grand designs rather fell apart this week as both Mr Litlove and I suffered physical setbacks. In all fairness, we had already suffered them when I was typing my last post but we didn’t realise how much trouble they would cause.

The previous week, Mr Litlove had pinched a nerve lifting weights at the gym but he hadn’t thought too much about it and continued as normal. That Sunday morning he had gone out on the river for rowing races, and after a long, cold sit in the damp at the bottom of the reach, he had really hurt himself during the race. The previous week, I had written half of an article on Nobel prize winner, Patrick Modiano, for the lovely Numero Cinq magazine, and then, although I was a little tired on the Saturday, I had gone out to tea with some friends. On Sunday morning I woke with a cold sore and a strangely bloodshot eye. Funnily enough, the same thing had happened to the same eye just after Christmas, but it had calmed down okay on that occasion. I wasn’t really worried, but I made an appointment with my optician just to be reassured, I’d hoped.

It was Mr Litlove who was really suffering. He couldn’t find any position that was comfortable for long and was just hanging on in there until his Tuesday lunchtime appointment with the physio. Tuesday morning we went our separate ways. I knew I was in trouble when the optician started being very kind to me and taking photos of my eyeball. I had inflammatory cells in my eye – they show as just a small white line within the circumference of my iris – and he didn’t understand why. He was going to refer me but after checking with a colleague decided to monitor me instead. The problem wasn’t with my eyesight, but with my health. ‘You must be run down,’ he said. I protested that I couldn’t possibly be as I hadn’t done anything. ‘You’ve got that,’ he said, pointing at my cold sore. ‘And you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t run down.’ I thought I might as well tackle the worst. ‘It’s not that you suspect a brain tumour but don’t want to tell me?’ I asked him. He laughed and said no. ‘You’re just… interesting… at the moment,’ he said. ‘Think of it like that.’

Interesting was what I’d hoped to be about Patrick Modiano; this was very much the wrong kind of interesting. The fact it was so small but obviously a problem was bothering me too. I felt like I’d maybe got a layer of semtex in my brain and this was the first tiny harbinger. I got home and started looking things up on the internet. It was an autoimmune issue, the sensible and accredited website told me. It could indicate – in rare cases – awful things, or something common like arthritis, and it was also a symptom of the herpes virus. I stopped reading there. I thought that would suffice as an explanation, but the situation had triggered my anxiety and I was having a hard time getting it back under control. Then Mr Litlove came in, having been put on the rack by the physio, and he was in awful pain. Somehow we staggered through the day; me nursing an urgent anxiety, him nursing his agonised shoulder. That night neither of us could sleep. I found myself downstairs at 3.30 am nibbling at a (somewhat stale) oatcake to combat the nausea of fatigue, anxiety and low blood sugar while Mr Litlove thrashed about upstairs trying to find a way to lie down that wasn’t painful. At one point, he told me the next morning, he had knelt on the mattress and put his head face down on the pillow, like he was praying to Mecca, and he’d actually lost some time that way; he must have dropped off, that most awkward position being the most comfortable he’d found.

Well, things have improved since then. The optician rang me to say he had done some research and was sure my eye problem was a symptom of chronic fatigue. This was good news in that I could remain with only one big health issue; but it was frustrating how little I’d done to bring it on, after all those autumn months of rest. Mr Litlove managed to get his special painkillers from the doctors and they helped, as did a period of prolonged inactivity. He is moving much easier now, and my eye looks a lot better, just a ghost of a mark that only someone searching obsessively could see.

A couple of days ago we went to do our supermarket trip together, thinking to prop each other up. It was as well I was there as Mr Litlove was quite quickly in pain again (standing, he was only comfortable with his hands on his head, as if he were being taken into police custody); we shopped quickly and came home. It is strange for me to watch Mr Litlove when he is ill. It reminds me that my own cluster of anxieties are not from cowardice or feebleness as I so often fear, but from the experience of chronic illness. ‘Think about how you felt today,’ I urged him, ‘and you can see how I might feel, when every time I go out, I run the risk of feeling bad. If this dragged on for months and years, do you understand how you might come to feel limited? How you might worry about doing anything?’ Chronic fatigue can be a lonely business sometimes, and I so wanted him just to hold this moment and understand, but he only smiled at me as sympathetically as he could, and I knew he didn’t see it at all.

AdamSmithThe real casualty of the past week has been our creative projects. They sit abandoned again. But what kept coming back to my mind was a brilliant book I finished shortly after Christmas, Katrine Marcal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? In it she argues persuasively against the existence of ‘economic man’, the model citizen for all model-based economics. For economic man, everything is a choice; he is rational, selfish, motivated by greed, has little in the way of ethics and wants only to be as rich as possible. He is a ‘bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individual without family or context.’ So no one resembles economic man, apart from bankers and a few under-5’s, Marcal argues. Back in the 1930s, Maynard Keynes thought that economic man modelled the way we would have to behave for a while, to get past the great depressions of that era, but that once we’d eradicated poverty, we could give up such unnatural behaviour and return to loving art, working and earning less, and spending time with those we loved. What happened instead was Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan and neo-liberalism. With the result that, although people do not naturally resemble economic man, this ideology reorganised society in order to force us all to behave like him. The market became all-important, the way we understood and arranged all our interactions – even those like healthcare and education, that were in radical opposition to the way the market functions.

And then human beings became understood as ‘human capital’. Adam Smith first uses the term: ‘People’s education, skills, talents and competencies can, according to Smith, be seen as a form of capital.’ We can be equated to machines, run like businesses, Marcal explains: ‘every person has been transformed into an entrepreneur in the business of selling themselves… Your life is your small business and the capital is, in this case, you.’ So we bear the full responsibility for the outcome of our lives, good or bad, and every decision we make – to do our coursework, to whiten our teeth, to buy a pair of shoes, becomes an investment that may or may not come off. If we think of ourselves as just a piece of human capital, rather than an individual, then we all become very equal, ridiculously equal. ‘The man who waits for his fake documents outside the airport at Dakar,’ Marcal writes is just ‘like the CEO who stretches his legs out in his aeroplane seat to catch a few hours’ sleep before his next meeting on the other side of eight hours in business class.’ The raw material is the same, neo-liberalism tells us: the CEO has just done better with his.

This is complete nonsense, of course, harmful, upsetting nonsense that confuses the kind of equality we need in society with the exact-sameness of two pieces of factory-produced machinery. And yet I was so struck when reading this that I do think this way when it comes to myself. I was a child of the Thatcher era, and I do think I should function just like any other person, that if I invest a certain amount of time in myself, I should be able to produce what I decide needs to be produced. Neo-liberalism changed what it means to be human, Marcal argues, and I do look at myself as an abstract proposition, not as a human who should put the body first because being human is about being in a body before it’s about anything else. Yet what I experience, over and over, is that this new idea of being human breaks down hopelessly when it comes to misfortune and to creativity. (Also when it comes to motherhood, but that’s a post for another day.) In other words, in matters that concern healthcare and education, the two most important institutions in human life to which the most wrong has been done by market-driven economics.

Except perhaps the idea of being human, which should never have been moved away from the immediacy of our lived reality. If Mr Litlove and I want to enjoy our very different life, if we want to create in a way that interests us (not just to pander to some commercial ideal that we care for not at all) because we want to live a simple life that is about a much deeper, richer sense of purpose than earning as much money as possible, we need to think about ourselves very differently too.

 

Eat, Pray, Love

eat pray loveI have so many books in the queue to review that I must try and get through some of them by the end of the year, maybe with shorter reviews than usual. At least when it comes to Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t need to describe the book in any great detail, given I must be one of the last people on the planet to read it. What a strange, hybrid book it is, not in content, I suppose, as Elizabeth Gilbert spends four healing months in each of three different places: Italy, learning the language and eating, India, strengthening her spirit at an ashram and Bali, falling madly in love. No, it’s more the spirit itself that is oddly divided, the subtext that runs through her metaphysical and literal journeys. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting and encouraging book, testimony to the reassuring belief that you can improve your own life with willpower and a bit of luck, and on the other it’s like the worst round robin Christmas letter you ever got, a subtle but powerful piece of competitive achievement-listing, garnished with some implausible self-depreciation. I have no idea how Gilbert managed this, but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.

So, where we begin is on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with Liz having a meltdown because her husband wants children and she doesn’t. This is going to lead to a very unpleasant divorce and, running alongside it, a doomed affair of the kind that is fiercely compulsive but bad for all concerned. Which does indeed sound like a lot of unfortunate events all coming together. However, even on the bathroom floor, Liz finds she has a quiet inner voice of helpful pragmatism that is a kind of outsourcing of everyday divine wisdom. I think that Gilbert doesn’t want to bore us with her suffering – which is admirable of her, I’m sure. I think she doesn’t want her readers to worry about the extent to which we can all lose it magnificently in bad times. She wants to take those readers on a voyage of self-discovery that is essentially positive. But she does keep on plucking herself away from the precipice every time she nears it; she keep rescuing herself one way or another. And so it’s hard to get a clear idea of how bad her bad times have been, and how much is at stake in her decision to devote a year to sorting herself out. I understand that she wants us to know her pain but not to suffer it, but it muddies the water a bit.

Off she goes to Italy, to learn the language and to make new friends, because that is something she does splendidly well (good for her), and the food in Italy is so delicious that it’s enough to get her off medication. Let’s just say that this is not a book I’d recommend for anyone who was actually in the throes of a depression. It’s a most unconventional route back to health. I think maybe she means that some sort of loving self-indulgence, an embrace of things that make you genuinely happy and being generous to yourself with them, is a good antidote for the times when fate has had your back to the wall for what feels like forever. I think?

Then to the ashram where she discovers –  someone who describes herself as bad at meditation – a great capacity for fabulous experiences with the divine. I mean, Liz Gilbert is often very funny at her own expense about the way she tries to avoid all the things she doesn’t enjoy at the ashram, and her descriptions of her spiritual experiences are very well done, very uplifting. I suppose it matters a great deal where you stand spiritually when you come to this section of the book. I tend to be with old Zizek (and Kafka, come to that) that there is a basic need for a Big Other – which might be God, or it might be a parent, or it might be an explanatory system, like science or literature – some major authority to give the appearance that there could be a meaning to life and it isn’t as much of a chaotic mess as it seems on the face of it. All conspiracy theories are essentially a belief in the Big Other, a conviction that someone is in charge and responsible, even though anyone who has worked in an office must surely know the reality of misinformation and total obliviousness that exists between all layers of an organization. Anyway, I digress. I come from a psychological angle, and am sure that after many hours spent in meditation, it is possible to reach new and intriguing states in the brain. Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in any such entity as a god, though I would not for the world wish to offend anyone who did. For whatever reason, Liz leaves the ashram in pretty fine fettle, and the need for balance in life that she had assigned as her task in Bali looks somewhat redundant by now.

Bali is not a place that I want to visit.

It has been estimated that a typical Balinese woman spends one-third of her waking hours either preparing for a ceremony, participating in a ceremony or cleaning up after a ceremony. Life here is a constant cycle of offerings and rituals. You must perform them all, in the correct order and with the correct intention, or the entire universe will fall out of balance.’

Way too much responsibility! Gilbert is enchanted with Bali and wonderfully respectful of its ideology, whereas I wondered how it was possible for a whole island to raise OCD to the level of a religion. Gilbert talks about the charming spiritual beliefs the Balinese hold, like the fact you have four spiritual brothers who are there to keep your back at all times. I have a brother. We are very civilized now, but I remember our childhood, and I think one brother seems quite sufficient for me. I would have nightmares if I thought there were four of them behind my back, and I’ll bet they require a host of ceremonies too. Anyhow, none of this matters anyway as the point of Bali is Felipe, Gilbert’s great romance, and I really can’t be bothered to say anything about that.

No, it’s passages like this that tended to catch my eye:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.’

I’m feeling exhausted already. Happiness, as a form of ultra-demanding work. I’m not sure that I need happiness to that extent. And I have this horrible feeling that bad things happen; they just do. Not because we didn’t work enough at it, or perform enough ceremonies with the correct intent. And I think that sometimes, however hard we try, we don’t master inner peace or find the answers we are looking for. These things are incredibly difficult to do; for most of us, we’ll need a lifetime to reach even a temporary resolution. For those of us with children, which I can understand Gilbert wanting to avoid, given her personal ideology, we just have these hostages to fortune, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I am surprised at the extent to which this book is marketed as a women’s book, something you give your best friend. Well, if you want to send her the message that she’s been a bit grumpy lately and she should get off her backside and do something strenuous about it, I guess you do. But I would be hesitant to put this in someone’s  hands who had suffered a series of misfortunes, as it says, essentially, that grief,  mourning, re-grouping, life-changing development, all that is just a matter of putting your back into it! Well, ouch. If only it were.

And yet, Liz Gilbert seems to have proved to her own satisfaction that it is. And I do think she means terrifically well in her intentions to hand women back control over their misshapen, misguided lives. Seriously, it terrifies me, how determined she is that we all get back on track and find our personal nirvanas right here on earth. Given that I can’t even manage to write a short blog post when I intend to, I think I might not be the sort of disciple this book calls out for.

A Woman on the Edge of Time

AWomenOnTheEdgeIn 1965, shortly before Christmas, a young, ambitious mother of two children on the brink of publishing her first book of sociology let herself into a friend’s house in Primrose Hill, London, turned on the oven and gassed herself. It was an act with uncanny echoes of Sylvia Plath’s demise, which had taken place just two years earlier and two streets away. Her family was dumbfounded; on the face of it, Hannah had everything she could wish for – a loving husband in a successful career, two young boys, a promising academic career, good looks, money, friends. Only the title of her book, The Captive Wife, gave a possible hint at a darker truth, and only the friend whose house she had used knew that she ‘had been depressed in the days before her death.’ But life goes on and the devastated family kicked over Hannah’s traces, her suicide becoming the great ‘unsaid’. Until, that is, her younger son, Jeremy Gavron, decided he had to find out the real motivations for his mother’s act. A Woman on the Edge of Time is the story he uncovered and it is absolutely hypnotic.

How you tell a story – what gets left out, what gets distorted, where the emphasis is placed – is the theme that runs quietly through this memoir. The stories Jeremy Gavron had been told of his mother portrayed a ‘golden girl’. A friend described how ‘She was young, attractive, confident, bright, able; she brought an extra jolt to life. To succeed in those days women had to give up something – children, work, femininity – whereas Hannah wanted and appeared able to have everything.’ In family stories she featured as a force of nature: at eight she won a poetry contest, at twelve she was a champion show-jumper, at sixteen she left her progressive boarding school to become an actress at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and then after her early marriage at eighteen, she returned to her studies, researching a Ph.D while bringing up her sons. She was working as a professional reviewer, teaching at a fashionable London college and adapting her doctoral thesis into her first book in the final months of her life. What a strange story Hannah’s life became with her final tragic act; what an outrageous and inexplicable ending to an otherwise glittering Bildungsroman.

Jeremy Gavron began digging. He found his grandfather’s diaries; he questioned family and friends, everyone he could reach who had known his mother; he read her book and the letters she sent to friends. And gradually he pieced together a very different tale. His Hannah is indeed a courageous and headstrong young woman, wild at times, acting as if ‘the normal codes of behaviour weren’t for her’. She had a precocious and wilful sexuality that flourished in an affair she had with the headmaster of her boarding school. An affair that Gavron calculates, with a sickened heart, that she must have begun at 14. There was an almost desperate urge to get married, as if it was a troubling void that had to be filled. Hannah wrote to a friend ‘One of the awful things Frensham [their boarding school] has left us with is the feeling that if one is not in love with anyone in particular, life is very dreary.’ Acting never took off. The marriage soured and Hannah fell in love with someone else, someone she was working with, a man who unfortunately turned out to be homosexual though by this point she seems determined to act like that didn’t matter.

The most disturbing part of Hannah’s history surrounds her academic career in sociology. Hannah had researched and written her book about the stultification of domestic life, interviewing a number of women with young children and drawing on her own experience. Here was a woman with a lot of spirit and verve, way too much for the rigid constraints of the 50s and early 60s, and she was a pioneer before her time, without the sisterhood that feminism would offer working women later in the decade. Then she became aware that her applications for university positions were being stymied by the men she had to rely on for references out of pure misogyny. When Gavron takes the evidence he has gathered to a neighbour who is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, she points out that “The fact that Hannah was a strong personality wouldn’t necessarily have helped, she says; ‘the whole of that terrific force gets turned against herself.’”

Once I began this book, I absolutely could not put it down. It is beautifully written, with a limpid, open simplicity that is still full of nuance. Jeremy Gavron structures his researches terrifically well, so that even though I had the outlines of his mother’s life given to me in the earliest pages, I was full of curiosity to find out the devilish details of the other side and to see how he would interpret the results. And even when he believes he understands his mother’s act and can create a narrative of sorts, Gavron is still finding out new revelations that make him wonder whether he has the story right. It’s a brilliant investigation into the unsaid that forms a part of every family (if not quite so dramatically as in Gavron’s case) and into the slipperiness of storytelling. We need those stories if we are to have any chance of understanding experience, but stories seep over gaps and seal up perspectives that might need to be wrenched open again. It is also a valuable piece of social history in the way it creates shocking insight into the reality of life for women in the 1950s, when you really did need a man by your side if you were to have any self-esteem at all. And finally, I felt it was a moving tribute to a mother who had been loved without being known, and who was now known in all her flaws and failures, all the things she could not deal with and which led to her suicide, and who was loved even more now for being understood. The real tragedy of Hannah Gavron’s life is that she did not live to experience the sweet reparation her son could have given her.

Straight onto my best books of the year list.

 

 

 

 

Your Blog Post Might Change The World Yet

The SwerveIt’s been an appropriate time to be reading about the way that war and religion – and especially religious wars – have caused more trouble to mankind than just about anything else. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve, he trots us through a couple of millenium of human history in which two very generalized modes of human existence – one based on civilized, intellectual pleasures, one based on the interplay of power and suffering – have come into conflict with each other over and over again. It’s a shame that the gospel doesn’t suggest it’s the geeks that will inherit the earth, as the historical evidence in this book proposes that we’d all be better for it.

The specific focus of the story is one book-hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who in the winter of 1417 made a spectacular discovery in a German monastery. Looking for lost texts from the classical world, he found a copy of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) a book that had been written some fourteen hundred and fifty years earlier. This book was a doozy; it suggested that the universe was not created by the gods, but was constructed from infinitely small particles, that moved about, collided, came apart again. Everything in the world was the result of a swerve, in which one atom swerved into and combined with another, and this in a process of ceaseless, dynamic movement. That swerve ‘is the source of free will’ because it is random and not predetermined, and it also means that the world was not created especially for human beings – it just happened. And so, if all organised religions are just delusions, as Lucretius’s vision argued, and when we die there is no afterlife, then it’s pretty pointless to organise life around our fears of divine judgement. The essential point of existence was to increase pleasure and avoid pain. Lucretius was profoundly influenced by Epicurus, who advocated for a life of simple, immediate pleasures, and not as later discrediting critics argued, for mindless hedonism.

This was dangerously heretical stuff to be broadcast in the fifteenth century. But Poggio was one of the breed of ‘humanists’ who loved and revered the classical world, and who adored books – they were his comfort and his escape from a life that was constantly threatened and full of conflict. Because of his gorgeous handwriting skills, Poggio had risen to the grand position of the pope’s apostolic secretary. It was a good job but a difficult life in a papal court that was riven with corruption. Poggio’s boss, Baldassare Cossa (John XXIII) came from a family whose business was piracy, and that pretty much tells you all you need to know about him. Except, maybe, that at the time Poggio worked for him, there were three Popes knocking about Europe, all claiming to be the real one. (And Cossa had already poisoned a fourth.) Well, this situation was eventually resolved by a huge meeting of the authorities in Constance, Switzerland, to which all the popes (reluctantly) came. The aim was to settle on one pope and also to sort out various issues with heresy – for instance, the intolerable lobbying of church reformer Jan Hus, a Czech priest. Hus repeatedly attacked the clergy for their greed, hypocrisy and immorality (there was a roaring trade in ‘indulgences’ which, if you paid good money for one, would supposedly make the going easier through purgatory). He felt the state should control the church and that laymen should judge their spiritual leaders. ‘An immoral pope could not possibly claim infallibility.’ Well, yikes, thems were fighting words, and deeply unpopular ones. It was very unfortunate that they were mostly accurate and true.

How it all shook down is also very informative. Essentially, realising which way the wind was blowing, Cossa made a run for it and went into hiding. He was tracked down and imprisoned on a count of 70 criminal charges. Ironically enough, he ended up in the same prison as poor old Jan Hus, who had negotiated a safe passage to the conference only to see it blithely ignored. Cossa bought his release, and enjoyed a quiet retirement. Hus was taken to the stake and burned. Poggio, unemployed, decided a little holiday might be the thing, and so, enamoured of Germany and ever more in love with the classical golden age, he went book-hunting.

Greenblatt is – or at least seemed to me – very good on the vast ocean of lost texts that had been created in the classical world but were abandoned and neglected in the Dark Ages, but this has been one of the contentious parts of his book. Thousands of works came out of Greek and Roman philosophy, but since they were mostly written on papyrus, climate and bugs were their major destroyers. However, Greenblatt argues that it was a change in ideology that made the most important difference, and he uses the great library at Alexandria to illustrate his point. This library was essentially a world class university, to which scholars and researchers were invited and where the foundation for calculus, hydraulics and pneumatics and our understanding of the body were discovered. It was a vast treasure trove of learning. As such, it recognised no distinctions in doctrine – all knowledge was valuable. But the Jews and the Christians who lived in 4th century Alexandria were not happy at all – they only recognised the one god, and so this polytheistic environment was anathema to them.

The spiritual leader of the Christian community, Theophilus, set mobs of Christians onto the pagans, which resulted in riots and mass destruction. Then Theophilius’s successor, his even more brutal nephew, Cyril, demanded the expulsion of the Jews. He came up against an extraordinary young woman, Hypatia, who was beautiful and intellectually gifted. She was the representative of the pagan intellectual elite, most unusually for a woman. Hypatia supported the Jews. And so, Cyril sent out his henchman to whip up a frenzied mob. They pulled Hypatia from her chariot, stripped her, flayed her, then dragged her corpse around the city and burned it. Things were never the same again afterwards, Greenblatt suggests. It was the end of an era – ‘a loss of cultural moorings, a descent into febrile triviality’. Superstition took the place of open-minded intellectual debate.

Now, Greenblatt’s book has been highly criticized for what is seen by some as too great a simplification of the cultural shift, and a disservice to Christianity. You’ll have to read it yourself to see what you think. I felt that he wasn’t arguing that all kindness, pleasure and academic research ended when Europe embraced Christianity; but that it was harder to think clearly with the thumbscrews of the Inquisition hovering at the back of your mind. It seems fair enough to me that Lucretius’s text would be seen as a wildly inflammatory document when set against the reality of fifteenth century Italy. But also, that there might be a small band of brothers who would find its ideas radical but tempting. Greenblatt’s implied claim, that it was the book that tipped intellectual culture towards new, modernist ways of thinking is probably a bit much. But he does make of its life an impressive and highly engrossing story. I knew absolutely nothing about this part of history, and I found it fascinating.

And in the light of recent events, I also found it sobering. I know I bang on here a lot about tolerance and compassion, but I cannot regret it. I don’t think we’ve ever come to terms with the innate violence of human beings, and perhaps most dangerous of all, their fervent desire for retaliation. Across history, this desire has been successfully pitted against thought, consideration and contemplation; we still scorn intellectuals and prize strength and a show of might above all else. This is a very good book for hearing the lessons of history speaking loud and clear to us. Oh wouldn’t it be good if one day, we could finally listen.