Being Right Is An Emotion

The following is a post I wrote much earlier in the week, but I’d decided not to publish it because I felt.. oh I don’t know, like I didn’t want to get involved in the madness of the referendum. And then that poor politician, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed yesterday by someone who – so it looks at present – was completely carried away by an opposing political conviction. And so I’m posting after all, because we really do need a sea change in how we stage public debates.

 

It’s bad enough that we have to live in a world full of gun crime and futile EU referendums, what’s really depressing me at the moment is the quality of debate surrounding them. I am continually horrified by the sheer awfulness of the example being set by people – politicians, the media – who are supposed to be in authority. You might think that the importance of the issues at stake would encourage those doing the debating to put their best brain in gear. But no. If there is some information to be had out there, it’s usually drowned out by the hysteria and the posturing.

I’m not about to tell anyone what to think. But I am going to ask you to consider for a moment how we think. How we might be brought to the best, most sensible and viable decision.

And here’s my first point: if we’re having a public debate, it’s because we need to make a community decision. Not a decision based on what I want, what I think, but a decision based on what’s best for a disparate group of people. A healthy community seeks difference – everyone thinking and acting the same all the time is called a cult. So people are being asked to do a really difficult but necessary thing. We all need to think outside our own personal concerns. We have to think about the young person we love the most, who is most different to us in terms of desires, interests and beliefs, and figure out how to keep society fair, safe and open as far as we can see into the future for both of us. That would be a really good outcome to our thinking processes.

Which makes the personalised and emotive nature of all current public debates a disaster from the outset. The more emotional a debate becomes, the more entrenched people become in their sense of what’s right. Because the sense of being right is an emotion. It’s a wonderful emotion. All that horrible feeling of uncertainty that existence brings, all the nagging fear and low self-esteem are wiped away in a great wave of pure conviction. The more others try to wrestle it away from us, the more tenaciously we hang onto it.  This makes it almost impossible for people to hear opposing points of view – literally, we can’t even hear them.

You may have come across the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1959. It refers to the extreme psychological discomfort we feel when we hold two contradictory beliefs, ideas or values at the same time. This is such a painful position that we pretty much do everything we can – any old trumped-up (and I use the term advisedly) rationalisation will do the trick – in order to resolve the conflict. In fact the brain anticipates such awkward situations and heads them off at the pass using the strategy known as ‘confirmation bias’. We block all information that contradicts what we think and listen only to information that confirms us in our views.

But this makes for terrible decisions. We stop learning. We actually stop thinking altogether and just move into a defensive state. All to protect that gorgeous, delirious emotion of being right. Because in all honesty, we’re hardly ever ‘right’ in the accurate sense of the word. Most of the time, in most of our speculations, beliefs, choices and analyses, we’re only partially right at best, because life is a complex thing and we will insist on being right even in matters that have no factual basis. And let’s face it, even science, that great foundation of factual certainty, is constantly revising, updating and surpassing its knowledge. We have lots of convictions and fantasies based on hopes and fears and best estimates, but we ‘know’ very little indeed.

So! How do we make good decisions when we finally get our heads around the reality of our patchy and uncertain knowledge? How can we do the right thing, rather than the narcissistically-right thing? I have six guidelines (media, politicians take note) for creating a good and helpful debate:

1. The only arguments that carry real weight are those backed up by evidence. We need evidence.

2. Not all opinions are equal. In making a good decision we need reliable information, and that comes only from the most reputable, most unbiased, most experienced sources.

3. Speculation is not an argument. (This is the one I have trouble with Mr Litlove over.) Oh there will be speculations, for sure, but we must take them with a pinch of salt. I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that no one has yet figured out how to foresee the future.

4. There is the problem, and there’s how we feel about it. The chances are these two separate things are going to be continually entangled. But how we feel about the problem is probably going to be completely unhelpful when it comes to finding a solution. We need help to hold them apart.

5. Conclusions are what we end up with, not the place where we begin.

6. Doubt is sanity and absolute conviction is madness. Reality is always going to be more complex, dynamic and unguessable than any of us can imagine. Keep doubting.

 

 

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.

The Inconvenient Past

I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.

Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.

the tutorIn Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.

the hourglass factoryIn The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.

Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.

So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?

For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?

It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.

In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.