Naivety and conflict

 Posted by at 6:22 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 292011

You must be right that conflict is situation normal. Yet, at the same time, most of us don’t live our live our lives gripped in the urgency of conflict. We know times of peace, shared interest, cooperation. Those times may be brief moments or more extended but they will be part of the rhythms of our seasons here on earth. Unending conflict would only lead to madness or death. Conflict adds spice but I don’t believe there are many of us who would like to live entirely on a diet of chilli peppers. We have to be able to sleep at night.

    The unsuspecting world that I referred to needs to be understood as part of a pattern of voluntary and involuntary unconsciousness, unknowingness. After all, how much consciousness can any of us bear? A small personal example from this last week may illustrate something of this:

    My post-university daughter has been to and fro these last weeks as she decides where to live and how to live. On Wednesday evening we went to see the latest offering from Lars Von Trier – Melancholia. I found it, quite literally, a powerfully affecting movie in that about two thirds of the way through I had to leave the auditorium to be sick in the toilets! Von Trier works close to the edge and the movie held me close to the edge not only of the end of the world but to the emotional/psychological frailty of one of the two sisters who are at the core of the film. Despite the cathartic purging I came away from the film wanting to see it again and thinking of it as brilliant. In the cold evening we cycled back home through the dark following the little pool of light provided by my bicycle lamp down the mostly dark lane.

    But the point I want to make is that Von Trier has the ability to hold us in an uncomfortable place that we might not want to know about and after all we each have the task of doing what we can to run our own little individual life and perhaps are able to include a family and beyond that have some mind to our community – a community that can include the whole globe – 'us lot' again – just coming up to 7 billion apparently. And as part of that many of us have little idea of idea-tsunamis that are swelling and building somewhere in the ocean of the collective mind. A good example may be the collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and another might be the stunning success of unfettered markets and the consumerist and technological revolutions of our very recent history.

    Unknowingness, a sort of naivety, is also situation normal. My sense of myself is not that I’m no longer naïve, only that I’m differently naïve . . . and actually I have an immediate image of my grown up children streaking ahead, leaving me somewhat bemused and bobbing in their slipstream.


Eggs Florentine

 Posted by at 11:11 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 252011

We meet after an absence of a few weeks and resume our primary task of remembering. Our conversation wanders between the seafaring prospect of eating soggy muesli aboard a storm tossed sailing ship to the more refined cosmopolitan pleasures of enjoying poached eggs on a bed of spinach with a hollandaise sauce on dry land, the white plate laid on a linen cloth at the cafe table of a Renaissance city. Why dont you stay longer? I ask provocatively along with other questions.

!938 and 1978? Pre-war and Post-war? Situation normal and social conflict, and I disagree, hardly a "barely suspecting world", there are always plenty of arguing voices ready to howl out for War, ready for a fight. We remember the Winter of Discontent (1978/79).

Then the breakdown of the (so called) post-war consensus which followed shortly after 1978 apparantly solved the contradiction betwen the thrust of the capital markets for ever more profits and the 'welfare state' demands of the social democrat tradition. A strange and unbelievable kind of social peace broke out, a certain "solidarity" built around the removal of inflation from the system, home ownership (the right to buy), and easy personal (plastic card) credit. Even the other argument between Reformers and Revolutionaries appeared to solve too when the Berlin Wall came down ten years later. Wealth all round (that was the myth on offer of course) for the thirty years to 2008, in other words, situation abnormal.

Situation abnormal!

The latest copy of the New Left Review offers a transcript of Wolfgang Streek's paper given as the Max Weber Lecture at the European University Institute, Florence in 2011. Under the title "Markets versus Voters?" we are given a review of the history of 19th and 20th century deep suspicions and open conflicts between capitalism and democracy grounded in the fear of the possibility the rule of the poor over the rich. We then look at the strange social peace of the 1978-2008, before looking at the current crisis since then. Crisis. Situation normal. Above all challenging the fond idea of a post-war or any other consensus, the situation normal is a "series of complex contests" and ongoing entrenched social conflict. In a word, crisis, not consensus is the norm of situation normal.

One wonders what other interesting programmmes the European University Institute offers in that fair city of Florence. A course on 20th Century World Literature perhaps? Why indeed dont you stay longer?

1938, 1978

 Posted by at 10:27 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 202011

I’m thinking . . . a man without qualities (character) and on the cinema screen there arises mug shots of George W Bush, Tony Blair (and his successor David Cameron), Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin . . . could we put them behind bars in a small provincial zoo so that they might be examined, interrogated, perhaps poked with a cane or umbrella and pelted with faeces. How might we begin to examine these men without qualities? Qualities that might lead one to assume a moral core rather than the emptiness of self-creation, ambition and acquisitiveness. These managers and betrayers of democracy. What sort of life do we want to value? What sort of society do we want to be part of?

1938 and 1978

    Dates suggestive of what was about to be unleashed on a barely suspecting world. 1938 – Territory and Ideology. What form was society to take, Capitalist, Communist or Fascist? And then 1978 – the advance of Neo-liberalism. The apparent victory of capitalism. The freeing of capital and the market from every restriction. Nothing must get in the way. Come on! We can all sign the Faustian pact with the devil and we will soon all be wallowing in wealth and privilege.

    And you made it through the storm, young Odysseus. You don’t mention Sirens or Calypso . . . or maybe it was a fleeting visit to Silvio’s bunga-bunga cave on Sardinia. But there you were in clouds of Musil. Though I wonder if there was a certain muesli quality, a worthy and chewy mash soaked in cold water and tasting of cardboard. Ah, the joys of travel. Eleven hundred pages! But then what about a kindle edition of the great work? This tiny box of plastic and electronics to hold the library. Shall I buy one? Yes, no? Kindle? Is that to do with children or lighting a fire? I see our fairy godmother, Annie Amazon, has brought out a cheaper version. How many thousands of books do I need it to hold? Though they say our purchases are automatically backed up in some cloud or other. I really must stop adding to these ever towering piles of books on every available horizontal surface. Get rid of some of them, you say? Easier said than done in my experience.


US LOT at Work

 Posted by at 4:26 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 182011

It was evening all afternoon. It is good to remember, and now that it is beginning to get dark early, that even this far south in autumn that the rain falls as snow at above 1,500 metres, and our friend, the blackbird, sat on a  tree, appears entirely indifferent to our predicament whether the absence of real purpose in our lives, or a situation where we do not know our way.

There is nothing new about this for US LOT (that is mankind, or the human race) of course. As I said before, I have been all at sea these last two weeks, and while I was “Ballroom Dancing the Mediterranean” in southern Turkey a perfect storm passed through. Unable to travel for several days, my “Holiday Reading” was Der Mann ohne Eigenschaft by Robert Musil, in translation The Man without Qualities (…or literally ‘character’). The book was banned by Hitler in 1938, and was only first published in full in 1978… long after Musil himself was dead. The three Parts of the long 1100 page work have the following headings:  ‘A sort of Introduction’, ‘Pseudo-reality’, and ‘Into the Millenium’ (the last with sub-title ‘The Criminals’). These are life stages which equally well describe rather well, as I come to think of it, the experiences of US (older) LOT born soon after the last war ended in 1945.

And it is good to remember, as Steve Jobs put it speaking to Stanford University students in 2005, shortly after learning his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life”. While the absence of real purpose – was it a con, a pretence, even for the man who made Apple such a succeess too? Or are there also some of US LOT whose life work is genuinely full of purpose?

A man Without Qualities explores this question, and the hero Ulrich (being somebody representing US LOT) spends a lot of time pondering the purpose of work in the world:

…all moral events take place in a field of energy whose constellation charges them with meaning. They contain good and evil the way an atom contains the possibilities of certain chemical possibilities. They are what they will become, so to speak; and just as the word “hard” denotes four entirely different essences, depending on whether it is connected with love, brutality, zeal, or discipline, the significance of all moral events seemed to him to be a function of other events on which they depended. In this way an open-ended system of relationships arises, in which independent meanings, such as are ascribed to actions and qualities by way of a rough first approximation in ordinary life, no longer exist at all. What is seemingly solid in this system becomes a porous pretext for many possible meanings; the event occurring becomes a symbol of something that perhaps may not be happening but makes itself felt through the symbol; and man as the quintessence of his possibilities, potential man, the unwritten poem of his existence, confronts man as recorded fact, as reality, as character (Eigenschaft). Accordingly, Ulrich felt that he was capable of every virtue and every baseness: the fact that in a balanced social order virtues as well as vices are tacitly described as equally burdensome attested for him what happens in nature generally, that every play of forces tends in time toward an average value and average condition, toward compromise and inertia. Ulrich regarded morality as it is commonly understood as nothing more than the senile form of a system of energies that cannot be confused with what it originally was without losing ethical force.

It is possible that these views also reflected some uncertainty about life, but uncertainty is sometimes nothing more than the mistrust of the usual certainties, and anyway, it is good to remember that even so experienced a person as mankind itself seems to act on quite similar principles…

Apologies for such a long quotation! It would have been simpler and probably better to describe the experience as like the one I had walking an old mule track up in the hills of ancient Lycia; a blackbird, or at least what seemed a dark bird in the shadow of pine needles, eyeing one from the branch of a cedar tree.

It had stopped raining after three days, apart from occasional thunderstorm cloudbursts of cold wetness. As the great Mediterranean storm eased, the sun had come out and the temperature begun to rise again. I could not help thinking that I had passed through some kind of wordless threshold.

The absence of work

 Posted by at 7:16 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 092011

It’s a good image, pleasing in some way, you wandering up and across an active volcano, teetering on vertiginous ledges, peering into smoke holes, awaiting a tragedy or perhaps an epiphany. Isn’t it wonderful how we normally experience a sense of solidity on this magic bit of rock whirling and spinning through what we refer to as space; uncaring as to the molten core, the leaky crust with its grinding plates – a bit like an ancient doctor (medicine or philosophy?) grinding his teeth with dream soaked rage – and billions of light years of emptiness out there.

    Us lot – the ‘human’ race, as we call ourselves – are perhaps the embodiment of optimistic madness. Though, it has to be said, we do, at times, fall into deep smoke holes of terminal pessimism. But the fact is we are such high energy creatures that surely our intention is to animate the rest of the universe – what other purpose do we have!! Once we’ve sorted out how to travel faster than light, getting rid of distance, the universe will be our oyster – to slip down with a squeeze of lemon. Always providing (as ever) that we don’t blow ourselves up in the endeavour.

    Then again, as I try to get my feet back on the ground and my mind back to retirement, it occurs to me that the blindingly obvious thing about retirement is the absence of work, in other words the absence of purpose, real purpose. What else am I but a worker without work? Though I do try to ‘work’ to a schedule to give myself the illusion of work and purpose – there is no getting away from the fact that it is a pretence, a con.

    And here we are sadly arriving at the final stanza of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:




    It was evening all afternoon.

    It was snowing

    And it was going to snow.

    The blackbird sat

    In the cedar-limbs.


Peering into the Mist

 Posted by at 7:24 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 042011

Last week, as well as suffering thoughts of retirement,  a pilgrimage, I had the opportunity to climb an active volcano.

Vulcano, it gives its name to the Aeolian Island I was visiting. The volcano is constantly smoking, a mist of sulphur rising from around the smooth curve of its crater's edge. Sulphurous, these places were often described as gateways or entrances to hell in past times, but I sense no evil. Two blackbirds flying over I take as an auspicious sign, and I wave at them foolishly.

Vertigo on the way up of course, the steep track up the volcano's side riven with rain gullies, but it is not a difficult climb. Still, moments the same sense of panic as on a Dartmoor rock edge once before, and the voice "Go Baack!" in my ears. This time however I walk on.

This time intoxicated by the warning, the sign at the bottom warns against not peering into the smoke holes too closely. Vertigo of course can have tragic consequences; tragic in the sense of moments that are capable of changing something or somebody.

There is the possibility of being given something here, and I struggle forward trembling to find out what it is. Next week… I shall be all at sea… and will return our meeting place here in two weeks time.