RIP Adam Yauch, MCA from the Beastie Boys: kids parody ‘Sabotage’

Last week we learned of the sad death of Adam Yauch, a third of the Beastie Boys. Like a lot of people of my generation, they meant a lot to me – and still do.

There are many ways to remember him – I’ve been listening to a lot of the old and new albums – but this one really touched me, funny and sad, too. It’s a parody of the famous and celebrated video for ‘Sabotage’ – but made with kids in the leading roles.

If you don’t know the original, you’re in for a treat.

RIP Adam Yauch.

Reading Ernest Hemingway: general repetition

We have seen already how Hemingway uses what I describe as ‘local’ repetition – the repeated use of words or phrases within a single sentence or passage – to create a series of connections between ideas that help us discover more about the meaning and effect of his writing.

Now I want to turn my attention to ‘general’ repetition. In general repetition, Hemingway repeats words and phrases throughout a longer piece of writing. Sometimes, repeating a phrase, an image or idea throughout a work is called a ‘motif’.

General repetition: ‘Mr. and Mrs Elliot’

In the following example, from ‘Mr and Mrs. Elliot, the word ‘tried’ is used repeatedly:

Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was sick as Southern women are sick.

(The Complete Short Stories, p. 101)

The frequent repetition of ‘tried’ is a figurative evocation of their repeated copulation. That they ‘tried very hard’ implies a sense of toil and suggests that such repetitive sex is both joyless and monotonous, culminating in the unambiguously final: ‘They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it’.

A transformation in the relationship between Mr and Mrs. Elliot is expressed through the use of the rhyming word ‘cried’: ‘She cried a good deal and they tried several times to have a baby before they left Dijon.’ which we find later in the story (p. 102) ‘Cried’ has augmented ‘tried’ as the repeated word, shifting the emphasis from a seemingly futile attempt at conception to the unhappiness that is its result.

A further shift in Mrs. Elliot’s relationship is once again expressed through a rhyming word. Crying is now something that she can share with her girl friend: ‘Mrs. Elliot became much brighter after her girl friend came and they had many good cries together’ (103). Later, this forms a comparison between her relationship with her husband and her girl friend:

He and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby in the big hot bedroom on the big, hard bed.

And in the following paragraph:

Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big medieval bed. They had many a good cry together.

One of the primary motives for using repetition with Hemingway’s stories is for what Stein called ‘insistence’. The repetition reinforces the idea by repeating it; the more it is said, the more it becomes true. It is also a notable aspect of D. H. Lawrence’s prose.

Through the connection between repeated rhyming words, Hemingway offers us a linguistic representation of theme; the direct comparison between the two couples. The transformation of the central idea of the story – that Mr. and Mrs. Elliot ‘tried’ for a baby – into the notion that Mrs. Elliot shared her unhappiness with her new girl friend and ‘cried’ on the married couple’s bed shared is at the heart of this interpretation of the story.

At a local level, the repetition reveals the extent of the frustration at unsuccessful and continual attempts at pregnancy and as such represents repetition as monotonous. But as it appears throughout the narrative, it is transformed into something that eventually replaces it, a sadness shared by the women as they cry together; ‘trying’ inevitably leads to ‘crying’.

The subtle interrelationship between language and meaning is highly sophisticated and demands the reader is able to recognise the changing meaning of a phonetically similar term. It represents a shift away from a direct and controlled indicator of meaning towards a series of complex interactions.

So, the repeated words and variations – tried, cried, cries together – leave a trace that when followed throughout this story reveal the ways in which this story makes meaning.

Video: time-lapse mapping of European history from 1000 AD to 2003

This is excellent. It’s a time-lapse map of European history, from 1000 AD to 2003. It’s really quite amazing to see countries or parts of them change so much. It’s rather saddening too – many, perhaps most, of the changes came as the result of war and the subsequent land-grab.

I’ve posted the longer by clearer version, which contains dates and further annotations. You can find the shorter versions here. Both are well worth viewing full screen for the full effect.

Reading Ernest Hemingway: local repetition

There has been an interesting discussion on Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time on the Guardian’s Reading Group. I contributed to that discussion, but I realised that I wanted to expand on some of the points made there (some of what follows has already been posted on the Reading Group discussion).

In short, I wanted to demonstrate how Hemingway’s (in)famous style enables us to come to conclusions about what kind of writer he was, his legacy, how we’re able to say he was interested in ‘machismo’, say, or war, or truth. There are two salient elements that even the casual reader knows about Hemingway: that he had a ‘larger than life’ personality and that he developed and innovative, much-imitated writing style. In my view, it’s the latter that reveals the most about his ideas, interests and themes.

Only a close reading reveals more, enables us to think clearly about what the stories mean, and how they fit within our ideas of the kind of writer he was. So, in the following two blog posts, I’ve chosen to focus on a clearly recognisable and direct element of his aesthetic, that of his use of repetition. The first focusses on what I call local repetition, the second on general repetition. First to local repetition.

Ernest Hemingway, outside the bullring forever, Pamplona

Using repetition to create meaning and effect

Hemingway won’t often tell you what to think or what his stories mean directly. Rather, his writing is more likely to suggest meanings and effects that are created through complex configurations of words, images and ideas. One way of creating connections is through repetition, the repeated use of a word or phrase. He used this throughout his career and in much of his writing, including his short fiction.  When you repeat a word you encourage the reader to compare one instance to another. Any changes in context – where that word appears, what it comes before or after – affect its meaning and effect. Often, such meaning and effect take place over several instances of a repeated word or phrase.  One can think of the process as continual accumulation of layers of meaning, as a rock grows through layer upon layer over time. Sometimes, repeating a word implies that this word is significant and so it’s done for emphasis. But that’s not the only reason and repetition is often used to suggest richer, more sophisticated meaning and effect.

‘Local’ repetition

Broadly speaking, there are different types of repetition. This extract is from the opening of the short story ‘Big Two Hearted River’ and uses ‘local’ repetition, repeated words and phrases that appear within the same sentence or passage:

The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber. Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car.

There was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country. The thirteen salons that had lined the one street of Seney had not left a trace. The foundations of the Mansion House stuck up above the ground.

The stone was chipped and split by the fire. It was all that was left of the town of Seney. Even the surface had been burned off the ground.

(The Collected Short Stories, 143)

The use of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations repeated throughout the passage create associations between ideas that are not made by an overtly didactic, directly revealing language.

The first use of the word appears while the train is ‘out of sight’ from the perspective of the town and introduces the suggestion of its destruction, although as yet it is confined to the burnt timber. As Nick leaves the train, the reader temporarily assumes his perspective: there is ‘no town, nothing’ because it has been ‘burned-over’, an evocative image about which this passage will turn. There follows more specific examples, the salons and the Mansion house, culminating in its stone that was ‘chipped and split by fire’.

Finally, the perspective becomes once again more distant, as the narrator describes the surface that was ‘burned off’ the ground. The repeated word ‘burnt’ and its alternatives create a pattern of association between non-figurative observations in the text so that the reader is invited to create relationships between seemingly disparate elements.

One of those elements is the link between past and present. Part of the effect of this passage is achieved by comparing how Seney was before it was destroyed by fire and how it is now. Such shifts in time are echoed by shifts in perspective: Seney is at first ‘out of sight’, then it is shown implicitly through Nick’s perspective, through to a specific focus upon the different components of the former town, towards what appears a general summary.

What assures continuity between these accumulating meanings are the associations created by the word ‘burnt’. Importantly, the notion that Seney is ‘burnt over’ introduces an explicit connection with the implicit source of Nick’s distress, the war. Repetition is a form of ‘composition’, a skill Hemingway developed from his work as journalist and through the influence of Pound and Stein, by placing ideas in proximity as to invite a comparison between them.

As we can see, Hemingway doesn’t tell us what to think explicitly: we need to trace the connections ourselves between ideas to make sense of his writing. So far, we’ve done that by looking at how local repetition works in a single passage. Tracing the different meanings of the word ‘burnt’ and its variations reveals both a greater depth to the passage quoted above and the extent to which Hemingway would go to write fiction that revealed more than it resolved.

In the next part, we’re going to look at what I call ‘general’ repetition, where words and phrases are repeated throughout a story, in what are sometimes called motifs.

The Cézanne trail at Aix-en-Provence: a photo diary

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, to enjoy the city and to explore the life and work of Paul Cézanne. I have loved the work of Cézanne for some time now, so to visit the major locations in his life was a real pleasure. We took the Cézanne Trail, visited his atelier (studio), journeyed over to Mont Sainte-Victoire and – although not directly related to Cézanne but which I’m including for completeness – we visited the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque in all of France. This is a brief guide, with photos.

The Cézanne Trail
The ‘Cézanne Trail’ runs throughout the city, an imaginary path that links the thirty or so significant places in his life – where he was born, the café where he met with friends, the cemetery where he is buried, and so on. It is almost impossible to lose the trail, since it is marked with beautifully detailed golden discs around one metre apart, like that shown above. (Despite this, we still managed to lose it – but that is a different story.)

Cézanne, outside the office de tourisme.

The trail begins (at what is, incidentally, perhaps the most impressive tourist office I have seen in any French city), with a familiar image of Cézanne in bronze: an older man, in working clothes, with a backpack full of artists’ materials (later, we would see that very backpack and other materials in the atelier, or workshop, where he painted later in his life: more on that below).

Exploring in Aix-en-Provence.

The wonder of a trail like this is that you get to see a great deal of what is a very beautiful city whilst having a purpose – a trail that doesn’t (often) repeat itself. Some of the places on the trail are less interesting than others, either because they are less directly linked to Cézanne’s life, or because they have been renovated and their original interestingness lost. The trail conveniently stops half way at Les Deux Garçons, a café where Cézanne used to meet friends and where you can watch the world go by.

The light is incredible in Provence.

One of the most impressive locations is the cemetery where the famille Cézanne are buried, Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Impressive, but alas for us not illuminating: the map at the entrance which should contain a numbered guide to the plots was incomplete. What’s more, the office was closed and the cemetery too large to explore in the hope to find it. In short, we couldn’t find the grave but wandered through the smartly tendered grounds in any case. (Even an internet search could not reveal the precise location – all I know is that it is in allée 6 according to this blog post. Too late for me but perhaps not for you.)

Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Cézanne and family are buried here - somewhere.

Atelier Cézanne: the workshop
Although not strictly a part of the Cézanne trail, the atelier or workshop, is a short walk up a hill, in a pleasant garden scattered with tables and chairs (and ideal for shade when it’s hot). Although there is only one room and a sizeable garden, it is most definitely worth visiting in my view.

Atelier Cézanne, interior. Copyright Atelier Cézanne

To stand where Cézanne stood; to take in the unique arrangement of sunshine and light through the enormous window of his studio; to be surrounded by the everyday objects of his life – some of which were painted in his most celebrated still life work – is really quite special and one that stays with me as unforgettably moving.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
It’s impossible not to visit what might be considered Cézanne’s muse, the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted several times. Impossible because it is so central to his life and painting that any visit is incomplete without it; impossible too because it is so near to Aix itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen from Aix - if you get high enough

You can see the mountain from Aix, in fact and from this perspective it has its distinctive triangular shape: one side steep,  another running slowly in a straight line – the outline in total described as an enormous wave.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's 'muse'

Gordes, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region
Described in my tourist guide as one of the most photographed places in all of France – quite a feat in a country already packed with beauty – is the hillside village of Gordes. It is built into rock and looms impressively above the road and the plains below.

The hillside village of Gordes in Provence, from below

Close by is the Sénanque Abbey. When visited at the right time, when the lavender fields that surround the ancient abbey are in full bloom, it must be quite amazing. We visited just out of season but it was nevertheless impressive. The road nearby climbs steeply to take us north, back to the Alps, back to home.

The village of Gordes, carved into the rock

What remains almost unbelievable about the trip to Provence is the immense change in landscape from the green mountainous area of where I live in the Alps, to the red earth and mistrals of Provence. Cézanne country is unforgettable.

Senanque Abbey, Gordes. The fields are full of lavender.

Details: if you want to take the Cézanne trail, you can pick up free map at the Office de Tourisme, in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, or download it here. The office provide information on the other places I’ve detailed above, too.

Bartholdi’s famous statue fountain freezes in Lyon: photos

This weekend we visited Lyon. It was cold, certainly, but I didn’t expect to find the water that normally cascades from Frédéric Bartholdi‘s famous statue in Lyon’s main square to have frozen solid.

It’s one of France’s more famous statues, designed by Bartholdi after he had finished the Statue of Liberty. So, it normally attracts a decent crowd but there were more people than usual for a cold day.

The horses, already amazingly energetic, seemed to be racing to break free from the ice.

It was an unforgettable sight that perfectly ended a great weekend. We’ll always remember this trip to Lyon as the one where Bartholdi’s statue froze.

At the edge of space: Felix Baumgartner’s freefall

Later this year, Austrian Felix Baumgartner will go one further than his colleague Joseph Kittinger by performing the highest, fastest and longest freefall from the edge of space. Kittinger, who was captured and held prisoner for 11 months during the Vietnam conflict, is assisting in the project.

All of which gives me the opportunity to show The Board of Canada’s excellent video for their track Dayvan Cowboy, the first part of which shows Kittinger in freefall (Kittinger’s video can be found here).

Kittinger describes feeling as if he were stationary during the first part of his fall, as if he were floating in space, since there were few visual clues to remind him he was falling and his suit didn’t ripple with air resistance. In fact, he was falling at a rate approaching the speed of sound, a speed Baumgartner intends to break.

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

tashapotamus
#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.

 

That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…

 

You are a text: social networking’s canonical equivalents

There is a corollary between key texts on a given subject – known as ‘canonical texts’ – and the most prominent contacts in online social networks on a given subject.

That social networking contact might be an individual on Twitter; an institution on Facebook; a photostream on Flickr; or a business web presence and so on. The important point is that the contact is ‘canonical’: it is one to whom we are recommended to turn through a consensus of opinion, either through word of mouth online, or through ‘recommendation services’ such as that found through Twitter’s ‘Discover – Who to follow’ function, for example.

I call these ‘canonical contacts’. These contacts are to social networking what Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen are to the literary canon.

As such, I would argue that canonical contacts have similar problems and benefits to the textual canons which preceded them and which have been discussed at length. The following are a cursory considerations of the kinds of objections made regarding the textual and canonical contacts.

1. Canonical contacts are not chosen by us (or by anybody). The mechanism for establishing a network has many paths that lead in the same direction – to a set of established (not by us) canonical contacts. This canon is handed to us, conveniently readymade and therefore narrows the perspectives otherwise open to us.

2. Undermining the potential of chance encounters. This is one of the ways in which ‘recommendations’ – the removal of chance encounters and serendipity – is damaging to our to the development of knowledge and understanding. Establishing a ‘canon’ is one way of reducing the number of available options for learning and removing the notion of ‘chance’ encounters. How do we learn if we do not make the mistakes – and how far is not following a canonical contact a mistake?

3. Who has the authority to determine a canon? In conventional terms, a canon reflected the choices of scholars, course designers, the academy, Government advisors, schools and many other individuals and institutions of power. An objection is that it reinforced the liberal, white, male culture of the time. In addition to these similarities, there are differences worth exploring: in terms of social networking contacts, it is Twitter, Facebook, Google and so on, who recommend contacts based upon their algorithms. Importantly, it is also the sharing online of useful contacts by users themselves.

4. Homogenisation of culture. Where we all choose the same sources of information, we are likely to not just arrive at similar conclusions, but only ask those questions that are within the intellectual framework of the contacts in which we are immersed.

5. We are not beautiful unique snowflakes. Online, we are free to choose our information from many sources. But we already know that using search engines such as Google’s influences, necessarily, the availability of information online. We are free to choose any contact and we might consider our choices as unique. Yet, I imagine a high degree of consensus between users when considering the same subject. I speculate we do not (often) have a high degree of individuality in our choices: we are not beautiful unique snowflakes. We choose the same people when wanting to know about the same subjects.

There are many ways to defend either the textual canon or the canon of contacts. Certainly, in a potentially bewildering array of users, websites, services and so on, it is often wise and natural to gravitate to the most popular and/or the ones recommend by people we trust. I wonder if we are currently in a similar position to the one John Searle outlines below, when he considers the historical placing of the western literary canon:

There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the “canon” served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.

Searle, John. (1990) “The Storm Over the University”, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.

There is much more to think about on this subject. I’m not the first, of course, to recognise some of the negative effects of reducing chance encounters, say; or the ways in which search engines effectively narrow our scope. But thinking about canonical contacts – and I had in mind individuals on Twitter especially – leads me to think that we can use our understanding of the decades of debate on the textual (and specifically literary canon) to think about the ways in which we might choose the contacts we follow and what this means for us and education.

Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011

When someone close dies it’s not uncommon to imagine them still alive, still there. It can happen in the most banal of circumstances. For example, when the phone rings, one imagines it might be them on the line, ready to talk, as before. The realisation that it isn’t them – can’t be, won’t ever be –  follows quickly after. In this way, we may feel their death many times over.

The same is true of Christopher Hitchens, who has died from cancer. It is hard for me to accept anything other than he is still there. But unlike the example above, I didn’t know him at all in person. Like many, I ‘knew’ him, whatever that might mean, from reading his books and articles, and from listening to him in argument and debate. As I’ve said before, feeling that you know someone you have never met is often most acutely expressed by how we refer to them. For especial intimacy, we might use the first name, or a nickname, of someone who is otherwise a stranger to us. For many, he became simply ‘Hitch’ – or perhaps ‘The Hitch’, the definite article reflecting our unspoken understanding that the likes of him cannot be found elsewhere, or again.

Like the bereaved waiting by the phone, suffice to say that I keep thinking that, when the next edition of Vanity Fair is published, there will a new article written by him. Perhaps, for a short while, there will be: we know that a posthumous publication, provisionally entitled Mortality, will collect Hitchens’ thoughts on death and dying, drawn from his final articles for Vanity Fair. Eventually, however, publication of new writings will stop and those times we listen to him will be from the archive.

How should I remember him? Certainly not to say ‘rest in peace’ since, like Hitchens, I don’t believe he is ‘resting’ anywhere. Annihilation doesn’t offer such a cosy future. Nor in hagiography. Like many, again, I disagreed with some of what he wrote. I think he made mistakes, inevitable perhaps if you consider his scope and engagement. Besides, thinking of him in godlike terms would have a perverse irony given his infamous dismantling of deities in god is not great. I don’t think it would have been the kind of irony he would have enjoyed. Once again, and as I have said before, it is his passing – the irreversible loss of the potential to live more, enjoy more of his only life – that I regret, as much as I regret the pain to his friends and family and all who benefitted from his work.

So, instead, I bought a bottle of his beloved Johnnie Walker Black Label, poured myself a glass, and listened to him read his autobiography, Hitch-22. He spoke of his mother, Yvonne, in ways beautiful and touching. When I had drained the glass, I went downstairs and stacked his books into a pile alongside those that I will read next, to read again.

Reading Hitchens has been in education in learning how to live. In the final months of his life, reading him has been an education in learning how to die. No writer, no one, can hope for anything more.

And now – to life.