Camus’ L’etranger and Kayne’s ‘Power’: loving the hate, hating the love

Listening to Kanye West’s opening section of his song ‘Power‘, I immediately thought of its similarity with the final words of Camus’ novella, L’etranger (The Outsider). First, from L’etranger:

For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

No, the opening verse from ‘Power’:

I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

What do these two very different takes have to teach us about hate and about the haters? I’ve written on this subject before but here there seemed a much more complex relationship between L’etranger‘s main protagonist, Mersault and the Kanye-narrator ‘character’ in ‘Power’. Hate, rather than simply a by-product of difference or success, seemed intimately entwined with how to live one’s life, a reflection of a sophisticated relationship with oneself and one’s society.

Mersault explains why he encourages the hate: ‘for the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely.’ The final consummation, the latter meaning complete or finalised, points to the end of his life: he will soon be executed. This echoes his belief that death will be final, without hope of an afterlife. Here it is worth noting its echo of Hamlet’s ‘to die, to sleep / No more […] ‘Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.’: both hope for that finality, that complete and utterly irreversible ending.

Consummation also suggests that the hatred of the crowd will provide some kind of closure, a rise in tempo in the rhythm of the final moments of his life. It summarises a new phase in his understanding of his morality and that of the world in which he lives: that is, he has experienced an epiphany that shows him how one might live, how one might die.

This epiphany is linked to his loneliness and therefore his place in the world, the place for his beliefs and behaviours. When one thinks of Mersault’s loneliness – or more broadly, his relationship with the world – there is a growing irony to the idea at the centre of his desire to be hated.

On the surface, he says shortly before the end of the novel that he experiences a ‘fraternity’ with the universe, since they share a ‘benign indifference’ towards human affairs. Yet such fraternity does not appear to stave off the human, urgent sense of loneliness he feels in his cell, awaiting execution. The baying crowd will permeate that loneliness because they will provide him with ‘attention’, an intense focus on him as an undivided object of their focus, and more – with hatred, that most intense and immediate of emotions. It is, in this sense, a palpable and very human desire.

Yet, the notion of ‘object’, which I use advisedly, should alert us to the problems inherent in the crowd’s reaction, as should the complex irony and duality at the heart of Mersault, especially in the later scenes.

Because Mersault has become an object of derision for the crowd, he understands that they do not fully grasp his particular humanity, his agency. For them, he is merely a vessel into which to pour their malign engagement. The crowd, unlike either Mersault or the ‘benign indifference’ of the universe with which he feels so closely bonded, is intensely aroused and judgemental. They have found a type of meaning in directing their anger towards a person, an idea – even if it is a false one. He, and the universe in which he has finally found a brotherhood, has been fatally misunderstood.

Throughout the novel Mersault has behaved in a way that is at odds with societal norms. This culminates in the powerful subtext, that he is tried and found guilty not for the crime of murder, nor for his lack of regret (although they are central factors) – but that he didn’t love his mother. Morevoer, he does not judge wordily affairs: we’ve already learnt, shortly before the final passage of the novella, that he recognises his mother’s need for a new beginning despite her age and the impossibility of a long-term marriage to her partner. At the end of the novel he understands that his seemingly strange behaviour, even to himself, has found an allay in the fundamental law of the universe.

Mersault will stand ‘alone’ only in the sense that he remains steadfastly outside of human affairs, but at one with the universe. In this respect, their hatred means that he has been right about his fraternity with the benign indifference of the universe: it is, paradoxically, their hatred that makes him feel at home. In short, he has become a friend of his enemies’ enemy, a member of a club that wouldn’t have the crowd as a member.

Kanye West’s ‘Power’ also lingers on hate and the haters that make it possible. On the surface, encouraging such haters (or ‘haterz’, the ‘z’ a strident visual reminder, a blade cutting a zig-zag through cloth, an ending) is bravado: it says ‘I don’t care what you think – I’m better than you and everyone’.(Missy Elliott’s 2003 ‘Gossip Folks’ assumed this sole function memorably.) Here, Kanye tells us that the ‘Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music’. It’s a forceful reaction to the contemporary idea, spread through blog comments, message boards, Twitter and so on, that HGH, or Haterz Gonna Hate. If you’re successful (or increasingly even if you’re not but you just happen to be online) you are a target.

In this sense, like Mersault, Kanye’s endorsement of the haters only serves to show him that what he is doing is right: artistically valuable, morally upright and commercially successful (I use Kanye for shorthand to refer to the ‘narrator’ in ‘Power’, who, given the subject of fame, music and power in the song, is a fair approximation of the song writer himself). In a world of bland uniformity, eliciting a reaction, especially one as powerful as hate, is success. If Kanye feels hated, he feel successful: he is encouraging a reaction in his audience. Like Mersault, on a superficial level, hate at least means you’ve made a difference, an intense one, too: when the haters disappear, so do the lovers.

Of course, it depends on who is hating you, as we’ve seen for Mersault. For Kanye, that sometimes means parts of the establishment. He includes Saturday Night Live in ‘Power’, who have ridiculed his ill-advised interruption at the MTV Video Awards. If those who you don’t respect or value hate you, then you are doing something right. In this case, it’s less profound than Mersault’s epiphany but not less specific: SNL are name-checked and dismissed in brief and vulgar word play. But, as we’ve seen, hate can give way to love in this complex world: when Kanye performed live on SNL, he removed the offending lyrics from ‘Power’.

Two repeated phrases reinforce the complexity of Kanye’s sophisticated relationship with himself and those who love and hate him. The first is the refrain, borrowed from King Crimson’s titular song, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’. Like Mersault, who is torn between societal norms and his, albeit largely unexplored, indifference towards the world of human affairs, Kanye is ‘schizoid’, a divided self. The song explores this division as one between the private and the public self, between his natural creativity and the pressures of fame, between his younger more authentic persona and the new one, ostensibly undermined by celebrity. Taken with ‘All of the Lights’, which follows ‘Power’ on the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and forms with it something of a musical diptych, Kanye laments the extent to which fame has changed him and in doing so has driven his family away.

Such divisions create the potential for hate. But it is only when Kanye appears to hate himself, as he does periodically throughout the song, that he can rejoice and endorse the ‘screams’ of the haters. In such instances, when he hates himself, they are right to hate him. The music of their hate chimes a note of ambivalence: when they hate him, they are jealous; when they hate him, they are right – he deserves it.

The second key phrase is: ‘No one man should have all this power’. The obvious identity of the man is Kanye. Again, it is a dual symbol: it reinforces the notion of him being an immensely powerful figure whilst at the same time undermining its legitimacy. For Kanye, that power comes from a complex relationship between those who hate him – including, at some point, himself; and how he might use the notion of those who hate him as a way to understand that he is taking the correct path. If Kanye, in ‘Power’, doesn’t share a direct and entire comparison with Mersault, they do possess a similar duality that means that they both love to hate and hate to love.

Toni Morrison on grief: “They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead”

There is a wonderfully insightful and comparatively candid interview by one of my favourite writers, Toni Morrison here. In it, she talks about the death of her son (my emphasis):

The book [Morrison’ new novel, Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.

“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”

[…]”… people who were trying to soothe me, were trying to soothe me. I never heard anything about him. They say it’s about the living, it’s not, it’s about the dead.

She doesn’t want “closure”, she says. “It’s such an American thing. I want what I got.”

I made a similar point in a recent post, where I discussed feeling a loss for those who had yet to fulfil their potential, those who would never live their lives, and yet without knowing it. It’s comforting to hear a similar sentiment echoed and amplified in this interview, and expressed so well.

The myths of creativity and genius

I love this candid and earthy rebuttal to the idea of suffering as central to creativity, from AL Kennedy’s piece in The Guardian:

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will be unworthy and deserve to fail. Economic Darwinism will crush them as they should be crushed. This kind of pressure can’t, naturally, be applied to nice people David Cameron might meet at parties or have gone to school with, because they would find it unpleasant. And might be crushed. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse – hence, I have to assume, the established insistence on extra-special suffering, just for artists. Because suffering keeps artists quiet, just as it can weaken and muffle anyone else.

One only need William Styron’s account of his crippling depression in Darkness Visible to realise that suffering might a subject of writing but not its everyday context, experienced by the writer alone at his or her desk. Similarly, especially after Wordsworth’s suggestion that he and other poets are ‘chosen’ by an unknown but infinitely intelligent hand to see where others cannot, the notion of creative genius is inextricably linked to that outmoded Romantic model. Hopefully, studies like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will go some way in suggesting that hard work, perseverance and determination – things that we all can aspire to – are the source of creative success rather than an imperceptibly inherited fate.

We like to personify nebulous notions. It provides a handle on a difficult to explain behaviour or ideas. We also privilege charisma and intuition above hard work and deduction. Ultimately we’re left with models of behaviour we deserve.

Back to the future – what the internet does for nostalgia

The hoverboard

Just lately, I seem to be writing about something I read or saw or listened to in the past and that I’ve returned to later. I blame the internet. I, like my contemporaries, have been able to revisit things we experienced in our past, our childhood, before the internet made information and resources easier to access. No I can learn more about those things that coloured our lives pre-internet but that won’t make it into encyclopaedias or even be the subject of talking-heads nostalgia shows.

There’s not a day goes past without some relic of the near-past being laughed about or the subject of gentle nostalgia. I imagine the impulse to understand our origins, our culture, our past is old: but the use of the internet to do so is new. In fact, much of what is happening, like so much in the revolution of the internet, is happening for the first time. Sometimes it is simply the recording of some document that we thought lost.

Take this, a scan of an Argos shopping catalogue from the 1976 (for those that do not recognise the name, Argos is one of the UK’s largest general-purpose stores). It’s seemingly innocuous but actually it’s highly charged with memories for many of us. We might find toys we played with or stuff that was in our homes as a kid. it reminds us of a different time, perhaps more innocent. (For me, there was a great deal of delight in finding ‘Super Flight Deck’ in the toys section. It never really worked at its one trick. But it could have been so great). The website in which it appears, Retronaut, is devoted to such nostalgia. Its banner reads: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’

For most, the subject of such wistful reverie is the reappearance of toys or sweets or other childish pursuits. But people can return, too – namely, celebrities. Some are like a bad dinner; you get a chance to encounter them twice. If you thought that D-list celebrity you couldn’t abide was gone forever then there’s always reality tv to offer them a second bite of the cherry. Some are funny, like Ozzy Osbourne, who returned to our screens in one of the grandaddies of all reality tv, The Osbournes. Other are a little sadder, like Freddie Starr wheezing an exit on 2011’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

The internet also gives us a chance to return to perhaps more highly valued culture, something a little more substantial than the ephemera of our childhood. I’ve listened to and loved Primal Scream’s Screamadelica album and especially the song ‘Come Together’. At the beginning it has a sample of what sounds like a speech, in which the speaker exclaims: ‘This is a beautiful day… it is a new day… We are together… we are unified and all for the cause…’

That cause, unknown to me in its precise context for so long in, was black empowerment and the speech is taken from Jesse Jackson’s opening address from the Wattstax music festival, held in Watts, California in 1972. I’ve have often idly sung that phrase ‘It is a beautiful day… it is a new day’ first thing in the morning when I’m feeling especially bright: now I know where it came from:

This lead me finding out a bit more about Wattstax and that period American history. For me, the vibrant era of civil rights and social justice in the United States is especially interesting and in the case of the Watts festival, was captured wonderfully in a full length documentary.

Revisiting our past life in this way, through reviewing new information on ephemera or other culture that’s personal to us, becomes like a step into a future of new possibilities rather than a retreat to the cul de sac of inward-looking nostalgia. We are going back to the future, hoverboards or not.

Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 3 – Kermode and apocalytpics

In this final part of my discussion (see part 1 and part 2) of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending, I turn to the influential 1967 work of literary criticism by Frank Kermode that shares its name.

Here, we find what I call a ‘resonant’ form of allusion because it invites consideration between the novel and another work entire. Despite this, apart from the highly significant and deliberate identical titling of the novel, shares little or no direct reference. Rather, we’re asked to look for perhaps more elliptical but no less telling themes, patterns and interest in both novel and critical text. Indeed, I find – in my cursory reading – such connections between texts that it could easily justify a more sophisticated analysis that I give in this intentionally short(ish) blog post.

In the broadest sense, Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending attempts to make sense of time in fiction. Unlike those who start such an enterprise by considering origins or beginnings, Kermode’s work is eschatological: that is, it is concerned with end times. Kermode seeks to understand the passing of time in fiction by suggesting that the ‘apocalyptic’ stories present in religious texts, for example, provide a framework – a patterning of time in the long perspectives of history – which makes possible the imagining of a beginning and a middle in fiction.

Time as lived is messy; we never know the world’s end, we only know our own in death (that is, arguably, without experiencing it). Those who imagined the apocalypse, the end of times (and we are thinking of writers of early religious texts especially) needed to impose a sense of ending to fulfil their narrative obligations as a morality tale. Only the ending of a morality tale gives the writer the opportunity to resolve and close meaning and effect, to teach a lesson. But, as we are aware even now, mankind’s prediction of an apocalypse is always false. Like those with vision of the apocalypse, fiction writers, too, are forced to impose a limit on time. As Richard Webster writes in his excellent account of Kermode’s work:

[…] no sophisticated fiction fails to make use of ‘peripeteia’ (a sudden change in the movement of the plot). Since ‘peripeteia’ is, by definition, something we do not expect, in assimilating it we are ‘enacting that readjustment of expectations which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic’ (p. 18).

This is highly significant for our reading of Barnes’ novel. The final sequences, in which the we are confronted with difficult plot points, such as why Veronica’s mother left the bequest to Tony and what Veronica meant when she said ‘blood money’ could be said to be examples of ‘peripeteia’, couched as they are in a kind of thriller plot, where all is revealed in the final moments of the novel.

Barnes, following Kermode, is therefore exploring formal, stylistic ways of encouraging us to adjust our expectations as to the influences and path of time. Our expectations are thwarted and as such, more closely reflect both the lives lived in the novel and our own lives. This is not to say that our lives will have an plot twist, a precise moment around which its meaning is resolved or suggested. Rather, that our lives are not lived as simply as a series of discrete episodes within a normative structure of beginning, middle and end. It is not jus the themes and plot which explores that; but the plot twist, the unexpected moment when we learn that things are not as they seem; the story’s ‘peripeteia’.

What’s more, the notion that a story makes sense in relation to how a life is ended has a resonance with the both the effect Adrian’s death had on Antony, and the ways in which Antony considers the success of his life and that of others as he learns more about Adrian’s circumstances.

Looking from a broader perspective, the idea of time as being part of the subject of a novel is certainly one that chimes with Barnes’ work. But it’s a sophisticated argument, as suggested in Kermode’s assertion that time – that moment between the tick and tock of the clock – is disorganised and chaotic:

The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise. (p. 45).

The role of fiction in general is to impose order on the chaos, to suggest a patterning of cause and effect between one moment and the next that doesn’t actually exist in time’s ‘purest’ sense. This works, according to Kermode, in all of fiction: but I think we can take Kermode’s interest in time, and the significance of the end-times as (at least in my cursory reading) as having some sense of connection with the notion that lives are made meaningful in that they will in personal death; and, more specifically, the lives of Antony and Veronica are coloured by the suicide of Adrian.

Returning to Philip Larkin, the subject of the reference to the poet in part 2 of my study, we find the discord between the long perspectives of our lives – the distant past, even the distant future, and beyond that future, incredibly difficult to understand and cope with:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin, ‘Reference back’

Like the ‘naive apocalyptics’ who sought to impose order through the endtimes, our difficulty with time lies partly in that we cannot know its end. Except that Adrian did by taking his own life when so young, obliterating the promise of a future and in doing so hoping to make sense of time and his life, just as the apocalyptics would have it.


Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 2 – Larkin and accumulation

Philip Larkin

In the first part of this three-part series, I wrote about the use of what I call ‘simple’ allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending. In this second part, I turn to a ‘complex’ allusion, where the novelist discusses ideas of accumulation, growth and loss by referring – indirectly – to the poetry of Philip Larkin.

Unlike our ‘simple’ example of allusion, where the author’s name – Stefan Zweig in this case – is referred to directly, the reference to Larkin is not direct and he is not alluded to by name. Despite this, I think we can learn a great deal about the themes of loss, accumulation and growth by thinking about Larkin’s work when reading The Sense of an Ending.

A key theme of the novel is that addition – of a lover, a job, a car and house, etc – needn’t mean a positive improvement. This is also a central preoccupation of some Larkin’s poetry, who I claim is indirectly referred to as ‘the poet’ in the novel, as we find in this extract (my emphasis):

‘He took his own life’ is the phrase; but Adrian also took charge of his own life, he took command of it… How few of us – we that remain – can say that we have done the same? We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. As the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

Here, I take ‘the poet’ to refer to Larkin and the poem in which he ‘pointed out’ this idea to be ‘Dockery and Son’. Here is the key section from the poem (the poem needs to be read in full to make complete sense):

[…] Dockery, now:
Only nineteen, he must have taken stock
Of what he wanted, and been capable
Of […] how

Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

The narrator of the poem, like Antony in the novel, compares himself to a peer and what he finds is that addition, rather than ‘increase’, means dilution. It is a compelling, counter-intuitive idea that is captured in Larkin’s brief lines and which is explored more fully in Barnes’ novel. Barnes, like Larkin, not only challenges the very things that we ‘accumulate’ – people, things, memories –but like Larkin, disputes the very idea of accumulation as a profitable gain.

The path that Antony follows is one that many of us take: we approach life without guidance from a series of carefully-considered plans, and go on to make decisions as the opportunity arises; rather than seek out new horizons, we continue on our path of least resistance. This is why Adrian is significant a character in the novel and for Antony – he takes ‘his own life’, which literally means suicide but also suggests he takes control, makes conscious decisions rather than fulfil our obligation in the status quo. Larkin again, from ‘Dockery and Son’:

Where do these
Innate assumptions come from? Not from what
We think truest, or most want to do:
Those warp tight-shut, like doors. They’re more a style
Our lives bring with them: habit for a while,
Suddenly they harden into all we’ve got.

The notion of ‘hardening’, that almost physiological image, reminds us that accumulation may as equally lead to a stopping heaviness as well as a comfortable ballast. Larkin used a similar image in ‘Afternoons’, a poem that laments the loss of innocence and energy of whose lives have become unravelled by time:

Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.

The imagery of a person ‘thickening’ brings with it a sense of solidity; it is a comfortable state but a stagnant one and the weight of accumulations ties us to that very lethargy that removes from us the ability to shake off the weight of our encumbrances and start afresh. We’re tethered by our accumulations, like a balloon; they clip our wings.

I call these examples ‘complex’ because they do not directly refer to a specific poet or poem in name but they do share a more than coincidental connection to some of the themes. That is – it is complex because it is a significant theme, or motif, that runs throughout the novel. Referring to another treatment of this theme – by, in this case, the ‘poet’ – helps develop the meaning and effect of the allusion. It is true that the reference is short and does not reappear in quite this manner again. But it is a theme that lingers throughout the novel grows in complexity as we read on.

In the final part, I will discuss the ‘resonant’ allusive relationship between The Sense of an Ending and the work of literary criticism which shares its name.

Coda – accumulation and responsibility, from Sex Lies and Videotape

The notion that addition meaning dilution is not uncommon. In Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex Lies and Videotape (a deeply ‘intertextual’ film, in that it depends upon other films for effect), James Spader’s character Graham Dalton explains why he is reluctant to look for an apartment in this clip. Dalton finds the addition of keys – symbols of responsibility and security – an undesirable dilution to his freedom.


Two arguments on the limits of reason

Trying to live and think as a rational human being is my goal. But perhaps the project is doomed. I’ve been reading David McRaney’s book You Are Not So Smart, which playfully (but no less convincingly) undermines the cherished belief that we are rational human beings.

For example, he writes about priming – “When a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on” – which leads us to an idea about how our thoughts maintain mental equilibrium without necessarily being grounded in reason, called the adaptive unconscious; and eventually, with a little research from Wikipedia, we find ourselves at the introspective illusion:

The introspection illusion is a cognitive illusion in which people wrongly think they have direct insight into the origins of their mental states, while treating others’ introspections as unreliable. In certain situations, this illusion leads people to make confident but false explanations of their own behavior (called “Causal theories”) or inaccurate predictions of their future mental states.

In short, we cannot be sure of where some of our mental states – and the beliefs, ideas, thoughts and feelings that accompany them – originate. The following experiment illustrates the potential for people to lack insight into their preferences and the ability, in the absence of a rational explanation, to ‘confabulate’, or invent, the reasons for doing so:

Subjects saw two photographs of people and were asked which they found more attractive. They were given a closer look at their “chosen” photograph and asked to verbally explain their choice. However, using sleight of hand the experimenter had slipped them the other photograph rather than the one they had chosen. A majority of subjects failed to notice that the picture they were looking at did not match the one they had chosen just seconds before. Many subjects confabulated explanations of their preference. For example, a man might say “I preferred this one because I prefer blondes” when he had in fact pointed to the dark-haired woman, but had been handed a blonde. These must have been  confabulated because they explain a choice that was never made.

The large proportion of subjects who were taken in by the deception contrasts with the 84% who, in post-test interviews, said that hypothetically they would have detected a switch if it had been made in front of them. The researchers coined the term “choice blindness” for this failure to detect a mismatch.

In this case, any perceived (by the subject) rational explanation for making their choices was undermined by the sleight of hand. Despite this, most subjects didn’t notice; and of those, they offered what was to them a rational justification for their choice. One explanation for our difficulties with understanding our preferences, for example, is the sometimes unknown significance that objects possess for us. As McRaney suggests:

Just about every physical object you encounter triggers a blitz of associations throughout your mind. You aren’t a computer connected to two cameras. Reality isn’t a vacuum where you objectively survey your surroundings. You construct reality from minute to minute with memories and emotions orbiting your sensations and cognition; together they form a collage of consciousness that exists only in your skull. Some objects have personal meaning, like the blow-pop ring your best friend gave you in middle school or the handcrafted mittens your sister made you. Other items have cultural or universal meanings, like the moon or a knife or a handful of posies. They affect you whether or not you are aware of their power, sometimes so far in the depths of your brain you never notice.

When we interrogate the extent to which we are rational beings, the perceived dichotomy between religious belief and reason needs to be renegotiated. Julian Baggini, in his ‘Heathen’s Progress’ blog, argues that those who believe themselves to be rationalist need to recognise the ways in which their reason might be compromised:

Humanism [secular rationalism] is faced with the bind that its existence depends on maintaining a tension between finding what is good and worth celebrating in the human and having the intellectual integrity to see our species warts and all, which means being open to the possibility that we are not as great as we’d like to think we are.

‘Not as great as we like to think we are’ chimes with the notion of the illusion of introspection and our ability to make rational decisions, as we’ve seen in the ‘choice blindness’ example above. He goes on:

No self-respecting humanist can fail to have “doubt over humanity”, and although that need not occlude all the light, it is a dark cloud we have to live under.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The doubt over humanity that is an inevitable corollary of secular humanism cannot be neatly contained and eventually it spills over into doubt abut the capabilities of human reason. Indeed, the more you know about how the human mind works, the less reason we have to trust our rational capacities. For instance, Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism claims that secular reason leads to evolution, but evolution removes any reason we might have to trust secular reason. There is no reason to believe that a brain that evolved to help us survive in the pleistocene is a reliable tracker of truth. Darwin himself had this concern, writing that “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”.

Baggini summarises:

What all this suggests is that in practice there is no neat distinction between the logical and the psychological. Those who attempt to use pure reason cannot expect to succeed, while those who willingly allow psychological factors to affect their reasoning may be being more self-aware about their rational capacities than those who do not.

Despite this, we need not throw out the rational baby in the bath water of reason. Even if we are not completely rational beings and do not possess the kinds of intellects and cognitive apparatus to make us what we might sometimes aspire to be – rational human beings – we must continue using reason, whilst noting its limitations:

Kierkegaard saw the limits of reason as themselves a reason to make irrational leaps of faith. In a more modest form, his insight could help explain the rational non-rationality of much religious belief. […] We choose faith so as not to be lost, because the alternative, reason, cannot enable us to find ourselves.

As an atheist, I’m not convinced by this. People who have a point are often nonetheless wrong, and often it’s precisely because of that point that they go wrong. Reason has its limits but we need to go right up against them, and for my money faith sees these limits and gives up on reason too soon.

Nonetheless, the mere fact that a serious argument can be made against the coherence of relying on human reason alone not only gives us atheists a way of understanding religion more sympathetically, it also suggests that the limits and role of reason has been a relatively neglected area of debate between believers and non-believers.

In rational discourse, it is not enough to simply immerse yourself in the ideas and arguments of others, but to understand – where possible – the extent to which your ideas are influenced by unconscious processes. You must know thyself as well as know thy enemy.

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.

A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

There is a pithy old joke, told again and again, perhaps most famously by Woody Allen at the beginning of his film Manhattan, that summarises my view of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It goes something like this: two women walk into a restaurant. One says – the food was terrible; to which the other replies – yeah, and such small portions, too.

Well, following Allen’s gag: Ulyssses is both difficult and, at over 900 pages in my edition, there’s a lot of it.

So, how do you approach reading it for the first time? That phrase ‘first time’ is deliberate because I think it’s likely that it will need more than one reading. I hope, because I think it merits it, that you’ll want to do that – I do, having just finished it. Here was my approach, along with one or two ideas, on how you might undertake a reading of Ulysses. I chose 11 points of guidance because it seemed to follow Ulysses’ perverse and contrary spirit. I hope you find them all useful.

1. Ulysses is a work of art to be enjoyed, not an obstacle to be overcome. I say this because it’s not always how I felt. I had to remind myself that in the most difficult and obtuse passages, I was reading this to be enlightened, moved, amazed, awed. If you can keep this in mind, it will help motivate you and keep your mind open its delights.

2. You’ll need other books to help you. Ideally, you should have read Homer’s Odyssey (and remember it). In my view – and this is not shared by others – you’ll also need a commentary. I used Harry Blamires book, which is a line-by-line discussion, written in continuous, clear and concise prose.

I would also strongly recommend reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’, along with notes that explain it. This gives an idea of the flavour of the much grander enterprise of reading Ulysses: both are Modernist masterpieces, so you’ll learn something about context; both are difficult and display a variety of style and allusions; both will introduce you to the idea of reading a primary text (the poem and novel), alongside notes on it.

3. You’ll need lots of structured time. As I’ve said, the novel runs in at over 900 pages in my Penguin edition. I read much of the novel in very small chunks, around 20-30 pages at a time. If I had more time, or the inclination, I would read more. For every sitting I would read the Blamires’ commentary, too, so it’s quite an undertaking. Moreover, I would recommend structuring your time a little: say, devote the next month to reading 20 or so pages per day.

4. Embrace the idea of a second reading. In a sense, this is a cop-out. It means those thorny issues can be postponed until the next time. But it also means that you won’t get so demotivated by the difficulty because you know you can return to it later.

5. Read with a pencil in your hand. This is another way of saying ‘be an active reader’. Make notes on things you need to look up. But – importantly – not too many. You might need to leave some things alone for now. Since Ulysses condenses deep reflection on the most mysterious and sophisticated questions of life, you can’t expect to cover it all. Just note those things that will aide your reading or take your interest.

6. If you’re not confused, you haven’t ‘got’ it. Get used to the idea that not all of Ulysses’ ‘problems’ will be solved in either one or several readings. The reading is extremely difficult in some sections and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re reading it all. Some of the problems of the novel will remain mysteries. That’s ok.

7. Absorb and believe that reading Ulysses is unlike anything you’ve read before. When reading, as with many things, we often use our past experiences to get to grips with a new idea or format. This is unlikely to be the case with Ulysses. It’s not quite like anything else, which is one of the reasons it’s so highly praised. Reading ‘The Waste Land’ (see Point 2, above) will help in at least introducing the process of reading.

8. If you can’t get past a difficult part, skim read it and read the commentary… But don’t read the commentary instead of reading the novel. Although everything in me says this is bad advice, if it’s the difference between giving up and going on, then read what you can, how you can and the commentary be your guiding light. For example, Part 1, Episode Three (‘Proteus’) appears early in the novel [note that your version may not be divided into these named sections – Blamires and others do so, however]. It’s a notoriously difficult read and had me completely puzzled and demotivated. So, I read it, absorbed what I could without becoming anxious about the finer points of interpretation, I read the commentary – then moved on. I think many people stop here, when the novel really becomes difficult. Don’t be one of them.

9. Preview your reading by learning more before you start. I knew quite a bit about Ulysses already and it had coloured my reading. I have done this for other books and it has worked well. Since Ulysses is not plotted in the conventional sense – that is, you’re unlikely to find most satisfaction in how it resolves itself at the end – then I think it’s fine to learn more about it. It’s the telling, not the tale (on the whole), so previewing the structure and learning more about it online might help ‘position’ it as you read. The wikipedia entry is useful in this respect, offering short summaries of the sections.

10. Augment your reading with an unabridged audiobook. There are unabridged versions and so you’ll get the full text. Perhaps these are most useful when supplementing your own reading of the text, for which there is no replacement in my view. Perhaps listening to a difficult section again, in the car on the way to work, might help.

11. Don’t give up! Reading Ulysses is probably one of the most difficult enterprises we can start when reading. But the rewards are immense. Other books will seem easy, you’ll be more popular with your friends and you’ll find life’s slings and arrows bounce off you harmlessly. Well, not quite. But you will have achieved something that many claim and far fewer actually have and what’s more – you will have engaged with a work every bit as good as people say it is.

Good luck with your reading and do share your thoughts and experiences here below.

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.