Thursday, June 30, 2016

the bloggers read and the readers blog

Couple of follow-ups to previous posts:

I was struck by an arresting phrase on page 132 of The Piano Teacher, during one of Erika's trips to the Prater park in Vienna to do a bit of discreet voyeurism.

It's the last sentence there, specifically the bit that says "the whores hustle and the hustlers whore". It took me a minute or two to remember that this is the title of a song from PJ Harvey's 2001 Mercury Prize-winning album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.

I'd assume that it'd be too much of a coincidence for the song title not to have been lifted from the book, and the book's themes of sexual disgust are quite Harvey-esque, so I think it's quite plausible she'd have read it. Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea is the glossiest and most commercial album she's ever released, but it's all relative, so don't go expecting S Club 7 or anything. And it's great, but probably not as good as the really stark stuff like this rendition of White Chalk from 2007.

Secondly, you'll remember my attempts to date a world map that my sister had used as some quirky gift-wrapping paper - well, this flowchart from the excellent xkcd webcomic seeks to provide a step-by-step method for doing the same job. I haven't exhaustively tested it, but I think my map takes you down the route that ends at the "PERSIA OR IRAN?" box and therefore ends up with a date of 1935-1940. Since I'd calculated 1932-1936, and if we charitably assume that we're both right, that narrows down the date of my map still further to 1935-1936.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

the last book I read

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek.

Erika Kohut is the piano teacher of the book's title, tutoring and mentoring a group of students at the Vienna Conservatory. After a hard day bashing the ivories she heads home to the apartment she shares with her mother, and later in the evening to the bed she shares with her mother. Yes, there's something a bit rum going on here, as we discover in the opening pages where Erika buys herself a nice dress and goes home and has a proper knock-down hair-pulling fist-fight with Mother about profligate spending and having improper thoughts about men.

So we can see that Mother is controlling Erika's life to a slightly unhealthy degree. We learn that there was a Father, for a while, but he got packed off to a mental asylum (which was probably a relief, to be honest) and subsequently died (ditto, I shouldn't wonder). We also learn that one of Erika's outlets for asserting some degree of control over her own actions and her own body is self-harm, some of it of a disturbingly sexual nature. She also roams the streets of Vienna seeking out sex shows to watch, though she seems to derive little pleasure from watching, instead just sitting there primly with her handbag and haughtily ignoring the more usual raincoat-clad clientele.

Erika has a new student, Walter Klemmer, who takes a fancy to her despite the gap in their ages (Erika is in in her late thirties). Erika isn't used to male attention, although she has occasionally "known" men, hem hem, in the past. So things take a while to come to the boil, but when they do, and Erika and Walter have a charged encounter in the toilets at the Conservatory, her wilder repressed desires are unleashed, and she writes Walter a letter detailing all the stuff she'd like him to do to her, most of it eye-wateringly slappy and bondage-y. She also increases the riskiness of her voyeuristic behaviour by hanging out in a local park and watching people having sex in the bushes.

Walter is a bit taken aback by all this, to be honest, as he was really after something a bit more vanilla and just fancied a bit of older woman. After a couple of further unsatisfactory encounters, Walter decides to get what he originally wanted by going to Erika's apartment, locking Mother in the bedroom, and beating and raping Erika in the living room.

Erika goes to the Conservatory the next day armed with a knife and some vague idea of stabbing Walter, but, after watching him laughing and flirting with some female students for a while, she instead stabs herself in the shoulder and returns home. We're invited to infer that Erika will just return home and resume her more repressed existence, once she's put some Savlon and a plaster on that shoulder wound, anyway.

So it's the basic boy meets girl, girl unveils brutal and deranged sex manifesto, girl loses boy, boy rapes girl, girl stabs herself kind of story we've all heard a thousand times before. Not exactly a laugh-a-minute, as you can imagine, though it has a sort of savage energy that propels you along. As with some earlier books in this series it's hard to find a "way in" to any of the characters, since they're all damaged and disturbed to various degrees. It's quite bracing to read something so wilfully spiky and clearly uninterested in giving the reader an easy time, though - in that respect I was reminded a bit of Notice which also contains some queasy scenes of sexual violence.

The Piano Teacher is probably best known for its 2001 film adaptation featuring a much-garlanded performance from Isabelle Huppert as Erika. I haven't seen it, but it sounds like a pretty faithful rendering of the book. Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, not without some controversy, with one of the judges resigning and issuing a statement describing Jelinek's work as "whining, unenjoyable public pornography", which is probably a bit harsh. Links to other Nobel laureates can be found here.

The Piano Teacher also pops up on various lists of "best foreign novels", including (at number 40) this one. Of the 100 novels I've listed there I've read, if my counting is correct, thirteen. Other list-nerdery: although Jelinek is Austrian, this book doesn't yield anything to add to the foreign-language list here since "Austrian" isn't a language except as a dialect of German, which I've already bagged.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

it's all good fun until someone loses an EU

So, Brexit, then. And while it's awfully tempting to dismiss the 52% of the UK population who voted to leave the European Union as just a rabble of dimwitted racists, and I'm not saying there isn't a good deal of truth in that, it might just be more productive to try to work out what the hell went wrong.

A few things are obvious: no-one really thought there was an economic case to be made for leaving, so no-one really seriously bothered trying to make one. So basically there was just a lot of dog-whistling around the subject of immigration, which has turned into an elephant in the room totally out of proportion with its actual importance (since the British public are as utterly wrong about the immigration figures and impact as they are about just about any other subject you could care to mention). So when people urge political parties to really tackle immigration, what they really mean is address people's largely imaginary concerns about it and their mistaken perception of its impact. This is actually quite hard to do without just pointing out to people that they are massive racists, which as a vote-winning strategy is not great.

Equally obvious is that, of the major Leave campaign figureheads, Boris Johnson is a brazen and ruthless political opportunist who was campaigning for a Remain vote as recently as February 2016, and moreover as a European correspondent in the 1990s was personally responsible for a whole stream of the sort of barmy Eurocrat banana-straightening stories that fuelled UK Euroscepticism in the first place. Nigel Farage, by contrast, is a proper old-school fascist of the type that always seem hilarious and buffoonish right up until the point where they acquire power and it becomes clear they weren't joking after all. Like that comical Charlie Chaplin lookalike guy in Germany in the 1930s. I mean, who remembers him now?

A gazillion words have already been written bemoaning the barking irrationality of the Leave vote, and in particular how places like Ebbw Vale were persuaded to cast a vote profoundly in opposition to their own best interests, so it might be more profitable to explore a couple of wider (but still related) issues, like, for instance: who can we blame? I have a couple of suggestions.

Firstly, and most obviously, David Cameron. I'm inclined to blame Cameron for a lot of things, as you know, but this referendum really is his fault, since he promised it back in 2013 as a sop to the truculent faction of borderline Nazis in his own party who he feared would otherwise defect to UKIP in large numbers.

But, you might say, what's wrong with having a referendum? This is democracy in its purest form! Anyone arguing against having a referendum must basically HATE DEMOCRACY. This is quite difficult to argue against, since the counter-argument basically boils down to: people are idiots. It's quite salutary to remember why parliamentary democracy exists: because it's absurdly impractical to canvass everyone's opinion on any particular subject (modern technology means it's easier than it's ever been, but it's still absurdly slow and difficult) and it's desirable to bundle up that decision-making capacity - region by region, say - into a single elected representative whose job it quite literally is to be engaged and informed on the topics that decisions might need to be made about, while the people who elected him or her get on with their day jobs amid their usual fug of ignorance.

I'll tell you who else is to blame, though: the media. The BBC, for one, has come in for some criticism in the past for, as this Huffington Post article puts it, "sacrificing objectivity for impartiality", or, in other words, promoting some bullshit idea of "balance" in a debate by presenting both sides and being reluctant to take a position on how those sides align with reality. Both of those linked articles were about climate change, but the same charge can be levelled at the BBC's (and other broadcasters') coverage of the referendum. If there are two sides, and one side is peddling easily-debunked lies and nonsense, it might actually do the viewing public a service if the liars were held to account. To put it another way, the current model only really works when politicians occupy a position somewhere within the bounds of what you might call "reasonableness" or at least can be trusted (most of the time) to be arguing in good faith - once you get a statistical outlier like Farage or Johnson (or Donald Trump, to pick an example from elsewhere) who will just brazenly lie, and, if challenged, shift their position and lie again, the system can't really cope. And treating people like Farage like any other politician legitimises and normalises his political views - look at how often he gets invited onto Question Time, say. I haven't seen Nick Griffin get invited back, and pretty much the only difference between them is that Farage looks less like a thug and has a posh voice.

On that subject, it's interesting to reflect how much we as a nation are still unconsciously in thrall to archaic notions of class, and more specifically notions of what a member of the ruling class looks and sounds like. Take the currently-beleaguered Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for instance. Now I'm certainly not going to claim him as the potential saviour of humanity, but my experience is that most people, even those not inclined to vote Labour, think that he is clearly a man of principle, honesty and decency who talks a lot of good and compassionate sense on issues regarding social justice. However, ask those people whether they can see him as Prime Minister and they'll probably laugh and say: well, no, of course not. But why not? Because, I put it to you, that's not what members of the ruling class look like. Rather than looking like a scruffy and slightly humourless geography teacher, the ruling classes wear sharp suits, have braying penetrating posh voices and have arrived at the top of the political ladder without acquiring any messy baggage along the way by ever having expressed any sort of principled view or taken a stance that might now be inconvenient.

Furthermore the ruling classes have their debating skills honed at debating societies at Oxford and Cambridge where they become well-practised not only in arguing for causes they have no belief in (equally handy for a career in the legal profession if the political thing doesn't work out), but also in the art of the meaningless sound-bite, the swift and pithy put-down, and the sort of wordless braying and hooting that will stand them in good stead in the House of Commons. So, for instance, despite being a monumental failure as a Chancellor even by his own self-imposed measures, George Osborne still gets a free pass as a "serious" politician because he's a toff who can afford some nice suits, as well as, as some may have alleged, a boatload of cocaine. Similarly, Tony Blair, despite not being a Tory, looked the part, while Ed Miliband, while he had the suits, talked a bit funny and once made a bit of a hash of eating a sandwich, so clearly he wasn't quite the thing.

Now it's certainly true that, as well as not having much support among the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn's approval figures with the general public aren't great either. But one thing we know after the referendum is that Joe and Josephine Public are easily swayed by bullshit tabloid stories, and if there's one person the tabloids love writing bullshit stories about, it's Jeremy Corbyn.

I think, as it happens, that it's likely he'll have to go, but I'm troubled by the whole business as a natural Labour voter for several reasons. Firstly I don't see an obvious successor, secondly I wonder how the Labour party membership have got so out of step with the PLP and the public (or vice versa, depending how you look at it), and thirdly the tabloid venom, which is just an aspect of the wider problem I've described above, can't be a healthy thing in the 21st century. But then again neither can a vote to leave the EU. So, in summary, fuck you, Britain.

Actually, hang on, lots of Brexit- and Corbexit-bemoaning there without any proposals for solutions. So, briefly, here's a couple of ideas:
  • Stop legitimising racism by saying either that a large tranche of the Leave vote wasn't motivated by it or that lots of people have "legitimate concerns" over immigration. No they don't, they just hate brown people. Tiptoe round the issue and you are part of the problem.
  • Electoral reform. If, as looks possible, the Labour party splits into left and centre-right factions and the LibDems experience an uptick in popularity as a result of their commendably bold anti-Brexit stance, then we're going to be in the sort of multi-party environment we haven't been in since forever. Which is all great, but for the first-past-the-post system which will ensure massive Conservative majorities forever under those circumstances, particularly if the Scots take themselves out of the picture by leaving the Union after a second referendum. Some sort of proportional representation system whereby every vote counts might go some way towards hauling general election voter turnout upwards towards the 70-odd percent that the referendum got. 
  • Stop having referendums, as they're clearly a terrible idea, particularly if most voting happens under the first-past-the-post system, and therefore encourages the view that people can register a "protest" vote (perhaps as part of a general unfocused desire to register dissatisfaction with the political process) without it having any consequences, as some people seem to have done here.
  • Have a look at the House of Commons. Yes, tradition, heritage, all that bullshit, but it's toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch the general school-playground quality of the exchanges in there. If some of the I-refer-the-right-honourable-gentleman-to-the-answer-I-gave-some-moments-ago bullshit has to be swept away in order for Joe Public to feel involved in the policy-making process, then so be it. Alternatively, require ministers to regularly appear before some sort of select committee for some much more forensic questioning, get some non-political subject matter experts in to grill the hell out of them, and make sure it's televised.

Friday, June 10, 2016

the last book I read

Home by Marilynne Robinson.

The "home" in question is the Gilead, Iowa home of Robert Boughton, former Presbyterian minister. Formerly the home of his wife and eight children (four boys, four girls) as well, but times change and stuff happens - his wife died and the children all drifted off into their own lives.

A bit of orientation with regard to dates - the year when these events take place is never explicitly stated in the book, but references to the unrest in Montgomery place the date somewhere between 1955 and 1957.

But, now, here is daughter Glory, the youngest child, back to stay for an unspecified length of time after the breakdown of her lengthy engagement to a fiancĂ© who eventually turned out to be married to someone else, and moreover not especially keen on paying back all the money Glory had given him. So, chastened, here she is back for a while, which basically means cooking and cleaning and tending to Dad rather than kicking back on the porch with a mint julep.

Hot on Glory's heels, and more surprisingly to everyone, comes her brother Jack, the black sheep of the family, fleeing some unspecified disaster in his own life. Jack's history includes a troublesome childhood, getting a local girl pregnant and then leaving his family to pick up the pieces when the baby died, alcoholism and disappearing off the radar for years at a time. Just to illustrate the point, he arrives hungover and with just the clothes on his back, his suitcase having been lost in some ill-remembered incident.

Jack and Glory and their father fall into a domestic routine, though relations between Jack and his father are polite but awkward at first. Of course, Gilead being a small town, word gets around, and this creates some tension, since Jack's name is mud in certain quarters, not least with Reverend Ames, Robert Boughton's old friend, ministerial opposite number (Congregationalist vs. Presbyterian, whatever the difference is) and theological sparring partner. No baying mob arrives at the house with pitchforks - it isn't really that sort of book - but there are a few tense dinners at the house with Reverend Ames in attendance and a couple of pointed theological discussions during which Jack (a well-educated and Bible-literate guy despite his dissolute ways) tries to tease out an answer to the mystery of his own nature. Was he born bad? Has God cursed him in some way? Boughton sr. struggles with similar questions: is Jack the way Jack is because of some deficiency in parental love? If so, how come the other seven children didn't turn out the same way?

Jack tries to ingratiate himself with Reverend Ames by attending church, but after receiving a fire-and-brimstone sermon that he feels is specifically directed at him he falls off the wagon somewhat and is discovered in a pitiful state in the garage by Glory, who helps him clean up and make himself respectable.

Jack's disintegration isn't Glory's only problem, though, as Reverend Boughton's health is starting to fail. This is a problem for Jack, too, as he has a desire to make his peace with his father in some ill-defined way before either his father dies or Jack's desire to disappear and be away from responsibility and scrutiny gets the better of him, as he's self-aware enough to know that it eventually will. But what can Jack say? That he's found Jesus and repented of his evil ways? That would be a lie, but is the sin of lying outweighed by the comfort it would bring his father? But then, if he did that, would his father believe him anyway?

Inevitably, by the time Jack has agonised over what to say, his father has deteriorated to the point where he only intermittently recognises who Jack is. Nonetheless Jack says his piece, and, as the other siblings are summoned to oversee what it's assumed will be their father's last few days, Jack slips quietly away.

There is an unexpected coda: after Jack has departed and before the other siblings arrive Glory gets a visit from Della, Jack's wife from St. Louis and the woman he has been writing to intermittently since arriving at the Boughton house, presumably to explain and/or apologise for whatever misdemeanour led to him setting out on the road in the first place. It turns out that not only is Della black (and hence very ill-at-ease in rural Iowa) but that she and Jack have a son together. Once she's discovered that Jack has gone, Della departs, with Glory promising to pass on any communication.

As you can see, it's not a thrill-a-minute action-fest, any more than it is a slapstick laugh riot. Obviously it's not intended to be either of these things, though, and it is what it is, a slow, meditative character-driven story in which stuff does happen, but low-key stuff of the kind that actually happened to people in 1950s Iowa, i.e. not involving transsexual zombie Hitler or exploding spaceships.

What it also is is a book suffused with religion - Jack himself is portrayed as an unbeliever, but even he seems to have a yearning for the kind of meaning (however illusory) that religion provides to some of its adherents. And of course Boughton sr. and Ames are well into the old theology, exchanging cherry-picked Bible quotes with each other to support some arcane doctrinal point or other. All of which sounds like it ought to be supremely irritating to the atheist reader, but it isn't, because these are wholly convincing characters. Many characters in many books do things and hold views I disagree with or disapprove of, after all, and if I insisted on only reading books populated by versions of myself it would be very dull indeed. So my enjoyment of Home is (obviously) a testament to Robinson's skill as a writer - just to illustrate this point, when she engages in a more informal discussion of science and religion about a third of the way into this longish Paris Review interview it certainly does stray into supremely irritating territory fairly quickly.

It's not just about old men quoting the Bible at each other, though: it's about people's ambiguous relationship with ideas like "home" and "family" - simultaneously yearning to be there but feeling stifled when you are there, for instance. It's about the mysteriousness of other people's character and motivations, and even the mysteriousness of one's own. It's about what remains unspoken as much as what is spoken - Jack clearly decides early on that he can never tell his father that he's married to a black woman, for instance.

The key other thing to say is that this is a sort of companion to Robinson's hugely successful and award-laden 2004 novel Gilead, portraying essentially the same set of events from a different point of view (Gilead was a series of letters from Ames to his young son). It's not a sequel, and Robinson's view is that the books can be read in any order you like. As this New York Times review puts it, the two books
do not coexist in a relation of chronological sequence or thematic priority, but instead turn together like enmeshed gears impelling a single narrative machine
- a bit like the first three books of the Alexandria Quartet, in other words. I suppose it's a measure of how much I enjoyed Home that I'll be seeking out Gilead on future book-buying trips (though these are strictly rationed these days). Home itself won the Orange Prize (it's the jollier-sounding Baileys Prize these days) in 2009 - previous winners featured on this blog are Bel Canto (2002) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (2005).

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

thou shalt not bear false tweetness

Quick follow-up on yesterday's religious conversion thing - as always I am surfing the bleeding edge of the Zeitgeist, as the appearance of this article in the New Yorker on the same day shows. Lawrence Krauss doesn't specifically use the words "Pascal's Wager", but nonetheless makes the point that people's expectations of deathbed recantations from atheists are based on the assumption that the immediacy of their death makes the terms of the wager suddenly seem more attractive. Which is patently ridiculous, of course, since utter nonsense doesn't stop being utter nonsense just because you happen to be facing up to imminent death.

The questions directed at Richard Dawkins after his recent minor stroke and gradual recovery show a similar sort of thinking, mixed with a bit of the "no atheists in foxholes" gambit, i.e. the assumption that atheists do believe in God really, they just affect not to because they're a bit pissed off about having to go to church when they were kids, or not getting that pony they prayed for, or being repeatedly brutally raped by a parish priest, or some such petty insignificant nonsense.

The accusations by Dawkins' supporters (or, at least, fellow non-believers) that the Church of England were "trolling" him by publicly offering up a prayer for his speedy recovery seem to me to exhibit the same sort of bad faith (no pun intended) assumption in the other direction, though. Yes, obviously the C of E spokespeople will be aware that Dawkins would scoff at the notion of there being someone to offer up a prayer to (as would I), but the point is that the people offering up the prayer believe in its efficacy (well, probably), so let's all just view it as a nice and conciliatory gesture and stop being arseholes for five minutes.

Monday, June 06, 2016

blessed are the carpet-shitters

It's a bit of a trope in the atheist movement to share stories of how you, the free-thinking rational atheist person, came to throw off the shackles of the religion you were brought up in and embrace evidence and all that good stuff. And I'm certainly not here to knock that, since for all that non-belief has come a long way lately it's still fighting against the dominant cultural paradigm, which is to at least pay lip service to the idea of some overseeing deity who made us all, looks out for us, really hates the gays, etc. etc. So the whole solidarity/consciousness-raising thing has considerable value. The Richard Dawkins Foundation, for instance, has a whole page dedicated to converts' stories, and some of them are genuinely inspiring and humbling, particularly to someone like me who never really had much of a journey to make or that many challenges to overcome.

There's an expectation, though, that these conversion stories will all operate in one direction, that direction being from belief to non-belief, and a tendency to scoff at any tales of conversions in the other direction. To be fair, you could certainly argue for some justification for a sceptical attitude towards such stories, given the history of bogus claims of "deathbed conversions" attributed to various historical figures from Thomas Paine to Charles Darwin to Christopher Hitchens, and the rather distasteful affair of Antony Flew, a philosopher and high-profile atheist (well, high-profile in philosophical circles, anyway) who supposedly underwent a conversion to Deism late in life and wrote a book about it - or, rather, a book was written to which his name was prominently attached. As proper rationalists, though, it behooves us not to dismiss these out of hand, since there are undoubtedly people who genuinely do go from a state of non-belief to some sort of belief in some sort of deity, however woolly and ill-defined.

An example popped up on my Twitter feed the other day - that tweet and the ones that follow it give you a flavour of what to expect, but it's worth reading the article that it links to, which is here. Obvious but important things to say: I have no reason to doubt Nicole Cliffe's account of her journey from non-belief to belief, and she herself acknowledges that it happened at a period of some internal personal turmoil. What's fascinating from an atheist perspective is to try to imagine what sort of mental process could have been going on to prompt something like this. It's all too easy to say: well she's clearly had some sort of undiagnosed stroke or something, or GONE FREAKIN' MENTAL in some other way, but if we rule this out, what then? The trouble is that nothing in the article comes even remotely close to explaining something as seemingly (to an atheist, at least) inexplicable as this, something which seems (again, to an atheist) like Tim Robbins standing in that river in the rain for a bit and then voluntarily crawling back up that shitpipe and consenting to be locked in that tiny cell for the rest of his life, and occasionally recreationally bumraped in the showers.

One might also want to ask people who write articles like this: OK then, can you set out in reasonably clear terms what it is you believe, being sure to make a clear distinction between those things you think are actually real, and those which are some sort of metaphor for something which in turn may or may not be real? Read Sarah Perry's essay here, for example, and see if you can suppress your irritation at the inability to distinguish between "story" and "actual thing", nor indeed to grasp the idea that distinguishing between these things might be a useful or desirable thing to do. It's the same sort of thing that Karen Armstrong has parlayed into a whole career of writing books and then talking about them on various media outlets.

But, you might say, as irritating as all this is, these people are not hijacking commercial aircraft and flying them into buildings, they're not throwing gay people off high rooftops, and they're not terrorising already-traumatised women outside abortion clinics, so where's the harm? And I'd mostly agree with you; in general as long as people aren't demanding that their absurd beliefs be used to constrain the actions of others in some way (e.g. by killing them, in the most extreme cases) then I guess you can believe what you like.

It would still be better for the people concerned, though, and to a lesser extent for everyone else, if they didn't believe absurd stuff, just because of the general desirability of what you might call good epistemic hygiene. A sort-of analogy might be: if you don't wash your hands after having a shit, the person you're most likely to make ill is you, so maybe it doesn't matter to others. But there is a good chance you'll make your children ill, if you have them, and a smaller chance of infecting other people. Plus, once you've diverged from good sense, where do you stop? Who's to say that in a few months you won't just be shitting on the floor? What principle tells you that not washing your hands is OK, or even desirable, but shitting on the floor isn't?

I suppose the other aspect is just that I'm more inclined to sympathise with someone clinging to religious thought in, say, Iran, where access to material (books, the internet, other people) that might facilitate an escape from religion is heavily restricted and the consequences of public atheism much more severe, than with people doing so in a liberal western democracy, albeit one where, ridiculously, we still have an unelected head of state and religion remains embedded in our government and legal systems, but nonetheless one where the consequences of "coming out" are generally minimal. There's also this notion that agnosticism as opposed to atheism is the more "sophisticated" position to take, whereas in fact all that does is demonstrate that you know nothing about science or philosophy, in particular the branch relating to how knowledge is acquired.

So, basically, what I'm saying is: this tweedy wishy-washy sort of religious belief may be safe for discussion at your next Church of England coffee morning, but don't let your guard down too far as someone could shit on the carpet at literally any moment.