Beauty

I wrote previously about the music of Brian Wilson: that he’d chosen to make something gentle and peaceful, rather than something that simply reflected the pain and struggle of his own experience.   I like that choice.  It is quite a hard one to bring off without lapsing into sentimentality (though in my opinion Wilson’s music succeeds in this), but I think sometimes an anxiety to avoid sentimentality can lead to a kind of unremitting grimness which affects to being tough and gritty, but is really just sentimentality in reverse. (This is an age in which you can go to an art gallery and look at cans of shit, and pickled corpses, and children with penises instead of faces, as if the function of art was to rub our noses in horrible things).

Kurt Vonnegut wrote (I’m not sure where) that artists could help to prevent nuclear Armageddon, not by preaching, but by making life feel a little more worth living.  He thought that a lot of people secretly longed for their lives to end, and therefore had no real interest in trying not to have a nuclear war.   Art (pompous word, but I can’t for the moment think of another) in this conception of it, is not there just to reflect the world, or to comment on it, but to add something to it.

Brian Wilson is not an articulate man, but he often speaks about trying to put love into his music.  And come to think of it, my objection to those cans of shit (and their equivalents in writing) is not their grimness as such, but their lovelessness.

Narcissus

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Here I am, fiddling around with this blog.  It made me think uneasily of Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

I found this picture of him by Caravaggio.  I hadn’t seen it before.  In the story, as I remember it, Narcissus is a heartless man, who ignores the woman who loves him (her name is Echo) because he is enchanted by the beauty of his own reflection.  (Perhaps he was a cousin of Pygmalion, who couldn’t relate to real women of flesh and blood, only the idealised one he made for himself out of stone?)

But in the picture he looks to me as if he feels trapped, as if he wants to pull away.  Why doesn’t he do it?   Is he afraid that if he looks up and allows himself to see something other than his own reflection, he himself will disappear?

The legend of Eden

Dark Eden being selected as reading material for the Green Belt Festival (see previous post) has made me think about the legend of Eden.

I say legend.  There are still those, of course, who claim to believe the story is literally true.  This is a pretty preposterous claim to make in the modern world (at least by any half-way educated person), but, as I’ve observed before, it takes an almost equally preposterous kind of literal-mindedness to think that, because a thing isn’t literally true, it isn’t true in any sense at all. Clearly this legend has some resonance for me – is, in some way, true – or I wouldn’t want to use it as the starting point for a novel.  So what does it mean to me?

I think there are two aspects of the story in particular that have always seemed powerful for me.  One is the snake: the idea that even in the most idyllic scene there is always somewhere a flaw, a danger, a threat (like the ‘invisible worm’ in William Blake’s poem, ‘The Sick Rose’). The other is the idea of expulsion: the idea that, for some reason, human beings are cut off from their true home.  This is the idea I drew on for Dark Eden, in which a little band of people are cut off not only from the rest of humanity but even from light, and have to live out their lives in the knowledge of that loss.

The same sense of loss, it seems to me, is present in Plato’s notion of humanity huddled in a cave and seeing, not the real world, but shadows on the wall.  This rings true for me.  It feels like the way things are.  

Why it does, is another question.  Psychoanalytic psychology would, I think, explain this subjective sense of loss in terms of a child’s painful discovery that parental comfort and love is not always available, that things are not and never can be perfect.  That rings true for me as well.   In the world of Dark Eden, the particular focus of people’s sense of loss, was their Eve figure, Angela, the mother of them all.  Even John Redlantern, who was determined to break away from the past, was particularly devoted to Mother Angela (a police officer from Peckham on her way to goddess-hood), being himself in some ways motherless.

***

Anyway, these reflections prompted me to go back and look at the story as it appears in the Bible.  (I was going to say the ‘original’, but in truth, this is surely a story that evolved over many thousands of years before it was ever written down, and it shares obvious characteristics with other creation myths in other traditions, suggesting a remote common ancestor.  As I’ve observed before, stories have a life of their own.  They travel, they have adventures, they change their clothes, they make new friends…)

What struck me immediately about the version in Genesis is its mythological, child-like, fairytale-like quality.  God is pretty much human. (He walks in the garden in ‘the cool of the day’.  He appears surprised by events).  The snake is a talking animal.  (No suggestion that it is anything more.)  And, much as Norse mythology offers fanciful explanations for everyday things like the morning dew (it is the world weeping for the God Balder) or the tides (the result of a prodigious drinking feat by the God Thor), so the Eden story offers explanations for why snakes crawl on the ground, why women hate snakes, why childbirth is painful, and why farming is backbreaking work.

And, just as in fairytales and other mythologies, ludicrously obvious things are somehow overlooked for the sake of the story (I think of the Norse legend of Balder, in which the goddess Frigga secures a promise from everything in the earth and sky and in the sea not to harm her son, but doesn’t get round to securing it from mistletoe, which lives neither on the ground, or in the sky, or in water), so here God plants a fruit tree that he apparently doesn’t want people to touch, right in the middle of Eden.

But above all what struck me was God’s motive for expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.  It really isn’t because they have committed a terrible sin (how can you commit a sin before you have acquired the knowledge of good and evil?) but because, by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘the man is become as one of us’ and must be expelled  ‘lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’.  The expulsion is the act of a jealous God heading off a potential rival.

Above all, what strikes me about the story, on re-reading it, is that it isn’t just about loss.  It is also about gain, about people moving from a baby-like or animal-like state to become adult human beings.  Which is surely a good thing, and surely something that had to happen, and surely the reason why, if there was a God, he or she would plant a Tree of the Knowlege of Good and Evil in a place where, sooner or later, someone would surely decide to try the fruit, talking snake or not.

So the two elements that were most powerful to me – the loss, and the snake – seemed on re-reading to be far less central than I had remembered them.  The great thing about these kinds of story, with their ambiguities and their layers, is that we can different things in them, each time we look.  (The great thing, but also the dangerous thing.  You can mine misogyny from this story if you want to, it seems, though I can’t myself see that Eve is held much more to blame than Adam.   You can even apparently, though this really does require considerable ingenuity, derive the idea from it somehow that humankind is so wicked as to deserve eternal torment, after death as well as before it.)

***

Could there have been a real historical moment, which in some way corresponded to the Eden myth?  I suppose it would have been millions of years ago, somewhere in Africa, when some proto-human ape, for the very first time, had some dim glimmer of a insight: ‘This world isn’t just about me, my desires, my instincts.  Other creatures have feelings too.’  For such an insight, surely, is the real first step towards a knowledge of good and evil?

But of course that wouldn’t be a one-off event.  It would happen again and again.  It still happens now.

 

 

Natascha Kampusch (continued)

(Following on from previous post about the book by Natascha Kampusch who was kidnapped and held in captivity by Wolfgang Priklopil for 8 years from the age of 10.)

I keep thinking about Natascha Kampusch’s experience.  She was beaten, punched and hit with objects, she was half-starved, but for whatever reason, the image that keeps coming into my mind, and the one which I find the most distressing to contemplate, is the idea of her all alone in her underground dungeon for hours and days on end, trying to occupy herself, trying to give herself some kind of life, with the magazines, books and videos that Priklopil allowed her.

I suspect Kampusch herself would disapprove of my dwelling on this: she is determined not to be an object of pity, just as she was determined not to be a mere object onto which Priklopil could project his fantasies.  There are video clips here and here of her being interviewed about 4 months after her escape.  I think you can see here the firmness of spirit which comes over in the book, and dismiss any doubts that you might have that the book (written with the help of two co-authors) is an authentic representation of her voice.

What is striking is the determination to hold onto her own identity, however little room for manoeuvre.   I suppose there hundreds of millions of people have coped in the same way with the experience of oppression that was quite specifically intended to break their spirits.  I think of  Africans sold into slavery, wrenched away from family, friends, culture and packed into slave ships for the horrors of the middle passage, and how they nevertheless preserved and evolved a unique culture of their own, which was to become global in its influence

How weak Priklopil seems by contrast: a man whose own identity was so fragile that he demanded absolute obedience, absolute submission to his own needs and fears.  How weak and baby-like tyrants are in general.  Think of Gaddafy, think of Hitler (who Priklopil apparently admired), demanding that others to act out a charade around them, a pretence of loyalty, a pretence of love, a pretence of admiration, presumably because they don’t have the courage to face what they would see if the pretence was torn away.

3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch

The tabloid-sounding quote on the cover is misleading.  This is a serious and thoughtful book, by a young woman who was kidnapped by a stranger at the age of 10, and remained his captive for the next eight years.

It is very disturbing to read.  At times I found the claustrophobia hard to bear, even at second hand. For the first six months Kampsuch was confined in a small hidden underground room, which could only be accessed through three doors, the last one made of concrete, which were so elaborately locked and concealed that it took her kidnapper, Wolfgang Priklopil, an hour to get through them all each time he came to visit her, and an hour again to seal it all up again when he left.  At weekends, when Priklopil had his mother to stay, Kampsuch was down there alone for three days at a stretch.  One of her fears was that he would have an accident and never return for her.

Gradually, Priklopil began letting her out for limited periods, making her work for him as a slave, and even taking her on trips outside the house.  He became increasingly violent towards her, lashing out at her with fists and with hard objects without warning.  He shaved her head. He kept her chronically weak with hunger.  He forbade her from talking about her family.  Yet he also kitted out her dungeon like a girl’s bedroom, with desk, a bunk bed, a computer, fetched her books and magazines at her request.

What is striking about the book (apart, of course, from the story itself) is the firm, clear, individual voice in which it is written.  Kampusch refuses to view Priklopil simply as a monster, or herself as a helpless victim, whatever the pressure from the media and society to do so:

The perpetrator must be a beast so we can see ourselves as being on the side of good.  His crime must be embellished with S & M fantasies and wild orgies, until it is so extreme that it no longer has anything to do with our lives.

And the victim must have been broken and must remain so, so that the externalization of evil is possible.  The victim who refuses to assume this role contradicts society’s simplistic view.  Nobody wants to see it.  People would have to take a look at themselves.

She says that her refusal to reduce this story to thriller-like categories of black and white, but to insist on shades of grey, has led to her being criticised and subjected to abuse on the internet.  But she is absolutely firm on it.  In particular she angrily rejects the idea that her ability to see Priklopil as not all bad, is a symption of the Stockholm Syndrome.  She hates this label, which she says victimises her all over again, and she insists that her behaviour was essentially rational.  Priklopil was the only human being she had contact with for eight years, and she made of that the best that she could.

Her firmness in rejecting the stock narratives that others try to impose on her story, is matched by her small acts of resistance to Priklopil himself.   He demanded she call him ‘maestro’, or ‘my lord’, and tried to get her to kneel in front of him, but she steadfastly refused, knowing  that it was essential that she hold something back.  Somehow, this young woman (she is still only 24, a year younger than my own oldest daughter) managed to hold on to a sense of integrity in these appalling circumstances.

Naturally, when reading the book, one identifies with Kampusch.  The appalling claustrophobic loneliness, the miniscule scope for manouevre, the constant anxiety, the fear for the future: for many of us, it isn’t entirely alien territory, for unhappy times in any childhood feel a bit like this: helpless, trapped, alone, cut off from what you need or long for.  (The comparison of everyday unhappiness with this ordeal may seem grotesque, but it is one that Kampusch herself makes, reflecting on her own lonely and unhappy childhood before her captivity.)   These claustrophobic feelings are ones that most of us are familiar with, I imagine, to some extent, and it is uncomfortable to be reminded of them, or to have to imagine them in the unbelievably extreme form that Kampusch herself endured.

But even more disturbing is to consider Priklopil in the light that Kampusch shines on him.  Her insistence on not making him a horror-movie monster, is very powerful, forcing the reader to consider him not as something utterly ‘other’, but as a person on a continuum with the rest of us.  Priklopil, as she sees it,

…didn’t want anything more than anyone else: love, approval, warmth.  He wanted somebody for whom he himself was the most important person in the world.  He didn’t seem to seen other way to achieve that than to abduct a shy, ten-year-old girl and cut her off from the outside world until she was psychologically so alienated that he could ‘create’ her anew.

Kampusch refers to the Greek legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who didn’t like women, but fell in love with the idealised woman he’d carved in stone.   Attempting to meet needs for intimacy by trying to bully or manipulate others into playing roles that we have assigned to them: it’s hardly unique to Priklopil.

Images of the cellar room where Kampusch was confined, from BBC News.

Batter my heart

Random cultural treat!

I’m not by any means a connoisseur either of poetry or opera, but I first came across this exquisitely beautiful sonnet by John Donne in the setting of it by John Adams in the opera Dr Atomic, and loved both the setting and the poem.  There’s a clip of that setting here, sung by Gerald Finley.  The sonnet itself is as follows:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I do not share Donne’s faith, but I love, and find myself really deeply moved by, this vision of a human soul as a usurped town, begging to be broken into and liberated because it no longer has the strength or will to liberate itself.   Instead of a captured city, we might think of a computer riddled with viruses, or a mind so dominated by destructive addictions that it can no longer achieve the level of sustained self-awareness that would be necessary for it to be able to break free.

It seems to me that the vision of an invaded and subverted soul expressed by this poem, shares a great deal with the vision of Philip Dick, for example in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, or The Man in the High Castle.  Dick was certainly interested in the ‘metaphysical poets’, of whom Donne was one.  And of course he was, if anyone ever was, a master of metaphysical SF.

PS Lovely as the poem is, I can’t entirely suppress from my mind the thought that ‘Batter my heart’ might also be the title of a ballad sung by a lovesick Glaswegian to the girl in his local chipshop.

Neither imaginary nor real

I suppose most people can remember plotting equations onto graph paper at school.  y = x produces a straight line.  y = 2x generates a steeper line.

And then you try y = x2 and find that it generates a beautiful smooth ever-steepening curve, a parabola, while  y = 1/x generates a hyperbola, a pair of curves that get closer and closer to the axes of the graph, but never quite reach them.

The following is a bit more complicated than y = x2 or y = 1/x, but it can still be explained in a few lines, and can still be understood by someone like me, whose maths ability hit a glass ceiling at about the sixth form level.

First, you let the y axis represent ‘imaginary numbers’ (that is: multiples of ‘i’, which is the notional square root of minus one), and you let the x axis represent real numbers (i.e. the ordinary kind: 1, 2, 1.5, -1, 101, 0.3: that kind of thing).  Your graph is now what is known as a ‘complex plane’, because any so-called ‘complex number’ (that is: a combination of a real and an imaginary number) can be represented on it by a point.

Set the complex plane on one side, like pastry, for use later.

Now, consider the following formula zn+1 = zn2 + c.   It took me a while to get the hang of this, but it is a formula for generating a sequence of numbers.  The members of the sequence are labelled z1, z2, z3, z4 ….. etc, and all the formula tells you is that you generate each member of the sequence (starting with z0 = 0) by multiplying the previous member of the sequence by itself (i.e. squaring it), and adding a number of your choice designated c, which remains constant for the whole sequence.

So, if we take c as 1, the sequence we get is:

z0 = 0

z1 = 02 + 1 = 1

z2= 12 + 1 = 2

z3 = 22 + 1 = 5

….and so on

What you find is that starting with some values of c, such as 1, the sequence generates higher and higher numbers, as just shown, but for other numbers, the sequence is ‘bounded’, which is to say it oscillates between fixed points.   For instance, if you set c as ‘i’ the sequence runs: 0, i, (-1 + i), −i, (−1 + i), −i… and then the same, on and on.  Or, if you set it as -1, the sequence just bounces back and forth between 0 and -1.

So now, returning to the complex plane you set aside earlier, you mark all the points on the plane that lead to a bounded sequence in black, and you leave the other points unmarked.   And what do you get?   Well, even at first sight it’s a lot more complicated than a parabola, but that’s only the beginning of it.

It is, of course, the Mandelbrot set, and, famously, its complication is without limits.  Look at it at higher and higher magnifications, and you never reach the end of its curls and wiggles.  Home in on what looks like a smooth line, and you see tiny shapes on the surface.  Zoom in still closer, and these shapes start to resemble shapes that you had already seen at lower levels of magnification.  Zoom in still more, and on the edges of these shapes too, new curls and wiggles start to appear.  (There’s a video of it here).  It is completely bottomless.

And now remember that this infinite complexity, this mad meaningless order, is generated by a comparatively simple rule which can be described in a few lines, as I have just done. This thing is not real.  It has no objective existence in the world.

And yet it is not human-made either.  These shapes are not the product of a human mind.  They have been discovered, not created.  This thing is neither real nor imaginary.

Think about it hard enough, and I reach a boundary beyond which my mind will no longer go, but across which I sense a strange awful place where mind and matter, real and imaginary, order and chaos, are not separate things at all.

Some people find the Mandelbrot set beautiful, and I suppose it is, but for me it is the beauty of a poisonous flower.

Easter Island

I was interested by a recent debate on Radio 4 between Friends of the Earth’s Tony Juniper, and the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson.   They were talking about shale gas, and Lawson’s position was simple: this stuff is cheaper than renewable energy, and therefore that’s what we should go for.   Tough, hardnosed, realistic.  Like the guy on Easter Island, who argued that wood was cheaper than other fuels, so it was just silly not to chop down the last tree.

‘But how are we going to make boats?’ someone wondered, as they were all toasting themselves round the fire.

A pebble on Mount Everest

It occurred to me while I was driving home that, if it wasn’t for Adolf Hitler, I wouldn’t exist.

I’m not sure if my parents would have met at all if it wasn’t for my father’s family moving out of London as a result of Hitler’s war, but, even if they had, it’s inconceivable that their lives would have gone down such a similar track – and I’m trying not to be too graphic here: it’s my parents I’m talking about – that the, er, same combination of genetic material would have occurred that ended up resulting in me.  That would be like throwing billions of dice on two different occasions and coming up with exactly the same combination of numbers.

It’s not just me of course.  No one else below the age of about 70 would exist either.  There surely can’t be any doubt that the disruption of lives in all the countries involved in that war was sufficient to ensure that every single one of their citizens would have had their daily timetables put out at least to the extent that, assuming they survived the war at all, they had a different set of children, if not entirely different partners.  Even in countries not directly touched by the war, people would soon feel enough of the effects of what was happening in the world outside for the pattern of their days to be altered to at least that extent.

And then – I was driving along the A14 in the dark, the lights of other cars all around me – it occurred to me that any individual in the past would have the same affect: it didn’t even have to be a history-changer like Hitler.  Go back to the 18th century, and disrupt the daily routine of one randomly chosen person anywhere in the world, and by now we’d be a completely different set of human beings on Earth.

In fact, I decided – I was now not far from the Newmarket turnoff – never mind people, a stone would do the job.  Travel back in time with a small pebble and place it on the top of mount Everest.  No one would notice any change, but the airflow over the mountain would not be quite the same.  Every moment millions of molecules would end up in different places from where they otherwise would have been, and they in turn would displace other molecules.   Quite quickly, the entire atmosphere would be differently configured from what it would otherwise have been: trivially different, but still different.

And then weather events would occur very slightly earlier or later than they otherwise would have done.  Departures would be delayed by seconds, journey times increased or decreased, so that people went to bed a few seconds earlier or a few seconds later.  And accidents would occur that wouldn’t otherwise have happened, or fail to occur when otherwise they would, and so on and so on.   And each of these events would in turn change the flow of things just like that pebble still sitting on top of the mountain, albeit now covered with snow.   And by the time a century had gone by, that one pebble would have caused an entirely different cast of human beings to be living on Earth from the ones who would have otherwise come into being and lived out their important irreplacable lives.

Not a very original thought, I know – it’s butterflies’ wings and all of that, something which has been written about many times, including by me – but it absorbed me sufficiently that I forgot where I was on the road, and turned off at the Newmarket exit rather than continuing straight on to Cambridge, delaying my arrival home, and thereby changing the course of history and the entire population of the Earth.

The Christmas Story

As a child I was sometimes taken to church at Christmas.  I saw countless nativity scenes, both 2D and 3D.  (Often, like the German advent calendar above, they linked the old Christmas story to the wintry weather of Northern Europe, where the Christian holiday has subsumed an older solstice festival.)  I sung many carols (‘In the deep mid-winter, long ago, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone….’).  I heard readings from the gospels.  I saw nativity plays, and even participated in at least one (I was a shepherd).   I was exposed to all this, but I don’t remember at any point, even for a moment, believing the story- the virgin birth, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men – was actually true.  In fact it seemed to me obvious that nobody really did believe that, just as it was obvious to me that no one really believed in Santa.

But I liked the story.  I liked the way it came round every year, like midwinter itself, and I liked the way that we all came back to it together.   For me, it became a story about human birth: the mystery of a living being emerging into the inanimate mineral world (‘hard as iron’, ‘like a stone’), a tiny thing, dwarfed by the great inanimate universe, but yet in a way, bigger than all of it put together.  The story wasn’t true, but it brought me into the presence of a truth, allowed me to experience it not simply as a fact, but in my imagination.   It allowed me to participate in it.

The value of these stories is not just a question of their literal truth or falsehood.  This is what Dawkins and Co don’t get, useful as it is to have them yapping round in the yard to see off the fundamentalist crazies.  The fundamentalist crazies don’t get it either.

One of the most interesting writers on the complexities of the distinction between truth and falsehood is Philip Dick: it is his constant theme.  His Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, famously, is about real humans hunting down fake ones (the crucial difference being the capacity for empathy).   Many of the real humans in the book subscribe to an austere religion called Mercerism, and regularly commune by electronic means with the figure of Mercer himself, forever toiling up a barren hill, while rocks and stones are thrown at him.   Late in the book, this central scene of Mercerism is shown to have been faked up in a studio: Mercer, it seems, was just an actor, the hill a painted set.

But here’s the interesting part.   People carry on being Mercerists anyway.   The ones who exposed the hoax were androids, andys, fake humans.  Their mistaken assumption that, by exposing the hoax, they’d destroy the belief system, was perhaps itself evidence of their lack of human understanding, their fakeness.  Empathy and imagination, after all, are closely related things.