Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”

Henri Bergson

My wife was very keen to watch ITV’s new autumn drama “Vanity Fair”. We had seen the trailers and these had piqued her interest and indeed it did look like a well made adaptation with high production values. However, I didn’t share her enthusiasm as I knew little about the book, other than its title and author, and it looked like another boring period drama and unlikely to be to my taste (I remembered the boredom of the Downton Abbey and later Poldark years). However, I also knew it was very unlikely that I was going to win control of the television remote control on those nights and therefore needed a coping strategy.

It then occurred to me – I have never read any William Makepeace Thackery!  I have seen the book many times but its size and weight have always been off-putting.  Casual glances inside the covers, and the illustrations inside, tended to confirm my suspicions that it was too dated and I’d be unlikely to enjoy it. But these trailers made me think, why is this book still successful after so many years?  I could understand its success when it was published in serial form but why are people still reading it ? I decided that rather than wait for the television version I’d try reading the book. If nothing else came of it I could be a smug know-it-all when we watched the program later on.

I am glad I took this course of action. Not just that I read the book but also that I read the book before I saw the adaptation. The adaptation does not do the book justice. The book is a genuinely funny and biting satire. It excoriates the wealthy, the titled, the self-seeking and reveals their failing through their greed, lust, infidelity, duplicitousness,  and vanity. It is a story, as Thackeray says, without a hero – no-one is safe from criticism and ridicule. Much of the writing is dated and the allegories and symbolism, as is much of the humour, relies on a knowledge of both the history of the period (Napoleonic Wars) and classic mythology. I have to confess I was glad I was reading this on the kindle as at a press of a button I could find out details on historical or mythical characters such as the god Hymen (The god of marriage as I was surprised to learn). However, despite this his humour is still wicked enough to cause one to laugh out loud (to the annoyance of my wife as was reading this in bed at night)

The television adaptation does help in that it removes some of the hurdles of the text being antiquated but I fear that it also changes the book such that it looses its heart. Some of the changes I can fully understand. Thackeray was not an abolitionist and he held quite clear racist views. These are clearly shown through the characters of Mr Sambo (‘Sam’ on the television) and Miss Schwarz (who is invisible in the TV drama). I can understand why the racist jokes were omitted but fear that this might suggest that well regarded writers in the past were not tainted with unpleasant opinions. In this book it is important to keep in mind that, although all the characters are sinners, not all men are equal in the eyes of the author. On a similar vein the TV drama seems less able to portray Becky in the harsh light of the text. She is portrayed as a feisty go-getter and we rather skim over her picaresque period of decline, her manipulativeness, her abuse and neglect of her son and her possible role in two deaths.  Thackeray was able to display the shocking immorality of his puppets, it seems that this harder to do in our modern age.

I wonder if this problem of the adaptation is also why the humour fails today, When written its audience would have been well aware of the literary allusions employed by the author. Indeed it is likely most of them would have read about Vanity Fair in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. They would have shared a  Christian moral code and would have been very well aware when the characters in this tale transgressed, no matter what sugary words they employed in excuse. The gaps between apparent moral society and the real actions and intentions of the cast would be very clear and I am not sure that this is the case with a modern audience.

There was “no hero” in the tale I read, but the adaption possibly created a heroine to dull the edge of this literary weapon. This did blunt the whole enterprise and the television drama did, as I feared, largely end up as a period drama – lots of good costumes and a fair bit of romantic intrigue. Certainly not the funny biting satire that I had enjoyed reading. Though I did manage to become the smug know-it-all that I had hoped.

5star

‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.

These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.

This book is essentially a dual biography220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists  their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.

Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.

Hopefully this book will bring more the  modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to  view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.

4-out-of-5-stars


PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is  baseball and basketball.

The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

thestatehistrolesmall

There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .

 

Guardian Angel

I am not really sure why I bought this book.phillips-195x293 Certainly it was not for any affection towards Melanie Phillips who I often find rather strident and dogmatic in her television appearances. My instinct might well have been to avoid her autobiography. However, I am aware that she has become one of the bogey-men of the left, whatever she says is dismissed outright, and she receives a degree of venom and hostility which is usually reserved for the Daily Mail and Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps this is why she needs to be so strident and forceful during her media appearances.

But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, often, what she was saying concurred with my feelings at some level and it was unpleasant watching someone attacked for views that I felt were, at least in part, reasonable. She worries about the education system failing our young, she feels family life is changing for the worse with regard to the needs of children, she has concerns that through multiculturalism we are developing ghettos rather than a more diverse society, and she thinks that there is a strand of anti-Semitism in the anti-Zionist posturing of much of our politics. Though my analysis of why such changes are occurring may differ from hers I too share these concerns and feel we need to discuss them. It has been the failure to discuss these issues which has fostered the growth of right-wing populism. We have seen the effect of marginalising debate on these issues in the election and referendum results in America and Britain and in many of the changes in the political landscape in Europe (As I write the Italian election results suggest this trend shows no signs of burning itself out).

When I was a young man and viewed myself as a “left-winger” my house journal was The Guardian newspaper. Well, to tell the truth, it was my second, or third, house journal after the Socialist Worker and Morning Star which were more important to me at this time as they were more likely to hold strictly to the party line. I remembered Melanie Phillips as one of the Guardian’s regulars from those days; in her youth, although no Trotskyist, a fully paid up member of the left and can recall watching her drift away during the late 80’s into the sunset on the right followed by a barrage of catcalls and name calling. It was probably this memory that prompted me to buy her autobiography, this and my suspicions that, when somebody is attacked to vehemently and their character decried so vociferously, there is usually some ulterior political motive for the character assassination.

The book details the her working life. There is some information on her early and family life which is interesting but not very revealing. The book is short and written as one would expect a journalist to write being easy to read and engaging. In essence it is a short read, a couple of evenings, describing her conversion from the left to the right. She would not agree with this usage of the left-right spectrum. However, like many other “apostates of the left”  (See Nick Cohen,  Dave Rubin,  and many others) she largely feels that she has been consistent in her views while the left has abandoned these and drifted away from her. She has always held the liberal, enlightened position which is no longer held to be appropriate to the politics of the left which is in the thrall of identity politics and intersectionality. During the book she describes her political views and the principles which act as her moral lodestar. Anyone familiar with her work will know and recognise these but, if you haven’t read her work or heard her speak before, this would be a good place to find a summary of her views.

All in all I find I have warmed to Melanie Phillips after reading this book. It is clear that she still has the same concerns for the poor and disadvantaged as she always did but simply sees the dangers facing them as coming from a different source. I see her now as less the shrill harridan warning us of our moral failures and rather more as the Sybil trying hard to warn us of future calamity should we fail to correct our course. We need engage more with ideas like hers and find ways to meet the concerns she raises. We need to find how to maintain the best aspects of our civilisation and culture as it changes and evolves.

 

 

 

 

12 Rules for Life

12 Rules for Life

I watched an interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman recently and was rather surprised by what I saw. I was bewildered by Cathy Newman’s approach to her subject, she obviously found his views distasteful and was trying very hard to trip him up and reveal his dark and unpleasant, presumably misogynistic, side. She failed to do this and he remained placid, un-rattled, and replied fully and reasonably. Now I have seen her interview many people over the years and she is usually an excellent interviewer; able to debate with the best and able to handle herself in an argument She is, without doubt, one of the best news journalists we have on British television.  I was therefore surprised to see her have such difficulty with this subject, to the extent that at one point she was literally struck dumb and at a loss for words.

At this point I had not heard of her subject Jordan B. Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, nor did I know of his views. But, spurred by this interview, I read a little about him. It became clear that he has become very popular on account of his most recent book and also for his lectures on psychology which are available on YouTube. He is a clinical psychologist and academic who has made a bit of speciality of examining the role of religion in culture and personal psychology. But it became clear that this was not the reason for his widespread, and increasing, fame (or notoriety), this was because of his position on the issue of “compelled speech” (in regard to pronoun usage with transgendered people) and because he has recently published a book which has become a surprising best seller “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos”.

The book, a self-help psychology text, has been very successful with young men and his position on free speech has caused him to be seen as a darling by the “alt-right“. The latter problem is a common difficulty experienced by those of us who try and safeguard free-speech. Those on the far-right often like to profess a support for free-speech as they think it protects them when they spew their bile, particularly their misogynistic or racist ideas. They do not realise that those who support free-speech do so specifically to be able to debate with such hateful ideologies and, through debate, destroy them. The best way to get rid of hateful erroneous ideas is to debate with those who hold them and make them, and their fellow-travellers, feel embarrassed and ashamed town such thoughts.

The fact that his book was popular with young men was interesting as this is a demographic not often drawn to reading. This in itself did not cause me concern, despite Cathy Newman’s obvious distaste for the book, but it did suggest to me that I should read his book. A quick trip to the kindle store and three days later  I was finished. It was a gripping read and one of the best books I have read in a long time.

To be fair this is a “pop psychology” book. It is written in easy chapters, each describing a basic rule. For example  “Chapter 6 : Set you house in perfect order before you criticize the world“, and so on. He writes well and is an erudite thinker with a wide knowledge base. He starts each chapter with a story to outline his thinking on the subject or rule. He then considers the cultural history and scientific knowledge about the issue before completing the chapter with practical advice on how to apply this knowledge to your own life.

Much of his thinking is based on current knowledge of scientific psychology but it is mixed with practical experience of working in clinical psychology, especially in working in the field of deep insight orientated psychology. He refers back to Jung, Neitzsche and Adler as well as to recent neuropsychologists. But perhaps more interesting is his use of knowledge of religious history. He looks at how the major religions have addressed psychological issues such as suffering, death, guilt and happiness and points out, whether you believe in a deity or not, that religion was mankind’s way of making sense of our life experience and many of the lessons learnt millennia ago are just as applicable today.

In essence, I discovered a very readable and wise book. I am glad it has been successful as it will prove much more valuable that many of the faddish self-help bibles which have come and gone. The chapter on parenting is a valuable counterpoint to many of the prevailing mistakes we are making today.  I found no evidence of misogyny or racism at all. Certainly there were some areas where he suggests that our evolutionary history has meant that some biological factors continue to influence our gender behaviours and he does not agree that this is entirely a social construct. Indeed, this might be his heresy. Today, we are meant to believe that all aspect of gender are socially constructed and that, barring organs of reproduction, there are no differences between men and women. This is clearly not true and the scientific literature attests to this. Unfortunately this is becoming a rather inconvenient truth and one that is not allowed to be said. I think this was the dynamic underpinning Cathy Newman’s interviewing style.

This is a problem. Womens’ rights have improved over the recent years but there is still a long way to go. If we are to obtain equality and fairness we will have to continue to fight for it. However, if there are uncomfortable facts, if there are biological factors influencing our behaviours, then we need to know about them and discuss them. It will not help our progress to pretend they do not exist and to cry “heresy” when people raise them. Biology is not necessarily our destiny but it has a bigger influence when it is ignored or denied; as a man I may be more prone to aggressive behaviours than a woman (on group averages) but knowing this only means I need to be more mindful. It is not an excuse and has no exculpatory power. For example, if I want to be a good man I need to know how to control and curb my aggressive instincts, to pretend that these  impulses are not there helps no one.

I think therefore, on this occasion, Cathy Newman was wrong. Rather then trying to explore or debate his ideas she tried to shut him down. Others, with a similar agenda, have  tried to minimise his works by smearing it, and him, as alt-right or similar. This means that his genuine insights are not considered but more importantly those young men who find meaning in his writings will be pushed and corralled into the area occupied by those who are indeed of the alt-right. This is a danger, as Peterson is aware, we need to help men to maturity and insight in our society, we need to make them more self aware, strong and confident because if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of”

 

 

 

 

 

The Sense of an Ending

This short novel was the book chosen by my The_Sense_of_an_Endingbook club this month. I am doubly thankful for this. Firstly because it is an excellent novel and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,  and secondly as it is a book which sticks in the mind and prompts many questions which will benefit from discussion in a book group.

The title both  references Frank Kermode’s book of the same name and also the intention of this novella – to explore how we make sense of our lives and the stories we create for ourselves. The title may also humourously allude to the feelings the reader may have on finishing the story.

As we expect from Julian Barnes, it is well written – dialogues are believable and uplifting, difficult and weighty topics are handled with ease and often with genuine humour,  emotions are conveyed with accuracy and empathy. There are few writers who handle the English language this well.

Not wishing to spoil the story it is difficult to give much information. It concerns itself with life, love and memory, with yearning and regret. However, it touches on many, many things, as it is reported in the novel :-

“The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”