A significant life – Todd May

This is philosophy as it should be. An imaginative, well written philosophical response for all those people who lie awake wondering whether the life they are living is meaningful.

As May says, in more religious times meaning in life was handed down from on high, but now there is no externally given meaning, there is just what Camus called a ‘silent universe.’ So May sets out to explain what, despite this, it means to live a meaningful life.

May distinguishes between a ‘good’ or moral life, a happy life and a meaningful life. He argues that a meaningful life is one grounded in what he calls ‘narrative values’.

His point is that lives have a narrative arc, and that a meaningful life is one lived in line with a or a number of values that might hold over a life – being steadfast or creative for example. It’s not what a person does that makes it meaningful so much as how that person does them. You can be a runner or a writer or a farmer, or all three, so long as you do those things in line with a value or values that are of importance to you, like being steadfast in your commitment to them.

Where does a narrative value come from? Two sources. On the one hand, from our own subjective view of what we value as a person. On the other hand, from the range of things that are valued in the community in which we live. It needs this mix of subjective and what May calls ‘ objective’ to be a narrative value than can allow us to live a meaningful life.

Intuitively this makes good sense, but I think the question this raises for me is, ok, so I now know that doing activities in a steadfast way or a creative way or in a way that fits in with what I value in life is a good thing, but what activities are or aren’t meaningful? Can watching football give meaning to my life if I do it in a steadfast way?

May says that it’s to do with engagement. For example, it’s meaningful, he says, to be steadfast in your commitment to playing football, but not to watching it, and the reason for this is that you are actively engaged in playing football, but you’re not engaged in it when you’re watching others play.

I’m not sure about this. Being engaged feels like a pretty fuzzy criteria to distinguish between activities are meaningful and what aren’t. It fits with contemporary thinking about being ‘in the flow’ as an indication of something being worth doing. But you could be a seriously engaged sports fan who travels to matches, has friendships built around the sport, and so on, and in this case, you are steadfast and engaged in watching football.

So my feeling is that Todd May’s excellent book answers to many key points – why a meaningful life is different from a moral life, how the arc of one’s life is given meaning by living in line with a set of values, and how those values stem from your own subjective views and what is valued in your wider community. But it doesn’t fully answer the question of what activities give meaning to a life, because May’s approach says the meaning comes from how you pursue an activity rather than what that activity is.

In other words, if I spent my life a steadfast watcher of football, or player of tiddlywinks, or pacing up and down the same road for hours on end, then if you admit that you can be engaged in them even if they might appear ultimately pointless, then would they be just as meaningful as steadfastly playing football, engaging in politics, or looking after your kids? I’m not entirely sure this seriously thought-provoking book adequately answers this.

Advertisements

Books I’ll never write #5: Philosophy of the weird

Philosophy of the weird: Life and beyond according to Lovecraft, Ligotti and co

Are we always acting at the will of something beyond our understanding? Are humans an insignificant part of an indifferent world? Is there always an unnamable, uncontrollable part of us ready to emerge at any time?

In this book that I’ll never write I’d explore the philosophical ideas in the work of weird fiction writers, especially Thomas Ligotti and his predecessor Lovecraft.

What we find, in the end, is a philosophy for our times: a pessimistic one for sure, but also one that recognises that far from the lies of democracy and liberalism and secularism, life is often hard, sometimes pointless and mostly out of your control.

Topics and chapters:

– Freedom, determinism and mannequins

– The nature of power and the political

– The unknown, the Real and beyond

– Anti-humanism and existentialism

– The Nietchzean super human and dark power

– Slipping off life’s margins beyond reality

My work is not yet done – Thomas Ligotti

This is the closest thing to traditional writing that I’ve read by Ligotti, but it doesn’t disappoint in its dose of supernatural horror and, in fact, humour.

Frank Dominio is a supervisor at a large corporate; he tolerates the mundane work but despises his colleagues, especially, six supervisors of other departments and their boss Richard, which he dubs ‘The Seven.’

After making a proposal for a new product to The Seven, they conspire against him and he is sacked. Frank plans revenge by visiting a gun shop and ordering seven guns. All very Falling Down. But then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but entail a large black fog and, it seems, a mystical deal, he finds himself in his apartment in possession of supernatural powers.

He uses these to take revenge on each of The Seven, through some bizarre, macabre and disturbing acts. One of the seven finds herself sucked into an oozing substance in a door, for example, while another is trapped inside the body of one of Ligotti’s trademark motifs, a mannequin.

Frank only comes unstuck when it transpires that Richard himself has some supernatural links and that his earlier deal allowed him to kill only seven people; a problem because he had to deal with another office worker during his activities (trapping him in a never-ending series of doors.) To be honest, this results in a slightly weaker ending than I’d have expected, but nevertheless the book remains great regardless.

I love Ligotti’s work – his writing, his ideas, his weirdness – and this book is no exception. In fact, it’s got everything you’d want from a Ligotti story but puts it into a scenario it’s easy to relate to – dissatisfaction with all the bullshit of work – making it in many ways a stronger and perhaps more disturbing read.

The Fellowship of the Ring – JRR Tolkien

One of those novels that is so foundational to the whole fantasy genre and much more, The Fellowship of the Ring is a book I wanted to re-read but found that, although I loved the world building, it’s maybe a weaker book than the Tolkien I’ve just read, The Hobbit.

The imagination, the world building, is, of course, astounding. What is great is how so much of it is the core of a now-established mythology – the creatures, the language, the ideas, they are found in different ways throughout popular culture. Orcs, goblins, hobbits, dwarves… everything. I’m not sure how much Tolkien invented and how much he borrowed, but it’s clear he builds a systematic world around them. Even things like Lembas, the life giving Elven bread, is the name of a wholefood wholesaler in Sheffield, for example…

Great too is the building of the ‘company’ with all their quirks and different skills. The introduction of Aragorn or Strider in particular is captivating, he’s such a strong character; and the company’s gradual bonding as they travel for months on end through dangerous or arduous territory is powerful.

But, as the first part of a trilogy, this feels like a pretty slow start. Despite some big moments, most notably Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog and Boromir’s challenge to Frodo over the ring, much of the book is scene-setting and descriptive, with the major battles yet to come in the second and third parts. The language too, especially the dialogue, is pretty antiquated.

I think the major drawback of the Fellowship of the Ring, as opposed to The Hobbit has, is that it lacks two important things.

Humour. Perhaps because the latter is written for younger audiences it’s a big lighter, more fun to read, whereas in the Fellowship there’s a lot of drudgery, which makes it ultimately less enjoyable, denser maybe and lacking an element of joy.

Second, moral ambiguity. Whereas in The Hobbit the ring is a corrupting influence – with Gollum a clear example, but even Bilbo struggling to do the right thing at times – in the Fellowship there is a much clearer sense of right and wrong with characters like Aragorn, Legolas and Frodo rarely tempted by darkness. And this lack of depth makes it in some ways a thinner book than The Hobbit despite it being twice the number of pages.

The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

One of Ligotti’s finest short stories, The Town Manager is a disturbing allegory for urban politics and decay.

In an unnamed town, the protagonist tells of the role of the Town Manager, whose job is to run the town. The last one – the latest in a long line – has disappeared, and a new one comes along.

Their first job is to undo the best work of previous managers, in this case getting residents to destroy the tram service, with the driver found dead. Then they demand everyone in the town change the organisations and businesses they run, creating a bizarre carnivalesque world, in which shop fronts open into distorted or horrific scenes.

The narrator discovers that there are brochures for the town in nearby places, and the town manager has been marketing it as a bizarro-town to visit. It’s a success for a while, but when the tourists die down the town manager disappears.

The narrator leaves the town and travels through nearby no-hope towns until, in a diner, he meets a stranger whose job is to recruit… a town manager.

Like so much of Ligotti’s writing this is a great story and more: an indictment of political power and the willing gullibility of citizens, when there is no hope or wealth in a perhaps once great American city.

“For anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather overcrowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.”

JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Time Machine – HG Wells

What a fantastic book this is, managing to unfold a gripping and hugely imaginative plot whilst introducing some great ideas about the dangers of technological advance.

The story is pretty straightforward. An inventor and experimenter creates a time machine and travels forward tens of thousands of years. When he arrives he discovers the apparent humans – the Eloi – inhabiting the planet are small and foolish. After some time there his time machine disappears, and at that point he discovers underground-dwelling creatures, Morlocks, that seem to have stolen his machine and pose a danger to the Aloi. He befriends a female Eloi – Weena – and then embarks of the discovery of his machine, a struggle against the Morlocks and a return to Victorian Britain.

The plot is good but even better are two ideas that the narrator – the story is told in first person by the narrator – raises.

One is a pretty Marxist take on a dystopian future – he wonders if the Morlocks are the workers, forced to live and toil underground for the ruling Eloi class.

And he wonders this because of a second more interesting theory he proposes: that the Eloi are future humans; they are lacking in intellect and skills because technology has developed so fully that they no longer have any need to do or think anything for themselves and so have degenerated into a race of simpletons. It’s a great idea, and one that is surely more relevant than ever in a world where robotics, automation, AI and technological capabilities are taking away the need for human agency more and more.

Gas Station Carnivals – Thomas Ligotti

I’m not sure this is one of Ligotti’s best stories, but the concept, the image it conjures up, is one that stays with you as much as anything he’s written.

In fact I’ve read this before and the story has been with me for over a year, urging me to have another look, so I did.

An unnamed narrator is in the Crimson Cabaret bar, and meets Stuart Quisser, an art critic he knows. The narrator reminds Quisser that he’s been rash by offending the crimson lady who owns the bar, a powerful women, and Quisser then begins an odd reminisce about when he was younger. He explains he used to go on long journeys with his parents and stop off at gas stations in the middle of nowhere where, hidden round the back, were broken down carnivals with shows by odd performers like the ‘human spider’ and the ‘showman’.

Quisser leaves the narrator to his drink (mint tea to settle his stomach for some reason), but then it transpires first that Quisser was never at the cabaret, then that it was the narrator not Quisser who offended the crimson lady, and then that actually the crimson lady is powerless in the face of a waitress working there.

It’s classic Ligotti: uncanny occurrences, obscurity around everyone’s intentions, odd interactions between characters, a series of unexplained events, and some strange and eerie images all the way through.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

There’s so much hype about the film version of The Hobbit it’s easy to forget that it’s quite an understated book with a more complex take on morality than you might think.

The novel follows the journey of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit torn between homeliness and adventure. He is visited by a troop of dwarves, led by former King Thorin, and the wizard Gandalf. They persuade him to join them on a journey to reclaim the dwarves’ stolen treasure, guarded by an enormous and dangerous dragon.

An epic adventure ensues, meeting trolls, goblin armies, giants, elves, men, enormous spiders, golum – when Bilbo finds the invisibility ring – and eventually arriving at the mountain on the other side of Mirkwood, where they wait to enter and steal the treasure.

Their desire for the treasure is so strong that obstinate Thorin nearly begins a war between the elves, men and dwarves. It’s only Bilbo and, more significantly, an approaching goblin army that unites the three armies against a shared enemy.

In my mind, before reading this, I associated The Hobbit with a pretty blunt good versus evil morality tale, but reading it I see there are in fact some psychological subtleties. The three races of dwarf, man and elf are all good, in contrast to the goblins, but to some extent corrupted by money. The dwarves in particular almost cause a war with the elves and men because they won’t give up any of their fortune they consider theirs. It’s a position that is understandable given the historic theft of the gold and the consequent impoverishment of the dwarf kingdom, but nevertheless is short-sighted and foolishly selfish.

My feeling is that it’s quite a male book, because it focuses on war and gallantry and power – and because there are NO women characters, not a single female of significance in the whole book. So perhaps its story of what it takes to ‘do the right thing’ has a particularly masculine bent – I’m not sure – but nevertheless it doesn’t shy away from the competing drives that reside in the main characters, making it a good story with some satisfying depth.

“All of us had problems, it seemed, whose sources were untraceable, crossing over like the trajectories of countless raindrops in a storm, blending to create a fog of delusion and counter-delusion. Powerful connections and forces were undoubtedly at play, yet they seemed to have no faces and no names.”

Thomas Ligotti, Gas Station Carnivals

“It seemed as if darkness flowed out like a vapour from the hole in the mountain-side, and deep darkness in which nothing could be seen lay before their eyes, a yawning mouth leading in and down.”

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Modern Gods – Nick Laird

This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.

The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.

Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.

Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.

Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.

Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.

Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.

In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?

The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.

I’ve seen the future baby; it’s murder – Tara Isabella Burton

A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.

Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.

Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.

Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.

This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.

Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

A difficult book yes, but ultimately one full of insight, surprises and, at times, humour.

Flights definitely pushes against the boundaries of the novel form: a series of vignettes, essays and stories, some written in the first person, others in the third, others presented as facts in some way, what links the disparate entries together is the themes of travel and the body.

In fact, travel might be a bit narrow. Flights is about movement, though human travel is a big part of that. It includes the journey of a dead body, a brilliant rumination on the marvels of a plastic bag, the travels of Chopin’s heart, experiences of air travel, and most affectingly the story of a man whose wife and child go missing on a Greek island, and after he imagines his worst fears they re-appear untroubled, as if the freedom of being somewhere else made her realise the freedom open to her.

At the same time we get detailed rumination on the workings of the body, which Tokarczuk shows might appear a static entity but is in fact constantly in motion inside. It’s as if she’s saying that travel and movement are natural, they constitute the body itself and so global travel is inextricably linked.

An oddity of the book is that it presents travel and movement as a central part of the daily lives of writers, professors, holidaymakers, business travellers. But for so many, travel is forced upon them; their movement is in fact migration driven by poverty or war. The positive nature of travel loses its allure in this context, but it’s not something we hear about in Flights.

But this aside, Flights is a thought-proving book, surprising in both its content and its format.

“There are countries out there where people speak English… It’s hard to imagine but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures – even the buttons in the lift! – are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, wherever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes… I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.”

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

The Glamour – Thomas Ligotti

In classic Ligotti fashion, this short story – just ten pages long – takes us into a dark alternative world that exists within and alongside our own.

The narrator is out in the city looking for a late night cinema – something he often does, though whether that’s significant or not, Ligotti doesn’t tell us – when he stumbles across an intriguingly old-fashioned cinema. Suddenly it appears all the streets he’s walking through have become old-fashioned and uncanny, and he is drawn to enter the cinema.

The cinema itself is like something from another world; the screen alive, the dark room occupied by strange sensations and noises, with little life otherwise. It’s a ghost world. When he eventually exits the streets are back to normal, the entrance to the macabre theatre gone.

As is often the case in Ligotti’s stories, there is no explanation to why this happens – it’s because this underworld is simply part of our world, somewhere that you can easily slip into.

The Glamour is part of Ligotti’s story collection, Grimscribe.

Alain de Botton and John Armstrong – Art as Therapy

I know it’s not fashionable but I really like Alain de Botton’s writing. He manages to use philosophical concepts to provide non-specialist readers with insights they might not otherwise glean.

In this book he again uses the pretence of self-help – how art can make you a better person – but what he’s doing is more like practical ethics or simply offering thought provoking commentary.

Art as Therapy is both a meditation on how art can help people and a manifesto for the art establishment to re-think its public offer of art. His manifesto is essentially that art ought to be presented to the public as a way for them to understand their lives better, and sometimes even improve it, rather than as a history lesson or a piece of important work that they ought to learn about from the experts.

He splits the book into four main sections: how art can help you in love, in your appreciation of nature, in your dealings with money, and, more collectively, help us all politically. He uses art works of all kinds to give insights into a host of things, from how to see your loved one in a fresh light to dealing with the contradictory desires for a life driven by thought and action. Like in his other books, he is strongest on the sustenance we can get as individuals, in our lives and with nature, in particular, but there are great ideas throughout.

At the heart is an Aristotelian approach to being, and he regularly refers to art being a way for people to become the best version of themselves. He isn’t saying there’s a higher self just waiting to be discovered but rather that through patient work, by trying to understand oneself and use the insights offered by art, among other things, it’s possible to do more of the things that are of value in life, and fewer of the things that offer no value.

Yes, you could debate endlessly what’s valuable and what’s not, who decides etc. de Botton does briefly address this (though arguably with inadequate depth), but this book is not about that, it’s about appealing to common intuitions and problems to show that reflection on and experience of art can offer solutions. And on this Art as Therapy is a good book packed full of de Botton’s philosophical insight.

Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory

This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.

It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.

His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.

He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all

begins are becomes a recluse once more.

Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.

It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.

The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.

At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.

Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.

One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.

Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.

One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.

“I know very well that human beings are the subject of the novel, of the Great Western Novel, and one of the great subjects of painting as well, but I can’t help thinking that people are much less different than they generally think. That there are too many complications in society, too many distinctions and categories.”

Jed Martin speaking in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory