“Mayakovsky could never have retired to the country to write poetry about raising cucumbers… he needed literature to be a form of action or work, just like fighting in a war or building a railroad.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed. Adventures with Russian books and the people whole read them

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The Wild Hunt

“The Wild Hunt is a spectral pack of hounds that careers through the air, sometimes with an equally spectral giant huntsman, making a ghastly racket… No matter the country or culture in which you meet the Wild Hunt, it brings with it doom, illness, death or some unwelcome news.”

John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales

#FolkloreThursday

At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell

A fantastic, readable and brilliantly explained history of the radical ideas of French existentialists that have shaped so much of modern thought and social change.

This wonderful book is a history of the lives and ideas of the originators of existentialism: Satre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Husserl, Camus. It’s traces the way their lives and ideas interact; or, especially, the way in which their ideas influence their and others’ lives.

From the early 1930s when they were founding their thinking, through the war, occupation and liberation of France, to the protests of 1968, Bakewell traces how their thought developed and how they put in into practice, both in artistically and academically, personally and politically.

She begins, after briefly introducing us to Satre and de Beauvoir, by talking at length about Husserl’s development of the philosophical practice of phenomenology, which so influenced Satre. The sense that the role of philosophy is to cut through the appearance of things, through the perspectives and ideologies that attach to things, and to describe the phenomena itself, in its essence, was she says, revolutionary. And it’s this sense of cutting through to the essence of what it is to be human, the being or ‘Daisen’ for Heidegger, that is central to existentialism, and it’s view that people are unencumbered by convention or history or ideology and are in fact radically free.

We get chapters on Heidegger, both because his philosophy was influential for existentialism, and because he is an interesting but flawed character because of his attraction to and refusal to denounce Nazism. And we get lots on Satre and de Beauvoir – their lives, their commitment to writing, their absolutely engagement in politics, and of course their massive influence. Bakewell is particularly good on why de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was such a revolutionary and important book for feminism and women’s liberation.

Bakewell, at a late point in the book, says she used to be naive and think what matters most in the world are ideas, that a focus on people’s lives is a distraction, but she has since come to see that people’s lives are the thing that matter. In fact, she is truly excellent at explaining the complex and highly abstract ideas of phenomenology and existentialism, and more than anything in this book she shows how lives and ideas interact.

Satre and de Beauvoir, for example, lived in ways considered quite shocking for their time – working constantly, an open relationship all their lives, childless, fervently committed to Soviet communism. Whether this radical freedom of their lives influenced their ideas or vice versa, who knows, but the connection of life and philosophy is clear.

And what’s more, Bakewell shows how their existentialist ideas were so influential in a period of social change – civil rights, student protests, anti war demonstrations, the Beat poets, sexual liberation, feminism… all of these movements were founded on ideas of personal freedom, of living consciously chosen and free lives, that were at the core of their existentialist philosophy.

“a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, cliches of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be.”

Sarah Bakewell describing phenomenology in The Existentialist Cafe

“The worst readers are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they can use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.”

Nietzsche in Mixed Opinions and Maxims – characterising me on more than a few occasions.

“Although my brother, to whom I’m close, asked solicitously what was the matter, I couldn’t tell him. There may no longer be much stigma attached to mental illness, but no one has any time at all for the supernatural.”

Will Self, A Figure of Speech

Wild Fire – Ann Cleeves

This is a classic piece of detective fiction, but one that tackles some interesting and quite political issues along the way.

It’s the story of detective Jimmy Perez tracking down the killer of Emma Shearer, who is a live-in help to Robert and Belle Moncrieff and their four kids. She is found hanging in the home of new comers to the island, Helena and Daniel.

It transpires that they have a relationship with her; Daniel had fallen for Emma because Helena is busy with her career as a successful clothes designer, to whom Bella works as a publicist.

There are plenty of other characters – Emma’s sometimes boyfriend Magnie, his bitter Mum Margaret, Christopher the autistic son of Helena and Daniel.

It’s a satisfying page turner but must interestingly, at the heart of the book are some interesting themes:

– Parenting and its impact on children is most central. From Emma Shearer’s abuse as a child to [spoiler alert] the treatment of the teenage killers Charlie and Martha, there’s a moral theme that bad parenting has a clear and detrimental impact on kids. It’s made all the more poignant with the news that Willow is pregnant with Perez’s child, and he is racked with indecision about how to respond throughout the novel.

– The divide between locals and newcomers. Much of Cleeves’ Shetland series teases out the tensions – sometimes explicit, often implicit – between born Shetlanders and English or mainlanders moving in. In this case it’s really clear that local Margaret is resentful of the wealthy incomers who transform the croft of her old lover into a swanky home.

– And I think it’s reasonable to think that Cleeves is sympathetic to the locals’ antipathy, with both sets of incomers wealthy families who treat people with disdain, particularly the snobbish Robert Moncrieff. In many parts of Wild Fire she’s portraying the arrogance of the rich, in particular with Emma treated as a skivy and her death seen by the Moncrieffs as an inconvenience to their otherwise successful lives.

Hans my hedgehog – Brothers Grimm

This is a bizarre and unsettling story, what you might call an amorality tale in the fine tradition of Grimm fairy tales.

A man and his wife are desperate for a child, the man saying he’d be happy even if it were a hedgehog.  The wife gives birth to a half boy-half hedgehog and they wish it would die, treating him badly until after years they force it to leave on the back of a rooster with just a cow and pig for company.

Hans the hedgehog breeds his animals until he has farm running through the forest, which he eventually offers to the town to butcher where he came from.

He is visited by two lost kings in succession who promise him their daughter’s hand in marriage if he guides them back to their kingdoms – the first lies but the second is forced to honour the promise, and the princess is to marry Hans the hedgehog. But on their marriage he is transformed into a handsome man, no longer part animal, and is reacquainted with his family, bringing his farming success and fortune with him.

What the hell is this about? If there’s anything it’s about it’s being careful what you wish for. The father wanted a child even it if were a hedgehog and so… The first king lied and so missed out on the chance of a successful farmer and entrepreneur having his daughter’s hand in marriage…

It’s also perhaps about purity – that the absolutely pure is not possible. Hans’s parents want a perfect child and are disappointed with Hans, the kings want something better and find that, in fact, Hans is more than he seems.

And it’s about survival, the lengths that people might need to go to in order to survive if they are thrown into the world on their own. The farming, the butchering, the deals, the trades.

But it’s not a morality tale. It’s more complex and intriguing and far less simple than that. It’s amorality maybe.

Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place – Benjamin Myers

This is a fantastic book. It’s beautifully written and, most importantly, is maybe the first psychogeography of a rural area that I’ve read.

The book reflects about a decade of exploring the woods, rocks and moors around the author’s West Yorkshire home, Mytholmroyd. It’s focused on a large piece of rock – Scout Rock – which looms above the author’s house, and that he explores every which way. But it covers more than that: wildlife, people, history, landmarks, events and issues of the local countryside.

My liking of it is probably helped by the fact that I live nearby and so know the places he’s talking about – but that said I’ve read similar explorations of particular places that I don’t know (like parts of east London by Ian Sinclair) and loved them too.

The writing style is poetic throughout, his descriptions of the landscape so accurate. He manages to encapsulate the wildness of the countryside at the same time as depicting its connectedness with the people.

What I love about this book most, though, is that it’s the first bit of rural psychogeography I’ve read. There are countless urban examples, especially in London – not surprising given its origins in Paris – but nature and rural writing tends to be very mono, tracing everything back to a history or naturalness, rather than roaming around a locale’s history, geography, philosophy and oral history, as psychogeographers like Ian Sinclair do.

Chantal Mouffe was spot on in the The Return of the Political 25 years ago. Think everything from the Boston Tea Party to Brexit, Le Pen to Trump…

“The growth of the extreme right in some countries in Europe can only be understood in the context of the deep crisis of political identity that confronts liberal democracy following the loss of the traditional political landmarks.”

and

“A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests. If such is missing, it can be too easily replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities.”

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.

The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.

We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.

We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.

We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.

And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.

What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.

“Since I was young I have always wanted to be in the landscape. Not passing through, skirting over or observing it from a distance, but in it. A part of it. Immersed so totally that it scratches the skin and stains the pores. Fills the lungs, the veins, the bowels.”

Benjamin Myers, Under the Rock

“Most writers lead double lives. They earn good money at legitimate professions and carve out time for their writing as best they can: early in the morning, late at night, weekends, vacations…

“My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm. I was in my early twenties, too young to settle down, too full of other plans to waste my time earning more money than I either wanted or needed.”

Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth

“Fat Charlie was thirsty.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt and his mouth tasted evil and his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins which was why it hurt to try and think, and his eyes were not just too tight in his head but they must have rolled out in the night and been reattached with roofing nails; and now he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold. Also, he wished he were dead.”

Neil Gaiman’s brilliant hangover description in Anansi Boys

Neil Gaiman – Anansi Boys

It’s hard to put your finger on what makes Neil Gaiman’s writing so good – it’s something to do with a gripping plot, shifts between the real and the magical, the likeable characters and, in this book anyway, the fact that things frequently work out for the best in the end.

Fat Charlie is the main protagonist, and it turns out is the son of the trickster god Anansi, which he learns only on his father’s death. He also learns he has a brother, Spider, who is a magical hedonist able to bend people to his will. And what he later learns, after visiting the realm of gods, is that Spider is in fact half of himself, his magical self, separated from him by the gods.

The plot develops after Spider visits Fat Charlie in London and takes over his life, sleeping with his girlfriend, Rosie, and causing problems at his work, with Charlie’s boss implicating him in fraud and money laundering that his boss has been committing for years. It culminates with Fat Charlie, Spider, Rosie, the boss and Daisy, an off-duty policewoman that Charlie has fallen for, all on a Caribbean island for the denouement.

It’s a beautifully plotted and written book, that makes you smile because it’s so good natured, relying on the power of the story and the characters, without stooping to grizzly deaths or sex to keep you hooked. At times it feels a little too nice, a little forced – like the bad things that happen wouldn’t be taken so lightly by the characters, that they would leave their mark more fully – but the sense of otherworldliness allows you to skip over them, just like the characters themselves do.

And there are some great scenes – not least Spider dining in a quiet restaurant with Rosie when suddenly Rosie transforms into a flock of black birds that peck and thrash and attack him, with the apparition of Rosie conjured by a bird woman-god that Fat Charlie has enlisted to get Spider out of his life…

How to Paint a Dead Man – Sarah Hall

After reading Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo and finding it one of the best and most memorable novels I’ve read, I had high expectations for this.

In some aspects it met them, but in other ways it was less fulfilling as a book.

It interweaves four stories: a woman whose twin has died and throws herself into an affair with a friend’s husband. Her Dad, a famous landscape artist and hedonist, who we learn about while he is stuck on the hills after an accident. An aged Italian artist who is close to death. And a young woman who has lost her sight and finding her way in the world.

There are links between them all, and Hall’s interest is in delving beneath the art, which is what animates much of their lives, to the relationships that make them – the Italian artist to his housekeeper, the woman to her sister, and so on.

At times it’s a little meandering, though the artist and his daughter are well developed characters and gripping to read about, especially as the daughter deals with the death of her sibling and the unexpected emptiness she feels and the chaos that ensues.

But what makes this book is the incredible language. Hall’s style is poetic but without any pretension, her descriptions vivid and ability to connect the reader to the people outstanding.

Compared to the long and thorough story of one person’s life of Electric Michelangelo, I found this less engaging, but it was nevertheless a book with language and style and characters to savour.

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book full of life but so much despair and sadness and horror that it’s at times both impossible to put down and hard to keep on reading.

It tells the story of four close friends who meet at university – JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. All of them become successful, unrealistically so in some ways (artist, architect, actor, lawyer respectively), but what the book focuses on is Jude’s life.

In his adult life a hugely successful lawyer, as a child he was subjected the most horrific upbringing and abuse – first in an orphanage, then at the hands of Brother Luke, then by Dr Traylor and finally in a children’s home.

He manages to present himself as a success, but beneath it is constant self-loathing, cutting and self-harm and an inability to connect properly with others because he is always holding back what he views as his real – and, he feels, depraved – self.

Eventually, in his forties, he establishes a relationship with Willem that, though hard for him, is the closest he comes to contentment, but which is then ripped apart by Willem’s death. At this point he lets himself go entirely, unable to control his core drives, with self-harm and starvation escalating, and his relationships with JB, his adoptive parents Harold and Julia and friend / doctor Andy falling apart.

This book is so so sad. The length of the book means we get deep into Jude’s psyche and history, neither of which are nice to read, but both of which explain his behaviour, his life. And his life is both, as the book title says, little as he is so self-limiting, but also big because he has experienced more than anyone ever should.

For me, this book made me reflect on two things.

That people of all sorts, even the most apparently successful or brilliant, might be hiding brutal personal truths or emotions or even physical scars beneath the surface of their personality or clothes. It’s obvious but the brilliant, brutal exploration in this book really makes it so apparent.

And second, that despite everything, therapy and time and love will not always allow people to overcome or come to terms with their past and live happily or lightly; sometimes the experience is so horrific that a person’s life is so badly damaged that they can never live without despair, pain or suicidal thoughts hijacking their every moment.

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.

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.