A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 2)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.


Beginning

Art reflects life and life during the early 20th century rise of Existentialism was fragmented and disjointed, at least it appeared thus based on Western man’s perception of the world, which in turn was based on ancient Greek notions of linearity. This is clearly laid out by Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics: drama (and by extension, life) must have a definable beginning, middle, and end – in that order.

For Western man, disruption of linearity leads inextricably to angst and anxiety. This is precisely what Existentialists like Heidegger (1889-1976) were trying to address.

For Heidegger, ‘time is no longer a reckonable sequence’ but instead ‘an inexhaustible inescapable presence’. In other words, real time, unlike time displayed on clocks and calendars, is primitive, primordial, spooky; real time, as understood by Heidegger, is all that man has and will ever have. Scandalously, sadly, said real time is also shorn from otherwise comforting pre-Reformation notions of eternity.

For Existentialists like Heidegger, real time is the reflection of a reality fraught with angst and anxiety, anxiety and angst that is the natural reaction to disruption within the ‘dense medium’ through which Western man drags himself every single day, the every day medium which is his existence, or Being.

As such, it’s little wonder, Barrett instructs, that early 20th century writers like Woolf, Eliot, and Forster, on the rebound from World War I, the first truly global conflict killing nearly 40 million, experimented with disjointed ideas of linear progression and calendar or clock time.


Middle

EM Forster

For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to her house, Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not.

He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat.

But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear), for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

TS Eliot

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify disconnectedness, especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity. For example, in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

As each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot ever be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Virginia Woolf

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections in a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

In Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected.

In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.


End

At the end of the day, all this fuss, literary and otherwise, regarding the disruption of logical linearity is merely a question of perception. There’s a reason, Barrett says, that unlike Western society, Oriental cultures did not give rise to Existentialism. Such cultures do not share the Western preoccupation with linear ordering and so have no need to examine or explain its breakdown.

In other words, the ordered, precise and linear world of Western society is nothing more than a mental construct reinforced by centuries of culture.

Change that construct, and you’re well on the road to resolving ‘angst’ or that deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety from which 20th century writers like Eliot, Forster, and Woolf and Existentialist philosophers like Heidegger, were suffering.

Might the 20th century efforts of these men and women shed light on the 21st century anxiety and angst which in the aftermath of Covid-19, we are now suffering?


(to be continued)

A Study in Existential Philosophy (Part 1)

My summer reading:  Willem Barrett’s 1959 classic, Irrational Man, A Study in Existential Philosophy.

From the beginning, Barrett reminds us that contrary to popular belief, the groundwork for Existentialism was not laid in the cafes and bars of 20th century Paris but much earlier, with the 16th century Protestant Reformation. With the iconoclasm that accompanied that movement, the psychic underpinnings of man’s here-to-fore meaningful cradle to grave lives was cast adrift. This left man face-to-face with ‘nothingness’, a stark and shocking reality that in the 19th century, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche made perfectly clear.

Both 20th century secularism and capitalism hastened our demise. By the mid-1950’s, when Barrett was writing, a new car or TV set delivered American men and women more meaning in their lives than ever could God. Onward forges capitalism until we find ourselves devoid of anything tangible to which we can hold except faceless corporations, sprawling factories, and of course, the next pay check.

By this time, it becomes obvious there is nothing left of the pious medievalist, much less classical Greek man. According to Barrett, modern man remains a mere fragment – a bare skeleton, of that long-ago man that as we are told in Genesis, was created by God in His own image. American president Donald Trump with recent his photo-op with the Bible, aptly sums this up for most, it’s not a pretty picture.

This is because with that picture, it becomes abundantly clear that we are an abstraction, at best, of what once we were. What’s worse, because of the inevitability of evolution, we cannot turn the tide. Now the gateway home to paradise, the Garden of Eden, is well and truly closed and locked. It is with this stark realization that we now all enjoy what the Existentialists have coined ‘angst’ or a deep seated, irrefutable, insatiable anxiety.

(to be continued)

Fire and Fury – as astrological assessment whether it’s more fact or fiction…

The official release date for the Fire and Fury, the book that President Trump apparently does not want us to read, was moved forward. We are told this decision was made by the publisher just hours after Trump’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter, claiming among other things, libel and breach of confidentiality.

release Fire and Fury.jpgWhat might we learn from the chart?

  1. Jupiter/Mars (17 Scorpio) are closely conjunct in the 9th house, traditionally the house of publishing and the legal system. According to Ebertin, the combination of Jupiter and Mars equates with successful creative activity and a fortunate decision, especially for learned people, jurists, writers, and government officials.
  2. Add to this that Pluto at 18 Capricorn sextiles that Jupiter/Mars, and we have a double dose of Pluto/Scorpio in the mix. According to Ebertin this suggests the ‘right’ (or correct) aim or objective as well as unusual successes. Doubtless, the publishers believe that their objective is ‘right’ although it remains whether others will come to agree. Unusual success? Likewise, time will tell but at the moment, it’s looking good.
  3. But what about the book itself? Is it, as some say, more fiction and fantasy than truth or does is have more substance than some might have us believe? Astrologically, I suggest that for this, we look both to the chart ruler (Saturn and Uranus as Aquarius is rising) and to Venus, the ruler of the 3rd house of communications.
  4. Saturn is very strong in Capricorn and is closely trine to the Moon in Virgo. This combination suggests conscientious attention to detail as well fear of compromise as the result of indiscreet actions. Astrologically, this is not what we’d expect if this book were the stuff of fantasy alone. Instead, this astrological signature is one of carefully researched material, which is responsibly presented with a constant eye on the potential repercussions should it contain information that isn’t at least  supportable, if not actually true.
  5. Uranus (24 Aries) is making a trine to Mercury (22 Sagittarius). This combination suggests astute intuition, intellectual pursuits, fortunate ideas, confidence, and optimism, as well as courage, determination, and sudden success. It’s true that the author and publisher of Fire and Fury stand to gain financially especially given all the attendant media hype. But this astrological signature also suggests that the book itself is something of an intellectual innovation and that it will influence others in unconventional and unexpected ways.
  6. Finally, Venus is in Capricorn. Here, she is neither weak nor strong. But in Capricorn, Venus is circumspect, self-controlled, and operating primarily from a sense of duty.  Venus is also closely conjunct the Sun, which suggests that, in the long-run, this book may benefit Trump (Sun = ruler = president) more than he might now believe.Unknown.jpeg

Summary = this astrological chart suggests that Fire and Fury is more fact than fantasy, at least in the sense that it is well-researched and circumspect. It also suggests that releasing the book early was a clever, and fortuitous move. Yes, it was a power play but one carefully thought out. The book can be expected to achieve something greater than mere financial success and in some sense, that was always its purpose. Interestingly, at the end of the day, this book may actually benefit President Trump.

 

The Future of Coaching – Vision, Leadership, and Responsibility

This afternoon, I joined the first of four webinars where Hetty Einzig speaks on the future of coaching.

Some of the ideas expressed were music to my ears.

1317552776The primary point, from which all else flows, is that the environment in which coaches practice now is not the same as it was forty years ago. Sports-based coaching models such as T-GROW still have much to offer, but they can no longer be our end game.

Although the implementation of change remains the primary purpose of coaching, it must be accomplished on a whole new level. No longer is it enough to pander to a client’s desires for increased personal performance. As coaches, we must accept that we now have a deeper and wider social responsibility than just catering to a single individual or organisation.

While it is true that the world has always been chaotic and confusing, it is even more so today not the least because technology reinforces this 24/7. If I’m sitting in New York during a terroist attack in Paris, I can experience Paris in real time from the mobile phone footage and the concurrent tweets of others. The resulting increased levels of stress and anxiety from this sense that no place is safe, ignites the need to control my environment.

If unchecked, such an intense focus on control leads to unsustainable levels of increased reporting requirements, accountability, security checks, validations, and authoritarianism. Feelings of lack of control and the unarticulated fear stemming from it, leads to increasingly divisive thinking – we are good and you are bad and so let’s build that wall ASAP!?

Yet this is not our reality. As technology makes our world smaller and smaller, we become more and more (not less) connected with each other. Although we like to believe ourselves to be throughly independent, we are not and can not be. That old adage that no man is an island has never been more true.

The great thing about coaching is that many of our clients are themselves in positions of tremendous power; movers and shakers, the initiators of change at every level. Instead of standing by the side lines and coaching these powerful men and women on how to become even more powerful, why don’t we partner up with them so as to better a more encompassing, ultimately more important, global  game?

All very well and good, you say, and of course you’re right. Lofty ideals such as were expressed today are for the most part, well… lofty. However, I’m willing to give Hetty the benefit of the doubt at least through the next three webinars.

Stay tuned – more later.

The Glass Bead Game / the ultimate in coaching

One of my favourite novels is The Glass Bead Game, by Herman Hesse. It was published, I think, sometime in the 1940’s. Basically the plot revolves around a utopian community rather like a posh boarding school, where young boys are sent by their wealthy, influential parents to learn that they need to be tomorrow’s leaders. In most cases, at the end of their study, the boys go back out into the world where they become ‘movers and shakers’. However once in a while, a student does so well in his studies that he’s asked to remain at the school and devote his life to playing the Glass Bead Game.

Now, this game isn’t any ordinary game – indeed as readers, we don’t get a detailed sense of what it really entails. However, through the lens of the novel’s hero, Joseph Knecht, we do learn that it requires wide-ranging skills in areas as diverse as science, music, literature, art, history, western philosophy and eastern spiritualty. Interestingly, the game never has a winner – that is not its purpose after all. Best I remember (it was a long time ago when I last read it), the game is meant to push the players to become ‘all that they can be’ – sounds a good deal like coaching and not surprisingly, our hero, Joseph, does undergo a good deal of coaching.

Unknown-1.jpegOnce he’s Magister Ludi (head of the school and master of the game), Joseph’s time and attention becomes so much in demand, that he requires a personal coach to help him manage himself.  Not so unlike the busy CEO of a Fortune Five Hundred, I should think. He needs to manage his emotions, his people skills, time management, etc. etc.

But something goes wrong along the way (as it does in novels). Maybe the coaches weren’t focused enough or Joseph simply loses his way? Anyway, by the novel’s climax Joseph questions his loyalty both to the school and the game and asks to leave. Unfortunately, he failed to realise that he no longer was prepared for life outside his cloistered world – and only several days after attaining his ‘freedom’, he dies of a heart-attack whilst swimming in a cold mountain lake.

When I first read this novel, the thing that struck me was how narrow Joseph’s focus had become over the years – although he was wildly successful at his game, he seemed to be failing at life. Joseph’s situation is not an isolated case. How many times have you seen professionals so focused on performing well in their jobs that their marriages end, their kids hate them, and/or they end up very ill or dead?

In regards to coaching practice, this highlights something that I’ve been concerned about for some time. I take the point that I’m coaching adults – and hence not responsible for setting their goals. But don’t I still have some duty to my client when I clearly see him/her heading down a path that is all too likely to lead to his/her own cold mountain lake?

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us

In the western world, you have a duty of self-improvement – to be authentic, competitive,  thin, attractive, and (among many other things) coiffed and couture.

But did you realise that all the standards to which you aspire are culturally determined, even though you are meant to believe you developed them yourself?
shutterstock_514931104Worse, you’re so intent on becoming the hero/heroine of your own story and (after minor setbacks) living happily ever after, that you fail to question what being ‘happy’ really means. Worst of all, being (or pretending to be) ‘happy’ is so integral to 21st century life that when you realise that you’ve failed in any way, you’re bereft.

After all, isn’t it true that if you fail to achieve your dreams, you have no one else to blame but yourself? Isn’t it true that if you only try hard enough (coaching, self-help books, and/or motivational speakers) you’ll bound to succeed? Isn’t it true that there’s nothing that you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it?

No.

At least, this is the answer provided by Will Storr, in his recent book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed & What It’s Doing to Us. According to Storr, the hard, cold reality is that you are imperfect and will stay that way.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t improve yourself. Of course, you can and you should! But it does mean that as long as you keep comparing yourself to an unachievable standard of perfection, you will never be happy. Make no bones about it, the pressure to be perfect (and consequently, happy) is so intense as to make you chronically miserable (or worse).

Power and Promise – Utopian Propaganda & Orwell’s Animal Farm

imagesIn the preface to his Ukrainian Edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell says that his reason for writing the novel was to reveal what he believed to be the Soviet myth underlying Socialism – the political and economic model that he wholeheartedly embraced. According to Orwell, nothing had caused greater harm to the Socialist movement in England than that the majority of English people so blithely accepted the ‘lies of totalitarian propaganda’, apparently incapable of assessing the true nature of either the Nazi or Soviet regimes (Orwell, 112).

Propaganda, defined for this essay as ‘opinion management’ (Welch, 3), is oft associated with falsehood and lies, even though in reality, propaganda is ethically neutral (Welch, 17). Much of the ‘bad’ propaganda, like we have come to associate with the likes of Hitler and Stalin, is down to marketing of the utopian dream (Roemer, 103). Perhaps the reason that this type of propaganda gets such bad press is that, etymologically, utopia is both a ‘good place’ that is ‘no place’ (Vieira, 4)? After all, if the utopian dream carries with it both the affirmation of possibility as well as the negation of its fulfilment, then it ought to come as no surprise that attempts to put utopian ideals into practice will fail. But, as Orwell laments, such failure often does come as a surprise, not the least because people did not wish to see coming (Orwell, 111). So if ‘bad’ propaganda aims to sell us the impossible dream then what might we do to get a better grip on it? David Welch (17) suggests that to make more informed decisions about propaganda, we must gain a better understanding of its nature and process. I suggest that in achieving this worthy goal, Orwell’s novel may offer us valuable assistance.

Animal Farm recounts the rise of Soviet communism in the form of an animal fable wherein a democratic coalition of animals urged by Old Major, a prize-winning boar, over-throw their human oppressor, Mr Jones. Old Major kicks off the revolution by singing a catchy song entitled Beasts of England – bringing ‘joyful tidings’ of a ‘golden future time’ when the ‘fruitful fields of England’ shall be ‘trod by beasts alone’. Propaganda works best by reducing shared cultural ideologies and cosmologies – especially in regards to a lost Golden Age – to its lowest common denominator, that which is marketable for mass consumption (Welch, 10). Old Major knew this; he markets his vision of an English Arcadia, a lost utopian pastoral dream, to a mass of animals all too willing to consume this ‘new outlook on life’ (Orwell, 9).

The takeaway point is that propaganda works best when it sharpens and focuses existing trends and beliefs (Welch, 11). It is no accident that Old Major chooses a night when Mr Jones is too drunk to feed the animals to suggest his glorious alternative. By appealing to the animal’s dissatisfaction with their ‘miserable, laborious, and short’ lives when their stomachs are empty (Orwell,3- 5), Old Major not only focuses their generalised complaints on a specific cause but also encourages them to embrace an apparent solution. Old Major also knows that propaganda works best when it focuses on simple, strong, easily identifiable (black and white) emotions such as love/hate (Welch, 8). He directs the animal’s now heightened sense of injustice to its ‘single’ root cause – ‘Man’ – ‘the only really enemy we have’ (Orwell, 4). After this, Old Major has little more to say except to warn the animals that they must never become like Man (Orwell, 6).

The takeaway point here that there must be a meaningful correlation between the inspirational hopes generated by utopian propaganda and the citizens’ everyday reality; get the mix wrong and reader/listener disconnects (Vieira, 8 and Welch, 17). But get the mix right – pitch to a hungry animal that his life is one of ‘misery’ and ‘slavery’, then he will not only connect but connect strongly; the ‘soil of England is fertile’ and the ‘climate is good’, right? Then it only makes sense that such a place is ‘capable of affording food in abundance’, if only the animals put their backs into it. The principal energy of utopia is hope – a reaction to an undesirable present combined with an ardent desire to tackle all impediments to achieve that imagined alternative (Vieira, 6). Yet when, as is inevitable, the alternative itself carries impediments – i.e. there would be no sugar after the Rebellion (Orwell, 10) – then it is imperative to let no one (not even the pigs, who are undeniably ‘brilliant talkers’) brush aside these concerns. Elsewise, a dangerous precedent is set, one that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse, as the animals discover to their dismay. The question of whether or not they would continue to have sugar may not have been key to the future success of Animal Farm but when they later raise more important concerns – i.e. why the pigs should be the only ones to enjoy the best food, apples and milk – they are ever more easily brushed aside. Even though it may not be justifiable the pigs get all the good food – especially when this violates a basic tenet of Animalism – i.e. all animals are equal – these hapless animals quickly find that they have ‘no more to say’ (Orwell, 23).

With any utopia comes issues of power (Pohl, 51). Hence it should come as no surprise that propaganda is often used as an instrument by those wishing to secure or retain power in times of stress and turmoil (Welch, 4). This is most certainly the case in Animal Farm. After Old Major dies, the initial democratic coalition quickly gives way to consolidation of power in the pigs. After all, not only are they more clever than the other animals (they are ‘brilliant talkers’), but they also know how to read. Later, rivalry between Trotsky and Stalin after the death of Lenin is symbolised by the struggle for pre-eminence between two pigs, Snowball (Trotsky) and Napoleon (Stalin). In both cases, historical and fictional, utopian idealism falls by the wayside when the thirst for power rears its ugly head. Yet even though the animals were ‘silent’ and ‘terrified’ when Snowball is viciously expelled from the farm by Napoleon’s dogs (Orwell, 35) for no good reason, they were not yet finished with power plays.

Inherent in most utopias is the need for strict state/government regulation of every aspect of life (Pohl, 51). If each cloud has a silver lining, then each bright, shiny utopia has a ‘dark side’ – flying too high must, eventually, lead to a fall (Vieira, 14). Not only that, but if the citizens themselves are to fly high – maintain those impossible utopian standards, then a rigid set of laws are a must to keep them in line. How else will their ‘unreliable and unstable’ natures be repressed – the most pernicious not which is pride (Pohl, 57). Although forewarned that they might need to sacrifice some of their eggs for the common good, when the hens learn this will mean all of their eggs, they cry ‘murder’ (Orwell, 49); luckily only nine hens die as the result their ‘determined effort to thwart Napoleon’s wishes’. But still, this is not the end. The cruel methods by which Stalin eliminates the rest of his‘enemies’, is parodied by the fallacious confessions and cruel executions of all those whom Napoleon has come to distrust.

Years pass.

Life for everyone but the pigs, deteriorates.

Disillusionment sets in.

Finally, Napoleon invites a human farmer named Mr Pilkington to dinner and declares his intention to ally himself with his human neighbours against the working classes in both the human and animal communities. Worse, Animal Farm must revert back to its original name, Manor Farm. Watching this meeting through the farmhouse window, the common animals are no longer able to tell which are the pigs and which are the human beings – the only warning given to the animals by Old Major having been (sadly) ignored.

The End.

Undoubtedly, the promise of a Paradise on Earth is appealing; all the more because the masses to whom it is being marketed are generally ‘politically apathetic’ yet prone to ‘ideological fanaticism’ (Welch, 10). Undoubtedly, this is the case in Animal Farm. Even after all that has happened, at the end of the day the animals never give up hope – not for ‘even an instant’ do they lose their ‘sense of honour and privilege’ in being members of Animal Farm (Orwell, 85). Yet if they had realised that ideology is only a system of ideas and ideals (OED, n, 1), that ideals exist only in the imagination (OED, adj. 2), and that ideas are only thoughts and suggestions of possible courses of action (OED, n, 1), the animals story might have turned out markedly different. Instead of allowing their opinions to be managed such that they blithely accept utopian propaganda as their blueprint to bliss, they should instead have viewed it as a strategy for evaluating the reality of the present as well as one possible programme for gradual (responsible) change (Vieira, 21).

 

 

Bibliography

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Pohl, Nicole. ‘Utopianism After More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment’, (51-78). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Roemer, Kenneth M. ‘Paradise transformed: varieties of nineteenth-century utopias’, (79-106). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Vieira, Fatima. ‘The concept of utopia’, (3-27). The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Welch, David. ‘Opening Pandora’s Box: Propaganda, Power and Persuasion (3-18). Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to WikiLeaks, ed. David Welch. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.

Original Thinking

Feeling the need for positive change?

With the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Sagittarius, the next couple of days offer the perfect opportunity to initiate it and during this precipitous period, your strongest asset will most definitely be original thinking.

Case Study:

Queen of the Desert –  tells the story of British-born Gertrude Bell who was not only an adventurer, spy, and archaeologist but also political powerhouse for positive change.

 

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  • it’s 22 March 1921,
  • final day of the Cairo Conference,
  • last chance to determine the postwar future of the Middle East,
  • members of the British delegation have stopped for a photo-shoot,
  • to the amusement of all, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill has just fallen off his camel,
  • TE Lawrence (otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia), is uncomfortable in his pin-striped suit and trilby,
  • between them  in a rose-decorated straw hat, is Gertrude Bell – the sole delegate possessing information indispensable to making the Conference successful.

How did Bell, a female descendant of Cumbrian sheep farmers, arrive at this pinnacle?

For details, you’ll need to read Bell’s biography by Georgina Howell or see the fabulous movie (2015) starring Nicole Kidman.

But I can tell you that the huge success enjoyed by Gertrude Bell  was not achieved by thinking like all the other Edwardian ladies!

The Meow of Kafka’s Metamorphosis


The Meow of Kafka’s Metamorphosis

 

 

 

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten.”

Thus begins the Meowmorphosis by Coleridge Cook– a quirky parody on Kafka’s magical realism novel, Metamorphosis. Although superficially Cook’s story parallels Kafka’s, in more substantial terms it differs significantly and it is through these differences that I wish to investigate what I perceive is one of the most important purposes of magical realism and how such purpose can be best achieved.

According to Maggie Ann Bowers (20–21), what is meant by the term magical realism is in dispute and can be best resolved through careful delineation of both the terms “magic(al)” and “realism”.  The foundation of “realism” rests on Descartes’ proposition that truth is that which can be discovered through sensory perception (Bowers, 21). In other words, truth is established in the mind’s reconstruction of it (Dupré, 80). From the mid-18th century onwards, Cartesian thinking has dominated Western perceptions of the world.

However, once, a long time ago, men held a more holistic view in which form and meaning were unified in the single – albeit complex – kosmos – the ordered totality of being (Dupré, 15-19).  I suggest that the term “magic(al)” which Bowers defines as the assumption that extraordinary things have really happened (Bowers, 21) is in reality a return to kosmos where the realm of appearances yields no genuine knowledge but only opinion (Dupré,18).

Clearly these two worldviews are at odds.  However I suggest that through their fusion (i.e. returning full circle to kosmos), magical realism authors achieve one of their primary (postmodern) aims – to challenge the assumptions upon which the establishment ‘truth’ is constructed.  In this regard, the purpose of magical realism is similar to that of the postmodern sublime which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, depicts the un-representable as outside the realm of perception in order to keep the focus on within rather than without so as to provide insight about how one perceives his world (Lutzker).[1]

According to postmodern concepts of the sublime, we establish boundaries through cosmologies or a “fitting order” (Angelo, 16). The sublime (as does, I suggest, magical realism) requires a certain type of cosmology–a psychologically spatial orientation of something that is “me” and something that is “other than me” (Angelo, 17). It is through the shift between this microcosm and macrocosm and back again that one enlarges her perspective. Thus I suggest that the greater the disparity between me/realism and other than me/magic, the more effective is magical realism in encouraging readers to search for the narrative clues that will broaden their horizons. Conversely, the less disparity, the more likely readers are to accept the authorial perception of truth without question.

So how do Kafka and Cook stack up? In both their novels, readers are confronted with a typical magical realism ploy.  In the “real” world men do not wake up in the morning having been ‘magically’ transformed into animals.  Similarly, in both novels all the characters do not question that such things are possible.  Disparity for certain.  However, while in Kafka’s story, Gregor becomes a cockroach (or in the German literally an “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”), in Cook’s version, he becomes an adorable kitten.

The image of a cockroach is truly disgusting. We expect bad things to happen and we are not disappointed. By choosing the cockroach, Kafka has established an immediately disparaging and depressing link between his imagery and his overall theme – the risks and rewards of an individual’s conformance with the demands of society.  Cockroaches are lowly creatures indeed.  One can be pretty certain how a cockroach will fare.  Not much disparity there.

Alternatively, to explore the same theme, Cook has chosen an extremely pleasant image–an adorable kitten. Here, readers are not certain what to expect.  Although cockroaches are easily understood as being something to be squashed underfoot, kittens are not.  Indeed in many societies it is just the reverse.  Yet somehow the reader has a niggling fear that things will not work out well. Elsewise why would he be reading the novel? If the aim of magical realism is to broaden readers’ horizons through disparity, then surely the more challenged the reader is to unravel the narrative’s mystery, the more challenged are their cherished assumptions about ‘truth’?

Equally, by choosing the image of a furry kitten, I suggest that Cook has made sounder use than Kafka of Gregor’s treasured picture of the woman in the fur coat.  It is commonly believed that this picture is a metafiction alluding to Sacher-Masoch’s sadomasochistic novella, Venus in Furs and while Kafka provides few, if any, clues as to why this would enhance his theme, Cook provides them in aces.  By introducing an adorable furry kitten that is both the willing and unwilling subject of serious petting by his sister, Cook shines a direct spotlight on Gregor’s potentially incestuous relationship.  Might it be that like the hero in Venus in Furs, Gregor is so infatuated with his sister that he has become her slave and this is the reason he encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways?  Does he…(you know what)… or doesn’t he…?  Uggh.  Plenty of delightfully dark disparity here.

Finally, it is Gregor’s escape from and subsequent return to, his family after his trial by the other cats of Prague (during which he confronts his cowardly ways), which I suggest provides the most insight about Gregor’s ordeal.  While such an extended internalized character exposé (it goes on for twenty or so pages) might be seen as a weakness in that it leaves less to the reader’s imagination, I welcome it. In my view it is only because Gregor finally takes an active decision that we can understand, that we can believe that he is for “real”.

In summary, when Gregor becomes a cockroach, it’s easy for readers to fall into the lull of yet another rant in support of victims of societal politics. However if one of the most important aims of magical realism is to challenge our automatic perception of “truth”, then I suggest that Cook bests Kafka through utilizing the gloriously incongruous imagery of an adorable, furry kitten who, however OMG cute, possesses a “truly” tortured soul.

 _________________________________________

Bibliography

Angelo, Marie.  “Placing the Sublime: Cosmology in the Consulting Room” (15-45). On the Sublime in Psychoanalysis, Archetypal Psychology and Psychotherapy. ed. By Petruska Clarkson.  London: Whurr Publishers Lit., 1997.

Bowers, Mary Ann.   Magic(al) Realism. London: Routledge, 2004.

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism-A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Cook, Coleridge and Franz Kafka. The Meowmorphosis. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011.

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Lutzker, Emily.  “Ethics of the Sublime in Postmodern Culture – A Talk from the International Conference Aesthetics and Ethics”. http://www.egs.edu/media/research-database/ (7/4/2012)


[1] For an example, the French post-modernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that ‘hyperreal’ art stimulates audiences to evaluate reality through ‘self-seduction’.  So when faced with Disneyland imagery, the aesthetic response requires Americans to question whether this or their own lives represents the ‘real’ America (Butler, 112).

Literary Criticism / passage from Winterson’s ‘The Passion’ – how did I do?

The following is an extract from Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Passion.

After this, is my literary critique (close reading) of the passage.  It was written for a course.

How did I do?

…………………………

The surface of the canal had the look of polished jet.  I took off my boots slowly, pulling the laces loose and easing them free.  Enfolded between each toe were my own moons.  Pale and opaque.  Unused.  I had often played with them but I never thought they might be real.  My mother wouldn’t even tell me if the rumours were real and I have no boating cousins.  My brothers are gone away.

Could I walk on that water?

Could I?

I faltered at the slippery steps leading into the dark.  It was November, after all.  I might die if I fell in.  I tried balancing my foot on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness.

Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?

I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who’d walked across the canal like it was solid.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.

 

When we met again I had borrowed an officer’s uniform.  Or more precisely, stolen it.

This is what happened.

At the Casino, well after midnight, a solider had approached me and suggested an unusual wager.  If I could beat him at billiards he would make me a present of his purse.  He held it up before me.  It was round and nicely padded and there must be some of my father’s blood in me because I have never been able to resist a purse.

And if I lost?  I was to make him a present of my purse.  There was no mistaking his meaning. 

We played, cheered on by a dozen bored gamblers and, to my surprise, the solider played well.  After a few hours at the Casino nobody plays anything well.

I lost.

We went to his room and he was a man who like his women face down, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ.  He was able and easy and soon fell asleep.   He was also about my height.  I left him his shirt and boots and took the rest.

 

She greeted me like an old friend and asked me straight away about the uniform.

‘You’re not a solider.’

‘It’s fancy dress.’

I began to feel like Sarpi, that Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.  Many times that evening as we ate and drank and played dice I prepared to explain.  But my tongue thickened and my heart arose up in self-defence.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………..

 

This engaging passage is from Winterson’s postmodern, metafictional, magical realism novel, The Passion. [1]  In it, our heroine (Villanelle)[2] uses her romance with the married ‘Queen of Spades’ to investigate the discourse of (lesbian) passion through the motif of games of chance.[3]  That the reference to a deck of playing cards is the only clue to the identity of the object of Villanelle’s passion is significant.  In ancient myths, to know one’s name was to hold power over her.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

According to Christopher Butler, the most important postmodern ethical concern is the relationship between discourse and power (Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.44).  Through the discourse of power we are normalised – made ‘uniform’ – by inviolable truths thrust at us by advertisers, and political and religious leaders.  (Butler, 50). By pushing back at the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, Winterson asks us to challenge the discourse of power.   To do this, we must suspend our most cherished beliefs and what better way to do that than through ‘fiction?’

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, magical realism is a kind of modern fiction in which ’fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the reliable tone of objective realistic report.’ Magical realism urges the reader to set aside her usual assumptions and see her world through new eyes.  Magical realism turns away from science and empiricism and returns to folklore and mysticism in order to undermine the establishment’s established ‘truth’.  Only in this way can we hope to explore different ‘truths’ about our world and how we live in it.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, metafiction is a ‘fiction about fiction’, which ‘openly comments on its own fictional status.’  The technique is purposefully jarring so as to refocus the reader’s attention from the story to the process of storytelling.  The technique, especially in conjunction with the first person narrative, is often used for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to a friend relating a story, we are aware that it is filtered through her perceptions and prejudices.

This is wholly appropriate for our friend, Villanelle.  For even as she searches for meaning, she reminds us that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

As friends, we do trust her.  Equally, forewarned is forearmed.  Why the exhortation if all were as it would seem to be?  The heightened tension forces us, as Winterson doubtless desires, to pay even closer attention to the text.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

For readers to creatively address this question, Winterson must craft an atmosphere in which such things appear possible.  This she does par excellence.  Through imagery, we slip into the soft, slow, dreamy world of nighttime where, from personal experience, we know the borderlands of reality are blurred.

In the first paragraph, we discover that the surface of the ‘canal’ has the look of ‘polished jet’; we begin to relax with the onomatopoeia – polished – the ‘shhh’ of our mother encouraging us to stop fussing and fall asleep.   We sink further into the reverie as Villanelle takes her boots off ‘slowly’, pulls the laces ‘loose’, and eases them ‘free’.  We are invited to ‘play’ with her as she examines her own ‘moons’ (webbed feet) – ‘pale and opaque’ – ‘moons’ that even she is not certain are ‘real’.  The invoked lunar world is akin to the unconscious – a fascinating – yet dangerous place – in which intuition and feeling take precedence over rationality and thought.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

“Could I walk on that water?”  With this example of intertextuality, we are launched into the metaphysical, miraculous world of faith.  With this example of intertextuality, our spiritual selves are challenged to rise above the negativity of the material world to be fully realised in the bosom of God. By referencing the Bible (Matthew 14:22-33), Winterson cleverly triggers brand awareness.  God is a powerful spin-doctor.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

The powerful truth is that, without faith, there is no redemption.  Be not afraid.  Yet doubt not, we are not safe.  Without faith, we could still ‘falter’ at the ‘slippery steps leading into the dark’ and ‘die’ in the ‘cold nothingness’.  But if like Villanelle, we have faith to ‘step out’ of our normalised selves, we too, might walk ‘across the canal like it was solid.’  And this canal is not just any canal, but one at the Rialto in Venice.  It is entirely in keeping with the metaficitional technique for our story to be set in such a carnivalesque atmosphere.  It is entirely in keeping with magical realism to utilise hybridity.  By introducing a ‘real’ place into the magical (fictional) world – we are yet again reminded that there might be multiple planes of reality.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

In the next paragraph, Winterson introduces another dimension of the discourse of (lesbian) passion – gender politics.  Here, we find yet another metafictional reminder that as readers, we stand between the narrator and the story she relates.  ‘This is what happened.’ Do we believe?  Should we believe?  After all, if Villanelle were not trustworthy, then why would she take us into her confidence and explain that actually, she had not ‘borrowed’ the soldier’s uniform, but ‘stolen’ it?   Yet it is ‘well after midnight’ at the ‘Casino’.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

In this sequence, Winterson uses variations of the word ‘play’ three times in quick succession.  Repetition hammers home her theme that to achieve insight, we must enter into the spirit of play.  Such an invocation is a common feature in postmodern fiction.   Are we, as readers, willing to take a chance and ‘play’?  After all, it is an ‘unusual’ wager.

Or is it?  If we (women) win, we get a man’s ‘nicely padded purse’ (money and all that it offers).  If we lose, we forfeit our ‘purse’ – our female sexuality – our passion – our selves.  With this example of metonymy, we are confronted with the quid-pro-quo aspect of gender politics.  Oddly, although this association might be unpleasant, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves prostitutes, we realise that there is some element of bargain in our own gender politics.

Could the price of ‘playing’ ever be too high?

‘I lost.’

‘Face down’ and ‘arms outstretched’ – Villanelle is used by the solider ‘like the crucified Christ.’ Such imagery reminds us of the price both men and women pay for redemption from the ‘original sin’ (reputably) committed by a woman.  However, if we (women) are clever, we still might turn this around.  Villanelle does. Because the ‘officer’ (who is no gentlemen) was ‘about (her) height’, our heroine is able to steal his ‘uniform’ and, in effect, change places with him.

Donning uniforms make us ‘uniform’, normalised.  I am told that English schoolchildren wear uniforms for just this purpose.  Further, uniforms endow us, for better or worse, with the stereotyped qualities of those who usually wear them.  We’re in the army now.  Soldiers wear ‘uniforms’.  Soldiers are men.  In the ‘uniform’ world, women love men not women.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

When her ladylove suggests that despite her uniform, Villanelle is not a ‘soldier’, she replies that ‘it’s fancy dress’.  This conjures images of a masked ball, during which we have an opportunity to dress up and play at being something other than ourselves.  Being other than ourselves allows for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to ourselves relating a story, we are aware our stories are filtered through our perceptions and prejudices.  This is wholly appropriate for us.  For even as we search for meaning, we remind ourselves that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

‘I began to feel like Sarpi,’ says Villanelle.  ‘That Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.’  With this example of hybridity, we are yanked back from the brink.  Google Sarpi.  He is not fiction.  Villanelle’s statement is also a paradox.  Oddly, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves liars, we realize that we do not always tell the truth.

Many times during the evening of eating, drinking, and playing ‘dice’, Villanelle is ‘prepared to explain’ but her ‘tongue thickened’ and her ‘heart rose up in self-defence.’  Who among us have not had a similar response when faced with the possibility of losing that for which we have a passion?  Might we be more like Villanelle than we’d like to believe and if we are, where does that leave us in regards to whom we’ve believed ourselves to be?

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than one night?’

 

Winterson’s emphasis on play as well as her playful writing style seems to suggest that not only will we will never have an answer, but also we ought not to care.  As with all postmodern works, the question posed by the author is never the same as that answered by the reader.  Each of us has her own reality and – as the saying goes – fact is stranger than fiction.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

‘I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

­­­­­­­­­


[1] Winterson has chosen to write this novel in the Romantic Tradition that, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, relates ‘improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting’. Her choice supports the purpose of postmodern literature, which means to examine the impact of words on our lives. According to Peter Otto (“Literary Theory,” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age – British Culture 1776-1832, ed. Ian McCalman, Oxford University Press (1999), pp. 378-385), romance is intended to focus a reader’s ‘response to objects’ in such a way as to allow him to better ‘examine (his) passion.’  This is precisely the effect Winterson intends to achieve.

[2] In my chosen portion of text, Villanelle’s name is never disclosed.  However it is interesting to note that the poetic form, villanelle, is often used to express passion. The sledgehammer effect produced the two rhyming lines (aba) is potent and obsessive. Although Winterson does not utilize the villanelle form in my selected passage, her style is similarly repetitive and obsessive and I suspect that the name chosen for her heroine is no coincidence.

[3] While this section of the novel deals with lesbian – non-uniform – passion, other sections deal with other manifestations of passion.