Why You Should Fall Asleep Reading American History

It happens to the best of us. Dear Americans, do not take this as a personal assault on your nation’s history- this is far from it. Instead, this is… well, just read the article.

Only yesterday I was reading “American History” by Paul S. Boyer when, at only page 6, I succumbed to irresistible slumber. And I am glad I did, because I truly could not bear it any longer. When you are reading a text that is drier than an apple ring in a toddler’s lunch, (sorry Boyer) it is easily done. Take the phrase: “Underlying the creativity and ferment of antebellum America lay the inescapable reality of slavery”. The present (the content, here) is engaging, but the wrapping (pompous language) is so uninteresting that it is almost too depressing to tear it off.

So, deprived of dreams and bored, the book slipped from my hands as I slipped into sleep. And then, a solid 40 minutes later, I woke up, and I still had 124 pages to go! But now, I felt refreshed like I had imbibed an elixir of concentration. I proceeded with my task and I managed to absorb some fascinating things about American History, like:

  • The theory New England Puritans had in the 18th Century that “God had chosen the Puritans to create in America a New Zion”, which clearly did not fade away after they had founded Massachusetts. This sense of narcissism, that America had such a unique role in history which was beyond that of simply capitalism and greed, is truly engrossing. Also, it does tonally remind one of:

maga

  • The 17th Century concept of indentured servants: these are like slaves (but with a couple more laws on their side) who have to work only for a certain period of time under their masters before they are free. They worked in exchange for a paid passage to the Colonies. As I study American History (you should be so proud of me for doing this external reading), I found it surprising that my course completely overlooks indentured servants, when  “one-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants”. Does nobody else think that is astounding? They typically spent four to seven years working before they could be free. Now there you were thinking that flights for the Christmas break were expensive. It is generally accepted though that Africans  initially “blended into a larger population of unfree labourers” before they alone eventually became enslaved. That is the truly horrific note, because it illustrates how at this point slavery was not societal (although obviously that was awful as well); it was consciously introduced. Many may imagine slavery was imported from the mother country into America, but evidently in the beginning this was not the case and instead was consciously integrated into a culture which had existed primarily without it.

 

  • Fake news existed in 1776. Who knew? Or, to be more accurate, people had their own special version of Twitter and Facebook back then, only showing them what they wanted to see. A specific example was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which published in January, sold nearly 120,000 by April. It is almost the contemporary equivalent of a vegan cookbook! Oh how times have changed. We really have become unintellectual. But many have cited Common Sense as the trigger to the Revolution, and how it determined the tone of the Second Continental Congress in May (where the Declaration of Independence was written).  To think that in the 18th Century a mere pamphlet could have such a monumental impact on the course of world history is astounding, is it not? One might think that Paine was a real pain, because he had just moved to America when he released Common Sense and called King George III a “royal brute” and therefore was incredibly disloyal. But actually, some of what he said did make a lot of sense, and are harmonious with the ideals of this blog:

61700-Thomas-Paine-Quote-He-who-dares-not-offend-cannot-be-honest

 

Anyway, I decided that even if I was reading A Very Short Introduction, it turned out not to be that short, so after my delicious nap I decided only to read the parts of the book relevant to my course. You can tell I consolidated and learnt some great facts along the way, but most of all, this moral:

DO NOT READ AMERICAN HISTORY IF YOU ARE TIRED. THE WORDS WILL SLIP THROUGH YOUR EYEBALLS AND THEN EVAPORATE AS LITTLE CURLS OF THOUGHT STEAM ABOVE YOUR HEAD SO THAT YOU’VE WASTED YOUR TIME AND WON’T BE ABLE TO REMEMBER ANYTHING LATER.

Instead, sleep, and then return to your work, refreshed, with a more receptive mind to even the driest of texts.

good point.gif

*Yes, sorry, this only works if you are on holiday and can just snooze around whenever. Apologies if that is disappointing news.

The perfect book to read on Halloween

Happy Halloween to you all!

Some people may want to be out and about dancing tonight:

dance

This can be fully recommended, because who doesn’t like wandering around at night and taking sweets from strangers? Right? But if you do prefer a quieter night in, away from all the ghouls and glamorous costumes, then you should definitely read The Monster We Deserve by Marcus Sedgewick.

Here is why:

  • It is set in an atmospheric and chilling cabin in the middle of the woods. There can hardly be anything more tonally appropriate for Halloween than that, as that is a classic settings for all horror stories ever. It almost seems like this book is and isn’t a parody of all horror stories. It contains all the classic features: ghosts, cabin in the woods, a victim and a monster, but there is a twist which is…
  • Frankenstein (and his monster)! This isn’t clear on the blurb, at least for the copy I bought, but the content of the book is about the protagonist’s encounter with Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein (read my review of that here). So there is a double blow of an amazing story (Frankenstein), within a ghost story (the actual text). This  may be a parody of Frankenstein too, as the fictional author complains about how many stories within stories there are within Shelley’s work!
  • The title is just so compelling. I mean- ‘The Monsters We Deserve“. I did not even look inside the book before I had decided to read it. This is the power of marketing, people. But it worked, so I guess it was fine to succumb to it in this instance. Yet actually think about that phrase. Do we deserve the monsters we get in life? Do we? DO WE?!
  • It is short so that you can read it in one sitting. Like on Halloween. 263 pages may sound like it is too weighty a tomb to tackle in one go, but actually the margins are very wide and many pages have artwork on them, so it is surprisingly fast to go through. This makes it perfect to read tonight, on the spookiest of nights.
  • The message of the book. Yes, it is about monsters and so links in with the witches/ mummy/ zombie/ creepy theme, but it is actually much more philosophical than that, because the “moral” of this book is that our actions define us. That “we are responsible for our creations“, and if we do not manage these creations or our actions carefully, they will grow out of our control and take on their own life, which in turn affects us. In an everyday situation, it may be that something you say will be taken wildly out of context; if you do not manage that carefully then people could end up accusing you of horrendous things based off rumours drawn from something which isn’t true to start off with. Just look at celebrities. It really is a powerful message worth noting.
  • The Front cover and the artwork inside the book is exquisite. Really. There are some forest drawings in the book which truly complement the content, whilst the cover is aesthetically pleasing. It is a book you do not want to hide away in your shelf, with only the spine facing the world. No!

the monsters we deseve

 

  • It is so quotable:

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not himself become a monster” (This is actually Nietzsche, but is featured in the book anyway)

“we are responsible for our creations”

“That is what Victor’s true crime is; not that he creates a man, but that, having created one, he does not care for what he has created”

“Monster means to think. A monster means to think. So all our thoughts are monsters?”

“Our creations end up creating us, in return. Create a lie, and you become one.”

 

So there you have it. Have a wonderful Halloween you spooky creatures and I hope that you have as much fun as these guys seem to be having!

cat 4 cat 3.gif

A Poetic Review IN GERMAN?!!

munich

Thoughts on Munich by Robert Harris:

 

München: Sie waren geschichtlich interessant,

Aber in diesem fall wurde ihre wichtigkeit verkannt.

 

Zugegebenerweise ein Buch über eine Tagung

macht so viel Spaß wie das Lesen einer Befragung,

 

also hinterher war es nicht äußerst schlimm.

Aber was besser ist als Robert Harris sind die Gebrüder Grimm.

 

Ihre Geschichten sind nicht basierend (ungleich München) auf Fakten,

wo ein Deutscher dem Engländer gibt die vertrauliche Akten.

 

Ja, sie versuchten den zweiten Welt Krieg zu verhindern

aber Chamberlain bevorzugte es zu schlendern

 

als zu lesen diese Dokumente. So nah! So weit weg!

Und am ende wird Deutschland doch in Polen Einmarschieren.

Prescription: A New Outlook on Life

cold
It’s that time of year when we all need a little medecine. This time… it’s literary 

Doctors are mythical creatures. You go to them, bleary eyed and aching, and somehow they know precisely what’s wrong. With a tap of their fingers, a magical remedy is conjured up and soon you feel in fine fettle. Said no one ever. Particularly Adam Kay, a former junior doctor, who wrote about his experience in This Is Going To Hurt. 

From the opening, he reveals his own apparent ineptitude when he was starting out as a medical student thrust straight onto the ward. But not only that, his book is revolutionary because it tells the hidden story of the NHS. Everyone hears about how it’s a dying beast; that funds are being cut and staffing is down.

NHS bill rally at Westminster

But then we scroll down to the next news story. But what does that mean in reality? Through his talk about triple shifts, more time spent working than not and even catching sleep in hospital beds, Kay does not paint an optimistic, nor reassuring, picture of the state of our National Service.

You would know. It’s like when you went to A&E with a bleeding leg, or broken arm, or a fever. Then you complained because you’d been waiting for 4 hours. Well, as it turns out, actually the medical staff weren’t punishing you by keeping you waiting. No, they were punishing themselves, relentlessly working, and if you were being pushed to the back of the queue, it should have been a relief because that meant that your problems weren’t as serious compared to those around you.

As written in the book:

“Medicine is the host who manages to keep you at their party hours after you first think about leaving.”

Perhaps that was something we all secretly knew inside us, though. That we’re never kept waiting out of spite, but due to staff shortage. But it’s like how many of life’s greatest messages aren’t surprising; it’s just that we need someone to tell us. And that’s exactly what This is Going to Hurt does. Trust me, you’ll never look at a doctor the same way again.

He also writes how the training, rigorous though it was, didn’t quite prepare Kay for the massive responsibility bestowed upon him from the outset, like having to deal with: gruesome ailments, unheard of sicknesses, births and even death. To sum it up, he said:

“It’s funny – you don’t think of doctors getting ill.’ It’s true, and I think it’s part of something bigger: patients don’t actually think of doctors as being human. It’s why they’re so quick to complain if we make a mistake or if we get cross. It’s why they’ll bite our heads off when we finally call them into our over-running clinic room at 7 p.m., not thinking that we also have homes we’d rather be at. But it’s the flip side of not wanting your doctor to be fallible, capable of getting your diagnosis wrong. They don’t want to think of medicine as a subject that anyone on the planet can learn, a career choice their mouth-breathing cousin could have made.”

You have to admit he’s onto something there.

There are of course hilarious anecdotes- of patients who enter the hospital for rather embarrassing reasons- and then somewhat inherently sad ones too. Like how the hospital staff have to pay extortionate parking prices. That sounds minor and trivial, but it meant that their losing 50% of their wage to a machine which, at the end of the day, would earn more than even them. And that machine doesn’t even know which way to put on hospital scrubs.

Oh, and a final thing I learnt from the book? Thanks to Kay’s detailed descriptions from his time working at Obstetrics and Gynaecology: that childbirth is brutal and somewhat disgusting.

 

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

SEPTEMBER BOOK OF THE BOOK

superhuman

When prisoners were asked to rate themselves in terms of how moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, compassionate, law-abiding, self-controlled, kind to others and generous they were, they said that they were better than average at 8 out of the 9 traits. Let’s read that again. Prisoners charged with violence and theft thought that they were more compassionate than the rest of the population. And had more self-controlled. Right, yes, that totally makes sense.

In fact, the only trait where they didn’t supposedly surpass  the rest of the population with was in ‘law-abidingness’, where they “rated themselves as equally law-abiding”. Which is ironic, as they were the ones behind bars. This phenomenon of wanting to elevate your own status is not new, and the vast majority of people when asked these very questions thought that they too are better than average at practically everything. Yes… I know, the maths for everyone being better than average doesn’t quite add up, does it?

So humanity are keen to establish their superiority over others. But who really are the best, the so-called superhumans of our race, and can we become like them? As Oscar Wilde once famously said:

oscar wilde gutter.jpg

 

No one likes the thought of being sub-par: yes, people are lazy and do things against their self-interest, but there is always a part of them that wants greatness. Fame, money, social recognition. It’s the way contemporary society works, and I am no different. The Ink Cloud hit the Fringe this past August, and during my free time I wandered into Waterstones (surprise surprise) with about £100 worth of book tokens to spend. As some readers may have gathered from my reading choices, I’m extremely interested in sport (namely triathlon). I will be the first to say that I am ambitious person whose overwhelming confidence in certain situations is almost laughable (as you can also probably tell from my posts). Unashamedly, I do want to succeed, especially in triathlon which I train a lot for. So it’s no wonder that Rowan Hooper’s book Superhuman captured my attention. I was drawn to the title and blurb, because I wanted to find out how I too can be like them: there was an attraction finally hearing the secret of how to be superior. It sounds unattractive perhaps, but I bet you feel the same way, too. Deep down. Don’t deny it.

In the book, Hooper finds those who excel in various walks in life, whether it’s their ability to be supremely intelligent, fast, resilient or even happy. There are many interviews and scientific studies, as well as witty quips. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for well-designed book cover, and the sprinter on the front really did it for me. Because if I’m going to part with £20 for a book, it may as well look classy. Right? Anyway, I was hoping to come to Superhuman to find some secret, some little insight into how I could reach the level of sporting success that I crave. Maybe ‘crave’ is the wrong word, because I train copiously everyday, so it’s not like I just sit in bed and hope for it. But you see what I mean.

Thus the main message behind Superhuman, I can exclusively reveal, is that genetics is at play. A could be called a useful catalyst. Nice to have, sure, but not essential. This is because time and time again it was actually hard work that was the driving force the success people experienced. Yes, elite runners with innate talent may have learnt to walk a little faster, but talent hadn’t woken them up at 5AM so that they can go to a pre-school training. What I took away from it all was:

1-hard-work-beats-talent-when-talent-doesnt-work-wam

But I knew that anyway, and you probably did too. Yet reading this book was nevertheless genuinely enjoyable and hearing about all these successful people truly drove that message home.

Cycle of lies: should Armstrong have been condemned?

lance
*Opinion formed from the excellent Cycle of Lies by Juliet Macur*

As a society we fundamentally value those who persevere in the face of adversity with unparalleled guile and strength. Think of people revered today: Usain Bolt, Steve Jobs, Hilary Mantel, Emmeline Pankhurst and Albert Einstein. They all had to push past some sort of boundary to become renowned in their field, and each thus achieved success in their own right; whether it was a world record, a Man Booker prize or a ground-breaking mathematics theory.

So, it makes sense that Lance Armstrong would be seen as the embodiment of the American dream and that he would take the world by storm with a never-ending list of cycling wins – including seven Tour de France titles. Take his domination in the sport and couple it with his cancer survival story (and the Livestrong charity that followed), and it should come as no surprise that he was embraced by the world. And if his success was unbelievable, then his fall was even more inconceivable.

At the time of his (in)famous Oprah Winfrey interview, there were media outbursts, there are news-grabbing headlines and there were far, far too many rumours. Reams of people ripped off their yellow Livestrong wristbands that were as ubiquitous amongst the public as drugs were in cycling. Everybody was shocked and all they knew was that Armstrong had cheated the public of their dream. The masses had relied on him, with posters above their office desk, to make incredible feats seem achievable for people with mundane lives like them. To lose that credulity cut them deep, and no-one was interested to hear the whole story. This was because it was so easy to condemn Armstrong. To point the finger and say that he was the evil, malicious ring-leader who shoved EPO into people’s veins. Problem solved, turn your back in shame at the lie you had so carelessly bought into.  But of course, it is never as simple as that. Nothing ever is.

To realise the intricacies of cycling at that time and Armstrong’s career, it is crucial to realise just how systemic drug use was. Everyone was on it. Everyone. The most impactful part of a book that I read on Armstrong (Cycle of Lies, Juliet Macur) is when Armstrong had been accused of cheating. That he had cheated the world of their dream and the other cyclists of a fair competition. Armstrong subsequently looked up the word “cheating” and saw that it meant getting an ‘unfair advantage’ over other competitors. He shook his head; he couldn’t believe his legal sentence. Doping wasn’t unfair, and it certainly wasn’t an advantage. As drugs become more prolific in the sport,  it became more a leveler than anything else. People didn’t inject themselves with brightly coloured liquids to guarantee victory; it was to ensure that they could just keep up.

This is where opinion comes in. To simplify the process, consider that you were a professional endurance runner. Imagine that there is a pair of shoes that can make any runner instantly 20% faster. The authorities are looking for the shoes, yet struggle to identify them despite the fact that all your competitors are wearing them. Without them, you are getting left behind because suddenly the whole field is miles ahead. What do you do? Do you sit in the dust, crying? Or do you pick yourself up, find yourself the shoes and know that the next time you toe the line, the best runner will win, because now everyone is faster, it makes no difference?

Because when everyone has drugs, there is no advantage.

It makes sense that Armstrong still considers himself the winner of the 7 Tour de France titles he originally won, even after he was officially stripped of them. Who else could they have actually gone to instead? Who wasn’t cheating? This isn’t like one outlier in the Olympic Games, where medals are re-awarded years later.

Of course, his attitude towards his teammates and the media was at times horrendous and outrageous. Often, the way he acted was absolutely horrific and no-one can condone that kind of behaviour. But that is not the point; the point is whether in a culture of doping, are there any real victims? Once it is omnipresent (and by the sound of it, it was) then doesn’t it just become another tool, like a streamline swimsuit in swimming or a type of aero-dynamic helmet in cycling? Another thing to make you faster?

A debate has existed in this vain for a long time. As we reach the limits of what humans are physically capable of, the question arises of whether drugs should become legal in sport, so that records can be crushed once more, and excitement injected into sport again. This was even discussed on the renowned BBC podcast “A Running Joke, with Rutherford and Fry”. But the problem with drugs is that unlike creating a lighter hockey stick, these substances alter the human body in ways which are unnatural to the extreme, and therefore highly dangerous. Athletes are the most motivated and competitive people on Earth; they already do shocking things to their body to win, so doping would pose no health-related qualms for them. And with all the sports competitions now being televised, athletes are quickly becoming accessible role-models and icons. Children should not in the future be looking up to steroid filled sprinters, wanting to be artificially muscular like them, if you see what I mean. And with the athlete’s health in mind, too, there is no way that the IOC could condone doping, given how risky and experimental it can be.

So, once the cycle of doping had started, it was difficult not to be sucked in as a pro. It’s easy to understand how it turned into another piece of tech, to be used alongside careful nutrition and training. But the UCI needed a figurehead, someone to take down publicly to prove to the rest of the world that doping could not continue. It is unfair that Armstrong was targeted when many of his contemporaries basically got amnesty. There was no uniform punishment, and when you are the one suffering the most from a policy, naturally it’s going to hurt.

But the most important thing is that cycling is clean again. (Supposedly just look at recent allegations around Froome.) Armstrong’s forceful condemnation did indeed allow a new generation of cyclists to enter the sport without the fear of being pressured into blood transfusions and backroom injections. And that cannot be a bad thing.

9 phrases to use when discussing the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner

There comes a point in our lives, when despite our best intentions, time has crumbled away from underneath our feet to land us too far ahead in the future than we had accounted for.

The activities that we had penciled in for ourselves were seemingly swallowed up by other commitments, and although your companions are equally busy, they seem to handle this precarious game of balancing work and “life” rather well. Understandably, you’re still trying to veer your life back onto its original track: so there was no time to read the Pulitzer winner this year. But to make it look like you did (I fully expect you read it in the meantime though out of principle,) here are 10 phrases to help you hold your own in a conversation at a fabulously grand dinner party. You are trying to stitch your social life back together after all, and the invite has been sitting on your coffee table for weeks…

  1. (You walk into a grand room, a minor royal by your side who is trying to avoid the pearls of sweat glimmering on your forehead.)  

    “I say, Viscount of Prumfbørg, don’t you think that the mysterious narrator in Less who slowly reveals themselves throughout the novel is no surprise by the denouement? Weren’t you a little confused by the reveal, as Greer made him refer himself in third person to try to prolong the tension?”

    A solid start. He did avoid eye contact though, so clearly your tone of voice was a little too keen. A rookie error. Anyway, it is clear that Greer was attempting to create mystery around the narrator’s identity, but he undermined this goal by making Freddy omnipotent. This did dull the credulity of the narrator as an actual person. On the other hand, if Greer was switching from Freddy to a third person narrator throughout the novel, then this was never signalled nor made clear, and thus was poor writing on his behalf either way.

2. (Whilst unironically eating a smoked salmon canapé, circling the masses, as you hone in on a lone socialite scrolling through memes.)

“Excuse me, ahem, whilst you look at Kermit memes, (a bit inappropriate for such a fine event, don’t you think?) but don’t you think Greer truly inverts the metric of loneliness in society, during the scene with Lewis and Less in Marrakech?”

She tried to grimace a smile, but the Botox was stopping her. You tried. That’s the main thing. You also had a good point! The poignancy is almost crushing; to realise that you have been looking at life through the wrong lens the entire time, and that when you remove that lens for the first time, you’ve realised all you’ve ever known is a world tinted with blue.

” ‘But you broke up with him. Something’s wrong. Something failed.’

‘No! No, Arthur, no, it’s the opposite! I’m saying it’s a success. Twenty years of joy and support and friendship, that’s a success. Twenty years of anything with another person is a success If a band stays together for twenty years, it’s a miracle. If a comedy duo stays together twenty years, they’re a triumph. Is this night a failure because it will end in an hour? Is the sun a failure because it\s going to end in a billion years? No, it’s the fucking sun. Why does a marriage not count? It isn’t in us, it isn’t in human beings, to be tied to one person forever. Siamese twins are a tragedy. Twenty years and one last happy road trip. And I thought, Well, that was nice. Let’s end on success.

People often consider things which end sourly a failure, ignoring that the longevity of the success itself is a win in its own right, regardless of the eventual outcome. Take Mo Farah’s career, for example. He finished second at 5000m track event at the World Championships, where he (and his fan base) were bitterly disappointed. That didn’t make his entire career- the double Olympic golds- worthless though, did it? It’s an interesting perspective to consider, because sometimes fond memories with people can be ruined after they in some way wrong you, but at the time the memory was formed you were having a fantastic day. Thus Greer presents happiness as something that can be crystallised and kept, not ruined in hindsight.

3. (Attempting to make a good impression on a legal giant who is sat next to you at a ridiculously long dinner table. She hasn’t even read the book because she’s reading Anna Karenina in the original Russian. But you don’t know that. You forgot to ask.)

“So… (squints, reading name card above her plate) Ms Artle, wouldn’t you agree that Greer is like Less himself during the Indian retreat considering his own novel? He must have, after all, ultimately realised that Less with the ‘best life of anyone I know’ was not likeable enough. That Less was not unfortunate enough on his own, so the inclusion of the failure of Swift (the protagonist of Less’ own novel) serves as his foil, and ultimately draws sympathy?”    

She offers a flashing smile, then gestures to the door and stands up to leave. Damn, gastrointestinal problems? She nods. Or just rejection? What a mood killer. It’s true, though. There is nothing particularly awful happening in Less’ life; he can even travel around the world. Greer just about manages to save himself from catastrophe though, and conjures a meagre amount of emotion up when his includes Less’ failed book deal.

4. (The main is being served; duck and orange blossom. You speak as you wait for the dishes to be placed on the table. To yourself, of course, as everyone else in is their own fascinating conversation. You hope that someone will overhear your wittering and ask more.)

Yeah, yeah so the tension built up over the course of the novel, the large question mark over the wedding of Freddy Pelu, was hardly as dramatic as Greer had built it up to be. One could only find it moving if they were as weak as a limp cabbage.” 

Now I can only take you so far with these phrases. I cannot conjure up social interaction, but really, no one wants to be involved with people talking to themselves. You should know better, even if the entire purpose of the book is for Less to find some resolve for the fact that Freddy is getting married. Unfortunately for Greer, in the end it boils down to the fact that, actually, nobody is particularly concerned that Less is morose. Let Freddy have a wonderful evening; you seem to have no issue manifesting an impression that you have moved on, illustrating by the amount of people you mysteriously managed to pick up during your travels.

5. (A passing waiter has stopped to fill up your Merlot from Petrus, Pomerol, France careful not to spill it at over £3,000 a bottle.)

“Thank you, thank you. A little bit more- stop there, yes. And isn’t funny, and rather prophetic in a way, that Greer himself becomes a Pulitzer Prize winner? There’s irony in that. The question is, will he also become an unbearable genius like Robert? What-“

(The answer is no, because the book really isn’t that revolutionary in any sense of the word.) Also, the waiter has moved on, unaware that you were trying to engage them in this frivolous talk. And as a PPE student at Oxford, this being their weekend job to get the cash rolling in to fund their chalet, their taste is a bit more highbrow than yours anyway.

6. (Raunchily to the Art Gallery owner next to you, as the jazz band begins to play.)

“I don’t understand art. You know? How it can be judged to be billions and squillions of pounds. Like the award of the Pulitzer prize to a comic novel is unheard of. Of course, this illustrates how the modern media is becoming more open-minded, and not in the least because of the gay protagonist. Yeah?”

He nods appreciatively. Then goes on in great detail to talk about his own failing art career for the next 25 minutes and how biased the industry is. You mention that Greer’s success signals a change in writing industry at least? He shakes his head. You mention that now not only has a comic novel won for the first time, but Less is gay, which indicates to the world that Pulitzer is still a “forwarding thinking” prize that embraces diversity. He pouts. Personally, he says, what is better than forward thinking is awarding prizes to books which genuinely deserve the accolade. Fair enough.

7. (On the balcony, gazing soulfully into the stars as the hedged garden spans out before you as you talk to the lead singer now having a smoke.)

“Lovely, lovely voice I daresay. We’re so lucky to be here, no? This beautiful garden. This privilege of ours. I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize winner don’t you know? Yes, and Greer unfortunately fails to capitalise on Less’ own privilege, which would not only add a more contemporary dimension to the story, but make it more relatable. Also, do you have a business card?”

(She doesn’t, and begins to chain-smoke.) As for the whole privilege issue, this is because it feels like at times Less’ only challenge is that faced by his failing romantic life. He is a white middle-aged man with lots of money, and his sexuality does not take away from his this particularly because he has found himself a welcoming environment, so the internal conflict we see is at best transparent and at worst remarkably unoriginal.

8. (Holding a champagne glass, slightly tipsy but still remarkably in control of advanced thought. There is a tired 10 year old who is sitting in an antique chair. You join them.)

“Tired? Me too. I’m tired that the relationship upon which Less rests upon (the name of big book these days, Frederic) the one with him and Freddy, is so hurriedly done that is makes it equally unbelievable and unmoving. Fancy a game of rock, paper, scissors?”

As you are gripped in your game, though, you realise that the Freddy/ Less relationship really is rough around the edges and quickly presented to the reader after the opening. This is a fatal flaw in the novel because this is where the entirety of the protagonist’s drive comes from. After all this is where the grief and regret centering around Freddy’s wedding directly stems from. The relationship needs to be more developed than a few simple scene with bed sheets, because we have to see why Freddy is such an incredible character that losing him would be catastrophic for Less, much in the same way someone would have to be persuaded that a £200 wine bottle is quite worth the expense when it tastes the same as a £30 one.

9. (You’ve collapsed on the croquet lawn: drunk again, talking to a retired surgeon who’s ironically passed out next to you.)

“Hello? Old chap? Don’t you, don’t think that maybe Greer frames an unusual debate about the le-legitimacy of those superior in intelligence to have the right to be unashamedly self-centred? My, I can talk sloshed! What. Yeah, yes, yes! ONLY they, after all, can create mahsterpieces that few other human minds are capable of compre-comprehend- understanding. Yesh.” 

“What was it like to live with genius?
Like living alone.
Like living alone with a tiger.
Everything had to be sacrificed for the work. Plans had to be canceled, meals had to be delayed; liquor had to be bought, as soon as possible, or else all poured into the sink. Money had to be rationed or spent lavishly, changing daily. The sleep schedule was the poet’s to make, and it was as often late nights as it was early mornings. The habit was the demon pet in the house; the habit, the habit, the habit; the morning coffee and books and poetry, the silence until noon. Could he be tempted by a morning stroll? He could, he always could; it was the only addiction where the sufferer longed for anything but the desired; but a morning walk meant work undone, and suffering, suffering, suffering. Keep the habit, help the habit; lay out the coffee and poetry; keep the silence; smile when he walked sulkily out of his office to the bathroom. Taking nothing personally. And did you sometimes leave an art book around with a thought that it would be the key to his mind? And did you sometimes put on music that might unlock the doubt and fear? Did you love it, the rain dance every day? Only when it rained.”

But, at this point in the night, you think that you’re a genius too. You forget Less, and start wildly planning your own novel. And then you begin to write your Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech.

What To Read If You’re A Narcissist*

(August Book of the Month!!)

Are you the type of person who also spends more time choosing an outfit for an event than preparing for the lecture you will give there? (An optimistic guess of the core readers, but I’ll run with it.)

Do you want to spend hours admiring your many talents by doing Are You Smarter Than Einstein quizzes and having wonderful daily rambles into the realms of self-reflection?

Do you feel constantly under-appreciated by all others in your family, even when you did all their laundry, walked the dog and made their Chilli Costume at 10 pm for World Taste Day as little Tommy only remembered at bedtime that it was the next morning? (Actually, that probably is a fair one.)

If so, then PSY-Q is for you! Oh, and you’re a narcissist.

9781781252116.jpg

Anyway, the book is littered with many curious, engaging and thought-provoking tests which ultimately tell you more about yourself. We all know that our IQ is highly superior (by default) to everyone else’s, but it’s always fun to do the personality tests, Rorschach tests and Raven test that Ben Ambridge includes in his hefty book amongst many others.

ror
What do you see in these ink blots? Your answer may reveal more about you than you think…

But the quizzes, riddles and multiple choice questions are all part of a larger scheme to explain the psychology behind It All. By that, I mean the basic prinicples of all kinds of things, for example neurological and linguistic disorders, with everything tied together by the results of your test. Sounds neat? Well, it is.

One of the many fascinating things that Ambridge discusses is selective attention. Take the test below by watching the video- it’s awesome (and it’s very popular, so you may have already done it).

Ambridge walks us mere ordinary citizens through why selective attention occurs, and how it is useful when implemented in everyday life, (it allows us to have a conversation on a busy train, for example, as all the other voices can be blocked out instead of distracting us). But that’s not all. Ambridge also offers the reader a whistle-stop tour through first-year psychology, explaining not only everyday revelations but deeply personal ones too, such as with the sunk cost fallacy.

As the authour sagely mentions at the start of the book, everything links back to psychology, even money- no, especially money. It’s all good and well, being that told you’re a relatively open person with extroverted tendencies, because you  knew that already. But being dropped the bombshell that you’re actually culpable to mental financial tricks (like the sunk cost fallacy) is something else. Here is what it is, in a nutshell:

SunkCostEffect

Or, as put eloquently, here:

sunkcosts

All things considered, it’s most likely not what a great man once meant when, to delight of motivational posters stockers everywhere, he said:

202165-you-didn-t-come-this-far-to-only-come-this-far.jpg

But it stills applies. The point is that there are many pitfalls that we face in life which are clearly explained by a proper psychologist (none of that self-proclaimed Instagram riff-raff) across a broad spectrum of topics which may end up not only informing your future decisions, but helping you to guide them. To use the SCF example from earlier, like when you’ve spent £300 on a plane ticket you no longer want, instead of paying an extra £1000 and wasting 4 days of your holiday going to a place you don’t even like to make sure that the plane tickets are wasted, you may remember the sunk cost fallacy and take the £300 loss. Or not. It’s your cash.

Of course, the explanations, whilst thorough, are superficial because we of the public don’t have medical degrees, so it’s not likely to be useful to anyone with much grounding in psychology already. Laughably, by the end of the book Ambridge finishes with this optimistic note: I hope at least some of you are now inspired to go on to study psychology at university, or even go onto your postgrad. Wait. What? I’m sorry brother, but I’m not going to switch my university choice just from a few fancy tests of yours. Your book is interesting and all, granted, but you need to tone your expectation levels down or you will sorely disappointed!

Except, maybe after reading PSY-Q, YOU will be the one Ambridge is talking about who starts a new degree. Not convinced? Give the book a read and prove me wrong. Because that’s what narcissists like to do, after all.

*or just really interest in psychology.

6 Parallels between Trump and the Theban Plays

1. How the Good of the State comes first, and morales second (if at all)

Creon throughout all three plays is clearly a villain, not in the least because he orders his own nephew’s body to fester outside the walls of his city after the battle. When Antigone is the eponymous hero, she is just a bit miffed by the outright disrespect displayed towards her brother Polynices, even if Creon (her uncle) says that it’s fine if dogs eat his flesh because he was betrayed Thebes by trying to overthrow the ruler at the time, Polynices’ brother Eteocles . It’s clear, therefore, that Creon believes that any morales or values must be placed second to that of the States’ needs. In this case the value that is being ‘demoted’ here is that of honouring the dead and in particular family, because Creon refuses to give Polynices any form of a burial, leaving him to rot outside the city’s walls. Instead, Creon decides it’s more important to use Polynices as an example of what happens to those who threaten the State and therefore to help keep order in Thebes.

As for Trump, well…

maga
It’s clear that these…
child in cage
…speak for themselves 

2.Difficulties realising that the truth is not a social construct but an actual thing

In Oedipus the King, the celebrated couple that is Jocasta and Oedipus are discussing the events of Laius’ murder. Both decide to latch onto what the servant had said when they recounted the event, fixing on the fact that ‘strangers’ had carried out the murder when of course Oedipus alone had stabbed Laius. Neither are particularly keen to point out the large number of coincidences that would disprove the servant as a reliable source, like how Oedipus (as his name suggests) has damaged feet and yet just fails to draw a parallel when Jocasta mentions binding the ankles of her new-born, or how both have similar prophecies and yet they don’t see any significance in this shared coincidence. It seems like this pair has a bit of trouble with the truth. Do you know who else does?

trum b

Now, I could go on to list the many times that Trump has had some difficulties with the truth, (in fact the Post says that since he started his presidency he has this problem 4.9 times a day on average), but instead of going into the details myself, I’ll let the excellent Pulitzer Prize winning website POLITIFACT do it instead. Really, click on the link. Go on, check it out!

3. A tendency towards self-inflicted pain

Deaths happen. Lots of deaths. No, I’m not talking about the countless suspicious car accidents which take place in Russia everyday as more agents try to double cross and reveal evidence of collusion. No. I never said that. I am talking about the large number of suicides that occur during the span of the Three Theban Plays:

Oedipus firstly blinds himself in Oedipus the King and then leads himself to his own death at the end of Oedipus at Colonus. His two sons/ half brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, die by each-others’ swords (which can be judged as self-inflicted because Polynices knew from the prophecy that he would die without Oedipus’ support). Then there is Jocasta, Haemon and Eurydice who die in equally gory and interesting ways….

So there’s plenty of tragic deaths through suicide of one form or another. But the point that Sophocles is trying to make? That wrongdoing is a catalyst for a loss. Here, the wrongdoing as such is incest, which is linked to every sucide either directly or indirectly. Ergo, a crime or a sin will have negative consequences, and the more severe the crime, the greater the effect.

Now the Trump administration has seen quite a few people either resign or be, to put it bluntly, sacked so hard that they plummeted through the earth and appeared on the other side in Japan.

As of March 2018, over 22 people have either resigned or have been fired. This is much the same as ‘self-inflicted pain’ because, of course, to have a cohesive government the party needs to be unified. Any cracks weaken the party and thus the President. If the leader is losing respect of the people in his party to such the extent that they feel they have to leave, then clearly the President is not only doing something wrong, but is sending the message of a rift in the party to the public. At the rate Trump is going through these staff, it won’t be long before ‘factionalism’ as created by Lenin, will be introduced to ensure that someone turns up to wor on Monday morning.

A few of the most major leavers were:

Thomas-Frank-Scaramucci-Buzzfeed
Anthony Scaramucci with his 11 day career 
seanspicer
Sean Spicer who probably wasn’t laughing like this when he left the White House
Comey and the complex saga that followed him

4. Humanity’s potential for infinite stupidity

The vision of Oedipus violently blinding himself, with blood running down his face, is one of the most memorable from King Oedipus. But references to vision can be found more than just that once throughout these three plays. Lots of times these references are a metaphor for the truth and knowledge. Going back to the previous example, Oedipus blinds himself because he doesn’t want to see his daughters/ siblings. As if by not seeing the truth, it can be avoided and ignored. Ironically and in reverse, the prophet who features mainly in Antigone, Tiresias, is alsp blind, and yet he can predict the future accurately and thus does have great knowledge. So the message is that even those who are the most revered and are the most intelligent in society i.e Oedipus who solves the riddle, can be incredibly short-sighted (PUN INTENDED). Like when he accidentally  marries his mother. So Sophocles neatly and dramatically highlights how although humans have the potential for great intelligence, in reality they’re unreliable and vastly stupid.

Hm. You know, I don’t know if this does relate to Trump. I can’t think of him in any situation about where he seems even a tiny bit idiotic and resembled a well dressed orange with a penchance for public speaking.  Only joking. I wouldn’t say that about oranges. Even oranges know that ‘covfefe’ isn’t a real word and try to pull off the fact

covfefe.jpg

 

5. Trouble when family and state collide

 The Theban Plays become very grave when discussing burials. Obviously the source of the conflict when Polynices’ corpse is denied a proper grave in Antigone whilst shockingly, Antigone is entombed in a cave whilst alive (and then kills herself, but that’s another motif for another paragraph). Even the way Oedipus choses to buried at Colonus is significant because it gives Athens the prophetic power to win any future battles.

Anyhow, during the denouement of Antigone, Creon realises that it’s his part of his duty to bury his nephew, traitor or not, and so burials come to represent the duties and trials that come with kinship, particularly when the duty to the state conflicts with the duty to one’s relatives.

For Donald Trump, there is on the other hand no conflict with duty to family and state. No, they are the same thing. Now, two words: Ivanka Trump. A Senior Advisor to the President.

Ivanka-Trump-November-1997

Makes sense. She has modelled for Tommy Hilfiger and Versace, and was a reality TV personality and fashion designer. One cannot think of anyone in the entirity America who is more suited to advising the President on nuclear warheads and soybean tariffs. What Obama really needed, then, was Cindy Crawford by his side….

And another two words: Jared Kushner. He has to broker peace in the Middle East, act as the liason to Mexico, China and the Muslim community. Oh, and he also has to enjoy being Donald Trump’s son-in-law. But that’s just a coincidence. Isn’t it?

6. Assertion of control over others

Lastly is poor Antigone. Banished to a cave, buried alive. Oh the horror. No, seriously, that does actually sound quite horrific. On a metaphorical level this is crucial because it suggests that Creon disregards the Gods entirely; it was widely known to be a terrible sin to put living Antigone into a grave and keep dead Polynices above ground. In doing so, Creon is clearly trying to assert his control over the Gods, which always ends well, and disregard the sinful nature of this act.

As for assertion of control…. let me leave you with this one final thought:

trumpvun.gif

Death in Venice, Deathly Menace

div
Looking morbid…

As Thomas Mann is a fellow German, I am glad that our nation -somewhat sidelined for engineering and precision- was represented in the literature-classics-to-be-read list. However having read Death in Venice, I now vote that it should be removed from said list, even if it means Germany is once again shunned.

Famously a short-story, I was expecting Death In Venice to be packed with electrifying plot twists and wildly unexpected turns. At 70 pages, there is plenty of room for a proper character arc and plot development, however it seems that Mann didn’t get the memo because he spent 47 pages just dwelling on the beauty and seeming greatness of Tadzio.

‘a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio’s beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many’

Now I’m sure Aschenbach would have rejoiced at the modern era; Facebook and Instagram are the perfect tools for stalking certain individuals, and there would hardly be a millennial who would say that they weren’t guilty of this, but- an essay on Tadzio? The following of him around? The commitment to him even at the risk of death? It’s all very hyperbolic and excessive, which I understand is the point of Death In Venice so I cannot criticise that. What is problematic is the extent of time that Mann dedicates to the same scenes of wonder and adoration; of course content should reflect the feelings of the protagonist, but readers don’t need 70% of the book solely focusing on the description of a secondary character. It was unsurprising that Ascenbach would die in the end, as unfortunately Mann gave that away in the title, but I thought that the end still wouldn’t be so blindingly predictable? There are only so many ways that the protagonist could die, and dying cholera was the first and most probable on the list.

SUPPOSEDLY BRILLIANT WRITERS SHOULD NOT BE PREDICTABLE

If only Mann were alive to read this. He would learn so much. You see there is utterly no point in reading if the plot resolution can be visualised preemptively, otherwise the thrill and engagement aspects are eliminated, which are what makes the process so enjoyable in the first place. And as a short story, Mann has a particular duty to finish surprisingly or with a twist, but the death was obvious (again, title), so there was nothing to make up for the long drawn out descriptions. It is even difficult to find a climax at any point. So superficially, the book’s awful. It just blabbers on.

wait.gif
me waiting for the part where it becomes interesting

So, what are the deeper meanings? Can they save Mann and catapult him back into literary greatness? Clearly pederasty is a major theme and is ultimately what shot the story to fame. It is rarely discussed in a literary form now and even less then, and so many people are be fascinated by this notion of infatuation, and exploring this within the context of a book is a rather comforting way to deal with the problem. Paedophilia often haunts newspapers but is rarely spoken about as a society unlike murder or theft due to embarrassment or awkwardness, and so it seems that ultimately in the novella form allows people to see it and truly stare it into eyes, and sit by themselves and decide what they think of it and why, as discussion of the topic is somewhat limited. Fundamentally Aschenbach is a paedophile and it’s written from his perspective, but interestingly Aschenbach justifies his lust by comparing himself to the ancient Greeks, saying he was acting the warriors did then. Nice try, but the Greeks also forced women to wear veils and stay indoors, and I don’t Aschenbach endorsing that part of society. One cannot pick and choose parts of culture to emulate, if one is going to hold up that entire culture to form the basis as justification for what is a modern day crime.

The one redeeming feature of Death in Venice could be the cholera. Cholera was the sriracha to the otherwise bland bowl of rice the plot was. Ironically, in the opening Aschenbach longs for far-off countries with unconventional scenes and happenings. Guess what, Aschenbach didn’t have to go to India to experience the fun, India (in the form of cholera) came to him. (If cholera could be called fun. Who knows? Aschenbach lived a very sheltered life, so perhaps anything goes for the thrill-factor.) Cholera could even represent the way his lust for Tadzio consumes him, and even kills him; his emotions cause him to stay in Venice even when he knows it’ll eventually lead to his physical decline, just as chlorea actually leads to his death. It’s a double-edged symbol and rather fun once thought about. But Mann, there needs to be more than one turn per 70 pages. Come on now.

The secondary characters are worth considering, and although there is analysis, it’s not particularly mind-blowing. The man at the graveyard, for instance, is masculine with his bulging Adam’s apple and also hideous because of his ‘permanent facial deformity’. So he’s everything which Tadzio isn’t. This doesn’t mean that the Graveyard Man is a precursor or foreshadows the relationship, but if we’re searching amongst scraps for something to say to help merit Mann, then maybe it reveals that Aschenbach who is describing him, is only focusing the features which revolts him the most ? He craves youthfulness and beauty, so the antithesis of these attributes shock him and captures his attention. This line of argument applies to the man on the boat with the make-up, feigning adolescence whilst the ugliness part can be applied to the minstrel. Curiously, towards the end of the story, Aschenbach metamorphisms into that which he hates, and becomes more leering and even has that session in the salon to make himself seem younger, and then doesn’t seem like an imposter himself. Interesting.

There is plenty of Freudian analysis of Aschenbach online and in books, which will be doubtless more absorbing that what I can say because I have no interest whatsoever in investing that sort of time into a story I find dull. But what is captivating is the notion that Aschenbach is a queer contemporary icon. Of course, throughout history literature has not been exactly kind to the LGBT community, so icons are taken as they come, but Aschenbach is a problematic choice. He may claim pederasty at the best of times but morally his actions are perverse and ought to be treated as such, not exalted because of his sexuality. And in some ways, it does seem like Aschenbach is not actually gay, but more is in love with the concept of divine beauty, in whatever form that may be. Tadzio just happened to be extremely beautiful, and so Aschenbach craved the look and the form of Tadzio more than his personality or character, just like a sculptor admires a figure for the shape and dimensions as opposed to any emotional attributes. In many ways Tadzio could easily have been female, without any qualms to the plot, and then the plot would be relatively unchanged, but leave the world with one less icon.