Tuesday, January 10, 2012

an open letter to a few young friends of mine

in a week when an ex serving Special Forces Major in the Parachute Regiment - who, by his own admission, knows absolutely fuckall about the arts - is appointed to be the new shadow minister of culture, it feels like time either to die of an apoplexy-induced aneurysm or, rolling around in the warm puddle of one's own uncontrollably evacuated bladder, of hysterical laughter.

it's patently been the case for a very long time that the value of the arts to our benighted cultural community has become defined only in its material sense. the fact that the arts do, indeed, provide a significant contribution to the economy, is entirely secondary to their true function, and is, indeed, fundamentally irrelevant.

the arts are valuable in the sense that our minds are valuable. we can point at all the material bits of us - from metacarpals to amygdala - and say that this is this and that does that, but it's actually our minds that matter, in the end. and you can neither locate nor put a price on a mind. (I'm avoiding saying 'the soul', because I'm one of those odd atheists who actually believes we have one, but that's another thread, even if it applies in just the same way.)

one of the lasting legacies of The Bitch was to engage all subsequent politics with the appalling notion that the commodification of everything was a desirable and necessary condition to the achievement of a properly run society, and that everything - everything - needs must become material grist to the free market mill of capitalism.

let us never, ever forget that the one man who, more than any other, has dictated the UK fine art agenda for the last thirty-odd years is an ex-advertising troll who, with his brother, devised and ran the campaign that helped get The Bitch into office. he's The Bitch's bitch - always was, always will be, with no more capability to discriminate between good and bad art than a deaf and blind axolotl. he's just rich. if Richard Branson (god forbid, but he probably will!) were to set up an art gallery of his own and stock it with a commissioned artist's assembly of his flash-fried turds, they would immediately be hailed as great art and sell for lots and lots of money.

so it goes.

moving on.

miracles do happen.

the nation's art education has become epitomised as the failing struggle between the attempts of a few dedicated teachers - all, without exception, now either broken or on the threshold of breakdowns - and an education establishment that's determined to mould its 'clients' - and the international students whose higher fees merit their prioritisation over the natives - into nothing more nor less than a set of compliant debt-management social units.

the rector and chief executive of one prominent arts-based university (quite telling, that title - they used to be called simply 'chancellors') which shall remain nameless was heard explaining recently, off the record, to a dumbfounded teaching colleague of my own acquaintance that their function now was primarily 'to enable their students to support capitalism' (sic).

despite all this - despite everything - there keeps emerging, generation upon generation, a steady stream of young artists whose passion to make art is fuelled, not by the desire to make money, but by the need - I'd almost call it an instinct specific to a very particular grouping in our species if that didn't sound élitist - which it is - but what the heck - to follow in the footsteps of those artists whose work has preceded and inspired them, and to run with that inspiration, to make work of their own, to express themselves as only they, uniquely, can.

at risk of sounding disturbingly saccharine, I do consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have encountered, in the course of my own working life, so many young artists (not 'aspiring artists', because all true artists are aspiring - the path's the thing, not the getting there - some are just newer to it than others). some of them I've known for many years, some have long since drifted away over our mutual horizons, and some have only recently hove into view. it's profoundly exhilarating to realise that this need - the heat generated by this eternal flame - is never going to be extinguished, that it's going to continue to be passed on, from generation to generation, for as long as there are fellow humans around who need what it is that only they can provide, in the face of and despite the political predisposition to smother it.

so - my New Years message to Charlotte, Jahouli, Julie, Jessica, Linas, Neringa, Chippy, Sophie, Sorcha, Todd, and anyone else who cares to listen - whichever discipline you're working in, regardless of whether you think you're succeeding or failing, regardless of whether you think you know where you're going or whether you think you're losing your way, regardless of whether you're pleased with how it's going or desperate that it doesn't appear to be going anywhere in particular, regardless of whether they like it or I like it or even whether you like it yourself:



you'll never get where you think you might be going, but as long as you JUST KEEP GOING you will - I promise you - discover some unimaginably amazing stuff on the way which, hopefully, will feed into your own practice and thereby get shared with the rest of us. because we deserve it.

oh - one other thing.

never listen to a word of advice anyone like me offers you.
go and get a proper job. you'll end up much happier.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

more mori …

a half-life is the period of time it takes for a substance undergoing decay to decrease by half.

a half-life is a life half-lived.

there is a moment in everyone's life that, unbeknownst to them, marks the halfway post between their birth and their death. it is a moment that can occur, unluckily, all too early: the twenty-year old future road accident victim will have passed it by the age of ten. the majority will reach it some time after their thirty-fifty birthday. we will never know when we've reached it, but the probability of having done so gradually increases until, by the age of forty-five, it's within a whisker of a certainty that it has already passed.

it used to be an eager ascendancy - a hand-shielded peering squint up into the rising-sun-lit path of the brave bright future.

Things We Used to Wonder: who'll be the first to get a girlfriend … lose their virginity … learn to drive ... get a university place … land the dream job … get rich and famous …

now - a reluctant descendancy - a series of ever more cautious steps down an ever-steepening gradient towards oblivion, the disturbed detritus of our past clattering at our heels.

Things We Wonder now: who'll be the first to develop cancer … to succumb to Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's, or any other in that depressing list of surnames-turned-syndromes in the geriatric pages of the medical dictionary … and, l'ultimo degli ultimi, which of us will be the first to die?

there must have been a halfway plateau time, a time without either frantic future-fixated flapping or futile past-yearning furling - a moment, in this life trajectory, of transition, however fleeting, from upward to downward, a moment of free fall; but it was unremarkable, quite forgettable, forgotten.

the past is, notoriously, another country, one with irrevocably closed borders.

don't look back, Orpheus, don't look back.

just keep on singing.

and for godsake don't mention the Maenads.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Eileen Daisy Roylance
18th April 1918 - 15th November 2009

I've been off this bloggery thang for a while, it would seem.
so here we go again.

Death of Mother would seem to be an appropriate time and place to re-prime the pump.

"This is a day we've all been dreading, the day that marks the end of something, something so big that nothing - no event, no memorial, certainly no mere words - can possibly do justice to its magnitude, to the hugeness of its effect.

At her ninetieth birthday party last year, lots of jokes were made about looking forward to mum's centenary. I, for one, fully expected that she would last, if not forever, at least for a good few more years yet. Whenever I mention her to friends, I invariably resort to the old platitude that she's as tough as old boots. And it will be some time before I - before any of us - will find ourselves easy with converting that 'is' to a 'was' - using the past tense when we talk about her.

In the end, she has gone suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly. Obviously, we've all been preparing ourselves, but, actually, how do you really prepare for such an event?

In reality, of course, the preparations began three years ago, when dad died. They were the perfect couple - entwined like an ancient pair of vines that's grown into and wrapped around each other - utterly devoted, quite inseparable, and yet, finally, subject to that awful separation that the marriage ceremony implies but glosses over - til death us do part. For some time after dad passed away, mum kept finding scraps of paper with a few loving phrases or verses tucked away in books and at the back of cupboard drawers - deliberately hidden for her to find after he'd gone. I'm sure I wasn't the only one of us who feared back then that she'd follow him almost immediately, and the fact that she didn't is testament as much to her devotion to the rest of her family as to her physical and spiritual toughness. She really wanted to follow him, but she felt there were still things to do here before she could.

This interim period of widowhood has been a harrowing time for her, as it has for all those in the family who've had to witness it, but she endured, and carried on, more for the sake of her family than for anything else.

Whenever I hear the word 'selfless' I think 'mum' - she was literally incapable of putting her own needs before those of her family. Dad was the same, of course. So there's a crumb of comfort, now, to we who have to continue without her, in the knowledge that she's finally reunited with dad - in whatever form we choose to imagine that - but I choose to believe that that, ultimately, is what she's been looking forward to ever since he went.

There's comfort, also, in the knowledge that her end was sudden, neither painfully protracted nor preceded by the tragedy of mental deterioration that's so distressing for the families that have to suffer it. If mum's body was as tough as old boots, her mind, to stay in the realm of the platitude, remained as sharp as a whistle right to the end. When she used to play Scrabble, she took no prisoners. She was equally merciless at Boggle. And woe betide anyone who tried to pull one over her in the market.

Because she lived so much closer to mum than either myself or my brother Nigel, our sister Yvonne has become mum's primary carer in recent years, and I don't want to let this opportunity pass of publicly acknowledging the huge debt of gratitude we owe to both her and my brother-in-law Andrew for the work they have both been doing to make mum's life easier as her physical frailty increased. Whenever I phoned mum, she had something to tell me about something either Yvonne or Andrew had done which had made her life easier or happier, or both, and she used to express concern that they might think she was taking their work for granted. She wasn't. Thank you, both of you, on both her and our behalf, for all you've done.

We'll all be remembering different aspects of her, of course. To some she was the Eileen whose fairytale wartime romance and marriage to Les was, I imagine, the envy of a fair number of her peers, and of dad's. To others she was that nice Mrs Roylance who helped them with their reading at primary school, and knitted chocolate Easter egg chicks for them every Easter. To others she was the mother of those three charming, gifted and good-mannered children who were the very apple of her eye (that's my brother and sister and me, by the way). And to us, she was either auntie, nana, great-nana, or mum. She was a good mother - loving, generous, non-judgmental, totally supportive - and she worked incredibly hard, all her life, to make the family home as comfortable and welcoming as she could manage. But as a nana she was truly great. She was besotted with her grandchildren, and they, in turn, seemed to recognise the innate childishness in her that lingered behind that grownup mask of grey-haired responsibility and experience, a kind of delightful playfulness that was always bubbling under, waiting to be released by the children's laughter.

We who've always known her know that she was uncomfortable with being in the public eye - she was embarassed at public praise, and could barely manage a quietly stuttered 'thank you' when it was given. I can so easily imagine her response to our presence here now: "It's lovely to see you all together", she would say, "Don't be too upset on my account." And then the words would get stuck in her mouth and the hankie would come out.

So - mum - that's it. No more flowery tributes. No more awkward words of praise. We're thinking them, of course, but we won't embarass you with them. The most important thing is that we know that you loved us. Your whole life was a demonstration of that. And we know that you know that we loved you. So rest now. With dad. You remain in our hearts, now and for always."

That's what I said at the funeral the day before yesterday - the dutiful son's eulogy, the edited version, the words that all the family wanted to hear. "Beautiful", they all said. they were hard to deliver. tears were shed.

I'd already confessed to my sons - the only ones who really matter - that I felt somewhat monstrous for feeling less grief than relief, so the hypocrisy of those beautiful words had to some extent been pre-absolved. and I think my genuine grief (I needed to spend a few final minutes alone with her, after everyone else had filed out, weeping over the coffin) emerged, less from the loss itself, than from the guilt I felt - still feel - at feeling that relief.

my boys, certainly, and one or two friends - the few who have had some insight into my complicated relationship with my family - understand. it would require something tediously biographical to explain it all, and I really don't think this is either the time or the place to get into all that.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

how bad?


now that we have the benefits of an instant and comprehensive global overview of all things apocalyptic - climate, economies, extinctions, TV schedules - it's fairly safe to say that we're fucked.

to finish that sentence with an 'unless' has already become redundant - unlessing has been going on for sooo long, unlessing was for the last ten, twenty, forty years, when there was still a chance to avoid the worst of it, provided (there's another redundant) there was the political will to a) listen b) attend) and c), somewhat crucially, act.

didn't happen. they lied. shush little lambs they said leave it to us we have experts working on it we know what we're doing it'll all be ok don't rock the boat keep paying your taxes.

so we're fucked.

in how long? ten? fifteen? twenty? the probability rises with each decade. in fifty - around the 2060's - it changes to a certainty. life on earth as we know it - comfortable, western, human life - degrades. seriously. it becomes an increasingly desperate struggle for basic survival, wherein the compensations for the struggle - the contemplation of natural beauty, the enjoyment of cultural recreation, the sharing of our children's children's euphoric discoveries of their relationship with the world - become displaced by the typical behaviours of a civilisation in decline. ugly. it's all happened before - think Roman Britain circa 450 AD - just never before on the scale that it's going to happen this time.

  • global warming is ongoing - it's too late to do anything about it (sorry, Al - you gave it your best shot). the ice-caps will melt and the glaciers will retreat (it's already begun), sea-levels will rise, thousands of littoral populations will be displaced inland as their ecologies, their crops and meadows are drowned.
  • the fossil fuels are going to be exhausted - sooner rather than later, and even if they can finally crack the energy shangri-la of nuclear fusion, seriously commercial reactors are not going to come online in time.
  • the global economy is already in meltdown - however many gazillions get pumped into the rescue package, it's already too late.
  • the world population will continue to increase, at the same time as millions of acres of arable land are going to be inundated - net result, a world population far exceeding the capacity of the available agricultural land to sustain it.

so it goes (we miss you, kurt).

as far as we know, this way of life - this being human way of life - is unique in the Milky Way(which, since we're as likely to explore any further along our own spiral arm as the cow is to jump over the moon, is tantamount to leaving it at 'unique', full stop). there's absolutely no sign of it existing anywhere else than here. in universal terms, the chances of its being duplicated (the fractal complexities of the evolution of this thing - us - from those original prokaryotes that, somehow, divided and then started copying themselves) are very, very very low. not impossibly low, because the universe is a very, very, very big place, and has been going on for a very, very, very long time. just a bit too low to be put in the category of 'likely'. more likely, this being human way of life is unique, at least, in the Local Group.

which ought to be something to be proud of, really, oughtn't it?

I mean, here we are, not only sentient, but self-aware, capable of extraordinary things - not only of grasping an egg without crushing it, but of imagining and then constructing a machine that can do the same thing, not only perceiving our environment as a comprehensible event, something definable and tangible, but as something either pleasing or displeasing - responsive to an aesthetic filter that eludes the definitive, or, in the case of our behaviour toward each other, something good or bad - responsive to moral and ethical criteria that are totally resistant to the maths that quantify quanta so eloquently.

'pride' is, perhaps, the wrong word, since none of this is of our doing. it happened, we happened, thanks to an immensely long and complicated chain of evolutionary accidents, a chain that is so long, and so complicated that, for many, despite Darwin, the hand of God still continues to need to be invoked, if not as Seven Day Maker, at least as both Big Bang Igniter and Universal Shaper of Events. it is, of course, perfectly possible to eschew such culturally tenacious fictions without denying the miraculous, to celebrate the incredible good fortune of our progress towards humanity without surrendering to the credulousness of superstition. it is perfectly reasonable, nay, incumbent on our collective journey to self-discovery, to pay due homage to all of His works, without having to invoke Him as Maker. (wiki note: cite precedent for insight through paradox.)

we have rather taken it all for granted, though, haven't we? it's hard to avoid wondering just how much more careful we might have been with ourselves if we had had something to do with it. if, instead of passively sitting around and letting evolution take its course we'd been obliged to participate in shaping the code somehow - embedding a useful behavioural tweak here, editing out a counter-indicative trait there - we might have taken a little more pride in our appearance, a pride which, in those circumstances, would have been justified.

instead, like so many whose sink-estate lives have sunk so far into the pit of dependence that their sense of social responsibility becomes almost entirely atrophied, we expect someone else to sort it all out. even though, deep down, we know that nothing lasts forever, we don't actually believe it. even though we have known - for quite long enough for us to have been able to do something about it - that this was coming, we preferred to remain in denial. it's what we do. (dying, to cite a similar fine example of impending finality, is something that happens to other people. either old or unlucky people. anyway, way down the timeline. not even worth thinking about.)

so here we are, in the last few seconds of the last minute before midnight on that famous analogue of evolution as a twenty-four hour clock, with no clearer idea about the plan than had the bacteria when it all began.

trouble is, there never has been a plan. nothing, at least, that might be offered to an indifferent alien arbiter, a mildly curious but ultimately careless Proxima Centaurian, as an insight into human aspiration, something that might demonstrate our species-specific objectives and the road map we had drawn up to get there. plenty of plans plural, the vast majority of them - it has to be said - nothing more than variants on the 'if I ruled the world' theme, embodied, more often than not, in a psychopathic head of state. from Genghis Khan to Pol Pot, from Attila to Hitler, from Timurlane to Stalin - the way we do things (concludes the august representative from Proxima Centauri) seems to involve an awful lot of one-generational killing, and seems always to end in tears once the instigator of the killings has passed away.

for all that this last minute, relative to the big picture, is a blinkandyoumissit moment, and the individual durations of those preceding twenty to thirty civilisations (go Egyptians! at 3,000 years, still in the lead) mere moments compared with the dinosaurs' 160 million, the accumulation of so much experience of dealing with other humans over so many generations should, you'd think, have resulted by now in something other than what is: 6.7 billion fucked-up people on a fucked-up planet that they know how to repair but don't. makes about as much sense as continuing to drive a starship with a failing warp drive - but hey. those wild and whacky humans, right?

so what, apart from this Cassandra-like woe-betiding, is the proper response to such certainties? what is to be done, once we have embraced the realities, finally foregone the self-deluding unlesses and depending-on's, performed the ultimate volte-face that absolutely no-one of substance seems prepared to do, and confronted the imminence of the demise of human dominion on earth?

first thing is to recognise - without prejudice, as the weasel lawyers say - that we're not as perfect as we think we are. this in a phylogenetic, not a vainglorious sense.

if we're looking for reasons as to why we behave as badly as we do, there's one possibility that's glaringly obvious. it seems to me perfectly reasonable to conceive that there's a flaw in the hard-wiring - that our DNA carries a fundamental genetic error - a tiny one, but one that, replicated over millennia of adaptations, has virtually guaranteed the current predicament.

in a nutshell - having been programmed to succeed, by whatever means it takes, the genes for which we are, in Richard Dawkin's phrase, survival machines, seem to lack any way of modifying that survival behaviour once success is achieved. we are, in other words, engaged in a perpetual race to win, at any cost, despite having actually won millennia since.

as a species, humans took first place on the winners plinth so long ago that we have no cultural memory of it at all. who, in the yet to be named Olduvai Gorge could have predicted that this ungainly first cousin to the apes, laughably inferior in size, speed, tooth and claw to all of its predators, would become so successful at avoiding predation. within a few short millennia of freeing the opposing-thumbed hands by balancing on the rear legs, humans were developing in intelligence and co-operative skills far in excess of other pack-hunting species, manipulating tools, weapons, and fire in ways that no other animal ever learnt to do, and establishing the foundations of the discretely human cultural structures that far surpass in variety and complexity anything comparable in the animal kingdom, and that are still in place.

by the sixth millennium BCE, when Sumeria - the first great civilisation - was beginning to be established, humans were unquestionably the winners in the species-specific survival games. by that point, a rationally-engineered genetic programme would have compared the projected criteria of 'success' with the achieved conditions, recognised the near-one hundred percent match, and shut down that part of the programme that was still running in 'win at any cost' mode. instead, that programme continued to run - continues to run - investing the competitive imperative (an essentially redundant trait) with a false, and ultimately self-destructive cultural importance. divested of its evolved focus on survival in the face of threats from other species, for want of an evolutionary off-switch, it turned on its next closest perceived threat - its own survival machines, urging them to compete with each other, in perpetuity, for whatever advantage they might gain by destroying each other.

and so it continues.

even the urgency of the current situation, as its implications are finally, finally! being grasped - a late-blooming but rapidly proliferating meme - is being turned into a race, something in which there will be winners and losers. an economic system both rooted in the free market, with competition at its core, and on the totally illogical (insane) assumptions that growth should proliferate indefinitely and that the planet's natural resources are infinitely plunderable was only ever going to impede any efforts to mitigate the consequences. so for every argument that competition will produce the most effective solution to all our ills, there must be the counter-argument that competition to make that solution profitable will fatally compromise it.

to cite the overriding problem of global warming, for instance - everyone who cares knows that one of the most urgent priorities is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and all of the energy companies have immediate access to the technology that would enable this. however, since a limited company's market value is determined by its investors' confidence that it will continue to provide them with a share of the profits - their dividend - the first priority in all boardrooms is to keep the shareholders happy. so the strategic compromise - one that's been adopted wholesale across the most polluting industries - is to pump up the PR budget by an order of magnitude, in order to persuade the media ('us' is irrelevant - commercial TV is the one that matters, because 'we' will believe anything those slebs tell us) how much is being done to reduce the company's carbon footprint. in actuality, what that consists of is doing just enough to comply with equivocal directives from government (and, more likely than not, receiving a generous subsidy for doing so), which are drafted to balance the political fallout from whichever of the industrial or the environmental lobbies is likely to be the more upset by them, and these flexible and multi-interpretational target-based strategies, as we know from bitter experience across all public and private institutions from education to the NHS, encourage a box-ticking culture that mollifies the auditors in the short term without actually achieving very much at all in the way of improvement.

the second thing to recognise, therefore, is that our leaders lie, (gasp! really? no!) and that the political agenda is always a murky mess of fudge, evasion, and short-term self-interest, both in the individual and the partisan sense. it seems, sadly, to be the case that, just as the radical young musician transforms, with dreary inevitability, into the pompous, self-satisfied, middle-aged millionaire with batty ideas about how to save the world through eating tofu and adopting African children and giving one final merchandise-rich concert on a floating island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, so the radical young politician, bursting with idealistic fervour, is gradually transformed into the fawning backbencher whose only remaining aspiration is to catch the chief whip's attention sufficiently, if not to be elevated to cabinet, to at least be transferred to a safe seat at the next election. truth-telling, in either regard, is counter-productive. the art of politics is in large degree just the art of not being found out.

the third thing (and this is going to sound strange - bear with me) is that miracles do happen. it's not a matter of 'believing' in miracles, in some mystical or quasi-religious sense, but of acknowledging that highly improbable events that bring very welcome consequences do, in fact, happen - all the time. whenever there's a news report on some natural disaster - earthquake, tsunami, hurricane - that has wreaked utter havoc on some poor (usually) community in the middle of nowhere, there will come a moment, many days later, long after all hope of finding survivors has been abandoned, when a rescuer hears a cry, and someone - often a child - is lifted from the wreckage still alive who, to all intents and purposes, should have been dead. this is not an infrequent event. it nearly always happens. and it is always described as a miracle.

other miracles:

  • the passenger who changes flights at the last minute and escapes death on the one that's going to crash.
  • the premature baby weighing scant ounces who grows into a strapping athlete.
  • the cancer that goes into remission by itself.
  • the Afro-American who becomes President of the USA...

...und so weiter.

everything that we are and have become is the result of a series of accidents. chance rules.

unless we've been exceptionally unfortunate in our lives, all of us have experienced good fortune at some time or another - the happy event that owes little, if anything at all, to our own efforts. there are a million charlatans out there - from the priests to the aura-adjusters - who make a tidy living out of manipulating our innate respect for such phenomena. whether or not we subscribe to the belief that, as individuals, we can somehow harness this thing - chance - and, through some form of superstitious propitiation, manipulate it to our advantage, we have to admit that chance dictates a far greater proportion of our lives than we might be prepared to admit. furthermore, there do seem to be certain times in our lives when we feel, and effectively are 'luckier' than others, and, conversely, great swathes of our lives when we feel as though we're completely out of 'it'.

it is as if the same universal axiom of chance that, in macro, oversees the seemingly random emergence of something (the visible stuff - galaxies, stars, planets, us) out of nothing (the invisible - dark matter? quantum foam? strings?), applies, in micro, to the seemingly random connections between events that we classify as 'lucky' or 'coincidental' or 'miraculous' - the huge tidal waves of accident that describe the collisions in accretion orbits resulting in something quite big like our own planet attenuated, over time, into the tiny ripples of luck that lap at our tiny little lives like goldfish shoals nibbling at our toes.

to summarise:

our competitiveness is killing us
our chosen path of social organisation guarantees flawed leadership
shit (and some good stuff) just happens

so what's to be done?

don't look at me - I'm as lost as you are.

Monday, March 23, 2009

carpe diem

Tu ne quaesieris - scire nefas - quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoë, nec Babylonios temptaris numeros.
ut melius, quicquid erit, pati. seu plures hiemes, seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare Tyrhenum.
Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi spem longam reseces.
dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconoë.
How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes!
Even while we speak, envious time has passed: seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

(Horace - Odes 1.11)

a useful reality check - to imagine that today might be one's last on earth, and to behave accordingly, the challenge being to identify and interrogate that behaviour that predicates on the anticipation of a future, and to determine how much that anticipation acts as a restraint on what might otherwise be a more spontaneous, possibly more honest way of living.

it's a challenge that assumes, of course, that we tend to the craven, being afraid to behave honestly and spontaneously, to live 'in the moment' as our hippy and Buddhist friends say, for fear of the consequences.

much of a human life, for better or worse, consists of developing a sufficiency of capital in the present to ensure some form of return in the future, and of weighing the odds of surviving to benefit from that return.

it is of no benefit to me - today - to replace that slipped roof tile. it will cost me time and effort and money. however, the next heavy rain will penetrate through the gaps and start rotting the woodwork in the attic, causing serious damage whose repair will cost much more sometime in the future than were I to attend to the slipped tile today.

similarly, it is of no benefit to me - today - to do this work that I hate, for this employer whom I despise. however, were I to quit and tell him or her what I really thought of them, I would not be paid, and would not then be able to afford the stuff I was looking forward to as future compensation for all this drudgery.

on the other hand, if today were my last day on earth, what's the point?

the only time in our lives when instant gratification of desire occurs without conditions or penalties is at our mother's breast. the norm, subsequently, becomes an increasingly attenuated period of deferment consequent on certain behavioural trade-offs, be they the good behaviour of childhood in return for a treat, the dating rituals preceding the fuck, or the eight-hour days of drudgery in return for a fortnight of family holiday hell.

our relationship to time is (unsurprisingly, since the Big Bang was responsible for both) ineluctably enmeshed in our relationship to space. however, whereas our spatial sense (this is bigger than that, this is further away than that, this surrounds us, this is inside us) is relatively easy to understand, because we come with a sensory array (eyes, ears, skin) that connects us with it, that with time is much less so. the notion of an individual existing in a moment of time (the now) which is subsequent to all else that he or she has experienced (the past) and which precedes all else which has yet to be experienced (the future) is as elusive and problematic as the notion of self-consciousness itself.

clearly, the universal understanding of 'now' is a flux, something fluid, not the fixed event that we suppose it to be. 'now' can range between the hundredth of a second that it takes to say it and the days, weeks, months, years, or more that encompass the event described, as in 'global warming is happening now'. this now I write in has long since become a then. the future that in this moment of writing I can only guess at has already moved into the past.

our personal journey through universal spacetime seems to be conducted in a sort of bubble, a flexible spacesuit constructed of the same spacetimey stuff that is continually adjusting itself according to our individual preferences, a bubble that extends around us, preceding us (our future) and trailing behind us (our past), a personal bubble of nowness that contains all we need of futureness and pastness to define ourselves.

any exhortation to live in the present rather than in hope of a better future - and, conversely, not to live, or to get stuck in the past - is as fundamentally meaningless as the challenge to describe the sound of one hand clapping. the present - this 'now' - is, to labour the koanic analogy, an infinitely tiny dot of nothing contained within the parentheses of the past and the future, so such exhortations can only be read as judgements, as implicit criticisms of the limits of another's temporal behaviour, the styling of their personal spacetime bubble.

we frown on an individual's bubble getting too large. its limits are deemed 'normal' only up to a certain extent. global memory naturally fades with distance in time, but certain memories, clearly, remain entirely recoverable almost at will - or, Proust-like, seem capable of ambushing us at some seemingly random stimulus, as often as not to do with our sense of smell. to 'dwell on' or to 'live in' the past, however, is universally regarded with disapproval, at a personal level. the only social grouping that consistently refers to the past (or rather, a selective view of the past) as an idealistic totem is the political right wing, whose chauvinism is always and definitively backward-looking.

it will always merit a certain cachet, the idea that we should unloose all those time-bound shackles and live a little, but in reality, only the extremely wealthy and the insane can get away with it, the former because the acquisition of wealth is a transparent attempt to cover all bases (the more options, the less exposure to the whimsical consequences of fate or personal irresponsibility), and the latter because the same neuro-chemical disorders that create a perceived exemption from the 'normal' taboos on, say, openly masturbating at a Girls Aloud concert apply to all other random, otherwise consequential behaviours.

this 'seizing the day' thing, then, is, like all poetic ideals, of little practical use except as a burr, an irritant in the comfortable cloth of our diurnal procrastinations. in common with all the jewels of wisdom in the QuoteMe™ canon it has become just another grain of grist to the dreary mill of corporate-speak, adopted, along with the bulleted hooks, the sound bites, the motivational powerpointations, as a utilitarian commercial mantra.

grave-horace-spin. any order.

all else being equal, there always will be a tomorrow, when, with stodgy certainty, the grand careless gestures of today will be called to account. all actions have consequences, which we can choose to ignore, but which, more likely than not, will return, in the fullness of time, to - in that wonderful american phrase - bite us in the ass. the analogous english maxim about throwing caution to the winds needs must be tempered with the Confucian caveat about pissing into it.

but o the temptation to say

fuck it ...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Carnival vs Lent

"The Battle between Carnival and Lent" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1559)

"Like his contemporaries Erasmus and Rabelais, Brueghel clearly understood the power of the ludic over its graver alternatives. And yet it is the coexistence of these two themes that he celebrates and immortalizes. Carnival has no meaning without Lent; locked in an eternal contest, they enact the battle between passion and reason, appetite and intellect, pleasure and piety, excess and scarcity that encompasses so many of the questions that guided and shaped the lives of early modern Europeans."

(Paula Findlen at Painting in Concert)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

truth or dare

"Shopkeeper Tom Algie faced a dilemma over Christmas - how to give himself and his three staff time off but without letting down his customers. So he came up with a solution to suit everyone: leaving the hardware store open with an honesty box. He left a note telling shoppers who came in on Boxing Day to serve themselves and then leave their payment in the box he had rigged up."

so what happened?