Tag: philosophy

A Word to the Wise

I’ve never been one for New Year Resolutions. There’s a natural rebel inside me who kicks against rules of any kind – especially those I try to impose on myself. I mean, really, who wants to be told what (and what not) to do by a finger-wagging fool who can’t even follow his own instructions?
And yet … come the turn of the year I always feel in need of a little gentle encouragement. I’m looking for inspiration from someone who’s been there, done it and bought the T-shirt. And who better than Anton Chekhov, a physician who was also a playwright often compared to Shakespeare and perhaps the most influential short-story writer of all time?
Image result for anton chekhov
First, a few random quotes …
Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Love, friendship and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.
Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.
We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.
People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.
Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.
Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.
In a May 10, 1886 letter to his brother Alexander, also a writer, Chekhov noted six principles of a good story.
  • Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature.
  • Total objectivity.
  • Truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
  • Extreme brevity.
  • Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype.
  • Compassion.

 

Finally, here are a few pieces of encouragement and advice Chekhov wrote in letters to Russian writer Maxim Gorky in the late 1800s.

 

“You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story ‘In the Steppe,’ it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic—that is, when you describe a thing, you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art.

There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?

I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines.”

 

Like all good teachers he begins by praising achievement before offering a single word of criticism – and even then he is constructive, offering his student a positive way forward.

Don’t know about you but I can’t think of a better way to start 2019!

Let’s hope it’s a good year for us all …

To A Granddaughter, Aged Four

Here’s another stab at a poem I posted a while ago. I think it’s sufficiently different to warrant a fresh outing. Click this link to see the original version – Beached

 

So you – sights set upon horizons – ask
For tales of bygone days when I was young
And just set sail myself. What spring to mind
Are moments when, for me, an unknown world
Emerged in truth from sugar-coated sham –
Awakenings in sudden storms, high seas.

The shore you leave with newly-opened eyes
Is where I ended up once time and tide
Grew tired of play and cast me skin and bone
Above the last-gasp breaker. Don’t confuse
These stray salt-streaks upon my face for tears
Nor think me thoughtless when I let fine sand
Fall soft through slackened fingers, so to speak,
For childhood’s visions are as hard to grasp
As specks of gold to sift from sediment
Or meanings to distil from mists of time.

And who can truly claim that he recalls?
So much is lost in transit – fire burned down
To faintly-glowing embers – vivid frames,
From floors of cutting-rooms, rough-spliced at random.

Take your pick. I’d sooner sit before
The fire and dream aloud than watch some movie
Made of smoke and mirrors. Photographs,
Those barefaced little fibbers, capture skin
But hardly give a hint of what’s within.

I’d show you glossy albums packed with stills
Or reels and reels of camera-conscious motion
Should any trace remain of who I was
And what it felt like out upon on the ocean.

No slideshow, then – nor sideshow, come to that,
When all you want is just the Main Event!
So ask me, as you do, what it was like
When I was five – or six or seven – or eight.

I’ll close my eyes and wait for anecdotes
To wander into view – old vinyl plucked
From deep within my whirring jukebox brain –
Epiphanies that sing again, their joys
Released and any sadness alchemised
By healing time and telling into mirth.

So at the death we journey towards birth.

 

Image result for boat on tropical beach

 

Image: Pinterest

Vault Finding #2

Continuing my trawl through old unpublished drafts, here are some random thoughts on the rules of arguing that still seem timely and relevant:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”Arthur Martine

Worth remembering, I believe, especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” is too often a menace of reacting rather than responding but it needn’t be this way. We can be critical while remaining charitable, aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett – the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist – questions our current everyone-is-a-critic culture.

In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – noteworthy for the significant value it places on ‘the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’ – he offers what he calls ‘the best antidote [to the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent’:  a list of rules formulated decades ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments. There is far too much shouting from the battlements. Comments that wholly diverge from the above code can and should be ignored, I believe, but merit response if they show understanding – or at the very least acknowledgement – of other points of view.

To anyone who views this as an unrealistic and naively utopian approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing – it transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion. When commenting on students’ written work, I tried to start with something I’d liked – it opened them to criticism.

A polite preamble means we don’t have to hold back when it comes to expressing our own disagreements. When the gloves come off we can employ Susan Sontag’s three steps to refute any argument – find the inconsistency, find the counter-example and find a wider context.

Image result for susan sontag

There’s a worrying lack of evidence behind much that is published online.

“Fake news is a real cause for concern on social media, particularly on Facebook, where unverified information and outright lies can swallow up facts and truth. That’s a frightening concept when 62% of American adults access news through social media.”

Iman Amrani, Guardian, 26.11.16

But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

“Back in the 1990s, the internet pioneer Josh Harris tried to sound a warning – but at that early utopian stage, when the web was assumed to be decentralising, democratising, enlightening, almost no one understood what he was saying. Later, in 2002. George W Bush’s own Voldemort, Karl Rove, chided a reporter by saying: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of the discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works any more.’ The gnomic taunt caused more bemusement than consternation at the time, but Rove was ahead of the game.”

Andrew Smith, Guardian, 26.11.16

This article goes on to talk about ‘post-truth’ where ‘facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection’ and ‘retro-truth’ where ‘a proposition is judged not by whether it is true or false when stated, but whether it has the potential to become true – like energy waiting to be released from the atom’.

I am the master of the universe.

(Well, thought I’d run it by you again to see if there was any take-up. Some of you might care to get a little campaign going on my behalf. I wouldn’t acknowledge it at first, of course, but don’t fret – in private there’ll be plenty smiling and waving practice!)

Yes, I jest, though my hectic humour hides a serious point. More and more these days I find a purely rational response insufficient. To inoculate myself against the poison I must infect myself – a small dose in the relatively safe form of art to build up my immunity. Art is ambiguous – no easy answers to be found there – but dives below the surface where fake news floats.

Listen, if you like, and maybe read …

 

I am the centre of this universe
The wind of time is blowing through me
And it’s all moving relative to me
It’s all a figment of my mind
In a world that I’ve designed
I’m charged with cosmic energy
Has the world gone mad or is it me?
I’m the creator of this universe
And all that is was meant to be
So that we might learn to see
The foolishness that lives in us
And stupidity that we must suss
How to banish from our minds
If you call this living, I must be blind
Songwriters: David Brock / Nik Turner
Master of the Universe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Images: Brain Pickings & Wikipedia

So What?

 

Any education system that puts too much stress on getting ‘right’ answers runs the risk of crushing the natural instinct young people have to experiment. You don’t learn new things to impress others but to discover them for yourself. Extrinsic motivation is no substitute for the intrinsic purpose of finding out how the world works and determining your place in it. Making mistakes is the only way to learn what works. It’s all too easy to repress the discovery urge in children and to make them fearful of change.

Herbie Hancock’s story about Miles Davis has inspired me to riff on the theme. The uncertainty of the future calls for a creative response which is fearlessly experimental. Rule nothing out and incorporate everything. Natural evolution itself proceeds by accumulating past success and the cultural evolution that is our special invention should never be hijacked by political elements who wish to exclude particular influences. Art and science must remain open to the world.

To help myself argue from first principles, I’ve revisited the WordPress Daily Prompt site – now extinct – and its fitting final word: Retrospective.  I had to dig down in my own Archive for this draft post which, without a hasty bit of improvisation, might never have seen the light of day. And a word by itself is nothing – alongside others it can become everything.

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight.

Emily Dickinson

At risk of crumbling, then, here is my poem:

R each back into those days gone past.
E mbrace mistakes and forget fear.
T rial and error’s long and winding
R oad has led you thankful here.
O pen up your heart and mind to
S eek the lessons you have learned.
P erspective is the hard-won prize when
E very corner’s safely turned.
C oming up and straight ahead
T he way is still as yet unclear.
I f your SATNAV screen go dead
V alue common sense instead.
E ach step into dark bring cheer.

 

Image result for broken sat nav

 

Image: Imgur

In Commemoration of the WordPress Daily Prompt – While Struggling with the Sudden Realisation that From Now On any Boot up the Backside will have to be Mine!

R eached the
E nd of
T he
R oad with nowhere to look but
O ver my
S houlder at all those
P oems I wrote under the influence –
E very day a new word, prompting me to draw heady notions from the
C ellar of my mind and pour
T hem
I nto leaky
V essels just like this one. And around about now I’d usually think about
E nding.

Ah well, onwards and upwards! There’s always the dictionary, opened at random. Close your eyes, stick a finger on the page … presidency. Er … perhaps resist easy salvoes in Donald’s extremely nervous company, yeah?

Hmm, not bad, though I say so myself as shouldn’t. Random has always been my preference over Predictable. I love starting sentences with no idea how I’m going to finish them … said the new prisoner to her uneasy jailer. What I’d really like is to come up with something absolutely original that would make everyone else kick themselves for never having thought it. In other words something so blindingly obvious, it would be hiding in plain sight.

A pipe dream, of course, because how could so many billions of people miss such an evident truth?

Surely the only way that could happen would be if they weren’t talking to each other properly … if they were subject to leaders (or leaders of opinion) who told them what to believe and who to associate with … if they were working all the hours available just to make ends meet … if their brief acquaintance with leisure pursuits was dominated by an overwhelming desire to escape … if their circle of friends and thereby access to different viewpoints was – for a whole variety of reasons that were largely beyond their immediate control – narrowing … if their default response to other points of view was not to debate them but to demonise them … if – but hang it all, why am I wasting time wondering about all these hypotheticals when the plain reality is that there’s nothing new under the sun, you can’t teach your grandma to suck eggs and everything you buy does exactly what it says on the tin?

Why worry? Be happy. And yet …

To wrestle with my disquiet about things, I used to keep a journal. And then another. When the word-count exceeded The Encyclopaedia BritannicaI called it a day. Now I just write on a single sheet of A4 whenever I feel like it – chance observations, stuff I copy down, things I overhear – the usual sort of thing, only nowadays I try to make connections because I know that when I come to the end of the second side I have to flip back over and write a title which encapsulates the whole kit and caboodle.

One of the greatest double acts ever to grace the variety stage, incidentally. Like most  comic pairings, their humour derived from an uneven relationship. Although the same gender, age, ethnic origin and profession, they were drastically different in terms of personality and behaviour. Where Kit – the straight man, feed, dead wood, or stooge – was reasonable and serious, Caboodle – the funny man, banana man or comic – was amusing, less pretentious, silly and relentlessly zany.

These stage personae were, of course, entirely fictitious. In private life Kit was the life and soul of the party and would do anything for you, while Caboodle was a poisonous killjoy whose only pleasures were malicious gossip and petty humiliation. Their greatness, for those who style themselves connoisseurs of the comic arts, lies in a transcendence of mere humour in favour of a kind of existential embarrassment. Kit and Caboodle were never afraid to die onstage and often did.

Coming Soon:  Plan B

Image result for stage curtains

Image: Marketing Solutions

Stimulus: WordPress Daily Prompt Retrospective

Chain Reaction

I wrote this acrostic poem as a personal response to Wordsworth’s magnificent Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey. Click on the link if you would like to read his poem.

R emember when you first stood here in wonder,
E arly days, when you climbed these very
T rees and chased down those same trails in wild abandon?
R emember how the memories would later flash unbidden
O n your inward eye – in the concrete jungle of cage city?
S oon you must return there – but this time as two in one
P erson – the youth you were and the man you’ve become
E ach holding the other’s hand, alone no more. And now your
C hildren, out of breath, slip warm hands into yours – open-eyed
T o see, all ears to hear your old tales of this brand new place.
I t could be their consolation for the dullnesses to come,
V ery much as it was and will be again for you. Throw a pebble in that pond.
E xpect the water to ripple long after you have departed.

 

Image result for hills around tintern abbey

 

Image: Holiday Cottage Wye Valley

Stimulus: WordPress Daily Prompt Retrospective

Kicking Against The Pricks

One poem per post? Who says? Here’s three for ya!

 

R ather than just cruise on autopilot to any and
e very old theme-park they choose to send you,
b etter by far to stick a pin in the map –
e ach surprise destination a new tomorrow. Best of all,
l earn to map-read. Real places are out of sight, off-piste.

 

R epeating pure guff off a page
E arns many a lackey their wage,
B ut let them once spy
E very word is a lie –
L oad up paychecks or lock the cage.

 

R emember the stroppy guy at the back of the room that nothing suited?
E ven the most obvious, trivial truths were grist to his tricksy mill.
B lack was white, he’d say, or maybe an undiscovered shade of grey.
E veryone else wanted to move to the vote and go home, pub, anywhere!
L isten, he’d say, get this wrong and out there could disappear …

 

Image result for rebel

 

Image: Twitter

Stimulus: WordPress Daily Prompt Rebel