Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Lakes Again, After the Fiestas

The lakes are quiet now. The weekend after the Assumption is the last big day of the summer. Now, midweek, the streets of the village echo under your feet, the roads are empty and at the bathing spots on the lakes there is almost no one. I saw maybe hald a dozen fishermen, mostly Rumanians, who seem to have an obsession with water, and three middle-aged ladies at one of the safer spots, idly dangling their feet in the water and wondering whether to swim. I expect they did eventually. In high summer that place is full, literally full, you couldn't get another towel on the ground or another table set up, and the water itself sometimes looks like the scene of a minor naval battle. The fish- large carp-like things a foot or so long- spend the daylight hours upstream, but now there were a dozen of them moving back and forth. No fishing just there.

At the other places a few stragglers sit and watch the water, and swim and play in the shallows. Families who couldn't get away until now, or who've been somewhere else where it rained, or are making the most of the opportunity, or who prefer it at this time of year, why not? Always families now, the young come from mid-July to mid-August, at fiesta time and when the weather is at its best. They don't have to argue dates with their boss or decide when to shut up the shop without losing too much money.

The summer isn't over, not at all. It's still 32º+ every afternoon, but there is cloud at times and storms in the evening. In high summer it never rains and you hardly see a cloud. people like certainty. And now that August is ending the feel here is that the work season begins again. Even people who don't work notice the difference, and those who rely on others to lift their spirits and provide their entertainment are aware that they've run out of choices.

The lakes haven't changed, though. The water is as high as ever and the sun still shines on them as it did. The places where the people don't go- because you can't get there by car, or there's nowhere to sit on the bank- look just as they did two weeks ago, and the beautiful places have not lost there beauty. They never do, not even in winter, until the water table in the mountains drops and they start to dry out. It'll be another year or two, but if it rains in the hills this winter the cycle will be longer still.

Mrs Hickory will soon be joining me on the bike, when the sun is not so hot, and we'll visit the lakes together, and swim at the places the tourists have left because they think it's too cold. Expect more photos.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Know it's Only Football, but...

Another View of la Redondilla
There was a disagreement between the footballers’ union and the league at the start of the season, resulting in the cancellation of the first set of matches. (We were playing Real Madrid, so I’m not too bothered.) It was about money, of course, and the players made much of how some players in the minor teams were having trouble because they weren’t being paid. I don’t know how much right or wrong there was in the respective positions; there was a disagreement, they negotiated and sorted it out, and this weekend there is football.

But another disagreement involved the radio stations. The clubs want to charge them for transmitting the matches, in the same way that the TV stations pay.* The result is that instead of football you have hours of moaning about censorship and self-important stuff about how they’re going to put tape over their microphones outside the ground as some form of symbolic blah blah blah... I switched off, naturally, and followed the game on the internet.

Journalists who think the real news is them always annoy me. Journalists who shout about censorship as soon as someone takes them less seriously than they take themselves annoy me as well. There is a disagreement, sort it out and broadcast the football which is what we listen for. If they convert the programme into self-justification and propaganda for their position I won’t be the only one who stops listening.

The radio stations seem to assume that they have a right to broadcast commentary on matches because ‘the public has a right to be informed’. Well, that isn’t true for a start. A football match is a private event, opened to the public under certain conditions for commercial reasons. There is no general ‘right’ to have access to or information about such an event, and no ‘public interest’ in the sense that matters here. I underline this because I am convinced that it is true and that it is important to understand it. (If you care about this matter in the first place, that is).

The radio stations are, with the exception of the state broadcaster, private companies, which broadcast football because it sells a lot of adverts. They can hardly complain if the clubs have decided to stop giving them those listening figures for nothing. Also, the media have dedicated areas in the stadia which cost a lot of money to maintain, and access to some private areas which involves security costs to the club, interview facilities and so on. (It’s possible they already pay rent or maintenance for these facilities, I haven’t yet been able to find out.)

TV companies show images of the match, the rights to which are held to belong to the clubs playing, whereas radio stations broadcast no content except the commentary which they generate themselves. But the TV stations don’t pay a fortune to show football because they appreciate this conceptual nicety. They do it because it’s worth their while.

The clubs undoubtedly benefit considerably from the publicity, and from having the ear of the nation any time they want it, but that’s the point. It’s a business deal. There is a commercial relationship between two sets of businesses, which benefits the football fan who can listen to the matches for nothing. The clubs are re-evaluating that relationship and have offered a position. The radios, instead of negotiating, are falling back on ‘censorship’, ‘public interest’ and abusing the fact that they are a convenient platform for their own grievances. This is very annoying. When they sort it out I might return to the radio. Or I might stick with internet commentary. Or pay-per-view. Someone who understands how business works and doesn’t imagine the customer is interested in his problems.

I am broadly on the side of the radio stations in this, but I would have much more sympathy if they either broadcast other programmes and ignored the football until the dispute is settled, sat around watching the television pictures and commented from those, or found some other way of telling the listener what’s happening, but without whining all the time about how it’s not fair. Or going crying to Sir- they want the government to get involved. Why?

*I’m sure I remember a similar thing happening around 1992, and then the more enterprising commentators bought a ticket and gave their commentary by phone. The clubs responded by confiscating mobile phones for ‘safety reasons’ (they were big, heavy things back then). The thing is I thought I remembered that in the end they agreed to pay, so I was surprised when this argument broke out as I thought they’d been doing it for years.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Should I Be Worried?

I was told long ago by an aging gypsy woman that when there appeared in the sky at dusk a giant halibut
blowing smoke rings, it meant my time had come. Now I wish I hadn't laughed at her...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Idle Thoughts on Dinner Parties

One of the many things I have never understood is why people invite other people to dinner. I like good food, but I don’t think of eating it as a great recreational experience. I prefer not to prolong it. And to be forced to listen to other people wittering inanely at great length is far too high a price. I would rather make myself a sandwich and go and do something interesting. And I frequently do.

I am not completely misanthropic (not completely). There are people whose company I enjoy, but I tend to talk to people when I have something to say to them, or when they have something to say to me, that we both happen to find interesting. Basically, I loathe anything that sniffs of ceremony or social ritual. Life is too short for that sort of thing.

(We are a highly social species, and many people do like this sort of thing, so the problem is, I am sure, mine, not theirs, but I still loathe the whole business.)

Programming conversation in advance, deliberately sabotaging it by inviting a range of people who will never have any common interest to discuss beyond the utterly banal, and then encouraging them to spend hours yapping about nothing by placing good food and drink in front of them, is a very strange idea indeed.

Even if they are the right people, the circumstances are invariably wrong. How can you possibly know, days or perhaps weeks beforehand, who you might wish to talk to on a particular evening?

And then there is the unnecessary complexity of the food. As with so many social occasions, it seems essential to reach the limits of nervous collapse while preparing for them. Everyone must pretend they are having fun, but no one is allowed to genuinely enjoy any part of it. A good way of ruining any chance of relaxing and enjoying it is to plan a series of dishes that take hours to prepare and are impossible to time together. It really doesn’t have to be like that.

If people just wanted to enjoy each other’s company they would arrange to meet in a bar that also did decent food in case anyone felt hungry. Then they could eat, drink and talk as they wished, and leave when they wanted. But that might be fun, so it must be, not actually forbidden, but held in low esteem, a youthful indiscretion, a minor diversion, not on the same moral level as the dinner party.

And the guests, of course, are never the people you would choose to invite. They are chosen because they are owed, because they are useful, because they will know you’ve invited someone else, because it’s expected, because they will make up the numbers, because there are too many men, because they will give someone else someone to talk to, because that way you won’t have to talk to them, because the people you wanted can’t come. Whatever. Not likely to be an enjoyable evening, is it, if everything is carefully designed to make sure it is as irritating and tedious as possible.

And don’t get me started on weddings.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Peñarroya Castle

In the year 1198, Alonso Pérez de Sanabria, Captain of the forces of Alfonso VIII, took (in that wonderfully graphic mediaeval sense of the verb ‘to take’) the Castle of Peñarroya. While debating with himself at precisely which angle a particular prisoner’s head should be parted from his shoulders, this prisoner, known to history as Allen Ilec, revealed that he knew of a secret treasure and suggested they might do a deal. He turned out to be telling the truth, the deal was struck, Ilec kept his head, at least until the next battle, and in the roof of the castle the treasure was found. It included the lost image of Our Lady of Peñarroya, a dark Virgin venerated in the area since before that time.

A shrine was built within the castle for it, and there it has been ever since. It’s taken annually to the nearest village so it can be carried back again to the shrine, accompanied by a large crowd of people. Then everybody fries sausages and gets drunk. That’s how these things usually work around here.

In 1959 Franco decided to build a dam at that exact spot. The castle stands on an eminence commanding a spectacular, and strategic, view of the valley in both directions, and of the surrounding hills. This position, just where the valley narrows for a moment, and with rocks on either side, was perfect for the head of a reservoir. So the Generalissimo thought, and he was probably right.

It’s an ugly dam, and clearly some damage was done to the castle in order to build it, but the land must be irrigated, people need to drink, and if we lost some of the beauty of the castle we gained the beauty of the lake.

This is, of course, mostly an excuse to publish some photos. Considering I cycled over 40 miles with the express purpose of taking them, I’m not very happy with the results, but here they are anyway. I’ll just have to go back one day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Objective Morality

Is there any such thing as a moral universal? Something which everyone, or at least normal representatives of every human culture, will recognise as being right or wrong? Is there, in short, any fundamental moral system that will serve as a basis for human relations? In behavioural terms, is there anything at all that we all do the same?

What would it mean? Where would it come from? Outside us or inside us? Is it imposed by some form of God, or is it part of our nature, discernible by examining ourselves?

(Regular readers will getting rather tired of seeing the following observation, but I think it needs to be made again, as a preface:)

It should be remembered that even the most primitive, uncontacted, or uninfluenced, hunter-gatherers live, like us, in a conceptual world almost entirely of their own making. Their social behaviour is not instinctive, like that of monkeys, but has been created by them, and by generations of their forebears. This includes all aspects of social interaction, hierarchy, general morality, 'good manners', and sexual practice. All of this is defined, in an almost completely arbitrary way, and hedged about with strictures, taboos, punishments and justifying legends to hide the fact that it has, in the end, no basis in anything but custom. There are almost no underlying constants to be found. Every conceivable aspect or variant of sexual behaviour, in particular, is forbidden somewhere, permitted somewhere else, and compulsory in yet another place.

Possibly the only thing that comes close to be a universal value across cultures is the value of human life, but even this is subject to so many exceptions that it is not ultimately clear whether it is anything more than a reflection of how much each of us values his own life. Societies, and subgroups within those societies, are always willing, even eager, to recognise characteristics which disqualify people from the operation of this supposed moral instinct. Usually this is done by excluding them from the condition of human, as it is neater, and psychologically very easy to accept. Thus there are societies and groups who believe that the unborn, the very old, the sick, the criminal, those who have certain beliefs, live in certain circumstances or support certain political views, earn their living in certain ways, belong to certain organizations, come from certain places, entertain certain aspirations, or that any individual or group, for any reason whatsoever, is excluded from the condition of human and therefore their life is forfeit to the fully human. We all, without exception, distinguish degrees or classes of humanity, and know who we count as human and who we do not.

It appears that every single thing that we hold to be the right or wrong way of doing things comes from some combination of our own experience and the customs that exist around us.

There are instincts we all share, physical things, the instinct for self-preservation, for food and drink, for comfort and warmth. But these cannot serve as the basis for a universal morality, because they are not moral, but physical, and they are personal, not social.

The only instinctive social behaviour which we might all be said to share- all individuals in all societies, tribes, cultures- is the understanding that there is ‘them’ and ‘us’. And as a basis for a universally shared understanding of morality it is not a good place to start.

Individually, one-to-one, many, probably most, people will be saddened or shocked by death, will try to help those in clear and immediate need, will feed the hungry, water the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the sick (as Christ, and others, said we should)*. These reactions are almost certainly instinctive, not socialised. The attitude of a mother to her child is certainly instinctive. But the limits are very narrow, far too narrow to be universal, although it is these things that religions and other social movements try to work with, but they usually fail. (The success of religions and other movements, where they are successful in some sense, may well come not from the harnessing of these instincts but from another couple of instinctive needs- to belong and to understand our life).

None of this means that I don’t believe in right and wrong. I have my own ideas about what I and others should and shouldn’t do, how things should and shouldn’t be, how to judge other people’s motivations, and so on. Some of these ideas are truly my own, most I have inherited, at least in part, from the people around me at different times in my life, and others are a bit of a mess that probably shouldn’t be looked at too closely. But if they are to serve a social purpose, rather than just allowing me to judge my actions and those of others, they need to be socialised, in the sense that I need to negotiate with those I form a society with, to agree criteria to determine how our actions will be guided and judged. This is an extremely complicated process, which usually, in any kind of society, of any size, is achieved largely by imposition.

If there is an objective morality, where would it come from? Is it external or internal? Whether it is imposed from outside, by God, or it is a part of our nature, integral to being human, how can we know what it is? Can it still exist even though there is no agreement on what it is? What use would it be, if imposed from Outside, or what use is there in discussing the concept, if it is impossible to ascertain? We only have our own personal convictions, and we battle among ourselves to impose them on others. What is the point?

Is it even desirable to seek an objective morality, and to establish its universal acceptance? Much of the suffering in human history has been caused deliberately by people who couldn’t get their understanding of morality accepted other than by violence. We clearly cannot know what values are intended to be universal in humanity, and more harm seems to be done by believing that we do know, than by accepting that we don’t and can’t know. Individual morality, a personal understanding of right and wrong, on the other hand, is almost certainly a good thing.**

(By chance, I’ve just come across this quote from Nietzsche: “ of morals are only a sign language of the emotions... ...every system of morals is a... tyranny against nature and also against reason; that is, however, no objection, unless one should decree by some system of morals, that all kinds of tyranny and unreasonableness are unlawful.”
Like most of what he wrote, this seems to be an off-the-cuff remark [he was having a pop at Kant, who he despised] that he would at other times have disputed, and I’m not suggesting it sheds any light on the question, but it is at least relevant.)

*Love Thy Neighbour just about sums up what a universal morality should be, but is it true to say that it is objective in any way?

**Up to a point it may not matter very much what that code is, as long as we a) try to make our behaviour consistent with our belief, b) accept the consequences of our actions, and c) understand that this code is ours alone.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In Which I Try to Understand Money Again

Is money that isn’t spent ‘lost’ to the economy?

A wealthy man who doesn’t ‘invest’ his wealth in some way, but ‘hoards’ it, is generally assumed to be taking money out of the economy that he could be spending on products or employees wages or creating further wealth by doing whatever is what made him wealthy in the first place, or that the government could be spending for him. Whether or not you consider it a bad thing that someone should a) have a lot of money and b) not spend it, there seems to be a certain amount of agreement between left and rightwing commentators that it’s better for the wealthy to spend their money than to hang onto it. (They then start arguing about everything else, of course.) But does it actually matter?

If it’s in a bank or whatever, which is the most likely way of ‘hoarding’ it, then it is being invested, just not by the owner of the wealth. It’s helping people buy houses and start or improve businesses or increase their pensions or whatever. Not all of these will be good investments, but that would be equally true if the owner were spending it himself.

If it’s land*/buildings/cars/yachts, then you could argue that the resources are not tied up at all, wealth having been distributed by the original buying. Also, these things tend to require expenditure on maintenance and so by their existence cause the wealthy to spend money.

If it’s under the bed... This is where it gets interesting, possibly. If Mr Croesus has a great pile of gold bricks under his bed, has he taken money out of the economy? His bricks are a way of storing wealth, but until he tries to sell them and buy something else, that is until he tries to use them as a medium of exchange, are they worth anything at all? Hasn’t he just increased the value of circulating gold by keeping some of it out of circulation? And isn’t the same true of banknotes? Even more clearly in fact, since banknotes have no intrinsic value whatsoever.

*Actually, I’m beginning to wonder about where land figures in all this. But someone is going to own that land, and to put it some purpose that suits them, rather than being necessarily beneficial to others. After all, you can’t spend land. Unless it’s a large amount of good agricultural land that is left to run wild, or land on the edge of a prosperous town that a lot of people could benefit from living on and finding employment nearby if it were used for housing... So land is indeed something that, just by having it and not using it, the owner is keeping wealth out of the economy. Or is he? This is what happens when I start thinking with my fingers.**

**I have a degree in mathematics, which I enjoyed doing. I understand some pretty complicated concepts, or at least I did twenty years ago. But money just gives me a headache. I’m going in search of cold beer.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Squirrels Think About

I caught this one in a wood by a lake this morning, clearly wondering whether the Indian Test team even cares about being made to look ridiculous once again. Not a question we can easily answer. The number 1 team in Test cricket until last week has spent the summer looking as though it's trying to win a bet against itself. Or as though they were just waiting to go home. Remember this series was 1 against 2 for the top spot, and the whole thing has been, well, a bit dull, really, and just a bit odd.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I'm Going to Regret this, but...

There’s have been ripples in the blogosphere, and possibly in the country, about the possibility of bringing back the death penalty for murder, or some subset of murders.*

The death penalty was applied to a decreasing number of crimes from the early 18thC, when the black acts were sweeping and savage, and the end of the 19thC when attempted murder and rape both ceased to be capital crimes. Treason only applied in wartime at that stage. This was partly, or largely, because juries were refusing to convict on capital charges where they felt death was too harsh a sentence. The final abolition of the death penalty for murder was not a response to the actions of juries, and was against public opinion, which has always wanted to have the option of killing its killers. This is relevant to the later argument. (I haven’t checked any of these things, by the way, so I’m open to correction.)

The fact that a majority wants something doesn’t necessarily mean it is right, but it’s a good starting point if you have to decide whether it should exist or not. The EU finally forced all its members to abolish the death penalty completely a few years ago. As I pointed out at the time (to anyone who’d listen), an unelected, unaccountable body denying a society the freedom to protect itself from its murderers is not progress, it is tyranny.

None of which has any bearing on whether the death penalty per se is right or wrong, so let’s have a look.

I do not oppose the death penalty on principle. I see nothing wrong with society holding forfeit the life of someone who has killed one of its members. Therefore the facts that would lead me have an opinion on the matter of in England are practical matters.

Does it work as a deterrent? Despite the thousands of keys that have been worn to dust beneath the fingers of writers on both sides of the divide, no one seems to have a clue. It shouldn’t be too hard to look at figures from around the world, as the status of capital punishment has changed, and do some analysis. They would need to be corrected for any number of factors, and, in fact, it would be very hard, but it should also be worth doing. You could also talk to murderers, a lot of them, very carefully, and try to ascertain how they might have acted differently. It would require a great deal of work, but again, it is something very much worth knowing more about.

What do you do about the mistakes? Well, there’s not much you can do, except do your best to make sure they don’t happen. There’s a lot that can be done, and is done, to ensure that the innocent are not convicted and condemned, but sometimes they are. That’s a rather weak answer, but there isn’t a stronger one unless you start trying to weigh the value of innocent convicts hanged against those saved by the force of deterrent and lack of recidivism, and you can’t have that conversation until the point in the previous paragraph has been answered with some degree of accuracy. It is this question which inclines me against the death penalty in practice.

Who takes the life of the convicted murderer? Is it society as a whole, or is the state, an entity distinct from, and antagonistic to, society? In Britain we still have the sense that we, society, collectively, through the system of juries, on whom a guilty verdict cannot be imposed, and by having trials in public, so that justice can be seen to be done, and any inadequacies openly discussed, act in our own name, to protect ourselves from criminals. This may be why people generally are in favour of capital punishment. (In Spain the general public is very much against, because it is associated with a large number of less than perfect governments over the centuries, and perhaps because they don’t have juries.) Both jury trial and visible justice are under increasing threat (in the name of human rights and freedom, of course) and the sense that we ourselves punish criminals, rather than the state, may soon cease to be felt so strongly.

All the commentators I have read on the subject recently, both for and against, assume that the state would be giving itself the power to kill its citizens. There is another way of looking at it, as I say, and I think it is relevant to the argument.

*Usually those who kill children or policemen in the execution of their duty. These categories of murder may be considered different, incidentally, not because the lives of children and policemen are worth more than other lives, but because people who kill children, and policemen when they are protecting the rest of us, are probably more dangerous (and more evil) than other murderers. I don’t think I would want that distinction to be made, if execution were revived, but it’s a legitimate argument, I feel.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 5

On the Purpose of Language

The purpose of language, that is, the purpose to which we put it most of the time, is the creation and maintenance of social relations. The vast majority of all communication*, in all media, (spoken, written, whistled, tactile, whatever) is not intended to entertain, inform, persuade, instruct or anything else, it is a negotiation of a shared understanding of the nature of the relations between the people involved, and usually also an enjoyment of those relations.**

Story-telling is, like other uses to which we put speech and communication, an example of an adaptation of an ability for some other end. We didn’t become bipedal so we could play basketball, our dexterity did not evolve because of a selective advantage possessed by piano virtuosi, and the glottis has a purpose not remotely related to the singing of grand opera. And, although story-telling often has a partly social function or context, the type of language used is quite different, on another creative level, from ordinary social communication. It involves the manipulation of newly-created abstract concepts into a pattern that will be perceived as having the possibility of being real, and can be accepted as such. We are so good at doing this that we fail to realise the intellectual challenge it represents.

Literary texts take the intellectual challenge and attempt to refine it in a way that most of us are not capable of imitating. In doing so they (deliberately) distance themselves from the social function which usually forms a part of all communication, even story-telling. That is perhaps where literature is distinct from mere story-telling, a higher and separate entity. In this sense, naturally, literature certainly exists.

In any case, the point of this last post in my rambling mini-series is just to point out that story-telling is not the main purpose for which we use language. And neither is telling the truth.

*By communication I mean an utterance directed at a specific person or group of people. Novels, especially literary novels, articles, and so on, are usually not communication in this sense. Not that it makes much difference to the point.

**(It is possible, but not at all certain, that language originated because of selective pressure on the ability to create strong social groups through verbal communication, but that is not what I am trying to argue here. There are those who suggest, and argue well (see Babel’s Dawn on the blogroll, or his new book which is just out), that it originated in the sharing of an interest in an object, that is, that the motor function was informative rather than social.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

La Cruz de las Monjas

Some photos of the lakes from a spot high above them, on a ridge just where the two trails of lakes join together. There are many fascinating paths, and if you climb, many beautiful views. This is one of my favourites.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Another Stray Thought on Literature

What was Dr Frankenstein actually trying to do?  Was he trying to create life or to restore life? Why did he need to sew bits of bodies together? Why not just use a single dead body?

It’s clear what Mary Shelley was trying to do. She wanted the monster to be a new individual, so she could give it a character and behaviour not associated with any human being, but why did the Doctor go to all that trouble?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 4

Literary Theory as Art

In Part 2 I was speaking of those who study the writings of their own tongue and approximately of their own time. This kind of study provides a lot of room for speculation. The study of ancient texts in long dead languages requires very considerable intellectual effort simply in order to gather a basic understanding of them and of the historical and social circumstances in which they were written, and thus to be able to enjoy them, and thus to be able to say something new about the story. It is odd that such scholars dedicate their intellectual labours to the search for such minimal scraps of context as might be recoverable, in order to shed fresh light on the story and its role in the society that produced it, while the scholars of modern writings in their own languages resolutely ignore the abundant and well known contextual background of their object of study in order to use it as a tool for illustrating their own ideas.

Vast sections of our universities, of those parts of them dedicated to the humanities, make no attempt to seek truth, to discover new things, although they claim to. If they presented themselves as giving opinions, as riffing on the texts and situations they look at, as merely using the text they are analysing as a starting point, as a way to set their minds working, as a medium to express their own opinions, ideas, moral judgements, intellectual conceits, innovative thoughts, prejudice, ignorance or whatever- that is, if they told the truth- they could be judged on how far they achieve the goal, and on how interesting or useful the results are. Or they could just have fun. They could do a form of art. Of course, they would be less obviously suited to tenured posts at universities if they were open about what they do, and their motives for doing it. And they wouldn’t get to take themselves so immensely seriously.*

Art does not care about truth. It has no need of truth. Or rather it has its own truth, some form of perceived coherence. Its purpose is to communicate something. I don’t think it matters much whether the perceiver appreciates what the originator had in mind. It’s easy to do art. A minimum of imagination, something to express, anything, and a medium. There are plenty to choose from. It may not be good art, people might not like it, or understand what it’s for, or agree with what it says, but it’s art.

*The more direly dreary and politically charged areas of the humanities attract people who are not intelligent enough for real academic work, but who want to feel part of the game. They’re like the boy you allow to play on the team sometimes because his father has an off-licence, but only when it’s cold and wet, and only at left back. There are parasites on every human virtue and achievement.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 3

If we look at our own motivations for story-telling...

We all tell stories, in the sense of narrating events which have only taken place in our imagination. We do so for all the reasons that our Pleistocene ancestors told stories, and we have added some categories, or sub-categories, of our own.

We tell lies, creating a narrative of events that have not occurred to deceive others, to protect ourselves or to harm them or whatever (I hardly need to provide a typology of motives for lying, although there are people who make a good living by stating the obvious). Lies usually have an immediate practical purpose but they take advantage of the same capacity for narrative and imagination that all stories use.

We entertain our children with stories, send them to sleep, terrorize them into being good, inform them about the family they belong to. We tell each other jokes, gossip, local and global news as we have heard it, we dramatize the winning goal of our football team and the moment when our friend’s braces snapped just as he bent down to tie his laces as the nuns’ charabanc went past. We all tell stories of this sort, of the primeval kind, we might say, just as we did 10 or 20,000 years ago, and possibly much more.

But there are newer manifestations, newer reasons for telling stories. Whereas once story-tellers could gain power and authority, leading at times to increased wealth, in more developed, sophisticated and self-conscious societies they may also gain wealth directly from the telling, whether or not there is a social role. There are massive, global industries- publishing, the media, television and film- dedicated to making money from the telling of stories with no real social purpose. The process of creating truth is also different in such societies. It has become a complex process, constantly re-apportioned, questioned, re-invented, carried out competitively by governments, churches and those industries just mentioned. There is little continuity, much less stability, and in the details at least, no agreement at all between the elements of the society about what the truth that supposedly holds it together really is.

Primitive societies may not know how much their identity depends on arbitrary stories invented by their grandfathers, but they do know what those stories are. We are much more used to analysing and questioning such tales, but we rarely ask the right questions, and we have much less of a sense of who we are than the primitive, because though we question openly the mish-mash of rapidly shifting legend that seeks to define us, we don’t, individually, personally, create anything to put in their place. We accept that that kind of story is only told by the permitted story-teller. We all tell almost every other kind of story, but few people dare to believe that they can tell the founding legends. It’s a kind of story most of us do not tell.

From the perspective of the story-teller, literature is something that has no reason to exist. It is an unnecessary concept.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of Lower and Longer Lakes

The largest of our lakes, the longest by some distance, four times the length of the next longest, in fact, is considered one of the least interesting. There are reasons for this, but it still has quite enough beauty and interest to be worth a look now and then, and I go along beside it quite regularly.

One reason it’s unpopular is that it’s hard to get to by car. There’s no road, only a dirt track that needs an off-road vehicle or a car you don’t care much about. Then there are no swimming places, nowhere you can easily enter the water, and nowhere comfortable to put a towel down and take the sun afterwards. And no bars.

Also, it’s the last of the lakes, at the end of a string below the village, which are not much visited either, as most people follow the road upstream where the action is. And it’s artificial, dammed to provide power and irrigation to the area, flooding the valley and creating a lake where before there was just a stream. This was many years ago, but it isn’t natural and somehow this affects the perception of it. It’s geologically less interesting, too, because like all the lakes below the village it is fed directly by rainwater and by outflow from the higher lake, whereas at the higher lakes the level depends on the level of the ground water, which in turn depends on how much it’s filtered down from the mountains since the last heavy rains. This means that it takes a year or two of rain before the level in these higher lakes starts rising again, once it’s dropped dramatically. It also means that the water level in the cave systems in the hills around the lakes is the same as in the lakes themselves, offering further opportunities for drowning, which visitors seize upon with sad regularity.

Returning to the long lake, the reservoir, I said it was unpopular with the bathing, lying about and drinking classes because it doesn’t offer much of these things and is hard to get to, these two circumstances doubtless being related, but it is popular with fishermen and cyclists, because we know the spots that are worth going to. There are some spectacular views, some lovely curves and tree-covered islets, presumably some good fishing, and a lot of birds. I saw a flamingo rise from the reeds beside me yesterday and flap slowly away, accompanied by smaller, black birds, apparently of the same family.

The path runs for several miles along the water’s edge, then turns away from it, uphill, and takes you through a farm well above the lake, from which you get another perspective on the water. I like to go there, as it’s quieter and has more variety than the more fashionable spots, and, though it means a longer ride, when you’re not in a hurry and you don’t mind the heat, that’s part of the fun.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 2

The telling of stories has enormously important effects on the society they are told to, and for this reason, a society which has reached a certain level of sophistication will produce people who will consciously analyse the stories, the people who tell them, the processes by which those people are chosen and the effects that their stories have. This is an important part of understanding our selves, and literate societies with a leisured class have tended to produce people to analyse them.

But is that what European and US teachers of literature do? What is the object of their study?

If we look at the motives of those who analyse stories and the telling...

Teachers of literature, literary critics and the like, the analysers of stories, do not take as the object of their study the stories whose purpose is overtly social, the religious texts, creation myths, foundation legends, campfire tales, newspaper articles. All of these are studied, but not by those who claim to deal with literature. Professors of English or European literature are almost exclusively concerned with stories that were not told for any of the important social reasons, and which might have had important social effects, but with texts written for money and as exercises in language. This suggests that the people who make it their business to study a thing they call literature think of it as a very specific kind of storytelling, done for personal, not social reasons, with limited social impact and with a form and a complexity that raise them above the simpler stories. I think to be considered literature a story must satisfy certain criteria for being considered art.

It is not unreasonable that these analysts should be attracted to the better crafted, more difficult tales, and, although the motivation for literature as they study it is not social, they usually like the teller to be socially interesting, and the story to have social complexity. It appears, therefore, that we may tentatively conclude that those who study literature consider literature to be those stories which are non-trivial comments on a society, rather than a part of that society. In that sense, there is such a thing as literature, because it can be defined in a way that makes sense.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 1

Is there such a thing as literature, a thing distinct from the writing and telling of stories? Is it a degree of interest, of quality, of complexity, or the role that a story has, which converts it into literature? Is it simply the fact that someone is moved to study it in a way that was not originally intended, that makes it literature? Is there a thing which we can call literature and whose analysis is worth turning into an object of intellectual study? And paying people to do it? And taking seriously what they say?

If we look at the origins of story-telling...

Story-telling is common to all human societies. All human beings, everywhere in the world, even the most primitive, un-contacted hunter-gatherers, live in a conceptual world entirely of their own making. Our social behaviour is not instinctive, like that of monkeys, but has been created by us, and by generations of our forebears. We make it collectively, through stories, and we understand it and transmit it through stories. Stories are used by all societies to explain their origins and their structure, to justify their beliefs and their hierarchies, their moral codes and manners, to entertain and to reinforce the authority of the teller, to control the thoughts and acts of the listener, to strengthen their sense of their place in the world, and to reduce their fear of their weakness and mortality. In all societies, there are authorised story-tellers, who must be listened to, and the unauthorised, who are seen as liars.

These things are done in different ways in different societies and within different sub-groups of larger or more complex societies, but the reasons, the motivations are the same. The right to tell stories is an important one. It is the right to create truths about the society itself.

In this sense literature is just another word for story, or perhaps for a culture of stories, and has no useful meaning of its own.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reptile Necropsy in the Pursuit of Knowledge

Update: I have relented and will allow readers, whose thirst for knowledge is as strong as their stomach, to witness the results of my herpetological researches. The oesophagus, trachea, heart, and large intestine are all clearly visible, as are the ribs and to a lesser extent the higher vertebrae.

Yesterday my brother-in-law killed a snake that had stuck its head out of the undergrowth at the wrong moment. I had known it was there but kept quiet because it hadn't done me any harm, nor was it likely too since, although it was about three feet long, theye are not poisonous and only bite when cornered. I had no intention of cornering it and Mrs Hickory was happy that her rabbit would run away from it, so we left it alone. Unfortunately they eat partridge eggs which is a death sentence around here.

Thus the snake had a brief encounter with a stout walking stick and joined the its kin, and some rats and mice, on a pile some distance from the house that will be quickly reduced by the insects, and quite possibly by other rats.

Later the conversation turned to the subject of ribs, and touched on the matter of whether a snake's ribs are bone in the normal sense or cartilaginous like fish, or gelatinous, or whether they had ribs at all. Fish-like, was my contribution, and a lot of them, but, under the pressure of debate, I announced my intention to open the late reptile and settle the question.

This was considered a bit eccentric for that time of night, and I was persuaded to forget the idea. Today, however, armed with a Stanley knife, latex gloves and some sticks for handling, I was able to ascertain that this snake, at least, had ribs very much like those of a sole; cartilaginous, flexible, attached directly to the spine rather than articulated, and though I didn't count them, there were a lot. The internal organs are interesting, too, being mostly flat and elongated. Much as you would expect, I suppose. The photos are not suitable for a blog of this nature, but I might put them on Facebook.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Two Books I Shan't be Finishing

My summer reading list is very long, consisting mostly of my as usual very backed up 'to read' list and a few extra things I liked the look of thrown in, plus some detailed background reading on some of the things I'm interested in now that I've got more time to concentrate. I'll be lucky to get through half of them by mid-September, but that's normal. It never does get much shorter.

In fact, my reading list is not so much long as high. It exists, physically, as a pile almost as tall as I am, in the corner of the bedroom on my side of the bed (which Mrs Hickory now pretends not to notice). She has been known to ask, casually as it were, why they can't be on the shelves, you know, the bookshelves, which are called that for a reason. The answer, of course, is that I like to have the things I might need at short notice to hand. There are an awful lot of things I might need at short notice, and not all of them are books, but Mrs Hickory has decided to pretend not to notice that, either.

I now have most of my reading, current, future, potential, and 'you-never-know', in the Kindle, which saves a great deal of space. So here on the farm the pile of books on my desk and beside the bed is much smaller than it used to be, and consists mainly of reference books and books that you can't get in e-form, or that I already had in print but haven't read yet.

You get the picture. A lot of books are planned for the holidays. There is a sort of idea of which are more important, but it often depends on how I feel. The Kindle is great for that as well, you just flick from one to another without leaving your chair.

If you've got this far, you'll be wondering when I'm going to get to the subject of the title; what, you are thinking, are these two books that I have decided are not worth finishing?

The first (in no particular order) is Conan Doyle's 'The White Company'. A student of mine, a highly intelligent university lecturer with a very good command of English, mentioned that he was reading it and was finding it very hard to understand. That's odd, I thought. Conan Doyle shouldn't be especially difficult. I use him with high school students, although only scenes, and they are slightly abridged, but this chap, I thought, should have no trouble with a few Sherlock Holmes stories.

The title wasn't familiar so I dug it up on the ether and took a quick look. Nothing Holmsian at all, but a mediaeval lad brought up in a monastery who goes out into the world to seek his fortune and ends up buckling his swash with the best of them all over France and Spain. Hugely exaggerated tales of bravado, gallantry and derring-do, from a time when people conversed in entire paragraphs and waited until the other chap had finished speaking before deciding whether he had expressed himself like a gentleman or like a blackguard, and therefore whether you would embrace him and treat him to mead and porter, or slice his head off.

Fun, in other words. It should have been a film with Burt Lancaster or Errol Flynn(perhaps it was). It is also incomprehensible. It is full, not just on every page but almost on every line, with words that normal people simply do not use, and probably didn't even in the 13thC. Characters do not drink, they 'tope' or 'quaff' from 'flaggons of hardy stout', they are not employed, but 'fiefed in soccage to the laird', they do not live anywhere, they 'dwelleth o'er yonder', they don't wear yellow and blue coats, they are 'swathed/clad in azure vert bar sinister crossed with jules puissant'. This is, I repeat, on every line, and those are the easy ones, the ones I understand, even if my student doesn't. If you tried to take it seriously, you would need a very thick dictionary beside you.

Not that you can take it seriously. It is great fun, as I said, but absurdly over the top. I don't know if the writer knew what all the words meant and used them properly or just picked them by the dozen from the right semantic field and sprinkled them, broadcast, to flower where they may. In any case, I got about halfway through before realizing that there was no point continuing. You have known for a long time who will win, who will live, who will die, who will show courage and who will marry whom, and how they will pass the time until those things happen (see 'quaffing', 'carousing', tourneying', 'wenching', and competitive verbosity). The rest is inconsequential. I'll wait for the film.

The other book I shall not finish is Nietzsche's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra.' I shouldn't have started it, I know. It's exactly what I thought it would be, an endless series of cynical and rather obvious aphorisms, held together by a story that is not a story, and in the mouth of a character who could have been some bloke down the pub, except that Nietzsche took himself far too seriously to put his words into the mouth of someone who wasn't a prophet of God. It wouldn't have sold so well, either. You could analyse and criticise every verse in some detail, but is it worth it? There is no depth, no coherence, no thread except the person of Zarathustra- the disciples are just dummies, foils if you like. Is it possible that the whole thing is a joke?

That, anyhow, is my impression. I am about a quarter of the way through and, unless someone can give me a good reason to continue, I shall consign it to the 'waste of time' file on the Kindle.*

*I don't suppose I'm the only one who keeps books he doesn't intend to read on the Kindle. It's no different from keeping them on the shelves, I suppose. You don't like to throw them away.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Night that Jimmy Died

"Think of a dark day in summer when the sun shines on all the things you hate to see and the scum crawl out of their corners and spoil the world by moving through it and every one of them has a lover and a child but you and you’re too drunk to be a man and not drunk enough to sleep so you have to watch it all. You’re dirty from working and sticky with sweat and you have to drink beer when you want cool water and you don’t want trouble but there are too many of you all together to get out of the way if it comes. The sun goes down and it’ll come up again soon and the world will be waiting for you to do all those things you don’t want to do and in the dark the lights come on so nothing can hide and the trees are green and happy but the grass is dead and the storm to the west is coming your way and you hear it with dread. You know it won’t come alone. It will bring a piece of hell with it and you will be caught in that hell and it’ll kick you and confuse you and take the little you have and roll away, clever enough to know what it’s done, too stupid to understand. There are many days like that and they all learned to be that way from one great day, an evil day that came this way many years ago and left a lesson that the evil days have learnt. There are few truly evil days waiting to drop poison on the world but they are enough to threaten the sanity of a man who remembers their master. They have no compassion, no feeling, no love at all. They are the bastard children of that monster day that came before them, the day of the night that Jimmy died..."