Twenty-First Century Enlightenment? 
Saturday, August 21, 2010, 11:34 AM
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Alex came back from a visit to the RSA with a copy of an essay, ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, by its chief executive, Matthew Taylor. When I read a work of literary criticism I have a strong sense of context, of which figures and ideas the current critic is perhaps fighting against, and of where I stand on the issues. When reading an essay like Taylor’s I’m much more in the dark. If something is asserted confidently as a given I won’t always know how to combat it – or whether I should want to. But – it’s the weekend so I thought I’d give it a go.

It begins with a question, ‘can we go on like this?’ which it then glosses further, nodding back to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in its specific reference to the ‘last two centuries’:

Will the ideas and values which transformed our world in the last two centuries be sufficient to find solutions to the challenges we now face or do we need new ways of thinking?

At this point I assumed we were meant to answer ‘no’ but wasn’t quite sure why. Some of the events/ideas which have transformed the world in the last two centuries have certainly been bad, but generally this seems to be because Enlightenment ideas have been ignored rather than proved inadequate.

Taylor goes on to identify three ideas at the core of the Enlightenment – autonomy, universalism and humanism. He argues for the need for a more self-aware autonomy which recognises the incompatibility between our aspirations and our circumstances and the frequent inconsistences of people’s individual preferences. This seemed to be a good critique of a crude, populist view of what ‘autonomy’ might mean, and perhaps my favourite part of the essay:

Most significantly, in many policy areas the preferences people express in opinion polls are systematically different to those which they reach after a process of deliberation. Yet when politicians and commentators genuflect to public opinion it is generally superficial individual preferences to which they refer, not the outcomes of informed collective discussion.

Taylor calls his next section ‘empathic universalism’. As this quotation demonstrates, the word ‘empathic’ (though it sounds nice) has the potential to tip universalism into relativism. ‘Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and 'wrong' or 'false' that which is only strange.” However, as I am only relatively unrelativist, I was in practice tolerably happy with this section, and agreed with Taylor's account of how newspapers whip up rage against certain groups:

… the modern news media often feel like a disorganised conspiracy to maintain the populace in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage … it is perfectly possible, for example, to believe in tough controls on illegal immigration while at the same time acknowledging that those who cross the world in the hope of security and the chance of a better life are doing exactly what we would do in their parlous circumstances.

In his discussion of ‘progress and ethics’ Taylor put me on my guard when he started to discuss the limitations of science. He complains about an unthinking imperative towards progress, or 'progress': ‘If something can be discovered and developed it should be discovered and developed'. There’s a big difference between to discover something and to develop something and a discovery can be developed in many different ways – some good, some bad. I thought there was a similarly irritating conflation in this statement too:

The decision somewhere in the multinational organisation BP to drill for oil a mile below sea, despite apparently having no guaranteed way of dealing with a possible leak, could be seen to combine the logics of technological progress, bureaucracy and competition.

‘Bureaucracy’ is always used in a pejorative sense so it seems unfair to sandwich it between two forces which may be positive. And I would have thought the BP disaster represented a failure to follow the logics of competition and technological progress, rather than an excess of either force.

I also cavilled (I’ve clearly been reading Spiked for too long) at this:

So powerful are the logics of progress that it can come as a shock to be reminded that as well as lacking all our modern comforts, citizens of pre-industrial periods also enjoyed many things we might envy: shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds, for example.

I’m sure the festivals weren’t supplemented by five weeks or so of paid holiday, and living in a strong community can be stifling. And family bonds aren’t much help if your family is wiped out by smallpox.

I particularly objected to Taylor's attempts to equate the irrationality of (some) non-religious beliefs with religious beliefs. This final assertion seems to me like an irrational point if there ever was one:

We may scorn a religious belief in the sanctity of human tissue reflected, for example, in concerns about stem cell research, but argue the categorical status of individual human rights. However, versions of the former belief predate the latter by millennia.

Apart from anything else it’s misleading to talk down scientific rationalism by invoking non-religious beliefs. A belief in universal human rights isn't a scientific belief at all. Non-religious scientific hypotheses would be a fairer basis for a comparison with religion.

Although, clearly, I didn’t fully agree with Taylor's essay, he lays out some interesting topics for future debate.

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Holiday Reading 2010: Marks out of 10 
Saturday, July 31, 2010, 03:42 PM
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Christopher Priest: Inverted World An early novel by this underrated writer. The setting is mind-bendingly bizarre, a giant city which is (although most of its inhabitants don’t realize this) being wheeled along tracks in order to combat the effects of a strange gravity field. This doesn’t perhaps sound like an immediately engaging premise, yet Inverted World is an extremely compelling novel, which combines a hard sf core with something of the atmosphere of a heroic fantasy novel as we follow the progress of the hero, Helward, through his initiation into an elite guild, his arduous training, and his call to (a very strange) adventure. (8.5/10)

Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms I’m a fan of BEE but was pretty disappointed with Imperial Bedrooms which doesn’t live up to its striking cover. Ellis seemed to be repeating himself twice over – returning to the material of Less Than Zero and also returning to the idea of revisiting his earlier novels – something he did, more successfully, in his last novel, Lunar Park. Yes, there were some slick and effective moments in Imperial Bedrooms, particularly towards the end, but, overall, this felt like BEE writing on automatic. I hope he gets over his attempts to recapture or reprocess the days of his youth – and writes something fresh next time. (6.5/10)

Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy I was ready for something a bit less cool and postmodern by this stage. The hero, Clyde, is the son of missionary parents, and wants to escape from his rather shabby and depressing life. Although Dreiser is criticising the American Dream, he manages (as he does in Sister Carrie too I think) to make the world of work seem rather enticing. Clyde moves from a drug store to work as a bell hop and is eventually offered a promising opening in his rich uncle’s collar factory. To say more would give too much away, but one of the most effective aspects of this very long novel is the unsettling way it makes the reader understand, if not share, the experiences and impulses of the flawed protagonist. Dreiser isn’t a great stylist – but he’s a terrific storyteller. (9/10)

R C Sherriff : The Fortnight in September This Persephone Press reprint is a gentle, sympathetic and thoughtful account of a family holiday in Bognor Regis in the 1920s. Some nice, wry observations and interesting insights into the day to day realities of life at the time – train travel, seaside boarding houses etc. (7.5/10)

Kenan Malik: Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate A good overview for the layperson of some of the debates surrounding race. Malik writes calmly and logically about the relationship between medicine/illness and ‘race’, and seeks to demonstrate that some aspects of ‘antiracism’ and multiculturalism can be seen as allied to, rather than distinct from, racism. Malik concludes with a critique of studies such as ‘The Bell Curve’ which find a correlation between race and intelligence. A very clear and readable study. (8.5/10)

Eva Ibbotson: The Secret Countess I hadn’t heard of this writer until several delegates at last year’s Georgette Heyer conference listed her as one of their favourites in a questionnaire. This is the second Ibbotson I’ve read, and there is something very appealing about her stories, although I wish her social views weren’t quite so conservative and her heroines were a bit more feisty and a bit less Ewig-Weibliche. The heroine, Anna, is an impoverished countess whose family has fled to England following the Russian Revolution. She takes a position as a housemaid with an aristocratic English family. The son has just got back from the war and is engaged to a bossy young woman who takes a keen interest in eugenics. Frothy but hugely enjoyable. [8/10]

Antal Szerb: Journey By Moonlight This is a strange, at times surreal novel, whose hero Mihaly, now approaching middle age, is torn between a yearning for the freedom and excitement of his adolescence (represented by the mysterious brother and sister Tomas and Eva) and a parallel longing for death. The dreamlike and somewhat disjointed narrative takes him through Europe on the trail of his former friends. It’s a frustrating novel at times, and I didn’t think it quite lived up to the rapturous praise it has received from some critics. But it’s also haunting and memorable, recalling for me several early twentieth-century French novels – Le Grand Meaulnes, The Immoralist and Les Enfants Terribles. (9/10)

Arthur C. Clarke: The City and the Stars A classic novel of the far future which anticipates some developments in our own society and raises many questions about the possible consequences of technological advancement and, more broadly, about the destiny/place of mankind in the universe – the meaning of life. As with so many sf novels, the main character is a maverick, the slightly Rasselas-like Alvin, who feels hemmed in by the benign and rich civilisation he inhabits and sets out to explore the world outside the marvellous city of Diaspar. (8.5/10)

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Domaine de la Bergerie: campsite review 
Friday, July 30, 2010, 03:49 PM
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It can be hard to find online reviews of French campsites – unless you speak Dutch – so here’s a review of Domaine de La Bergerie in the Côte d’Azur. This is located slightly inland, near the pleasant small town of Roquebrune-sur-Argens. We (rather self-indulgently) chose a three-bedroomed ‘Cottage Espace’, a modern and well-equipped mobile home. It was set in a reasonably private pitch, and included a covered veranda area with additional table and chairs. Although the campsite has plenty of shade and vegetation it is probably not for those who like their nature wild and untamed. But if, like me, you prefer it slightly cowed and abject you’ll probably like the Bergerie very much. There was some interesting local wildlife – salamanders and huge unidentified bugs joined us on the veranda in the evening.

Serious Bugs

The swimming pool was particularly pleasant, with several different areas (Jacuzzi, waterfall etc) as well as flumes. There was also a quiet indoor pool, reserved for adults. We didn’t sample the many activities/entertainments laid on – but these seemed to be well organised and popular. There are facilities for many different games and sports, as well as a video games room (my son, an expert on such matters, didn’t rate this very highly however). Other facilities include a well-stocked shop where you can buy fresh croissants, English newspapers, beachwear, groceries etc. The restaurant terrace offered beautiful views of the hilly countryside. Service was very friendly and the food was pretty good – and varied – though a little overpriced. Overall this is a well organised, attractive campsite with plenty of amenities.


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Allusion and the uncanny: cover illustrations 
Wednesday, July 7, 2010, 07:20 AM
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Now that I’ve nearly finished my work on allusion and the uncanny it’s time to start thinking about a possible cover illustration, ideally something which reflects both aspects of the book and brings them together.

Mark Goodall included this image – taken from early silent film based on Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ – in a paper on Occult Film Studies which he gave at Anglia last year. It reminds me of the description of Hermione’s ‘ghost’ in The Winter’s Tale

To me comes a creature,
Sometimes her head on one side, some another;
I never saw a vessel of like sorrow,
So fill'd and so becoming: in pure white robes …

('So fill'd and so becoming' is rather odd.) The visual repetition of her head, although with a different expression, seems to echo the theme of allusion, another kind of repetition with variation. And the overall effect of the still is certainly uncanny.

For the same reason I wondered about this famous painting by Magritte, in which the man’s head is repeated – i.e. reflected – but in an uncannily unexpected way. But perhaps this, an allusion to Magritte by Simon Schubert, would be still more appropriate.

Magritte also employed visual allusions, some of them conveniently uncanny. This reworking of David’s famous portrait of Madame Recamier would work well, as might this, a similarly morbid version of Manet’s Le Balcon.

But sometimes it can be expensive to secure permission to reproduce well known art works. So I’ve identified a possible backup, Alex’s rather spooky picture of his hotel room in Prague.

Any further suggestions welcome!

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Holiday Reading: some recommendations for the summer  
Monday, July 5, 2010, 06:58 PM
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This is another response to a piece over on Normblog, a selection of top ten holiday recommendations for the summer based on the past year’s reading. Like Norm, I don’t read a very high proportion of brand new books although there are a few authors whose novels I do snap up immediately, even in hardback. Bret Easton Ellis is one of these and I’ve just splashed out on his latest, Imperial Rooms, to add my already extravagantly large holiday pile.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle I’ve already enthused about Shirley Jackson here. A very strange girl (Merricat) tells us about her life in a beautiful but decaying house which she shares with her sister and invalid uncle. Only gradually do we learn the family’s tragic history. It’s the narrative voice of Merricat, cool and disturbing, which is the most memorable feature of this exceptional example of American Gothic.

Dorothy Whipple: High Wages I first found out about Dorothy Whipple through a piece on Normblog – and this novel features on his list too. It’s maybe not her best but is perhaps her most irresistibly readable (which is saying a good deal.) The heroine, Jane, is an assistant in a draper’s shop in the North of England but she’s ambitious and wants to set up an establishment of her own. Whipple makes humdrum details compelling and offers a fascinating glimpse of everyday working life in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Kate Saunders: Beswitched I bought this for my daughter (who also enjoyed it very much). The heroine, Flora, is a rather moody girl who resents being sent to a smart and progressive boarding school for a term while her parents are working abroad. But she suddenly finds herself in the 1930s, in a school which seems modelled on the Chalet school series and the Dimsie books. Saunders makes the most of her premise, and has clearly immersed herself in old school stories to good effect. There’s plenty of humour but also some darker and more poignant elements.

Ira Levin: This Perfect Day There are many books about maverick individualists trying to break out of (future) societies which enforce conformity. This is one of more obscure examples of the genre, but it’s also one of the most compelling. The world Levin dreams up is comparatively benign – rebels are medicated into compliance rather than punished and life is pleasant and peaceful. But Chip is a rebel, and slowly discovers ways to beat the system. Reading this book reminds me of playing a completely immersive computer game – it’s utterly absorbing and perfectly paced.

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis An autobiographical graphic novel about the life of a young Iranian girl living through the revolution and its aftermath. It’s a dispiriting book, but also sharply funny in places – rather like an odd hybrid between The Handmaid’s Tale and a Posy Simmonds cartoon.

Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt Lewis’ best known novel is the tale of a conventional salesman who undergoes a midlife crisis and begins to have doubts about the American dream. Lewis, as always, is critical of standardisation, philistinism and commercialism. Babbitt is an intriguing character, half Leopold Bloom, half David Brent.

Robert Sawyer: Hominids This sf novel, the first of a trilogy, offers a compelling premise and makes full use of its possibilities. Scientific experiments open a portal between our world and an alternate universe in which Homo Sapiens died out thousands of years ago, leaving the Neanderthals in charge of the earth. Neanderthal society is very different – males and females live separately most of the time and every moment of their lives is recorded in order to cut crime. As well as intriguing ideas, Sawyer creates some engaging characters, particularly the Neanderthal visitor to our world, Ponter Boddit.

Frances Trollope: Jessie Phillips Anthony Trollope’s mother wrote many thoroughly enjoyable novels. She has a rather more robust attitude to matters such as sex outside marriage than later Victorian writers, and in this novel she condemns the double standards which punish the erring mother but not the father. She also targets the Poor Law acts of 1834. Lots of narrative drive, and a couple of surprising plot twists.

Mark Billingham: Sleepyhead The first of Billingham’s DI Thorne novels, an excellent series which I didn’t catch up with for a long time. The characters are quirky but likeable and the plot is full of tension. Not for the squeamish.

Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout This is a bit of a cheat as I read it just over a year ago. But it’s a perfect holiday read, clever but light, and very absorbing. It’s set in Just William territory, in an interwar village where life consists of teas and tennis parties, rivalries and snobberies. But the subject matter is rather more adult, with adultery, death and disappointment added to the mix.

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