Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Dream journal: Twenty-one

This is the twenty-first in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

12 March

Dreamt I was talking to an entrepreneur about insurance. I know this man in real life and his name is George.

In my dream, I was telling him that, if you are in a creative industry, you can get insurance for a lack of inspiration. Insuring yourself against such an eventuality, I said, makes good business sense, and I encouraged him to take out a policy with a local provider. If you cannot create work, my thinking went, your business suffers. We spent a good deal of time talking about this.

At some points I was going through security gates of a kind that you often find in office building lobbies. There was also a judge with whom I spoke.

The conversation had started with George and I talking about copyright. In real life the man who introduced me to George is a lawyer who takes on many cases to do with intellectual property, and in the dream I was telling George that it is important to insure yourself against the possibility that a firm sues you for breach of copyright. I don’t know if, in real life, you can get this kind of insurance, but by my untutored reckoning in the dream it was on the cards.

15 March

Dreamt I was in a Muslim country and was being groomed to serve as a male prostitute. They took me along a path to a man who complimented me on my eyelashes, which he brushed up high with the blade of a spoon. When I demurred and tried to run away men with pointed sticks chased after me, threatening to kill me, so I gave up and stopped running.

Then I was a tourist in Japan walking along a street and I saw a man, who had been with me in the previous part of the dream, walking along as well. There was nothing about his demeanour to tell me what his job was.

20 March

Dreamt I was back in the 1920s. Part of the dream was in New York, where I was trying to get to a dinner appointment with someone with whom in real life I once worked. I had to go along a street and I had the choice of walking there or getting a taxi. A cab pulled up alongside me as I stood on the street, offering me a ride, but I declined the offer and decided to walk to the joint.

I was also in another place, and it was also in the United States, and also in the 1920s. I was checking the spelling and punctuation of documents that were transcripts of interviews that had been made by someone I knew in the dream. He had interviewed young men from a poor part of the country who were addicted to opioids, while I was in a city; the transcripts came to me via a kind of teletype machine attached to the wall of the space I was in. A good deal of one transcript was incomplete because the young man being interviewed had a poor command of English and because the person doing the interview was not a native English speaker.

Another part of the dream had me in Tokyo trying to get to my workplace. As with the other parts of the dream, it was the 1920s. The building I was in had lifts, but the one I got in had a ceiling that was so low I had to stoop to enter the gondola; standing up straight would have been impossible. I had to get back to my floor but I didn’t remember the number of the floor, so I pressed “12” and got out where the lift stopped. Then, using the stairwell, I walked downstairs, trying to find the right floor. Two of the floors were given over to assembly rooms, so evidently weren’t the ones I was looking for. Eventually I found the right floor; it was the third floor.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Book review: The Viceroy’s Daughters: The Lives of the Curzon Sisters, Anne de Courcy (2000)

My copy of the book used to belong to my father, and there is a bookmark I found sitting at page 157 – less than halfway through the volume, a point at which Oswald Mosley, Cynthia Curzon’s husband, sets up a right-wing political party in the UK – with, stamped on it with blue ink, the date of my birth. The bookmark had been made by a library and the date was when a book mum or dad had borrowed – not this book, mind you – was due to be returned. By that year, it is certain, dad’s memory had started to decline in efficacity, so was possibly one of the last books he read. The three Curzon sisters belonged to his mother’s generation.


The book tells a story that can have global significance and while it contains a lot of information about the three Curzon sisters, links to the contemporary zeitgeist aren’t deeply explored until about page 150. Cynthia Mosley, the middle sister, became a Labour member of Parliament but little room is given over to exploring her ideas as they related to the issues of the day until Tom – her husband and also a member of Parliament – split off from Labour to found the New Party. For the first 150 pages of the book, de Courcy restricts herself to examining personal correspondence, and neglects to highlight for the reader such things as books that the women might have read or newspapers they might have subscribed to. What were formative influences on them, apart from family and friends, growing up?

Tom (Oswald) Mosley’s defection from Labour was prompted by his desire for the government – of which he was a part – to adopt Keynesian economic policies, and invest in infrastructure so as to boost employment (unemployment rose after 1929 as a result of the drop in the value of traded equities known as the stock market “crash”, and preceded what would later be known as the Great Depression). We know, now, how right Mosley was because governments in 2020, all around the world, have been pouring money into the pockets of consumers as a result of the novel coronavirus. That Tom subsequently became a fascist is indicative of how, at the time, ideas that related to such things as equality and equity were fluid and shifting but it appears from available records – in this case a diary note that reflects what his sister-in-law was thinking in September 1939 – Mosley’s politics stemmed partly from a concern for the welfare of the working class. As in the case of Mussolini, Tom’s shift was from the left to the extreme right. Irene, the eldest Curzon sister, wrote in her diary in that month:
I asked [Tom] his views on Hitler etc and he said he was only out for Britain and a safe place for her, but I think he sees in himself a potential smasher-up of all our capitalist systems when the disruption of communism creeps over Europe and toward us, and with anti-Semitism as his pillar of hate he will arise from the ashes of conservatism and profitmaking.
Problems faced by the working class would become apparent to the women during the war as a result of children being evacuated from London to the country. The independently wealthy Curzon sisters – children of a viceroy of India, who by now was dead – at this point in time saw children who had been physically and emotionally stunted due to the circumstances of their upbringing, and this experience would affect the three of them deeply.

There is a lacuna partly veiling how their political views were formed in childhood. For this part of the girls’ lives, the effect produced resembles watching a silent film without any text. I risk being a touch over-critical in talking about these ellipses, since de Courcy goes into a lot of detail once the girls are grown and have entered into the world independently but, early on, there is rarely mention of literature, music, paintings, or the media. Itemising such things can be useful, just as it’s pertinent for the reader to know that the girls’ father, Lord Curzon, when he first met Tom, thought he was Jewish because of the size of his nose or that, at the beginning of WWII, Tom tried to get Irene (the eldest Curzon sister, and his sister-in-law) to pay with her own cash for the upkeep of one of his houses.

De Courcy uses a very wide array of material from private correspondence and other documents. That she was able to secure access to them is a tribute to her character or, at least, is an index of her personal standing in the community. If she had not been a credible witness – and had not been able to convince people that she would be a reliable chronicler – it is hardly likely that living relatives of the women in question would have allowed her to read – and quote from – letters and diaries they controlled.

As well as covering in strenuous detail such tonic events as the abdication of Edward VIII – Alexandra (Baba) Metcalfe (the youngest Curzon sister) was the wife of the king’s closest friend – de Courcy’s story reveals how different, compared to now, people of my grandmother’s generation were. I sometimes have problems with how the past is depicted in fiction – I panned Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’ and had a mixed reaction to Hilary Mantel’s ‘Bring up the Bodies’. Part of it is due to something that is evident when reading de Courcy’s book, which seems to show why religion was so central, in times past, in people’s lives. Even for people growing up as recently as the beginning of last century a personal God was necessary for many reasons. Medicine was far more basic then. The law was different, especially inasmuch as it affected people’s intimate relationships; divorce was a very different type of thing 100 years ago and homosexual acts were, in Britain at least, illegal. There seems to have been more emotional lability generally; people would break down crying for no apparent reason, women would faint suddenly when in company. Tempers flared, endangering close personal ties that were, in the days before governments started to take more responsibility for people’s welfare, so important for individual survival. In this world of multiplying secrets and lies, religion helped maintain community, providing guides to conduct that went above and beyond the whims of people living in the world. So, a higher power could serve to moderate aberrant and capricious behaviour on the part of powerful men and women. It also provided a living vernacular of values that helped frame events, and make them manageable when they might otherwise seem arbitrary and confusing.

Two generations ago the gap between private and public realms was wider than it is now, and what de Courcy has done to illustrate this fact is stupefying in its broad remit. The depth of the undertaking is almost surreal in its focus on specifics, tiny scraps resuscitated from oblivion – words on pages kept for decades among family papers by one person or another – and given new life in a strong narrative. It’s a stunning memento of the 20th century, and remains – because of the direction in which that politics, in pluralistic democracies around the world, has veered in recent years – strikingly relevant in the 21st.

Perhaps de Courcy could see how things were likely to go, even as far back as the 1990s when, it is evident, she was working on her book. Nothing could have alerted her to 9/11, but possibly trends had begun to emerge in her world that were heralds for Donald Trump, or the conservative political leaders who have appeared in countries as diverse as Hungary and the Philippines.

While showing an aspect of British history that is rarely discerned, the book also allows us to examine what is valuable in its culture. Churchill’s concern for habeus corpus must be noted in respect of Tom, and it’s remarkable how the Curzon sisters’ early flirting with fascism failed to restrict their later access to society. During WWII Baba was close friends with a man who was the UK’s ambassador to the US, and Irene would go on to be elevated to the peerage on account of her many community activities. She was tireless in support of a wide range of causes (Baba would be awarded an OBE on account of her work for Save the Children, a major undertaking that occupied her time after the war). This ability of British society to accommodate diversity is quite striking, it seems to me, and if anything can serve as an emblem of the book, this is it.

Whatever gave de Courcy the idea to realise her vision, it is wonderful that she did so as it has allowed generations living now – and will allow those that are yet to be born – to examine in forensic detail aspects of a political movement central to the 20th century, that was born there, but that didn’t die.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

TV review: Shtisel, season 1, Netflix (2013)

This fresh lens was originally aired, like ‘Fauda’, by Israeli satellite TV network yes. It is different in many ways from another Netflix show dealing with the Hasidic community: ‘Unorthodox’. In fact ‘Shtisel’ is practically a situational comedy and is the reverse of the more recent program – I’ll explain this point later in my review. A woman living in Italy (see image below) found reason to compare the two shows and, though she is Muslim, ‘Shtisel’ was able to convey meaning to her in a positive way. The tweet could, of course, be a plant but I choose to view it as legitimate commentary.


The show runs to two seasons and at the beginning of season 1 focuses on a time in the life of Akiva Shtisel (Michael Aloni must be about 27 years old) when he is looking for a bride, but soon just as central to the drama is his father Shulem (Dov Glickman was, when the show was recorded, easily twice Aloni’s age). Because events are low-key and gentle, not high-toned and violent, there is plenty of opportunity to examine in detail such abstract concepts as the nature of ritual and faith and how they relate to the individual in his or her daily life. Jerusalem – where most of the drama is set – is, like the characters, shambolic and slightly raw. This quirky show is certainly different from most of what I have recently been watching on Netflix. People of faith – who make up the majority of the world’s population – can find in it interesting stories about things familiar to them. Many of them will follow other religions (as the tweet shown above demonstrates).

Each episode has a well-defined narrative arc and a theme or central idea and the endings are vigorous. Each day I’d watch one episode (timing it to run just before dinner so that I could catch ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ at 4.30pm on Network Ten). I loved how ep 7 ends, with Shulem walking out the school gate, an event that is timed to coincide with a solar eclipse; earlier in the ep he’d taught his students – primary school children, all aged about eight years – about the solar system. To do this he uses a device with the sun – a lamp that can be plugged in and switched on – sitting at the core and with the planets balls (set on metal arms) that can be rotated around it on an axis. The kids are entranced, and later, when he is talking at home with his son, Shulem will use the sun as a metaphor for manhood; they’re talking about Akiva’s romance with Elisheva Rotstein (Ayelet Zurer), a bank clerk.

Akiva is a talented artist but teaches on and off at the primary school where Elisheva’s son Israel (Yoav Sadian) is enrolled. The Jerusalem of ‘Shtisel’, unlike the New Jersey of ‘Unorthdox’, is a city that embraces difference, regardless of the strictures of religious observance. There’s a way for Akiva to turn his hand to profit outside the school, and to find a place to sleep when Shulem banishes him from their home.

In each episode there’s also gentle humour; something that might be treated with offhand casualness in another show – for example, something as simple as a pay-cheque discrepancy – might, in ‘Shtisel’, become (as it could do in real life) a major event that different characters not only must deal with, each in their own way, and that could change the direction of a person’s life. Like the axial pin of Shulem’s model of the solar system, sentimental concerns form the centre upon which everything is mounted – the show asks for example what it means to be a good man or woman – though other issues are addressed, such as how Jews are seen by the rest of the world. Once you start to ask such questions it suddenly has global significance because you reflect on historical links to parts of the drama. How Akiva’s sister Giti Weiss (Neta Riskin) earns a living, when her husband Lippe (Zohar Shtrauss) goes AWOL in Argentina, draws your attention to questions that have been asked – often in ugly ways – for centuries, and money appears as an element in such plot devices as wedding planning involving Shulem and the father of Akiva’s betrothed Estee Gotlieb (Moon Shavit).

Israel incorporates (at least) two distinct communities – the Hasidic and the secular – and how they bounce off one another demonstrates the value of diversity. The religious community might actively discourage the watching of TV shows – Grandmother Malka’s (Hanna Rieber) son and grandson regret that her favourite TV program is ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ – but surely there’s little difference between a story of the Old Testament and an American soap opera …? Both use characters to achieve dramatic effects in order to move people’s imaginations, both use a language – visual or textual – and both give meaning to people’s lives. And the joy! The way that someone like Shulem – who doesn’t use the internet, who has no TV at home, who expects to arrange a marriage for his grown-up son – thinks and feels turns out to be comprehensible to a secularist who lives in a pluralistic democracy like Australia.

This complex and intelligent production provides context for discussions being held in the public sphere, and can have wide appeal.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Movie review: Okja, dir Bong Joon-ho (2017)

If you are vegan, this movie will press all the right buttons. If, like me, you eat meat, it can still be rewarding as the filmmakers are wise to the dynamics of an often acrimonious debate being carried out in the public sphere. This London-based individual liked the film:


For some, this kind of product speaks to who they are. In an ongoing discussion about what kind of food people should eat, many argue that eating meat is ethically questionable (some would put the proposition more forcefully than that, and say it is criminal). The term “factory farming” is used a lot by different people, and ‘Okja’ certainly exploits this notion with a degree of vigour.

Whatever your views, the movie is worth spending time with, if for no other reason than because it gives you the opportunity to see some fine special effects. Okja is a sentient, giant pig-like creature living in the Korean forest with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), the granddaughter of a man (Byun Hee-bong) ostensibly chosen by the fictional Mirando Corporation to raise the beast. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a flamboyant TV personality and naturalist named Johnny Wilcox who comes to Mija’s house, when she’s a teenager, with a video team and handlers – including, of course, a translator. When Okja is taken away, Mija is devastated, and so begins her journey.

Apart from Gyllenhaal, who helps develop that part of the movie that is about the difference between East and West, Tilda Swinton is fine as Lucy Mirando, the head of the eponymous company, and Giancarlo Esposito is very fine as an employee named Frank Dawson. These three characters are matched in their Swiftian cast by Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of a shadowy group of vigilantes – or, if you prefer, troublemakers – named the Animal Liberation Front. Jay and his team are ethically minded, sometimes to a ridiculous degree, so the laughs fall seemingly at random.

The way that Johnny Wilcox comes across – loud, superficial, brash, and weak – comically plays with Asian stereotypes of Westerners and how Mija and her grandfather are imagined by the filmmakers is emblematic of a mostly forgotten idea that modernity is alien and inauthentic in an Asian context. Bong also wrote much of the screenplay so his vision is behind the filmmakers’ archaeological effort to celebrate an antique notion of the holiness of the ordinary, harking back to a kind of animism – used even today in a Japanese religion called Shinto – that appears to have been abandoned (but that, in fact, lives on in subtle ways; living in Tokyo today is not the same as living, say, in Sydney). The remote fastness, at the top of a mountain, as a site for the getting of wisdom, is ancient in such countries as China. In fact, ‘Okja’ would’ve appealed to many people living in a country like China or Japan in the first half of the 20th century. But this toying with stale tropes, ideas that embody such feelings as intolerance and shame, is made reasonable because of the humour used in the conveyance. Nevertheless, Bong is saying, we can learn something valuable about the past if we take seriously our own search for authenticity, and don’t just use it – as Mirando and Dawson do – as a mere marketing gimmick. Mija is different not just because she doesn’t speak English very well; her character is also expressed in how she uses objects.

Swinton and Gyllenhall and Dano might be mere foils for her authenticity, but though Bong laughs, at the same time, at himself, he takes his method to an extreme by inaccurately depicting genetic modification (GM). His vision is much the same as what Margaret Atwood used for ‘Oryx and Crake’ (2003). Atwood’s vision of the future includes a type of animal called a “pigoon” – a cross between a pig and a raccoon – that has, unlike Okja, a mean streak. In reality, GM is nothing like this and nowadays is used to develop new varieties of plants. In any case, a scientific form of animal husbandry is older than history; humans have been engineering animal forms for as long as agriculture (which some say started 12,000 years ago) has existed.

Bong needs his ideas to work in harmony within the confines of the artwork, so in the context of this review these are quibbles. But the problem of food bullying is real, as Michele Payne, an Indiana resident who writes about food, showed on 20 May at 5.01am Australian Eastern Standard Time, tweeting: “Is it OK to shame people about their eating choices if it's not socially acceptable to shame people on race, religion or sexual orientation?” Payne is vocal in this regard, and others on Twitter are equally vocal in their support of lifestyles that eschew the eating of meat. The debate continues and Bong’s movie is unmistakeably part of it. The movie didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on Tahsin Upa – whose tweet sits at the top of this review – as it felt like I was being manipulated by filmmakers wanting to make a political point. 

Friday, 22 May 2020

Book review: The Flood, J.M.G. Le Clezio (1967)

I bought it at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney University probably in 2009, the year after the author won the Novel Prize in Literature. The recommended retail price was $24.95 but I paid $22.70 as I was a member of the co-operative, which has recently been taken over by a private company. Things change. In 2009 I was still working at the university and I would, in March, leave my employ there and start out as a freelance journalist.


When the book was translated, it had only just come out in French so presumably that release had been met with some success. If it hadn’t been successful in French, one would guess, it wouldn’t have been so quickly translated into English. (If that isn’t confusing enough, in 2009 I read part of ‘The Flood’ but, for some reason, didn’t complete it.)

This isn’t the only reason why there was something familiar about Le Clezio’s prose when I started to read the first chapter – the first 43 pages contain a preamble. I wrote something like it (though not as penetrating in its insights) a couple of years ago, when I made a post about lying in bed. In fact, that post would eventually result in the “dream journal” series on this blog, which I have kept up as there’s a steady supply of content due to the fact that (surprise!) I go to sleep every night and when I do I usually dream. Sleep is a blessing and so, to me, are my dream journals.

Le Clezio’s preamble astonishes. Very little “happens” in the conventional sense of character and action, but there is an almost infinite quantity of signification conveyed in such simple constructs as someone contemplating a discarded cigarette packet in the roadway, or a girl riding a bicycle down the street. Once you start on the main narrative, you will find similar efflorescences of meaning. Startling eructations of visual data combine with the semantics of sentiment – the way that the external world impinges on your consciousness and is processed by the isolated brain encased, as it is, in bone and skin – forming a mesmeric world within which the reader bathes, like a pilgrim at the Jordan River’s stony verge, to the sound of a chorus: a polyphony appears in tandem with such “as found” artefacts as a transcript of a taped missive, writings in a child’s notebook, and an extract from a publication. This aspect of the novel marks it out as topical; Brutalism had been born in England a decade earlier, an aesthetic response to Modernity with a similar relationship in respect of the world.

A multiplex authorial voice suggests a healthy relationship, on the part of the author, with the Other. Where Brutalism sought to position itself as an ethical alternative, for those operating as architects and engineers – as a more authentic relationship with the world might be possible through the use of materials “as found” – Le Clezio is reaching back to such luminaries as Rimbaud and Proust and Joyce in order to furnish himself with models in order to formulate, in text, an analogue for the individual’s existence in the world. A mark of his success is evident when Francois Besson, the novel’s protagonist, buys a newspaper at a kiosk and it’s as though you were like seeing the world afresh – for the first time!

Authors of experimental novels use what has gone before but approach the problem of rendering subjectivity in their own fashion. The problem with consciousness is that, like physics at the quantum scale, the mere act of observing thoughts changes their trajectory. You have to approach them unawares, stealthily, like wildlife stalked in a forest or on a savannah, if you want to see them as they really are. While textual renditions of consciousness must be literary in nature, rather than mere reflections of reality – how can you show something that exists only as electrochemical pulses along microscopic filaments on a mental loom? – in order to produce something like ‘The Flood’ you, as the author, must be in a habit of observing the world in a certain way. You have to open yourself up to your emotions and link them to objects and people and places around you, though what you end up making cannot, in a pure case, be an unmediated reflection of the world, as a face is reflected in a mirror.

Le Clezio, I think, manages to come close to rendering the mind’s flow in the continuity of the world’s being. People often talk about mindfulness. On 17 May for example I saw one person, a woman named Elaine Helm, who is in marketing and who lives in Seattle, take a stab at starting up a conversation. At 3.30am Australian Eastern Standard Time she tweeted: “My favorite mindful activities are active ones. What do you do to practice noticing your thoughts, feelings, and things around you without distractions?” Such people should read Le Clezio’s stunning novel of ideas.

I’m pretty sure that after reading Le Clezio’s book you will view the world with new eyes. If nothing else, reading it gave me a sense of myself in the world. When Besson walks out on a mole in a storm or when he talks with a blind beggar you understand that the world is large and that, in a profound way, we are connected with all things, including other people. The scope of the book is as vast as the author’s ambition. He tries to come to grips not just – stylistically – with the problem of perception and how to render reality as text, but also with such eternal concerns as eternity, the pursuit of meaning, and death.

A suicide lies at the heart of the drama that unfolds as Besson walks around town or travels into the countryside, but you are confronted with even larger themes, things that you might never have thought it even possible to contemplate. Even the existence of the subjective self is questioned by the startling prose Le Clezio produces in order to offer a meeting of minds, halfway down the tunnel – of the book.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Movie review: Icarus, dir Bryan Fogel (2017)

This film about doping in sport won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018, so it comes well recommended and can appeal to a wide range of people. There’s not an awful lot of chatter about the movie on Twitter, though I did find this from a person named Lee (with no indication on his profile as to where he lives):


The story starts when Fogel asks an American doping expert to help him improve his performance in advance of a gruelling bicycle road race. Fogel has had one go at the Haute Route – he doesn’t say which one, using the name of a series of races to stand in for one of them – and came 14th in the raking at the end of it. Now, he wants to improve his ranking at another Haute Route. In the event the Californian decides not to help Fogel achieve his goal, instead referring him to someone known to him by the name of Grigory Rodchenkov, who works at a lab in Moscow that provides testing services for athletes.

Rodchenkov starts to give Fogel advice on how to dope – which includes injecting substances into his thigh and buttocks – and Fogel gets advice, at this stage in the process, from a clinic in the US. But since, in order to compete, you must prove you are clean, he is taking urine samples, under Rodchenkov’s tutelage, and freezing them. The question then arises: where to get them tested? This is where things start to spiral out of control. What happens next will open up a pandora’s box and unleash forces that Fogel could never have imagined might have an interest in his bike race, or in his life.

To strengthen the points the movie wants to make about corruption, Fogel puts Rodchenkov on camera reading extracts from George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ (1949). Rodchenkov’s history of depression and his bookishness compound the mystery embodied in the narrative. Some aspects of the drama have a veil drawn over them but even if the story seems incredible it is a compelling watch.

The film’s soundtrack is really interesting, adding impact at carefully chosen points. The editing is crisp and efficient, but it’s a bit hard to read subtitles as well as on-screen labels – the name straps used to identify a person being interviewed in front of the camera – so you need to pay close attention. Parts of the film are in foreign languages as media reports are used from time to time, and they originated in a number of different countries. There are also parts that are spoken in Russian by people close to the story, for example those who appear on Skype.

Stories continue to emerge in the public sphere that touch on the same points as are dealt with here. For many, sport must no longer be worth the time needed to watch.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book review: The Pope’s Rhinoceros, Lawrence Norfolk (1996)

This book was bought on sale at some point in time. The recommended retail price on the back cover was $26.95, but in addition to the “Sale” sticker on the front someone’s used a marker to draw a line on the page-edges on the bottom of the book.


This is an ordinary production. It’s problem is not only structural and stylistic. It’s also about the characters. To start with, you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to care about. And while the first section details part of the experience of a boy in some remote European community – presumably somewhere where it gets very cold for part of the year – the trail abruptly terminates and then you are asked to sympathise with a community of monks living in a decrepit abbey in the same part of the world. Three hundred years go past in a rush, taking you (by my calculation) to the Renaissance, at which point most of the building falls into the sea.

I’m not entirely sure if this occurrence is meant to be read as symbolic of the Catholic Church’s troubles at that point in history, but here the second problem arises. In the first section the language is allusive and ornate – quite lovely, actually – and gives off a host of secondary meanings as you read. For example:
He ran to meet the boat when it came but Ewald would not speak to him with his father there and the other man crossed himself and looked away. He spent his other days wandering the island, looking for things to tell his friend. Greengages grew wild on the eastern side in an orchard overgrown with nettles and whippy ash trees. Little sticklebacks swam in the peat bog and eels came ashore at night to cross the narrow band of land, winding through the stringy grass near Koserow. He could swim underwater with his eyes open and hold his breath until he fainted. He told all these things to Ewald, but his best secrets were not his at all. They were the things he heard from his mother.
This has promise, but when you get to the monks’ story things get stodgy. Leavening fantasy is abandoned and you’re now dealing with a straight historical novel, so surprise at the book’s early charm cedes ground to dismay at the prospect of getting through over 700 pages of a brand of humour that is both arch and low:
Dirty grey light bulged in at the windows set high in the wall, pressing on the interior gloom. Humped on pallets lining the length of the dorter, monks in various stages of wakefulness stirred at the sound of footsteps. HansJurgen tiptoed between the two rows.
It comes to 45 words, and would be better delivered like this:
Grey light bulged in at windows set high in the wall and pressed on the gloom inside. Humps on pallets set along the length of the dorter: monks in various stages of wakefulness stirring as HansJurgen’s soft footfalls filled a space between the rows.
That’s one word less – 44 words – and it has more poetry (note especially the “f” and “s” sounds in the final clause); I don’t see the monk on “tiptoe”, he’s far too glum and prosaic, and why would he care if they heard him walking past their beds? A bit further down page 65 you get this purple patch:
His intrusion rippled slowly over the slumped bodies. A belch sounded. Sphincters began to loosen and release farts into the cold air. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously and added evil-smelling clouds to the fug. Urgent rustlings ceased abruptly at his approach, were furtively resumed as he passed further down the dorter. Fingery sins were being committed under rank-smelling coverlets. It was on the increase; fumblings and yieldings in the dawn’s grey silence, Onan’s sin at the dousing of the lights. HansJurgen blamed the Prior. His lectures stirred up the younger ones and threw their humours out of balance. A loud, ill-concealed grunt resounded from somewhere behind him. Spillage. Young dogs.
It comes to 109 words, and would be better delivered thus:
He rippled by their lumpy forms. Sphincters loosened, releasing gas into cold air. A belch. Unwashed mouths breathed stertorously, adding to the evil fug. He imagined urgent rustlings ceasing at his approach and resuming as he passed further down. Fingery sins committed under rank coverlets. It was happening more and more; fumblings and yieldings in the grey silence, Onan let in at the dousing of the lights. He blamed the Prior. Those lectures stirred youngsters, put their humours out of balance. A grunt somewhere behind him. Spillage. “Young dogs,” thought HansJurgen bitterly.
That’s 92 words; Norfolk’s prose is underwritten and swings from a worthy, unspectacular lyricism to broad satire, which seems to tumble willy-nilly from his keyboard. In the second extract shown above the galumphing rhythm is deliberate, and has echoes of Seamus Heaney – a poetics of the uncouth.

When combined, the book’s shortcomings – of character, structure, and style – threw up in front of me an obstacle that is, furthermore, emblematic of a problem literary fiction has struggled to overcome, a perception among a large section of the community that it’s difficult. This novel is obscure not because it lacks complexity but because it is not ambitious enough, and the paeans emblazoned on the back cover (on the front one, too) are confusing because they show that a lot of people found the book entertaining. Or did they read any of it before commenting …? Or know Norfolk and felt an obligation to say something nice about his latest book? Or – as he was a known author – assume that his work “must’ve been” good enough to warrant their kind regard. It’s unaccountable.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

TV review: Fleabag, season 1, Amazon Prime (2016)

This hilarious show might need a bit of patience for some viewers to get used to (see tweet below), but if you stick with it it’ll pay off. It was originally produced for the BBC and was then taken up by Amazon, so you can see it on Prime.


I wasn’t the only one to be impressed. Rumour has it the Obamas liked the show (see tweet below).


The drama centres on a young woman living in London and while all the tropes are present that should make you want to hate her, the humour is garishly self-reflexive, so that at the same time as you laugh you are also aware that what you are seeing is designed to critique such people as those who criticise Millennials for being superficial and selfish.

In any given scene the filmmakers might be showing how ostensibly eccentric Fleabag’s conduct is while, at the same time, lambasting those who might take exception to it. She is, the filmmakers want us to know saying, quite sane. The butt of the jokes is not so much Fleabag as the entire community, especially when it rejects people who are true to themselves.

The jokes are sophisticated though for some the tone and content might be a bit challenging. Don’t watch it if you are put off by scatology. I somehow doubt that the Obamas expressed a preference for this show – it’s possible but incongruous, if true – though something else surprised me while I was with it. On 11 May – at about the same time as I was watching ‘Fleabag’ on Prime – I was reading David Bowman’s ‘Big Bang’, a novel about the immediate post-war period, and came across this:
The only other establishments in Foggy Bottom were hamburger hideaways and fleabags where nervous out-of-towners took their tomatoes and paid for rooms by the quarter hour. (Out-of-towners screwed quickly, I guess.)
‘Fleabag’ is, like Bowman’s novel, a comedy with tragic elements. In one scene, in episode 2, Fleabag’s sister comes into her café to buy lunch and orders a tomato sandwich. Fleabag asks if she only wants tomato on it and her sister indicates by her expression that that’s all she desires. The cost of the sandwich is 25 pounds. (When her sister makes a face to suggest that it’s a high price, Fleabag just says, “London.”) ‘The Big Bang’ was published in 2019, ‘Fleabag’s first season was released in 2016, so it’s a strange coincidence.

The novel is about the immediate post-war period but the show pokes fun at everything and anything, from the modern career woman (Fleabag’s sister, played by Sian Clifford) to the liberated woman (Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), from Millennials (a mindfulness retreat is satirised in ep five; it was paid for by their father, played by Bill Paterson) to Boomers (such as his partner, Fleabag’s godmother, played by Olivia Colman).

Part of its demotic vibe comes from a plethora of smutty jokes. The popularity of porn has possibly never been depicted like this, and it’s there from the get-go with, in the first episode, a man doing something rather indelicate to Fleabag and then, tenderly stroking her hair, thanking her for the privilege with a kind of schmaltzy aplomb that wants to be endearing and so is doubly ridiculous. By treading a very fine line – like someone on tiptoe skirting a ledge on the outside of a building – the filmmakers are always on the very cusp of allowing the production to implode and turn into slapstick – or plunge into the street. Some of the mindfulness retreat scenes are a bit obvious in their intent, but ‘Fleabag’ contains good fart jokes, in episode three, where the eponymous character and her sister share memories of their late mother.

The show offers people a convenient shorthand for a whole range of conduct that they might otherwise have trouble discussing. Because it’s all inside your head there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of mentioning sodomy or mendacity within the family, you can just ask, “Did you watch ’Fleabag’?” If the answer is “Yes” then you have already made a meaningful connection, and might even have an opportunity to laugh together with your friend or acquaintance or relative about a particular gag that caught your fancy. It’s like one of those porcelain figures that doctors used to use in China before the revolution, which gave patients a chance to point at a part of the body rather than actually name it.

Fleabag’s straight-to-camera segues – riffing off a conversation she might be having with someone in the drama – are knife-sharp, demonstrating how quick the human mind is to judge. This speed is what sits behind our use of personas – masks that we wear during our waking hours to fend of adverse assessments on the part of others we meet – but these, in turn, are one of the objects of Waller-Bridge’s relentless irony. The objectifying gaze of the individual living in the community refracts in an endless sequence of gags that always delay closure. The show is best when they are multiplying and expanding, embracing the viewer as well. “Did that just happen? “Did she really say that?” “Now, she’s talking to me as if I’m in the room with her, but how am I meant to respond?”

The ledge tilts under your feet as you do double- and triple-takes. There’s rarely anything solid upon which to base the form of virtue, but in the attempt Waller-Bridge unearths pathos. While the show takes a look at such complex subjects as suicide and love, the viewer him- or herself is the real subject. By casting a light on a paradox – the flaw in the glass is what reveals the world’s true nature – ‘Fleabag’ is humanistic, going to the heart of who, as a species, we are.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Movie review: The African Doctor, dir Julien Rambaldi (2016)

Titled ‘Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont’ in France, where it originated, this is a very French film though the music, in places, is like the soundtrack of a Disney movie. Based on true events, the story intelligently addresses issues associated with globalisation in post-colonial times.

In 1975’s France a doctor named Seyolo Zantoko (Marc Zinga) from what was then known as Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of Congo) graduates from university and, at the afterparty in a city pub, he gets to talking with a small-town mayor (Jean-Benoît Ugeux) who is visiting Paris. The mayor’s from a town near the capital and the two chat about the possibility of working there. The mayor, according to Seyolo’s friends, comes to the afterparty every year because he has had trouble finding a doctor who will move to his corner of the world.

Seyolo agrees to relocate to Marly-Gomont and bring his family with him. He calls his wife Anne (Aïssa Maïga), who is in Kinshasa, and she and the rest of the extended family think it’s Paris the family will move to. They all celebrate while Seyolo tries to tell them that it’s “near” Paris and not Paris itself. But in vain. The family of four arrives – Sivi (Médina Diarra at about 12 years old) and Kamini (Bayron Lebli at about eight years old) are of course with their parents – and it’s raining. The mayor didn’t bring his car to meet the bus, so they all get wet.

Anna is angry about the town’s diminutive size but worse is to come as the villagers shun the new arrivals, and refuse to use Seyolo’s medical clinic, preferring to drive to a nearby town and use the doctor there. Sivi also has unrealised dreams. She wants to become a soccer player but her father says the sport is for idiots. He won’t let the kids watch TV either. The family manages discord and occasionally friends visit – migrants who live in Brussels, in the nearby nation of Belgium – to create a more wholesome kind of community for the Zantoko family to enjoy.

Beginning with a farmer named Jean (Rufus), Seyolo starts to win over the townspeople but some of them make trouble for him and Anna. The forces of good and the forces of evil are ranged against each other. Who will win? 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Book review: A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World, Rana Mitter (2004)

This Oxford University Press publication was bought at the Co-op Bookstore at Sydney Uni, where I worked from 2003 to 2009. It was bought on sale. A sticker on it shows a date (August 2006, which probably indicates when it was put on the shelf) and a price of $14.95. It was later remaindered for $9. Such an index of success; the author was born in India, but is British, and works at Oxford University.


His wonderful book takes a longer view of Chinese history in the 20th century, launching its narrative in 1919 when there was an incident of some renown in China – the May Fourth Movement began at this point in time – and then it looks at the country’s struggle to accommodate modernity. The Qing dynasty had collapsed in 1911 and there was subsequently a power vacuum that various actors attempted to fill, the Communists being one of them.

It’s salutary to note that the CCP wasn’t by any means destined to win that struggle but Mitter doesn’t just concern himself with politics and also looks at such things as the status of women, and private enterprise. Nevertheless, politics was important as it linked with people’s identities. The incident in question happened as a result of simmering tensions between Chinese people and foreign nations that operated in coastal settlements (such as Shanghai), but it exploded violently after an international meeting in Paris decided, following WWI, to give the German concessions to Japan. Mostly involving students, the incident resulted in no deaths but one man was badly beaten with a metal object and a house was burned down.

In China the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s was an aspirational time, with publications circulating ideas associated with modernity – such things as freedom, equality, democracy, science, and the nation – at least among the part of the community that was literate. Universities attracted students, who formed communities in surrounding suburbs, both in Shanghai and in Beijing. These debates were mainly urban in nature until, later on, the Communists changed the nature of the debate by bringing into it the rural poor.

The war against Japan, which started in 1937, changed the tone of proceedings, and debate became more polarised, even acrimonious. Now, it wasn’t possible to talk publicly about things in the same way that it had been even a few years before, when debates had been relatively free.

Chinese people associated with the movement didn’t restrict their purview to countries such as the USA, Britain, and the newly formed USSR. At least as far as they might be models to follow, countries such as Hungary and Turkey offered more interesting examples of how to embrace modernity. Both of those countries came into existence as a result of WWI and their experiences and the policies of their political parties formed part of the context for discussions in China about how to change things to “save” China, which implied protecting it from foreign interference. This often involved talking about how to deal with China’s heritage, including Confucianism. Was it an asset or a liability? What to keep? What to reject? How to deal with a term like “socialism”? How, even, to translate it?

It’s worth noting also that socialism was a policy also of the Nationalists and so the way that people’s lives could be improved sat at the forefront of the minds of most intellectuals and other people, many of whom were animated by the ideas they retailed in. This, regardless of which party or group they were allied with. It’s also worth noting that the memory of the May Fourth Movement remained strong and was leveraged by the CCP in an effort to create cohesion in the community, though the free-thinking that initially characterised it was, ultimately, discouraged by the Party. As Mitter says of the Cultural Revolution, it “wanted the technology, but not the means of creating the knowledge that went with it”. This is still mainly the case in China today.
The Cultural Revolution, like the Qing, wished the end results of technological modernity, but to fit them into a frame in which they were constructed as purely Chinese products. Yet the xenophobia (expressed as anti-imperialism, but in fact violent anti-foreignism) meant that this was always a well that would run dry eventually: the techniques that had been learned from the west before 1949 and then the Soviets until 1960 could be adapted to Chinese circumstances to a certain point, but the desire simultaneously to create a Chinese knowledge base drawing on western modernity without any foreign input, and furthermore condemning any association with foreign knowledge (Soviet or western), led to a dead end of spectacular proportions.
Millions of people died because the internationalism that had characterised the May Fourth Movement was jettisoned even as, in an attempt to shore up power, Mao celebrated its dead figureheads.

The interplay of economic factors, geopolitical ones, and ideas animates Mitter’s narrative. At different points in it, ideas associated with the May Fourth Movement add drama through historical personages, the men and women who held them and who often expressed them in publications. How ideas themselves are reified constitutes a key point the book tries to make. Ideas are appropriated by people – for example by Party cadres – and are used to achieve specific ends. So while internationalism returned to China in the 1980s, in 1989 the search for more political openness in the form of democracy would be bloodily crushed.

A paradox seems to lie at the heart of China. Nationalism gave birth to it as a modern country but an unwillingness to embrace ideas from outside – an unwillingness that is rooted in the very idea of the nation – makes it hard for the leadership to change direction. Unless the outside idea is in the interests of the Party. So a narrow point of view manacles China's future. And bitterness inculcated by the effort to overcome the humiliations of the 19th and 20th centuries has led the CCP to try to do to other countries what it had done to its internal opponents during the Cultural Revolution. Again, nationalism is at the heart of this dynamic: it is "us" versus "them".

Mitter also suggests that in the absence of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, China risks a return to backwardness, like the Qing. He offers advice to China’s leaders, suggesting embracing pluralism, wisely pointing to Taiwan as an example of an ethnic Chinese country that went – in the space of one generation – from dictatorship to democracy. Let’s hope the Party follows their lead but in the years since the book was published there have been few indications of a willingness on its part to do so, although Chinese people do discuss politics among themselves (even if they mostly keep their discussions off social media) and the diaspora grows larger every year, sending new ideas back home.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Movie review: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, dir Stanley Nelson (2019)

I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary though I felt, the next day, that the filmmakers lost some dramatic opportunities.

I'm not a big user of music and I have never been into jazz, but I am familiar with the kinds of music that Davis created because they are regularly used for soundtracks for movies and TV shows. If you knew nothing about Davis and decide to try this film, you would have already been prepared – whoever you are and wherever you live – for some of what you will see. You might know nothing about the events of the musician’s life but you will – without doubt – have heard his music at some point in your life. It’s that famous.

This explains the tendency of some of the interviewees to idolise the musician, despite his obvious faults. The movie uses a good deal of footage taken from videoed interviews conducted with people who were related to Davis, who worked with him, or who wrote about him. It also uses footage from other sources, including what was taken at concerts Davis gave at different locations in different countries. Then there’s archival footage – for example from when Davis would go on tour in Europe – that was filmed by people close to him at the time. All of this material is fused skilfully into a harmonious whole for the education and entertainment of the viewer.

Davis was no saint but the hushed tones that some people use when talking about him – people who knew him when he was alive – are off-putting. What happens to Davis’ first wife, Irene, is not clear, furthermore, though it appears that he had good relations with his children from that marriage. On the other hand, the film (as far as I, a complete novice, could discern) is factual or, at least, it’s thorough.

Like a colossus, Miles Davis straddled generations and was, like David Bowie, someone who was able to change his style quickly, unexpectedly and, sometimes, radically. But you can see the development, over time, of a stately oeuvre, something lasting and important. It wasn’t completed without a certain degree of disharmony. And the man himself, it is clear, was prone to suffering – as many people are – to alleviate which he used easily available means.

Perhaps the example of Miles Davis, or people like him, was behind my father’s decision to steer me away from the visual arts to a corporate career. I can never know. An unassailable truth, however, is that creative pursuits are highly rewarding, in a way that few activities in life are. It’s important to discover your true metier, your avocation. This film shows creativity in action in the life of one man. If you like music of any kind, watching this film will give you pleasure. If you are interested in creativity of any stamp, likewise. It can be profitably watched by a wide range of people, not just those who like jazz, bebop, funk, or pop music.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Book review: Big Bang, David Bowman (2019)

I must’ve bought this volume at a charity sale, as there’s a sticker on the dustjacket saying “$5”. The author died tragically young about eight years ago. He was aged in his 50s. His novel was a major project; according to Wikipedia, which I must rely on for information, he worked on it for a decade. It comes with an introduction – which I didn’t read – by a more prominent American writer.


Bowman’s novel is packaged as nonfiction but it is clearly not such. A lot of questions arise when you read it. Some relate to the ability of the author to know certain things about the lives of his characters – who are all based on real people – but there are other things that are not clear, such as the present of the authorial “now”. On page 175, for example, you find this: “World War II remained alive in everyone’s mind in 1954 as 9/11 is still alive in 2013.”

But Bowman died in 2012, so he must’ve cast the “now” of the authorial present into the future, to a time when he might no longer be alive. This slippage is emblematic of the novel as a whole, a place where secrets and facts that are harboured by people – Howard Hunt, the novelist and CIA operative, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jimmy Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller, and Joseph McCarthy (among others) – exist in a penumbra of possibility, a place where being is still emerging in a vague locus of existence filled with small dramas that, at some point down the track (we know from history), will turn into action and appear as tonic events. The most important of which is the assassination of JFK in November 1963.

This is the magic of Bowman’s masterpiece – it is undeniably a masterpiece – a book so complex and subtle that it’s hard to know how to position him in the authorial fraternity. The title is equally hard to pin down. People keep having car accidents or getting shot. Or else the “big bang” might refer to the atomic bomb, or the post-war baby boom. Or the gunshots that took out the president. The author himself was born in 1957, which makes the title hint at another kind of release – in this case parturition – or, at least, from Bowman’s point of view it does.

‘Book one’ takes up just over half of the volume, and takes in the years 1950 to 1959. ‘Book two’ starts on page 365 and takes in the years 1960 to 1963. There is also an epilogue that continues the mystical tendency of the end of the final chapter. I was deeply moved by the complexity of Bowman’s poetic vision, by his ability to transport the reader from the concrete parts of individual lives, to universals such as eternity, history, and fate. There is something deeply otherworldly about this “nonfiction” novel, something both great and pathetic. That so much responsibility can be foisted upon one man, the hopes and aspirations of not just one nation but of the entire world …

However you categorise it, this is another one of those big, encyclopaedic American novels but you’ll never get bored as there are hundreds of individual threads of stories to unravel as you progress. All during your time with the book a sense of indeterminacy it engenders highlights a feeling that life is contingent on pure chance. You might wake up tomorrow, you think, or you might not.

While the prose is rooted in fact – each section starting out like a newspaper article and with details pertinent for the reader appearing, with a wry lilt (the footnotes are especially glib), at precisely calibrated points in the narrative – it is infinitely suggestive, like a curtain blowing around crazily in the gap created by an open window, through which you might, as the fabric drifts this way and that, glimpse the future beckoning.

With maybe a sound like angels. Whether they are angels of death or angels bearing another kind of message will depend on who you are.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Dream journal: Twenty

This is the twentieth in a series of posts chronicling dreams I have had. As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. This is usually the morning after the night the dream took place. You can’t wait very long before capturing a dream because it soon disappears from memory.

6 March

Dreamt I was in New York in a multistorey carpark with a group of friends, three people that included a couple (a man and a woman) who were aged about the same as me, and a man of the same age. In the dream I was significantly younger than I am now.

The four of us were on our way to a dinner appointment and were getting ready to get in a rental car to drive there. I was walking around the carpark, looking at the cars because they were different from the ones sold in my own country, and one was a big, flat-nosed blue car that, like the other cars I saw, was quite dirty. Americans, my friends and I averred in comments we made to one another – we were all Australians – didn’t clean their cars as much as we did at home.

Near the front of the blue car were a couple of guys sitting around, talking, on chairs. They looked like they’d been there for a while, as though this was where they usually came to socialise. There was a table for them to use, and what (in memory) looked like a refrigerator. They had all the appearance of being in their living room. The apparition of two people in this setting didn’t strike me as odd although I didn’t interrupt them; the one closest to me looked quite tough and at the time I wasn’t really interested in starting a conversation.

Beside a different car I walked into a cloud of what looked like enormous mosquitoes and I was confounded because I had all these insects plastered to me as I continued around the perimeter of the carpark’s floor where we were. There was no boundary barrier, in the form of a guardrail or balustrade to stop you falling off, and in real life I have a fear of heights; I was attempting to get past the front of a parked car. “What kind of creatures are these?” I thought to myself. They weren’t biting me and they weren’t small, like midges we have back home. What were they?

Still surrounded by a cloud of bugs, I eventually came back to where my friends were standing and talking and I walked up to a diner or kiosk that had been constructed on the floor – it was serving food – and, with my hand, pointed at a can of insecticide that was on the counter, asking if I could use it. The waitress who was working there didn’t want to give it to me because, presumably, I wasn’t a paying customer, but after some negotiation the four of us managed to get hold of the can of spray and used it on the swarm of bugs around my head and torso.

I asked one of my friends to grab the swarm and pull it off me but, then, aware that it was getting near the time I usually wake up, that’s what I did and so I don’t know, now, how the dream turned out and whether I got rid of the bugs or not.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Book review: Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe (2000)

A sticker on the front of my copy shows that I bought it second-hand for $3. The recommended retail price ($21) is printed on the back, visible under a torn sticker, the significance of which I can never know.


Here lie traces of the past. Another is evident in the photo on the front cover, which cannot have been taken close to publication day – Wolfe was born in 1930 but in this photo he looks to be aged no more than 50 – so it was at least 20 years out of date when the publisher and author decided to use it. The dog jumping gaily between the author’s legs in a blur of asymmetrical abandon hints at another relic: the screaming jets heading, down the tunnel of history, toward the Twin Towers.

The candy colours used for the cover remind you of Wolfe’s pedigree (more reminders of the past; after WWII Wolfe was a front man in the literary journalists’ push to reshape the way reporting was done) but, like the essays in the book, the myth of the dandy, the man-about-town now appears dated, like another book from 2000 – a history of magazine the New Yorker by American journalist Ben Yagoda – that I tried to read on the same day I took up ‘Hooking Up’.

As a stylist Yagoda doesn’t entertain and Wolfe falls short of his goal. He riffs like a jazz player but needs a score to guide him. Improvisation overburdens the facts he marshals to his cause, making you wonder if he’s really being objective in his assessments in each case. Like Icarus, Wolfe aimed high. And his higher purpose in writing the book – a piece of American exceptionalism – fails because the heyday that such works sought to herald, like ice on a summer pavement, quickly evaporated.

The first piece is about hook-up culture, but the book’s broad remit suggests other readings for the book’s title, which rhymes with “looking up”. Who looking up to whom? Or, were things finally, on the eve of the new millennium, looking up? Perhaps the phrase should be understood literally: since the Cold War had ended America’s curve was trending up after a hook-shaped reverse.

I wished Wolfe had spent 300 pages writing about Intel’s founder Robert Noyce alone, or entomologist Edward O. Wilson alone. In his essays there’s not enough time to adequately elaborate his ideas or, even, to outline the achievements of his subjects. He is content to do a sketch based on a modicum of research and then, while celebrating Trump’s America, try to predict the future.

There’s no doubt the country continues – as it has always done – to innovate and to throw out new inventions and technologies and ways of thinking. It is a vast, kaleidoscopic community containing – like the microprocessor (which Noyce’s company, Intel, invented) – an array of elements. This diversity is its strength and when planning his book Wolfe displays a preference for stories where the subject was born outside the major cultural centres. Wolfe himself was born in Virginia. Noyce was born in Iowa and Wilson was born in Alabama. A kind of oblique or erratic shape made Wolfe happy, as did poking a stick in the eye of what he thought of as the staid elites of the country’s north-eastern quadrant. In the article that lends its title to the book’s front page, Wolfe points to the demotic fashion trends of the 90s – low-slung jeans, T-shirts, garish sneakers, baseball caps – which were first made popular on the West Coast, so his choice of garb also strikes me as an index of a certain ingrained contrariness. (“They might change to suit the times, but I’m not going to.”)

With ‘In the Land of the Rococo Marxists’, a kind of Trumpian libel of intellectuals of all stripes, he celebrates the multicultural nature of America, its ability to attract people from all over the world through migration, though new arrivals tend to gravitate to the major urban centres, such as LA and New York, and not to the places where Trump would reap his rewards 16 years later.

The impetus behind the book reflects an overt and hard-nosed triumphalism and is intended as a rebuke to Europe, so it is an artefact belonging to a time when the cultural cringe still pressed upon the minds of American intellectuals. I wonder if those days are, now, in the past or if they returned after 2016.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Divergism: Everyone’s a drag queen

This article has over 3600 words so, if you are pressed for time, perhaps bookmark and read it later.

In a speech given in 2019 after she won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Olga Tokarczuk talked about contemporary publishing and touches on the notion of the demotic. I urge you to read the whole passage included below, as it contextualises my response. My aim is not to contradict but, rather, to open up a dialogue so that new ideas might emerge from synthesis, though I think the Polish author misses something key about how culture, nowadays, expresses people’s aspirations and desires. She writes:
Whenever I go to book fairs, I see how many of the books being published in the world today have to do with precisely this—the authorial self. The expression instinct may be just as strong as other instincts that protect our lives—and it is most fully manifested in art. We want to be noticed, we want to feel exceptional. Narratives of the “I’m going to tell you my story” variety, or “I’m going to tell you the story of my family,” or even simply, “I’m going to tell you where I’ve been,” comprise today’s most popular literary genre. This is a large-scale phenomenon also because nowadays we are universally able to access writing, and many people attain the ability, once reserved for the few, of expressing themselves in words and stories. Paradoxically, however, this situation is akin to a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out. We know everything there is to know about them, we are able to identify with them and experience their lives as if they were our own. And yet, remarkably often, the readerly experience is incomplete and disappointing, as it turns out that expressing an authorial “self” hardly guarantees universality. What we are missing—it would seem—is the dimension of the story that is the parable. For the hero of the parable is at once himself, a person living under specific historical and geographical conditions, yet at the same time he also goes well beyond those concrete particulars, becoming a kind of Everywhere Everyman. When a reader follows along with someone’s story written in a novel, he can identify with the fate of the character described and consider their situation as if it were his own, while in a parable, he must surrender completely his distinctness and become the Everyman. In this demanding psychological operation, the parable universalizes our experience, finding for very different fates a common denominator. That we have largely lost the parable from view is a testament to our current helplessness.
Then, in the next paragraph, she talks about genre fiction:
Perhaps in order not to drown in the multiplicity of titles and last names we began to divide literature’s leviathan body into genres, which we treat like the various different categories of sports, with writers as their specially trained players.
She is quite right about the use of genre to categorise what must otherwise be a bewildering array of content coming off the presses and out of the servers of major publishers and minor publishers alike. I think the matter is deeper than that but it is interesting that Tokarczuk found reason, in her address, to remark on this aspect of contemporary society.

I believe that her feeling of alienation from society – expressed here in terms that reflect a deep understanding of the nature of culture – has more to do with her own politics as a progressive in an increasingly conservative global political environment, but she hits on a key aspect of contemporary society, where we are ghettoed by our views into discrete communities, in a unique – and unexpected – form emblematic of a kind of singularity with a collective mind. As though the 20th century’s attempts to impose totalising systems of governance had been a last gasp heralding the dawn of an era of intoxication and diversity.

Taking the blue pill

In the US in 2015, almost half of respondents to one survey admitted to reading mystery, thriller and crime books. In the UK in a 2018 survey the number of crime thrillers sold was equal to the number of children’s books sold. For the UK, says another article: “In 2017, Nielsen BookScan figures revealed that 18.7 million units of crime books were sold, compared to 18.1 million of general and literary fiction.” By 2017 and since 2010, in the US combined print and digital book sales in the genres of science fiction and fantasy had doubled.

It takes time for publishers to anchor a new author in the readership’s imagination, says market expert Jane Friedman, but publishers are less likely to take a risk with a new author because of the possibility of low sales of their book. Genre offers a way to tie a title or author in with people’s predispositions, and it sells well. And nowadays the most politically “engaged” fiction is usually in one or another of the genres that find a market in the economy.

We see this broad interest also in the way the radio station I listen to while driving in Sydney – 2Day FM – plays songs from the 80s, 90s, and noughts, one after the other interspersed, for variety, with more recent tunes, many of which self-consciously sample from earlier styles. I first started writing about Divergism in March last year, and in those posts I talked about how it breeds hybrids. These hybrids proliferate in the spaces between the different strands of the post-war counterculture that has fragmented and atomised. You get a range of different subgenres, such as historical fiction with a focus on transsexualism (Carolina de Robertis’ ‘The Gods of Tango’ and Jordy Rosenberg’s ‘Confessions of the Fox’) or else crime thrillers with feminist themes that are set in country towns (such as Emily O’Grady’s ‘The Yellow House’, Emily Maguire’s ‘An Isolated Incident’, or Shirley Barrett’s ‘The Bus on Thursday’).

Since then my ideas have matured and developed and have also adapted to accommodate new inputs. They have specifically become more closely linked with ideas I have developed about the public sphere, particularly as it relates to social media which, now, is so pervasive that it has changed almost every aspect of our lives, from the ways that we get information to how we form friendships. In fact, this mediated world with its often challenging and sometimes violent virtual interactions lies at the heart of the idea of my conception of Divergism – what I call the “Divergist” project. This trend is present partly because it helps us to cope with the abandonment of convergence as we come to terms with a tribal world of harsh language and loyalties made of steel, and partly because of our sense of panic at the state of a world changing rapidly with new geopolitical realities, with rapid technological advances that often feel overwhelming, and with climate change.

“Stupidity is knowing the truth, seeing the truth but still believing the lies,” tweeted Professor Richard Feynman on 2.27am Australian Eastern Standard Time on 11 May. Underscoring my point about the severity of debate online, by 6.36am of the same day the tweet had garnered 27 replies, over 4600 “likes” and over 1600 retweets. Everyone is stupid except for those who think the same as us.

Tokarczuk said in her Nobel lecture that there is now “a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out”. But rather than soloists, the raised voices actually contribute to forming a united chorus within each genre that gives participants solace, gives them comfort, and gives meaning to their lives. In order to achieve this neuro-cultural symbiosis – in the locus of influence that engenders the production of those precious chemicals that make us feel good when someone acknowledges a post on Facebook – there is an unceasing tolerance for what, in the absence of our collective attention, would remain stale forms, each instalment just one in an endless sequence of variations.

This behaviour betrays an endless perfectionism and is itself a perfection of the Postmodern self-reflexive gaze, a regard turned in on itself and onto all of its operations. New seasons of TV shows are constantly loaded to the servers operated by Netflix, each new vehicle in a favoured sci-fi or crime franchise hastening people to the couch or to the cinema. You can get this kind of comment: here – at 8.02am AEST on 11 May – Ohio writer Ben Doublett talks about a Canadian sci-fi thriller that had just been released:
Code 8 on Netflix is everything you want a superhero movie to be: Eye-popping action, tight pacing, and not a second of runtime wasted setting up other films.  
It’s also a powerful meditation on what need, poverty, and inequity does and does not entitle us to take from others.
It’s kitsch with heart, like a drag queen. In fact, everyone’s a drag queen, not just those living on the fringes of society.

Creating community

Tokarczuk calls for the use of parables to give meaning to our lives, through art, but we are already getting this form of work in such common-or-garden action heroes as you might find in a movie by Peter Berg or Antoine Fuqua. Others have made this connection. In his 2019 novel ‘Big Bang’, David Bowman creates a scene with Howard Hughes the American millionaire, in a restaurant with an actress on New Year’s Eve of 1955:
Hughes sat down and began lecturing Jean Peters. ‘You have to understand about westerns. People who go to them don’t care whether they’re good or bad. It’s like going to a baseball game. The difference between a good western and a bad western is infinitesimal. People go to a western for American comfort.’
Moreover, it’s not just comfort that people find. In finding solace, in popular culture, amid the exigencies of the world, they can also find a way forward in a personal journey. This can happen in a way that the originators of those products might never have imagined. On 11 May at 3.31pm, for example, the Guardian Australia Twitter account tweeted: “Trans writer Juno Dawson: 'The Spice Girls were my female awakening!'” The tweet came with a link to a story on the outlet’s website.

I think I understand what Tokarczuk is trying to express in her lecture but, for my part, I think that, rather than “drowning” in products among which they are forced to choose something to read of watch, people in the community are leveraging the diversity available in the marketplace to create community, to find agency, and to express themselves. There are any number of genres and subgenres but different people use each of them in the same way. Memoir or autobiography is certainly one genre that is current today – you can find any number of such titles in your average bookshop – but it is not, I think, the most popular.  And while there is an unlimited number of genres people can use in order to do that for which they need culture, our relationship with such products appears superficial but in fact it answers a deep human need. I will return to this theme later in this article but, for the moment, it is possibly germane to consider the convergence thesis of Teilhard de Chardin and then turn it on its head. Rather than bringing the world together, the internet has actually atomised the community into distinct tribes, each with its own gods, seers, prophets, and acolytes.

Today’s popular culture celebrates the collective as much as it does the aloof, or lone, individual. In depictions of the collective, values must be shared by all members so that it can succeed. The values of the artist are, also, shared with the consumer. What binds people together – as easily as a cliched expression of emotion or a kitsch rendition of perfection – is more important than the uniqueness of the experience for the hero or for the spectator. The artist loads his or her work with easy formulae in order to achieve a symbiosis with the viewer or reader, a moment of communion. In a kind of parable, as Tokarczuk references in her lecture.

Because diversity flourishes. Witness Luc Besson’s stunning film ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ which is a reflection of the reality that we see globally. Every year more and more countries become more multicultural in nature, though there are attempts by some politicians and their followers to curtail this trend. In this environment characterised by diversity, only genre can guide people so that they can orient themselves amid the cacophony of voices, the plethora of inputs. Here, the rhetoric of the visual or written language is just as important as the content, where authenticity resides within common tropes: good-guys and bad-guys, cops and robbers, chase scenes, the stern guardian or head of department versus the posse of mavericks who eventually serve the aims of justice that, in real life, most often eludes us.

There remain spaces for such esoteric modes as Postmodernism and Modernism. Arthouse is a genre, just as is literary fiction, so there is still room for stories about individuals. But it’s no longer the primary space for the creation of essential meaning in society.

The following image shows a Lego model inspired by a classical Roman theatre, but in ruins and captured, using plastic components, in a fashion reflecting how it might have appeared in the Middle Ages. I wanted to use the image to show how art creates community. There are theatres like this throughout the world, in places colonised by republican and imperial Rome, many of them still in a state where they can be used. A key element of classical Roman civilisation, theatres helped to create cohesive communities that could be ruled efficiently, but in today’s agora – the public sphere in social media where people chat and argue and make new friends – there is a diverging of viewpoints and a reforming around certain magnetic poles that attract, as a magnet attracts iron filings, participants who invest parts of themselves in a particular brand of politics, or a particular genre of fiction or nonfiction. The community today is self-organising and disciplined in a way that is new, since organisation is necessary for people to have in order to live together in harmony.


The allure of teamwork

Tokarczuk’s comparison of genres to sport is revealing and by doing so her ideas consone with my own. Not only is sport endlessly fascinating for people – enabling them to express themselves and to create community, both at the same time – but it embodies the idea of the team, as it often involves stories of groups of people rather than individuals. They are important as loci of desire and require soft skills that enable the individual to communicate better, so are critical to both the wellbeing of the individual and to the cohesion of the community. Community in fact results from people living in harmony with each other, on the basis of shared narratives that enable the release, in that brain, of chemicals that make us feel good. It is as old as civilisation. 

In popular culture, Divergism is reflected in the way that many movies involve teams that are engaged in achieving a single goal. Celebrating the collective is pertinent as such enterprises as basic research is nowadays mainly done by teams of scientists working together on one project, often based in different cities and, even, on different continents. Like real-world professionals, the characters in a film that belongs to a franchise such as ‘The Avengers’ combine their talents to enhance their effectiveness.

Teams are common in such genre fiction as action movies. In cultural products designed for children, teams are even more popular – Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Pokemon, Teletubbies, and the Wiggles come to mind – as we value such themes because they help to properly socialise the young. 

On Netflix, one of the most popular shows in recent years, and the company’s most-popular non-English language TV show, is ‘Money Heist’. In a review of the show, marketer Luca Bertocci writes about how its filmmakers made sure to include a range of different character types when developing the script. There are characters that are more or less impulsive, and more or less extroverted. The most popular ones, going by their Instagram followings, are those with the most extreme profiles. So, a character who is introverted and cautious, and a character who is extroverted and impulsive, ranked highly with viewers. Bertocci writes:
Since viewers might vary a lot and have different tastes and personal preferences, having a broad range of personalities and values is useful, in order to appeal to as many people as possible. However, these very different people must also share the same mission, in order to work smoothly together.
The team is the pinnacle of existence. The tribe, the collective. With genres, furthermore, each singular movie or TV show or book references, in subtle ways, others that have gone before, works by different filmmakers and authors. This diversity of voices reflects the existence of a virtual team produced by Capital in order to indulge a ready market. Every movie is seen to exist within a broader context of influences, spin-offs, and franchises that attract a large following.

It also reflects the existence of a virtual team of consumers who share online, as part of their daily lives, ideas about the artworks. It creates echoes that are comforting, as they make people feel seen in a way that goes to the core of their very identity. Our wishes are acknowledged because what he had enjoyed once is given back to us, in a new guise, by the next artist whose work we sample. We become part of a collective that expresses itself on social media, and also in relation to the artist (or artists), whose personality becomes pertinent to us due to the link that is forged between the artwork and the consumer. Participating in debates about a work of art, we become part of something larger than ourselves, and the forms of genre facilitate this sharing.

There is also an ardent, concomitant need to connect with the movie star or director who makes the film, or with the author who writes the novel. Someone whose ideas we can share, because it makes us feel better to do share, so alone and confused are we in the maelstrom of inputs that make up our world, so precarious are the livelihoods that we rely on to pay for our Netflix subscriptions and our internet connections and our mobile phone plans.

Dark roots

As to the question of where it all started, I find a puzzle, one that is worth a study all of its own – perhaps someone will, one day, write a PhD thesis on it. I think I discovered a hint of where Divergism began when, on 22 April, a friend on Facebook posted this about her boyfriend:
So the man just tried to cheer me up by putting the Bee Gees on and dancing around the kitchen.
It was then I realised how perfect they are for these times. 
Staying Alive.
Tragedy.
Saturday Night Fever. 
Tell me I’m wrong.
She was right, and while Covid-19 prompted this educated woman to improvise and deploy popular culture references in order to create community on social media, where her friends and colleagues are watching her activity, she was also saying something more revealing about the world. 

It is in such places that we probably should go to look for the roots of the cultural mode of Divergism; in the exploitation of genre in order to convey meaning. If Postmodernism – with its roots in such works as Mahler’s self-conscious musical constructs – and Modernism – with its roots in the atmospheric paintings of J.M.W. Turner – are centripetal, centrifugal Divergism must take its cue not from Tarantino’s 1994 pastiche, ‘Pulp Fiction,’ but from another movie released in that year, ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,’ which also harks back to the outrageous kitsch perpetrated upon a willing world by the ‘James Bond’ movies of the 1970s, with their ridiculous villains, outlandish scrapes, and voluptuous co-stars. 

The 70s was an era of celebration when, for a moment, people thought that things might get better. Some were more pessimistic. It was an era that also saw the beginning of the trend for wages for the middle class in the US to flatten (a state of affairs that continues to this day). By the naughts, when the end of the Cold War seemed about to usher in a new era again, this time one of concord, new sources of conflict started to appear, as both Russia and China showed that they would not willingly embrace pluralism and democracy, and as radical Islam grew in prominence.

The irony used for ‘James Bond’ movies was both wicked and fitting. Don’t mock it, the filmmakers seemed to be saying, the next person to get it might be you. It’s as though things have gotten so bad that the only thing people can believe in is the most obvious appropriation from some past master of one genre or another. And added to a nostalgia for the past is this desire for collective enterprise and neat conclusions, something to make us feel secure even though, in reality, we are more fractured, especially in the developed world, than ever before. Tokarczuk talks of soloists but where she hears discord I hear the intoxicating harmony of Divergism.