Friday, 25 October 2013

David Mitchell and Kurt Vonnegut on Addiction

We all have our addictions, some more persistent than others. Mine is an endless string of "complete works of..."s. Luckily though, authors die leaving me with serious withdrawal symptoms and the methadon of mediocre spin-offs and copycats.

One of this addictions is the writings of Kurt Vonnegut. (To be fair, it's really the narration of Kurt Vonnegut: one so compelling you find yourself nodding while reading). Sadly, though, Kurt Vonnegut died. He was planning to use his addiction to tobacco as a "classy way to commit suicide", but fell down his stairs before his addiction could get the better of him. 

Before this though, he had a collection of his essays published in A Man Without a Country. This is one of the few books I've consumed in under a day, in a secluded, vacant room on a slow cruise to which I was considerably less partial than to Vonnegut's laconic tone. In it, he presents an alternative understanding of addiction.

This little text was what caused a exquisite relapse in my literary five step program of recovery. I was suffering in silence, struggling through the nonentity Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, an author whose prowess had been extolled to me by a patently misguided Canadian girl in a Paris café, when in an effort to end the doldrums I read an article by David Mitchell in the Guardian. 

In it, he commented on revelations that an actress had tried drugs in the 70s, arguing that while this shouldn't really surprise anyone, the fact that she clearly didn't sustain any lasting addiction or harm from it caused some issues for anti-drugs campaigns. Lamenting never having been offered cocaine himself (so that he could vehemently refuse), Mitchell reached the nub of his argument, that most anti-drug campaigns, including those against tobacco and alcohol, focus on the wrong thing. 

This was when Mitchell and Vonnegut's shared trait of narrative persuasiveness and topic made a rereading of A Man Without a Country reappear to this listless reader as a beacon of light, an oasis in the desert or some such thing. 

Hopefully, the intellectual gymnastics in these excerpts will allow you to think about communication, addiction and yourself in a new way. Also, if you, like me, appreciate the wit of these two, you would read both Vonnegut's essay and Mitchell's article in full, or even read through A Man Without a Country and watch the episodes of David Mitchell's Soap Box.

But not until you have enjoyed these excerpts:


Kurt Vonnegut,
army portrait

I'm going to tell you some news.
No, I am not running for President, although I do know that a sentence, if it is to be complete, must have both a subject and a verb.
Nor will I confess that I sleep with children. I will say this, though: My wife is by far the oldest person I ever slept with.
Here's the news: I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only 12 years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me.
But I am now 82. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats. The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.
Our government's got a war on drugs. That's certainly a lot better than no drugs at all. That's what was said about prohibition. Do you realise that from 1919 to 1933 it was absolutely against the law to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the Indiana newspaper humourist Ken Hubbard said: "Prohibition is better than no liquor at all."
But get this: The two most widely abused and addictive and destructive of all substances are both perfectly legal.
One, of course, is ethyl alcohol. And President George W Bush, no less, and by his own admission, was smashed, or tiddley-poo, or four sheets to the wind a good deal of the time from when he was 16 until he was 40. When he was 41, he says, Jesus appeared to him and made him knock off the sauce, stop gargling nose paint.
Other drunks have seen pink elephants.
About my own history of foreign substance abuse, I've been a coward about heroin and cocaine, LSD and so on, afraid they might put me over the edge. I did smoke a joint of marijuana one time with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, just to be sociable. It didn't seem to do anything to me one way or the other, so I never did it again. And by the grace of God, or whatever, I am not an alcoholic, largely a matter of genes. I take a couple of drinks now and then and will do it again tonight. But two is my limit. No problem.
I am, of course, notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other.
But I'll tell you one thing: I once had a high that not even crack cocaine could match. That was when I got my first driver's licence ­ look out, world, here comes Kurt Vonnegut!
And my car back then, a Studebaker as I recall, was powered, as are almost all means of transportation and other machinery today, and electric power plants and furnaces, by the most abused, addictive, and destructive drugs of all: fossil fuels.
When you got here, even when I got here, the industrialised world was already hopelessly hooked on fossil fuels, and very soon now there won't be any left. Cold turkey.
Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn't the TV news is it? Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on.


David Mitchell

If I tried cocaine, the worst outcome would be that I liked it and the best that I didn't. When not liking something is the most you can hope for from consuming it, that's a good reason to abstain. 

Do you like my logic? I was pleased with it and looked forward to delivering it to the twat I imagined offering me a 'line' (I lack the confidence to type that without inverted commas) at a party. But not once have I been given the chance! Clearly, I come across as too square even to be worth attempting to corrupt. I'm just not cool.

'Cool' is the key to all this. That's why the celebs are happy to make their admissions. They're boasting that they were the kind of people who were cool enough to be approached, to get involved, to try stuff. They were creative and experimental and dangerously unwise and there's no one alive who, at some point, didn't want to seem like that. Except maybe Ann Widdecombe. 

This is also the problem with anti-smoking campaigns. They persist in trying to persuade kids that smoking isn't cool. Come off it. Look at Sean Connery as James Bond or Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. We're trying to stop millions of young people from doing something that may kill them and we kick off with a demonstrable lie.

Smoking is cool. Addiction isn't (people huddling outside offices in the rain don't look cool so much as cold) and cancer certainly isn't, but smoking when isolated from these things obviously is. No, there's a harder but ultimately more persuasive message we need to find some way to convey: being cool doesn't really matter. We shouldn't let 'cool' become a direct synonym of 'good'.

The problem is that to the marketing and advertising companies this is heresy. Invoking 'cool' is how you make people do things they otherwise wouldn't: buy electric shavers that jizz moisturiser, endlessly drink mini-yogurts, douse themselves in a smell Kate Moss has reportedly made. Cool is why they're smoking, so it must be why they'll stop.

We'll never stop the young from wanting to be cool and it's worth promoting uncarcinogenic ways they can do this. But we might as well spend some time trying to undermine being cool as an aim, rather than pretending we know better than them what constitutes it.

It irritates me when teenagers in bad dramas or adverts say things such as: 'Your mum's cool' to mean: 'I like your mum.' The correct response should be: 'No, my mum is not cool - she doesn't wear sunglasses indoors or weird clothes. She is a middle-aged woman who is nice and good and wise and worrying about what's cool is beneath her.'

Unfortunately the reply to this would inevitably be: 'Cool!'


What do you think?

Is David Mitchell right in indicating that anti-smoking campaigns target the wrong problem, smoking and not addiction? Is this the position he is arguing? Does his attention to the word "cool" sit well with you in this context?

Vonnegut's argument can in some way be seen as contrary to that of Mitchell. Where Mitchell claims out understanding of addiction is too vague and covers too much, Vonnegut claims it's too definite and restrictive. Is he right when he points out that fossil fuels are our most threatening addiction? Are there other, more dagerous ones he does not mention?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: Text1Text2, Pic1, Pic2Pic3

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Pope's Erotic Novel

One of the most popular books of the 15th century was the Historia de duobus amantibus or the Story of two lovers, written by Enea Silvio Piccolomini from Siena in 1444. It was first published in Cologne in 1468 and then in Rome in 1476, whereupon it followed a meteoric increase in publication. One reason for its popularity could be that it is one of the first notable erotic novels, only preceded by Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon and Boccaccio's Decameron, and the first epistolary erotic novel. Another reason could be that Piccolomini went on to become Pope Pius II in 1458.

Piccolomini in his older, more frumpy times

The novel follows the adulterous love of Lucretia, a married woman in Piccolomini's native Siena, and Euryalus, companion of Sigismund, the visiting Duke of Austria. Their relationship progresses from the search for reciprocal affection following a chance meeting, through love letters and secret meetings to a tragic finale. This plot has often been likened to that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the popularity of the novel might have made it available to Shakespeare 153 years later.

Euryalus and Lucretia meeting on the title page of
an edition from 1500 (click the image to zoom)

Interestingly, the novel is in many ways highly transitional. It occured at a time of budding Renaissance, including a topic and imagery which, save for Boccaccio, had been taboo in Medieval times. Whereas modern readers might find that the relative absence of sex and the poetically introspective and psychological approach to love remind them more of romance than of erotica, contemporary ones would relish in the novel's deviance from the religious rigidity of a waning era.

Euryalus delivers a love letter. 
The illustration breaks with standards of Medieval illumination. 
These were kept alive in Venice, but the Florentine printers 
developed this style because they were printing for
a larger, less wealthy public. (click the image to zoom)

No one exemplifies this change more distinctly than the author himself, albeit in unexpected ways. As a young Poet Laureate of Gaspar Schlick, the Chancellor of the Holy Roman Emperor (Sigismund of Austria...), Piccolomini seems to have embraced the ideals of the Renaissance. In the novel, one of Euryalus' last resort for gaining access to Lucretia, her husband's cousin Pandalus, points out that "Why, she is so changed by love, you would not think her the same person. Alas for piety, alas for grief! No one, until this happened, in all the city was chaster than she, no one more modest. It is indeed amazing that nature has given to love so much power over men’s thoughts." (i). Nature, as Fransesco de Sanctis points out, and in particular human nature, is now what is right (ii). Lucretia and Euryalus are clearly meant to be together, while the laws of society, which were the prevailing good in Medieval texts and the authority behind Lucretia's faltering marriage, is now what is wrong. While Dante viewed nature as evil and Medieval literature tended to view love as something granted by external, supernatural powers, Piccolomini places love in human nature. This Renaissance humanism which focuses on man and nature rather than religion and religious concepts saturates the novel and rules of society and honour which causes the tragic end to their relationship confirms this attitude.

The lovers, in a fond embrace, are being warned by a servant that
Lucretia's husband is at the door. The print is probably 

re-used from some other work. (click  the image to zoom)

However, Piccolomini soon became Pope, resulting in a remarkable volte-face. As Pope Pius II, he famously stated "Aeneam rejicite, Pium suscipite!" ("Reject Aeneas, accept Pius!"). He distanced himself from the favourable descriptions of nature, and particularly that of Lucretia, as well as the success of his younger self, albeit unsuccessfully. In this sense, upon ascending to the top of the Holy See, Aeneas returned to pre-Renaissance sentiments, luckily for us, to no avail.

The erstwhile poet had already made his mark, providing posterity with lyrical and heartfelt descriptions of love and the experience of it. The English translation, introduced by the below paragraphs, makes for a delightful read and a story which remains as engaging and vivid today as it did almost six hundred years ago.

THE city of Siena, your native town and mine, did great honour to the Emperor Sigismund on his arrival, as is now well known; and a palace was made ready for him by the church of Saint Martha, on the road that leads to the narrow gate of sandstone. As Sigismund came hither, after the ceremonies, he met four married ladies, for birth and beauty, age and ornament, almost equal. All thought them goddesses rather than mortal women, and had they been only three, they might have seemed those whom Paris, we are told, saw in a dream. Now Sigismund, though advanced in years, was quick to passion; he took great pleasure in the company of women, and loved feminine caresses. Indeed he liked nothing better than the presence of great ladies. So when he saw these, he leaped from his horse, and they received him with outstretched hands. Then, turning to his companions, he said: ‘Have you ever seen women like these: For my part, I cannot say whether their faces are human or angelic. Surely they are from heaven.’ 
They cast down their eyes, and their modesty made them lovelier. For, as the blushes spread over their cheeks, their faces took the colour of Indian ivory stained with scarlet, or white lilies mixed with crimson roses. And chief among them all, shone the beauty of Lucretia. A young girl, barely twenty years of age, she came of the house of the Camilli, and was wife to Menelaus, a wealthy man, but quite unworthy that such a treasure should look after his home; deserving rather that his wife should deceive him or, as we say, give him horns. 
This lady was taller than the others. Her hair was long, the colour of beaten gold, and she wore it not hanging down her back, as maidens do, but bound up with gold and precious stones. Her lofty forehead, of good proportions, was without a wrinkle, and her arched eyebrows were dark and slender, with a due space between. Such was the splendour of her eyes that, like the sun, they dazzled all who looked on them; with such eyes she could kill whom she chose and, when she would, restore the dead to life. Her nose was straight in contour, evenly dividing her rosy cheeks, while nothing could be sweeter, nothing more pleasant to see than those cheeks which, when she laughed, broke in a little dimple on either side. And all who saw those dimples longed to kiss them. A small and well-shaped mouth, coral lips made to be bitten, straight little teeth, that shone like crystal, and between them, running to and fro, a tremulous tongue that uttered not speech, but sweetest harmonies. And how can I describe the beauty of her mind, the whiteness of her breast?

The remaider of the novel can be found by clicking here.

What do you think?

What is your opinion of the about-face of Pius the poet pope? He could have distanced himself from his earlier work either because of the requirements of office, because of old age and changed values but also for a number of other reasons. What do you think these might be and can you sympathise with his choices?

Also, an erotic novel more or less without sex: is that a contradiction in terms? Is it an erotic novel at all or would you classify it as something else? If so, what and why?

Finally, the personal aspect. Love, romance and sexuality are highly personal themes. Could this be the reason for the novel's popularity back then? What is your personal reaction to the novel? Who deserves your personal sympathy, Aeneas or Pius?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Further reading: A quick but good introduction, a thorough analysis, a look at illustrations and a young literate's reactions

Sources: (i), (ii), Pic1, Pic2, Pic3, Pic4