Wednesday, 1 July 2015

John Steinbeck on Fish and Relativity

Those of us who work with non-sciency things like language and social studies have learnt not just to accept the lack of universal truths and procedures, but to cherish and revel in them. The relativity and the uncertainty of our areas make them somehow more humanly relevant, more personally accurate and liberatingly dynamic.

John Steinbeck also reflected on this issue in his The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and my summer gift to you this year is in the form of his beautiful prose. Let it linger in the back of your minds for the holiday season!


We made a trip into the Gulf; sometimes we dignified it by calling it an expedition. Once it was called the Sea of Cortez, and that is a better-sounding and a more exciting name. We stopped in many little harbors and near barren coasts to collect and preserve the marine invertebrates of the littoral. One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip–and when we used this reason, we called the trip an expedition–was to observe the distribution of invertebrates, to see and record their kinds and numbers, how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced…
We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality. We knew that what we would see and record and construct would be warped, as all knowledge patterns are warped, first, by the collective pressure and stream of our time and race, second by the thrust of our individual personalities. But knowing this, we we might not fall into too many holes, we might maintain some balance between our warp and the separate thing–the external reality.
The oneness of these two might take its contribution from both. For example: the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsating and tail beating the air, a whole new relational experience has come into being–an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D. XVII15-IX”. There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed–probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself…The man with the pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.
…we were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizons and crowd the sky down on us. We knew that what seemed to us true could be only relatively true anyway. There is no other kind of observation. The man with the pickled fish has sacrificed a great observation about himself, the fish, and the focal point, which is his thought on both the sierra and himself.
We determined to go doubly open so that in the end we could, if we wished, describe the sierra thus: “D. XVII15-IX A. II-15-IX”, but we could also see the fish alive and swimming, feel it plunge against the lines, drag it threshing over the rail, and even finally eat it. And there is no reason why either approach should be inaccurate. Spine-count description need not suffer because another approach is also used. Perhaps out of the two approaches, we thought, there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate than either alone could produce. And so we went.
Source: As given, pp. 1-3

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

How Not to Annoy - The World Citizens Guide for Americans

The war-time line "overpaid, oversexed and over here", used to describe Americans in Europe has in later years been rewritten to "overweight, oversexed and overthrow whomever". Admittedly, Americans struggle with some public image issues beyond their heartland even to the extent that they are the object of their own phobia, amerophobia or columbophobia. Amerophobes shudder at American overestimation of their powers of comparison through the word "like", their inability to pronounce t-sounds inside words, their volume and their initial ignorance, subsequent ceaseless fascination and merciless appropriation of anything Non-American. However, the fear is more of this stereotype than of the Americans themselves, who often put this stereotype to shame by being sociable, polite and altruistic.

However, in 2014, 8,8% of all Americans took an overseas trip, according to numbers from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries and the US Census Bureau, a number relatively similar to those of previous years. The cultural challenges facing these Americans abroad prompted "Business for Diplomatic Action", an American organisation worried about the declining standing of Americans abroad, to commission the compilation of the "World Citizens Guide". This guide provides the American tourist with the necessary knowledge to not get on the nerves of the natives of their country of choice.

Here is a collection of pearls from the guide:


Look. Listen. Learn.
Don't just shop. See the sights, hear the sounds and try to understand the lives people live.

Think big. Act small. Be humble.
It's easy to resent big, powerful people. Assume resentment as a default and play down your wealth, power and status.

Live, eat and play local.
Once you get to know other Americans, don't start ignoring locals you knew before.

Refrain from lecturing.
Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes a whole nation of them. Rightly or wrongly, the I.S. is seen as appointing itself as policeman, judge and jury to the world. Be aware of this perception and try to understand other viewpoints.

Dialogue instead of monologue.
[...] ask people you're visiting how what you've said compares to what they do and how they live in their country.

Be proud, not arrogant.
People around the world are fascinated by the U.S. and the lives we Americans live. They admire our openness, our optimism, our creativity and our "can-do" spirit. Be proud of being an American, but resist any temptation to present our way as the best way or the only way.

Keep religion private.
Some may have no knowledge of the Bible, nor is it appropriate to tell them about it unless you are a professional missionary identified as such.

Be quiet.
In conversation match your voice level to the environment and other speakers. Casual profanity is almost always considered unacceptable.

Check the atlas.
Everyone's home is important to them.

Agree to disagree respectfully.
Surely, there are people who object to actions or activities of our government, our industries and our culture.

Talk about something besides politics.
Listen first. Then speak. And leave politics alone if you can. Speak of culture, art, food or family if you need another topic.

Show your best side.
Americans are a kind and generous people. You can help dispel the stereotype of the Ugly American; impress people with your kindness, curiosity and fair nature.

Sources: Adapted from [1], otherwise as indicated, 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

This Year's Christmas Story: Kurt Vonnegut's "A Present for Big Saint Nick"

This year's Christmas story comes from Kurt Vonnegut. It is perhaps not the first Christmas story you would read to your children, yet it does have that touch of the child-like wonder and charm that we often associate with Christmas. With this, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and lots of holiday cheer!


Big Nick was said to be the most recent heir to the power of Al Capone. He refused to affirm or deny it, on the grounds that he might tend to incriminate himself.
He bought whatever caught his fancy, a twenty-three-room house outside Chicago, a seventeen-room house in Miami, racehorses, a ninety-foot yacht, one hundred fifteen suits, and among other things, controlling interest in a middleweight boxer named Bernie O’Hare, the Shenandoah Blaster.
When O’Hare lost sight in one eye on his way to the top of his profession, Big Nick added him to his squad of bodyguards.
Big Nick gave a party every year, a little before Christmas, for the children of his staff, and on the morning of the day of the party, Bernie O’Hare, the Shenandoah Blaster, went shopping in downtown Chicago with his wife, Wanda, and their four-year-old son, Willy.
The three were in a jewelry store when young Willy began to complain and cling to his father’s trousers like a drunken bell-ringer.
Bernie, a tough, scarred, obedient young thug, set down a velvet-lined tray of watches and grabbed the waist of his trousers. “Let go my pants, Willy! Let go!” He turned to Wanda. “How’m I supposed to pick a Christmas present for Big Nick with Willy pulling my pants down? Take him off me, Wan. What ails the kid?”
“There must be a Santa Claus around,” said Wanda.
“There ain’t no Santy Clauses in jewelry stores,” said Bernie. “You ain’t got no Santy Claus in here, have you?” he asked the clerk.
“No, sir,” said the clerk. His face bloomed, and he leaned over the counter to speak to Willy. “But if the little boy would like to talk to old Saint Nick, I think he’ll find the jolly old elf right next—”
“Can it,” said Bernie.
The clerk paled. “I was just going to say, sir, that the department store next door has a Santa Claus, and the little—”
“Can’tcha see you’re making the kid worse?” said Bernie. He knelt by Willy. “Willy boy, there ain’t no Santy Clauses around for miles. The guy is full of baloney. There ain’t no Santy next door.”
“There, Daddy, there,” said Willy. He pointed a finger at a tiny red figure standing by a clock behind the counter.
“Cripes!” said Bernie haggardly, slapping his knee. “The kid’s got a eye like a eagle for Santy Clauses.” He gave a fraudulent laugh. “Why, say, Willy boy, I’m surprised at you. That’s just a little plastic Santy. He can’t hurt you.”
“I hate him,” said Willy.
“How much you want for the thing?” said Bernie.
“The plastic Santa Claus, sir?” said the bewildered clerk. “Why, it’s just a little decoration. I think you can get one at any five-and-ten-cent store.”
“I want that one,” said Bernie. “Right now.”
The clerk gave it to him. “No charge,” he said. “Be our guest.”
Bernie dropped the Santa Claus on the terrazzo floor. “Watch what Daddy’s going to do to Old Whiskers, Willy,” he said. He brought his heel down. “Keeeeee-runch!
Willy smiled faintly, then began to laugh as his father’s heel came down again and again.
“Now you do it, Willy,” said Bernie. “Who’s afraid of him, eh?”
“I’ll bust his ol’ head off,” said Willy gleefully. “Crunch him up!” He himself trampled Father Christmas.
“That was real smart,” said Wanda. “You make me spend all year trying to get him to like Santa Claus, and then you pull a stunt like that.”
“I hadda do something to make him pipe down, didn’t I?” said Bernie. “Okay, okay. Now maybe we can have a little peace and quiet so I can look at the watches. How much is this one with the diamonds for numbers?”
“Three hundred dollars, sir, including tax,” said the clerk.
“Does it glow in the dark? It’s gotta glow in the dark.”
“Yes, sir, the face is luminous.”
“I’ll take it,” said Bernie.
“Three hundred bucks!” said Wanda, pained. “Holy smokes, Bernie.”
“Whaddya mean, holy smokes?” said Bernie. “I’m ashamed to give him a little piece of junk like this. What’s a lousy three-hundred-dollar watch to Big Nick? You kick about this, but I don’t hear you kicking about the way the savings account keeps going up. Big Nick is Santy Claus, whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t like it,” said Wanda. “And neither does Willy. Look at the poor kid— Christmas is ruined for him.”
“Aaaaah, now,” said Bernie, “it ain’t that bad. It’s real warmhearted of Big Nick to wanna give a party for the kids. I mean, no matter how it comes out, he’s got the right idea.”
“Some heart!” said Wanda. “Some idea! He gets dressed up in a Santa Claus suit so all the kids’ll worship him. And he tops that off by makin’ the kids squeal on their parents.”
Bernie nodded in resignation. “What can I do?”
“Quit,” said Wanda. “Work for somebody else.”
“What else I know how to do, Wan? All I ever done was fight, and where else am I gonna make money like what Big Nick pays me? Where?”
A tall, urbane gentleman with a small mustache came up to the adjoining counter, trailed by a wife in mink and a son. The son was Willy’s age, and was snuffling and peering apprehensively over his shoulder at the front door.
The clerk excused himself and went to serve the genteel new arrivals.
“Hey,” said Bernie, “there’s Mr. and Mrs. Pullman. You remember them from last Christmas, Wan.”
“Big Nick’s accountant?” said Wanda.
“Naw, his lawyer.” Bernie saluted Pullman with a wave of his hand. “Hi, Mr. Pullman.”
“Oh, hello,” said Pullman without warmth. “Big Nick’s bodyguard,” he explained to his wife. “You remember him from the last Christmas party.”
“Doing your Christmas shopping late like everybody else, I see,” said Bernie.
“Yes,” said Pullman. He looked down at his child, Richard. “Can’t you stop snuffling?”
“It’s psychosomatic,” said Mrs. Pullman. “He snuffles every time he sees a Santa Claus. You can’t bring a child downtown at Christmastime and not have him see a Santa Claus somewhere. One came out of the cafeteria next door just a minute ago. Scared poor Richard half to death.”
“I won’t have a snuffling son,” said Pullman. “Richard! Stiff upper lip! Santa Claus is your friend, my friend, everybody’s friend.”
“I wish he’d stay at the North Pole,” said Richard. 
“And freeze his nose off,” said Willy.
“And get ate up by a polar bear,” said Richard. 
“Eaten up by a polar bear,” Mrs. Pullman corrected.
“Are you encouraging the boy to hate Santa Claus?” said Mr. Pullman.
“Why pretend?” said Mrs. Pullman. “Our Santa Claus is a dirty, vulgar, prying, foulmouthed, ill-smelling fake.”
The clerk’s eyes rolled.
“Sometimes, dear,” said Pullman, “I wonder if you remember what we were like before we met that jolly elf. Quite broke.”
“Give me integrity or give me death,” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Shame comes along with the money,” said Pullman. “It’s a package deal. And we’re in this thing together.” He addressed the clerk. “I want something terribly overpriced and in the worst possible taste, something, possibly, that glows in the dark and has a barometer in it.” He pressed his thumb and forefinger together in a symbol of delicacy. “Do you sense the sort of thing I’m looking for?”
“I’m sorry to say you’ve come to the right place,” said the clerk. “We have a model of the Mayflower in chromium, with a red light that shines through the portholes,” he said. “However, that has a clock instead of a barometer. We have a silver statuette of Man o’ War with rubies for eyes, and that’s got a barometer. Ugh.”
“I wonder,” said Mrs. Pullman, “if we couldn’t have Man o’ War welded to the poop deck of the Mayflower?”
“You’re on the right track,” said Pullman. “You surprise me. I didn’t think you’d ever get the hang of Big Nick’s personality.” He rubbed his eyes. “Oh Lord, what does he need, what does he need? Any ideas, Bernie?”
“Nothing,” said Bernie. “He’s got seven of everything. But he says he still likes to get presents, just to remind him of all the friends he’s got.”
“He would think that was the way to count them,” said Pullman.
“Friends are important to Big Nick,” said Bernie. “He’s gotta be told a hunnerd times a day everybody loves him, or he starts bustin’ up the furniture an’ the help.”
Pullman nodded. “Richard,” he said to his son, “do you remember what you are to tell Santa Claus when he asks what Mommy and Daddy think of Big Nick?”
“Mommy and Daddy love Big Nick,” said Richard. “Mommy and Daddy think he’s a real gentleman.”
“What’re you gonna say, Willy?” Bernie asked his own son.
“Mommy and Daddy say they owe an awful lot to Big Nick,” said Willy. “Big Nick is a kind, generous man.”
“Ev-ry-bo-dy loves Big Nick,” said Wanda.
“Or they wind up in Lake Michigan with cement overshoes,” said Pullman. He smiled at the clerk, who had just brought him the Mayflower and Man o’ War. “They’re ne as far as they go,” he said. “But do they glow in the dark?”

* * * * *

Bernie O’Hare was the front-door guard at Big Nick’s house on the day of the party. Now he admitted Mr. and Mrs. Pullman and their son.
“Ho ho ho,” said Bernie softly.
“Ho ho ho,” said Pullman.
“Well, Richard,” said Bernie to young Pullman, “I see you’re all calmed down.”
“Daddy gave me half a sleeping tablet,” said Richard.
“Has the master of the house been holding high wassail?” said Mrs. Pullman. 
“I beg your pardon?” said Bernie.
“Is he drunk?” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Do fish swim?” said Bernie.
“Did the sun rise?” said Mr. Pullman.
A small intercom phone on the wall buzzed. “Yeah. Nick?” said Bernie.
“They all here yet?” said a truculent voice.
“Yeah, Nick. The Pullmans just got here. They’re the last. The rest are sitting in the living room.”
“Do your stuff.” Nick hung up.
Bernie sighed, took a string of sleighbells from the closet, turned off the alarm system, and stepped outside into the shrubbery.
He shook the sleighbells and shouted. “Hey! It’s Santy Claus! And Dunder and Blitzen and Dancer and Prancer! Oh, boy! They’re landing on the roof! Now Santy’s coming in through an upstairs bedroom window!”
He went back inside, hid the bells, bolted and chained the door, reset the alarm system, and went into the living room, where twelve children and eight sets of parents sat silently.
All the men in the group worked for Nick. Bernie was the only one who looked like a hoodlum. The rest looked like ordinary, respectable businessmen. They labored largely in Big Nick’s headquarters, where brutality was remote. They kept his books and gave him business and legal advice, and applied the most up-to-date management methods to his varied enterprises. They were a fraction of his staff, the ones who had children young enough to believe in Santa Claus.
“Merry Christmas!” said Santa Claus harshly, his big black boots clumping down the stairs.
Willy squirmed away from his mother and ran to Bernie for better protection.
Santa Claus leaned on the newel post, a cigar jutting from his cotton beard, his beady eyes traveling malevolently from one face to the next. Santa Claus was fat and squat and pasty-faced. He reeked of booze.
“I just got down from me workshop at the Nort’ Pole,” he said challengingly. “Ain’t nobody gonna say hi to ol’ Saint Nick?”
All around the room parents nudged children who would not speak.
“Talk it up!” said Santa. “This ain’t no morgue.” He pointed a blunt finger at Richard Pullman. “You been a good boy, heh?”
Mr. Pullman squeezed his son like a bagpipe.
“Yup,” piped Richard.
“Ya sure?” said Santa suspiciously. “Ain’t been fresh wit’ grown-ups?”
“Nope,” said Richard.
“Okay,” said Santa. “Maybe I got a electric train for ya, an’ maybe I don’t.” He rummaged through a pile of parcels under the tree. “Now, where’d I put that stinkin’ train?” He found the parcel with Richard’s name on it. “Want it?”
“Yup,” said Richard.
“Well, act like you want it,” said Santa Claus. Young Richard could only swallow.
“Ya know what it cost?” said Santa Claus. “Hunnerd and twenny-four fifty.” He paused dramatically. “Wholesale.” He leaned over Richard. “Lemme hear you say t’anks.”
Mr. Pullman squeezed Richard.
“T’anks,” said Richard.
“T’anks. I guess,” said Santa Claus with heavy irony. “You never got no hunnerd-and-twenny-four-fifty train from your old man, I’ll tell you that. Lemme tell you, kid, he’d still be chasin’ ambulances an’ missin’ payments on his briefcase if it wasn’t for me. An’ don’t nobody forget it.”
Mr. Pullman whispered something to his son.
“What was that?” said Santa. “Come on, kid, wha’d your old man say?”
“He said sticks and stones could break his bones, but words would never hurt him.” Richard seemed embarrassed for his father. So did Mrs. Pullman, who was hyperventilating.
“Ha!” said Santa Claus. “That’s a hot one. I bet he says that one a hunnerd times a day. What’s he say about Big Nick at home, eh? Come on, Richard, this is Santa Claus you’re talkin’ to, and I keep a book about kids that don’t tell the trut’ up at the Nort’ Pole. What’s he really t’ink of Big Nick?”
Pullman looked away as though Richard’s reply couldn’t concern him less.
“Mommy and Daddy say Big Nick is a real gentleman,” recited Richard. “Mommy and Daddy love Big Nick.”
“Okay, kid,” said Santa, “here’s your train. You’re a good boy.”
“T’anks,” said Richard.
“Now I got a big doll for little Gwen Zerbe,” said Santa, taking another parcel from under the tree. “But first come over here, Gwen, so you and me can talk where nobody can hear us, eh?”
Gwen, propelled by her father, Big Nick’s chief accountant, minced over to Santa Claus. Her father, a short, pudgy man, smiled thinly, strained his ears to hear, and turned green. At the end of the questioning, Zerbe exhaled with relief and got some of his color back. Santa Claus was smiling. Gwen had her doll.
“Willy O’Hare!” thundered Santa Claus. “Tell Santy the trut’, and ya get a swell boat. What’s your old man and old lady say about Big Nick?”
“They say they owe him a lot,” said Willy dutifully.
Santa Claus guffawed. “I guess they do, boy! Willy, you know where your old man’d be if it wasn’t for Big Nick? He’d be dancin’ aroun’ in little circles, talking to hisself, wit’out nuttin’ to his name but a flock of canaries in his head. Here, kid, here’s your boat, an’ Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you,” said Willy politely. “Please, could I have a rag?”
“A rag?” said Santa.
“Please,” said Willy. “I wanna wipe off the boat.”
“Willy!” said Bernie and Wanda together.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said Santa. “Let the kid talk. Why you wanna wipe it off, Willy?”
“I want to wipe off the blood and dirt,” said Willy.
“Blood!” said Santa. “Dirt!”
“Willy!” cried Bernie.
“Mama says everything we get from Santa’s got blood on it,” said Willy. He pointed at Mrs. Pullman. “And that lady says he’s dirty.”
“No I didn’t, no I didn’t,” said Mrs. Pullman.
“Yes you did,” said Richard. “I heard you.”
“My father,” said Gwen Zerbe, breaking the dreadful silence, “says kissing Santa Claus isn’t any worse than kissing a dog.”
“Gwen!” cried her father.
“I kiss the dog all the time,” said Gwen, determined to complete her thought, “and I never get sick.”
“I guess we can wash off the blood and dirt when we get home,” said Willy.
“Why, you fresh little punk!” roared Santa Claus, bringing his hand back to hit Willy.
Bernie stood quickly and clasped Santa’s wrists. “Please,” he said, “the kid don’t mean nothing.”
“Take your filt’y hands off me!” roared Santa. “You wanna commit suicide?” Bernie let go of Santa.
“Ain’t you gonna say nuttin’?” said Santa. “I t’ink I got a little apology comin’.”
“I’m very sorry, Santa Claus,” said Bernie. His big fist smashed Santa’s cigar all over his face. Santa went reeling into the Christmas tree, clawing down ornaments as he fell.
Childish cheers filled the room. Bernie grinned broadly and clasped his hands over his head, a champ!
“Shut them kids up!” Santa Claus sputtered. “Shut them up, or you’re all dead!”
Parents scuffled with their children, trying to muzzle them, and the children twisted free, hooting and jeering and booing Santa Claus.
“Make him eat his whiskers, Bernie!”
“Feed him to the reindeers!”
“You’re all t’rough! You’re all dead!” shouted Santa Claus, still on his back. “I get bums like you knocked off for twenty-five bucks, five for a hunnerd. Get out!”
The children were so happy! They danced out of the house without their coats, saying things like, “Jingle bells, you old poop,” and “Eat tinsel, Santy,” and so on. They were too innocent to realize that nothing had changed in the economic structure in which their parents were still embedded. In so many movies they’d seen, one punch to the face of a bad guy by a good guy turned hell into an earthly paradise.
Santa Claus, flailing his arms, drove their parents after them. “I got ways of findin’ you no matter where you go! I been good to you, and this is the thanks I get. Well, you’re gonna get thanks from me, in spades. You bums are all gonna get rubbed out.”
“My dad knocked Santa on his butt!” crowed Willy.
“I’m a dead man,” said O’Hare to his wife.
“I’m a dead woman,” she said, “but it was almost worth it. Look how happy the children are.”
They could expect to be killed by a hit man, unless they fled to some godforsaken country where the Mafia didn’t have a chapter. So could the Pullmans.
Saint Nicholas disappeared inside the house, then reappeared with another armload of packages in Christmas wrappings. His white cotton beard was stained red from a nosebleed. He stripped the wrappings from one package, held up a cigarette lighter in the form of a knight in armor. He read the enclosed card aloud: “‘To Big Nick, the one and only. Love you madly.” The signature was that of a famous movie star out in Hollywood.
Now Saint Nicholas showed off another pretty package. “Here’s one comes all the way from a friend in Italy.” He gave its red ribbon a mighty yank. The explosion not only blew off his bloody beard and fur-trimmed red hat, but removed his chin and nose as well. What a mess! What a terrible thing for the young to see, one would think, but they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

After the police left, and the corpse was carted off to the morgue, dressed like Kris Kringle from the neck down, O’Hare’s wife said this: “I don’t think this is a Christmas the children are going to forget very soon. I know I won’t.”
Their son Willy had a souvenir that would help him remember. He had found the greeting card that came with the bomb. It was in the shrubbery. It said, “Merry Christmas to the greatest guy in the world.” It was signed “The Family.”
There would be a rude awakening, of course. The fathers were going to have to find new jobs, ho ho.


Source: Vonnegut, Kurt: Bagombo Snuff Box, London 2000, 159-169

Saturday, 1 November 2014

De Quincey and the Cursed Crocodile's Kisses

Dreams always baffle and interest us. They are products of our own minds, but products we do not ourselves form and therefore psychologists and laymen alike are drawn to make more or less inspired interpretations of them. To try to make sense of what is, in most cases, nonsensical mental frolicking is one way to approach dreams. Another one is to savour the liberation nonsense provides.

One who at least initially did so was the Romantic essayist and legendary druggie Thomas De Quincey. Author of "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" (1821), one of the earliest specimen of addict literature, he was known to consume copious amounts of opium in laudanum form and wrote the book he is famous for partially to feed his drug habit. Despite this, with his Romantic colleagues died young; Keats from tuberculosis at 26, Shelley from drowning at 30 and Byron from a fever obtained while attempting to make himself king of Greece at 36, De Quincey died at 74 surrounded by his grandchildren. This is surprising, given his intake of drugs, described by himself thus:

my daily ration was eight thousand drops. If you write down that amount in the ordinary way as 8000, you see at a glance that you may read it into eight quantities of a thousand, or eight hundred quantities of ten, or lastly, into eighty quantities of one hundred. Now, a single quantity of one hundred will about fill a very old-fashioned obsolete teaspoon, of that order which you find still lingering amongst the respectable poor. Eighty such quantities, therefore, would have filled eighty of such antediluvian spoons — that is, it would have been the common hospital dose for three hundred and twenty adult patients (1).

This naturally gave him some fairly vivid nightmares and in the paragraphs below he tries to understand these, much like the novel in itself is an attempt to understand his addiction. Still, the colourful surrealism of his nightmares offers the liberation not having to understand, which is the essential liberation of sleep.


Thomas De Quincey
I remember about this time a little incident, which I mention because, trifling as it was, the reader will
soon meet it again in my dreams, which it influenced more fearfully than could be imagined. One day a Malay knocked at my door. What business a Malay could have to transact amongst English mountains I cannot conjecture; but possibly he was on his road to a seaport about forty miles distant. The servant who opened the door to him was a young girl, born and bred amongst the mountains, who had never seen an Asiatic dress of any sort; his turban therefore confounded her not a little; and as it turned out that his attainments in English were exactly of the same extent as hers in the Malay, there seemed to be an impassable gulf fixed between all communication of ideas, if either party had happened to possess any. In this dilemma, the girl, recollecting the reputed learning of her master (and doubtless giving me credit for a knowledge of all the languages of the earth besides perhaps a few of the lunar ones), came and gave me to understand that there was a sort of demon below, whom she clearly imagined that my art could exorcise from the house. I did not immediately go down, but when I did, the group which presented itself, arranged as it was by accident, though not very elaborate, took hold of my fancy and my eye in a way that none of the statuesque attitudes exhibited in the ballets at the Opera-house, though so ostentatiously complex, had ever done. In a cottage kitchen, but panelled on the wall with dark wood that from age and rubbing resembled oak, and looking more like a rustic hall of entrance than a kitchen, stood the Malay—his turban and loose trousers of dingy white relieved upon the dark panelling. He had placed himself nearer to the girl than she seemed to relish, though her native spirit of mountain intrepidity contended with the feeling of simple awe which her countenance expressed as she gazed upon the tiger-cat before her. And a more striking picture there could not be imagined than the beautiful English face of the girl, and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude, contrasted with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay, enamelled or veneered with mahogany by marine air, his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations. Half-hidden by the ferocious-looking Malay was a little child from a neighbouring cottage who had crept in after him, and was now in the act of reverting its head and gazing upwards at the turban and the fiery eyes beneath it, whilst with one hand he caught at the dress of the young woman for protection.

My knowledge of the Oriental tongues is not remarkably extensive, being indeed confined to two words—the Arabic word for barley and the Turkish for opium (madjoon), which I have learned from Anastasius; and as I had neither a Malay dictionary nor even Adelung’s Mithridates, which might have helped me to a few words, I addressed him in some lines from the Iliad, considering that, of such languages as I possessed, Greek, in point of longitude, came geographically nearest to an Oriental one. He worshipped me in a most devout manner, and replied in what I suppose was Malay. In this way I saved my reputation with my neighbours, for the Malay had no means of betraying the secret. He lay down upon the floor for about an hour, and then pursued his journey. On his departure I presented him with a piece of opium. To him, as an Orientalist, I concluded that opium must be familiar; and the expression of his face convinced me that it was. Nevertheless, I was struck with some little consternation when I saw him suddenly raise his hand to his mouth, and, to use the schoolboy phrase, bolt the whole, divided into three pieces, at one mouthful. The quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done? I had given him the opium in compassion for his solitary life, on recollecting that if he had travelled on foot from London it must be nearly three weeks since he could have exchanged a thought with any human being. I could not think of violating the laws of hospitality by having him seized and drenched with an emetic, and thus frightening him into a notion that we were going to sacrifice him to some English idol. No: there was clearly no help for it. He took his leave, and for some days I felt anxious, but as I never heard of any Malay being found dead, I became convinced that he was used to opium; and that I must have done him the service I designed by giving him one night of respite from the pains of wandering.

This incident I have digressed to mention, because this Malay (partly from the picturesque exhibition he assisted to frame, partly from the anxiety I connected with his image for some days) fastened afterwards upon my dreams, and brought other Malays with him, worse than himself, that ran “a-muck” at me, and led me into a world of troubles (2).


The sublime circumstance, “battlements that on their restless fronts bore stars,” might have been copied from my architectural dreams, for it often occurred. We hear it reported of Dryden and of Fuseli, in modern times, that they thought proper to eat raw meat for the sake of obtaining splendid dreams: how much better for such a purpose to have eaten opium, which yet I do not remember that any poet is recorded to have done, except the dramatist Shadwell; and in ancient days Homer is I think rightly reputed to have known the virtues of opium.

Cover of the 2nd Edition
To my architecture succeeded dreams of lakes and silvery expanses of water: these haunted me so much that I feared (though possibly it will appear ludicrous to a medical man) that some dropsical state or tendency of the brain might thus be making itself (to use a metaphysical word) objective; and the sentient organ project itself as its own object. For two months I suffered greatly in my head, a part of my bodily structure which had hitherto been so clear from all touch or taint of weakness (physically I mean) that I used to say of it, as the last Lord Orford said of his stomach, that it seemed likely to survive the rest of my person. Till now I had never felt a headache even, or any the slightest pain, except rheumatic pains caused by my own folly. However, I got over this attack, though it must have been verging on something very dangerous.

The waters gradually changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.

May 1818
The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes. I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point; but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it. But there are other reasons. No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed. Even Englishmen, though not bred in any knowledge of such institutions, cannot but shudder at the mystic sublimity of castes that have flowed apart, and refused to mix, through such immemorial tracts of time; nor can any man fail to be awed by the names of the Ganges or the Euphrates. It contributes much to these feelings that southern Asia is, and has been for thousands of years, the part of the earth most swarming with human life, the great officina gentium. Man is a weed in those regions. The vast empires also in which the enormous population of Asia has always been cast, give a further sublimity to the feelings associated with all Oriental names or images. In China, over and above what it has in common with the rest of southern Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence and want of sympathy placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyse. I could sooner live with lunatics or brute animals. All this, and much more than I can say or have time to say, the reader must enter into before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery and mythological tortures impressed upon me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams, which always filled me with such amazement at the monstrous scenery that horror seemed absorbed for a while in sheer astonishment. Sooner or later came a reflux of feeling that swallowed up the astonishment, and left me not so much in terror as in hatred and abomination of what I saw. Over every form, and threat, and punishment, and dim sightless incarceration, brooded a sense of eternity and infinity that drove me into an oppression as of madness. Into these dreams only it was, with one or two slight exceptions, that any circumstances of physical horror entered. All before had been moral and spiritual terrors. But here the main agents were ugly birds, or snakes, or crocodiles; especially the last. The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him, and (as was always the case almost in my dreams) for centuries. I escaped sometimes, and found myself in Chinese houses, with cane tables etc.. All the feet of the tables, sofas, etc. soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the crocodile, and his leering eyes, looked out at me, multiplied into a thousand repetitions; and I stood loathing and fascinated. And so often did this hideous reptile haunt my dreams that many times the very same dream was broken up in the very same way: I heard gentle voices speaking to me (I hear everything when I am sleeping), and instantly I awoke. It was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside—come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out. I protest that so awful was the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces (3).


Bonus fact: Just prior to the last segment, De Quincey recalls Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another famous Romantic junkie, describing some plates by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These, he finds gives a good pictorial expression to his initial, drug-induced nightmares, although he mistakes the title of the collection, "Imaginary Prisons", as "Dreams". Published from 1750 to 1761, the capricci, which is the art term used for fanciful exaggerations, would later inspire Romantic and Surrealist art and bears an uncanny resemblance to Escher for modern viewers. Piranesi, therefore provides the link between De Quincey's delirium and the Surrealism movement.

The "Imaginary Prisons" can be seen here. My earlier post on David Mitchell's and Kurt Vonnegut's take on addiction can be accessed here.

Sources: De Quincey, Thomas: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, London 2009, (1) 169, (2) 160-162, (3) 190-192, Pic1, Pic2

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Perfecly Golden, Wodehouse - Service with a Smile

Welcome to the belated third bulletin in the series "Perfectly Golden, Wodehouse"! As the the bees are buzzing in the bushes going about their summerly business with a gusto, one cannot but be inspired and therefore steps onto the podium like the heralds of yore. The previous compilations of Wodehousean splendor consisted of delectable morsels out of Carry on, Jeeves and Very Good, Jeeves (with an additional little topical collage in 2011) and not even your severest critic would look at you askance for revisiting them. However, one must keep a stern focus on the task at hand, and so, with the determination of MacIntosh the dog or that Duch fellow with the boat, I will plunge into the sunlit expanses of Blandings Castle and the

Third book:
Service with a Smile
First published 1961
(ed. published 2008 by
Arrow Books, London)

"'South Kensington? Where sin stalks naked throught the dark alleys and only might is right. Give this man a miss. He'll lead you astray.'" (p.28)

"Some twenty muinutes had elapsed, and there were still no signs of the bride-to-be, and nothing so surely saps the morale of a bridegroom on this wedding day as the failure of the party of the second part to put in an appearance at the tryst. [...] Lord Ickenham tried to comfort him with the quite erroneous statement that it was early yet." (p.33)

"Going by the form book, he took it for granted that ere many suns had set the old buster would be up to some kind of hell which would ultimately stagger civilization and turn the moon to blood, but what mattered was that he would be up to it a t Lord Emsworth's rural seat and not in London." (p.47)

"'Nervous, Bill?' he said, regarding the Rev Cuthbert sympathetically. He had seemed to nitice during the early stages of the journey a tendency on the other's part to twitch like a galvanized frog and allow a sort of glaze to creep over his eyes." (p.48)

"'I happened to be doing some visiting there for a pal of mine who had sprained an ancle while trying to teach the choir boys to dance the carioca, and I came along just as someone was snatching her bag. So, of course, I biffed the blighter.'
'Where did they bury the unfortunate man?'
'Oh, I didn't biff him much, just enough to make him see how wrong it is to snatch bags'" (p.50)

"'I always strive, when I can, to spread sweetness and light. There have been several complaints about it.'" (p.62)

Lord Emsworth had been subjected to a cruel trick by the Church Lads Brigade, camping out in his grounds under his sister Connie's protection and consults Ickenham on the subject of retaliation: 
"'Ah, that wants thinking over, doesn't it? I'll devote earnest thought to the matter, and if anything occurs to me, I'll let you know. You wouldn't consider mowing them down with a shotgun?'
'Eh? No, I doubt if that would be advisable.'
'Might cause remark, you feel?' said Lord Ickenham. 'Perhaps you're right. Never mind. I'll think of something else.'" (p.67)

The dastardly Duke of Dunstable covets the Empress of Blandings, that magnificent, prize-winning Berkshire pig of Emsworth's:
"'I've asked him a dozen times. 'I'll give you five hundred pounds cash down for that bulbous mass of lard and snuffle,' I said to him. 'Say the word,' I said, 'and I'll have the revolting object shipped off right away to my place in Wiltshire, paying all the expenses of removal.' He refused, and was offensive about it, too. The man's besotted.'" (p.72)

"'[You would buy the Empress] Just to do Clarance good?' she said, amazed. She had not credited her guest with this atruism.
'Certainly not,' said the Duke, offended that he should be supposed capable of such a motive." (p.73)

"Prefacing her remarks with the statement that if girls like Lavender Briggs were skinned alive and dipped in boiling oil, this would be a better and sweeter world, Myra embarked on her narrative." (p.94)

According to Ickenham, breaking off an engagement is the easiest thing in the world:
"'You're strolling with him in the moonlight. He says something about how jolly it's going to be when you and he are settled down in your little nest, and you say, 'Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. It's off.' He says, 'What!' You say, 'You heard,' and he reddens and goes to Africa.'" (p.138)

"In the life of every successful man there is always some little something missing. Lord Tilbury had wealth and power and the comforting knowledge that, catering as he did for readers who had all been mentally arrested at the age of twelve, he would continue to enjoy these indefinitely" (p.140)

"He mistrusted these newspaper fellers. You told them something in the strictest confidence, and the next thing you knew it was spread all over the gossip page with a six-inch headline at the top and probably a photograph of you, looking like somepne the police were anxious to question in connextion with the Dover Street smash-and-grab raid." (p.147)

"Once more, Archie Gilpin ran a hand through his hair. The impression he conveyed was that if the vultures gnawing at his bosom did not shortly change their act, he would begin pulling it out in handfuls." (p.162)

"Seated on the stile, hist deportment was rather like that of a young Hindu fakir lying for the first time on the traditional bed of spikes, Archie Gilpin seemed still to find a difficulty clothing his thoughts in words." (p. 163)

"Archie nodded. He had never blinded himself to the fact that anyone trying to separate cash from the Duke of Dunstable was in much the same position as a man endeavouring to take a bone from a short-tempered wolf-hound." (p. 168)

"'Are you there, Stinker?'
If the Duke had not been a little deaf in the right ear, he might have heard a sound like an inexperienced motorist chaning gears in an old-fashioned car. It was the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company grinding his teeth. Sometimes, when we hear a familiar voice, the heart leaps up like that of the poet Wordsworth when he beheld a rainbow in the sky. Lord Tilbury's was far from doing this." (p.170)

"[Lord Tilbury] proceeded to answer in the negative. This took some time for in addition to saying 'No' he had to tell the Duke what he thought of him, indicating one by one the various points on which his character diverged from that of the ideal man." (p.171)

"'Well, well!' said Mr Schoonmaker.
'Well, well, well!' said Lord Ickenham.
'Well, well, well, well!' said Mr Schoonmaker.
Lord Emsworth interrupted the reunion before it could reach the height of its fever." (p.179)

Mr Schoonmaker has difficulties mustering the courage to propose to Constance Keeble:
"'When I try to propose to her, the words won't come. It's happened a dozen times. The sight of that calm aristocratic profile wipes them from my lips.'
'Try not looking at her sidways'" (p.184)

The Duke of Dunstable on his favourite theme:
"'Hasn't he got any? You told me he came from Brazil. Fellers make money in Brazil.'
'He didn't. A wasting sickness struck the Brazil nuts, and he lost all his capital.'
'Silly ass.'
'Your sympathy does you credit. Yes, his lack of money is the trouble.'" (p.202)

"'You know and I know that Dunstable is a man who sticks at nothing and would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel a starevng orphan out of tuppence'" (p.210)

"'Should I escort you there, sir?'
'No, don't bother. I'll find it. Oh, Beach?'
'Here,' said Mr Schoonmaker, and thrusting a piece of paper into the butler's hand he curvetted off like, thought Beach, an unusually extrovert lamb in springtime.
Beach looked at the paper, and being alone, with nobody to report him to his guild, permitted himself a sharp gasp. It was a ten-pound note" (p.212)

"Mr Schoonmaker, meanwhile, touching the ground only at odd spots, had arrived at Lavender Briggs' office ...[and was] pacing the floor in a manner popularized by tigers at a zoo" (p. 213-214)

"The Duke, who had been scowling at the typewriter, as if daring it to start something, became more composed. A curious gurgling noise suggested that he had chuckled" (p.219)

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Romeo and Juliet Must Die

Have you ever wondered why all the romantic stories end when one part gets the other? Romeo and Juliet meet each other, marry and then promptly die. Elizabeth Bennet pairs up with Mr. Darcy and the story is at an end. The fairy tale princess marries the fairy tale prince effectively terminating the fairy tale with a flimsy assurance that their marriage is to be a long and happy one.

A familiar fate

Any author or literature specialist will tell you that with the establishment of the protagonists as a romantic unit the initial conflict is resolved. This is the conflict that drives the plot and creates a lack both protagonists more or less actively seek to fill, and their union rounds off the plot by halting its driving force. More on this below, but in the meantime, there is another theory of why the fate of all couples is this way.

The O(o)ther

Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, launched his theory of "the other". This was an ontological aspect of the self, an idealised exterior part of what each individual considers to be his essence. While the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas focused perhaps more on the social and ethical nature of the other, Lacan’s focus on language makes his thinking especially relevant for the literary Other.

Jacques Lacan

He distinguishes between the little other (the “other”) and the big other (the “Other”). The first is not really someone else, but a projection of the self onto someone or something else, so when Catherine in Wuthering Heights says about Heathcliffe that He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, she is talking of the little other. On the other side, there is the big other, which is radically different, a clear and distinct alternative to the self. In literature, there is arguably a graded scale of otherness, but where for instance Heathcliffe and Catherine are similar in nature, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are quite dissimilar. For Elizabeth, then, Darcy is the Other whom she needs to relate to.

This is where Lacan argues that language, the system by which we understand everything and conceptualise the world, originates in the Other, rather than the self. It is by relating to the clearly different Other that language originates, and so language development is beyond the individual’s control, or as Lacan puts it: the unconscious is the discourse of the Other.

Bringing it back to the concept of love in literature, since the system of language is created by the Other, the concepts understood through this system follow a similar progress, including love. It is by relating to the Other, Romeo to Juliet, Elizabeth to Darcy, Catherine to Heathcliffe or vice versa that the characters can understand love and each other.

Three couples from literature: Romeo and Juliet,
  Elizabeth and Darcy and Catherine and Heathcliffe

If by now you are a bit confused by the haphazard use of the Other and the other, that is understandable, but let me tidy the conceptual area up for you. Previously, I boldly stated that in literature, there is a graded scale between the Other and the other. Romeo is the other to Juliet in the sense that they are both young aristocrats grappling with many of the same problems and desires. Juliet understands her own feelings and fears by recognising them in Romeo. At the same time, Romeo is Other. He belongs to a different familial tradition with different, conflicting interests to that of Juliet’s family. In order for their relationship to work, Romeo needs to advance from Juliet’s Other to Juliet’s other, and to do so, Juliet needs to conceptualise and understand her love for Romeo.

The same progress will, of course, have to be performed by Romeo with Juliet and the area in which this happens is in that literary graded zone between the Other and the other. Once the process is completed successfully, and both parts are the other to each other, they have formed a new unit in the other, as complete projections of their selves. It is when this stage is reached in literature that the narrative will have to end, because no more of the progress of the main characters is possible. Further narrative requires another Other, with implications for the story which are interesting, but far too wide to address here.

Furthermore, as the psychological progress from the Other to the other mirrors the narrative’s progress from exposition to conclusion, the elements of the Other that needs to be overcome in the process reflects the conflict in the narrative.

You see, here we have returned to the conflict as promised.


Already the ancient Greeks were familiar with what they called agon, an identifiable element that initiates and propels the plot forward. Later literary studies have identified explored and expanded on this concept of conflict by diversifying into a range of categories like “man vs. man”, “man vs. society”, “man vs. nature” and “man vs. self”. In this way, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes grapples with Moriarty, Orwell’s Winston Smith opposes Big Brother, London’s Buck and White Fang have to come to terms with nature, external and internal and Beckett’s Krapp, Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Palahnuik’s Fight Club protagonist all spend the span of the plot consciously or unconsciously dealing with some aspect of their own character.

Two antagonistic sources of conflict; Professor Moriarty
and Big Brother/The society in Nineteen Eighty-four

Depending on how you define the different sides of the conflict, several of these categories can play a role. The hindrance for Romeo or Juliet and the progress from Other to other is both actual antagonists (relatives), society (one organised around the family unit and its values), nature (in the sense of their own sexuality) and self (their perception of their own individuality and identity).

While this bears witness to the fluid nature of conflict in literature, it nevertheless underlines how essential it is. Even when conflict remains unresolved at the end, when the complexity of the conflict is a central theme or when the narrative challenges the reader to make his own conclusions, the conflict is present from the exposition on. Just look at any part of Joyce’s Dubliners, which is riddled with different conflicts but painfully void of resolution.

Happily Ever After

This, however is not the case in most of the romantic stories of literature. Once the lovers are together (or irretrievably lost to each other, which is the same), the conflict is resolved, the Other has become the other and the plot is at an end. There are only two alternatives to this. The first one involves an open ending. Romeo enters the church and sees Juliet and the plot ends there.

The second is that most dreaded of cultural items; the sequel. In this, “Romeo and Juliet 2 – Vampires of Verona” or “Pride and Prejudice – Meet the Darcys”, a new conflict and possibly a new or different set of characters (“Romeo and Juliet 2 – Mercutio the Merciless”) need to be introduced.

In any case, the main characters of the original have overcome the conflict and effectively ended the plot. Romeo and Juliet are one in death and so are Heathcliffe and Catherine. The Darcys, and hopefully many others of your favourite literary characters, do like in the fairy tales and live happily ever after.

of the conflict and the fun

What do you think?

Is this theory correct? Are all love stories doomed to end as soon as love blossoms, and how does this make you feel about your own relationships? I have used the theories of psychoanalysis on literature, can these theories on literature be used on real life social relationships?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: as given

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