Thursday, April 25, 2019

Three words

I've blogged elsewhere on semantic degeneration (to adopt the Bloomfield typology). It's a depressing fact of life: just as the quaint sweetshop you used to buy pontefract cakes or wine gums and marbles at on the way home from school closes down, sooner or later, to make way for a Tesco or Asda, so the unique, precise meaning you used to ascribe to a particular word ceases trading, to be replaced by a vaguer, bewilderingly stupid meaning under which the formerly low-frequency word suddenly acquires a new customer base. It's "progress", of course, and unimpeachably democratic, so we'd be dumb to oppose it or try to turn the clock back. All we can allow ourselves in conscience (especially if we are linguists) is to sulk, and not like it, and be all crotchety and passive-aggressive about it. So, on that note and in no particular order, here goes.

"Avatar". I never saw the movie, but well before it appeared I was using the word in my newsgroup posts to refer to women who, in my mind, incarnated, albeit fleetingly or imperfectly, the goddess whose existence has always prevented me from being an atheist for more than three days in a week. Purists will dislike me for this slapdash usage, but at least I was adhering consciously to the notion of divinity. Now that everyone and her dog has an "avatar", or maybe several, on social media, I am forced to choose between reprocessing my former usage as banal, or entertaining the conjecture that everyone who uses social media either considers herself to be a god, or else is de facto an ignorant git. I'll let you know when I've made up my mind.

"The military". The dictionaries refuse to back me up on this, just as they refuse to countenance my pedantic preference for "hatred" as a noun rather than "hate", so don't pay too much attention. But I can't help remembering that, back in the sixties and seventies, people still talked about "the army" and more inclusively, "the armed forces". Perhaps I'm eccentric, but "military" still sounds to me like an adjective, and "he's in the military" as contrived as "he's in the eleemosynary" or "she's in the pedagogical". Take it or leave it: I'd probably leave it if I were you, unless it happens to be your pet peeve too, in which case, see a doctor.

"misogyny". I used to treasure (before it ended up in a conflagration in the Pyrenees) a letter from my first girlfriend in which she lamented (this was in the early eighties) that "misogyny" in a man was "seen as interesting", and as the mark of a creative mind, whereas "androgyny" (sic - she meant misandry) was seen merely as evidence of mental instability (at least in a woman). At the time I read this, I thought "hmm, she has a point". But of course, the word has changed its meaning so much that nowadays she wouldn't have even the ghost of one.

The girlfriend in question, Yvonne, was a more-or-less radical feminist, and we were together (sort of) for three and a half years: yet apart from this one letter, I don't know if I heard her use the word "misogynist" or "misogyny" once. It wasn't then a staple of the feminist vocabulary as far as I'm aware. In fact, I'm pretty sure that she and her friends would have strenuously opposed any suggestion that "hatred or dislike of women" (for this is what the word once meant) was at the root of discrimination and sexism: they would have countered that by reducing a social and political problem to a psychological one, you were trivialising and dismissing it, and letting men and social institutions off the hook too easily. On the contrary - they would have said - you can claim to love and respect women, and genuinely believe that you do, and still be part of the problem, to the extent that "love" and "respect" provided an excuse for differential, ultimately patronising, treatment.

Perhaps what I'm saying here is that back in the eighties it was still possible, for some mental gymnasts at any rate, to be an egalitarian and yet call yourself a feminist. I believe the evolution in usage of "misogyny" reflects the concurrent evolution of feminism from a nominally egalitarian movement into a supremacist, or at least aggressively partisan one: after all, in order to claim that the central problem feminism addresses is, at least partly, a negative attitude in people's mind towards the collective "women", you have to posit that these negative attitudes are extremely widespread, which means that people who are conscious only of a drooling gynocentrism in their own minds are forced to wonder how much higher the pedestal on which they place the "women" abstraction has to be in order to 'scape whipping, or whether there is much practical difference, aside from the severity of legal penalties, between being a "misogynist" in the West, and a "blasphemer" in the Muslim world.

Then, to the extent that society takes notice of you and mends its ways, so that it is no longer possible to make jokes based on gender stereotypes and still keep your job, the feminists realise they have a problem: where the abstract collective "women" has been elevated in the public discourse to the status of a divinity, and the pedestal has been hoisted into the cumulonimbus, how can you plausibly continue to claim that "hatred or dislike" of this deified entity is a major social problem? This point, which we reached perhaps a decade or two ago, is when "misogyny" quietly ceased to refer to an attitude held by individuals, and became something "structural" or "systemic":
 It goes without saying that the "system" or "structure" in question turns out to be a mere unfalsifiable assertion backed up, at best, by anecdote or cherrypicked statistics. But that isn't really the point here. Even if it were true that there was a "system" in place in Western society that discriminated against women by imposing unfair gender expectations on them (e.g. by expecting them to live up to the quasi-divine ideal of "woman" as "that which can only be disliked by the evillest of men"), there would still be no reason to use the formerly attitudinal term "misogynist" to describe it, when there are better terms available ("sexist", "discriminatory", etc.). For those of us still nostalgically inclined to semantic precision, "misogyny" will continue to mean what my ex understood it to mean: an attitude, held by a few men and perhaps also a few women, of visceral distaste and repulsion towards whatever is identified in the mind as "female" - whether female bodies, or female social roles, or perhaps allegedly representative individual females within one's family or acquaintances. Understood in this way, I do believe she had a point: open dislike of women is historically so rare in men, and so obviously contrary to the dominant social force of gynocentric galanterie in the service of procreation, that you can see how its non-ecclesiastical expression (for example, in the writings of a Schopenhauer or a Strindberg) might be regarded as evidence of an unusual independence of mind and strength of character (which would not necessarily mean endorsing it). Similarly, a woman who professed to hate men would likewise have been transgressing against a social norm - with the difference that her social position of economic dependence on males would, historically, have made such transgression appear not so much brave as foolish and self-injurious. (Which, of course, is no longer the case today.)

What I think we're seeing, arguably in the case of "avatar" and more credibly in "misogyny", is not so much semantic shift as semantic inflation. We know that if a government floods the economy with printed money, that money will soon lose part of its value, and end up being worthless paper, a suitcase load of which will barely get you a loaf of bread. We know that if examining boards, under pressure from government, hand out more grade "A" GCSEs and A levels every year, universities will just ask for more As, and when there's nothing more they're allowed to ask for, lower their standards. In the same way, if we widen the semantic scope of a word, it ends up denoting less and less, and ultimately becomes mere emotional connotation or phatic utterance. The go-to example would probably be "fascist": once, the word denoted a specific political tendency, but nowadays you'd be unwise to read anything more into it than "I strongly disagree with your politics" (and I expect to hear, any day now, "My boss is a fascist - he wants me to work Saturdays"). Why does this happen? Why do the denotations of words expand to encompass more and more, meaning ultimately less and less?

I don't know. I also don't know what part social media have to play in this, or to what extent Twitter, Facebook and the like will contribute to linguistic debasement and woolly thinking in the immediate future. However, if I may be allowed an unproven conjecture (yes, another):

Words unite people, at an elementary social level, but they also divide people into tribes. Do a search on Twitter for "socialist" if you don't believe me: there's a tribe that uses the word to mean "Marxist", another that uses it to mean "social democrat", a third that uses it to mean "welfare-oriented", and so on, according to political tendency (and let's not get into Wilde). I think what often happens is that people hear or see a word, perhaps a rather academic or intellectual-sounding one that suggests membership of a socially desirable caste, and instinctively suspect that using the word might either give them access to the coveted tribe, or at least make it appear to others that they belong to it. Our usage is thus a form of social signalling. Unfortunately, we do not always need to understand a word to appreciate its connotations. One could probably survive in a London dinner-party with no more knowledge of the meaning of "misogynist" or "fascist" than that both words refer to Bad People. In student politics you can sometimes see people feeling their way like this: to the youthful revolutionary, the term "ultra-left" might fleetingly sound like a good thing to be, until he hears a political enemy denounced with the term, and learns that it isn't, without quite knowing why.

However, the more we misuse words and debase them, the more a limited number of people, those who require the word to mean something precise in order to communicate successfully on a topic of shared interest, will demarcate their own usage, thus by implication asserting a separate tribal identity. If this tribal identity becomes coveted or high-status, then people will want to appropriate, not the debased word, but others that more successfully communicate distinction, and the process begins again, a fractal process of dialect formation that has no obvious limit. Like I say, you can be part of it, or sit on the sidelines and fume. At my age and with my blood pressure, impotent fuming seems like the easier, hence wiser, choice.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A place where people are completely bonkers

I've talked about and narrated dreams elsewhere in this blog. If I don't do so more often, it's simply because I rarely remember them. Experience has taught me that if I cared to remember more, I would have to pay 150 bucks a month for biweekly appointments with a floor-lamp, and I don't have that kind of money. So it's only ever going to be the one or two per year I actually remember, owing to fortuitous circumstances like waking up at the end of it and then staying awake long enough to retell it to myself a couple of times, to fix it in my mind. But I certainly wish I could remember more. Dreams are interesting.

As I always say, though, it's not what happened in the dream, it's how you felt about what happened. That's generally the most interesting aspect.

In this case, as usual, the beginning of the dream is lost to me. At the point I begin to remember, I am alone, walking along a road in Durán, near where I used to live, though later it turns out the road is actually close to where I now work. I have time to kill, and want to "explore". I seem to have forgotten my age, with the result that the verb "explore" can have, as it once did, vague connotations of lust, though its full meaning goes well beyond that.

Shortly, I find myself faced with a fork in the road. Common sense dictates taking the right fork: I take the left, and find myself in a sort of transfiguration of the muddy off-road turning that led to my old house in Durán. This place is different, though. There are a few delightfully tumbledown houses dotted around a small central patch of ground with a big tree in the centre, dappling the ground with filtered light. Beyond, the road continues into a ravine. I admire the tumbledown houses for a moment, wondering who lives in them, before continuing into the ravine.

At this point I hear an amplified voice that appears to be that of a young guitarist. It says something like "Yeah, this sounds pretty good, doesn't it?" A few notes on an electric guitar follow. I look around for the speakers that are broadcasting this voice into the ravine, but fail to see them. Continuing my journey, I find that the path peters out into rock face. If I wanted to continue, I would have to climb the rocks with the aid of overhanging branches. Instead, I turn around and head back to the tumbledown houses. There seems to be no reason to do otherwise, and time is limited.

Once I am next to the big tree, I feel the urge to stop in my tracks and take in the beauty (as I see it) of the muddy, ramshackle place, despite my apprehensions of what people living there must think of a stranger just standing there. At that moment two things happen: two rustic-looking old people appear, and I spot something flying around in the air above me. The thing in question, that soars and ducks and weaves in the air close above me, at one point looks like a flying lizard; then it looks like a leafy twig; then it looks like a lizard again, or an iguana, with wings that seem to be made of leaves. I think to myself "hey, I seem to have discovered a new species of reptile!" I try to get a better view of it, and suddenly it appears to be an old woman tangled up in twigs, buffeted around by the wind - a development that I find not so much surprising as encouraging. I find myself wishing that flying was as easy for me as it is for her.

However, I feel a bit selfconscious owing to the presence of the rustic-looking old people, so reluctantly I start walking again, back the way I came, towards the main road.

At this point two more people appear, walking in the same direction as me. They are speaking English. Since we are not in England, they will assume I cannot understand their conversation, which provides me with an incentive to eavesdrop.

"Can you lend me one?" one says. "Mine is broken."

"I've only got a Symphonic," the other replies. "Is that any good?"

"I've got to go to Berlin," the first one says.

"They're talking about harmonicas," I muse. "They are musicians. They are Bohemian types who are canny enough to know that a tumbledown house in a place like this is the perfect spot to be creative in, in between Berlin gigs." At this point I bump into one of the two speakers. "Sorry," I say indistinctly, and hurry onward. It only occurs to me later, after I have woken up, that this "sorry", in English, gave the game away somewhat. In any case, the two English speakers hardly register my presence.

Just as I am passing the last tumbledown house, I notice that there is a man wandering around dressed as a knight, with a cardboard helmet. Various other people appear, skulking and wearing ridiculous clothes. At this point, I remember I have to be back at work at 5pm - I have a class at that time. Fortunately I have plenty of time to get back to work - it's only just past four. I am pleased with myself for having discovered a place I can visit any day, between classes. How would I describe this place to people I work with, people I am not on particularly close terms with, but whom I would like to impress with my discovery?

"It's a place where people are completely bonkers," occurs to me.

This description seems so satisfactory, I immediately wake up.

Unlike other dreams, interpreting this one doesn't seem particularly difficult, given my particular set of lifelong preoccupations and failures. I'm uncertain whether the ravine is to be interpreted as a vagina or not, as Freud would want it to be, but if so it's almost too neat. As for whether "a place where people are completely bonkers" could be read as a description of Twitter, well, it's tempting, but on the whole I'd say no, that's not my mental map. Twitter is out there, beyond the main road, a place where people are completely predictable in the most depressing way possible. The off-road, backwater place where people are completely bonkers, and where, in consequence, I would at last fit in, though not completely since I don't fit in anywhere, has yet to be discovered in real life. Here's to another day, week, month, year, lifetime of searching.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Scylla, meet Charybdis

Back in January I rejoined Twitter after several blissful years of absence. Damn fool notion: it's like that thing they do here in the Andes, getting yourself whipped with nettles by village elders to "purify" yourself. Don't know if I want to be limpiado that much, not at my age, or at least, not by anyone who doesn't look good in stilettos. Still, if there's one thing you can say for the platform, it provides you with a daily dripfeed of gratuitous controversy:
Thus Dawkins. The popular response to the tweet was, as far as I cared to read, "how can you mention Brexit in the same breath as Hitler": fair enough, but let's be more precise. First, and parenthetically, I don't think it's true that German pride gave us Hitler. What gave us Hitler was the Versailles treaty, primarily, with its in-your-face revanchism: this then reacted chemically with the Depression, the consequent economic failure of the Weimar Republic, and the Europe-wide (at least) fashionable antisemitism of the time. Once we had Hitler, he gave us (or rather cultivated and built up) "German pride". That's my reading, though I'm no historian so could be wrong. In any case, you don't have to be a historian to see that comparing Brexit, as a "consequence", to Hitler is just silly. Arguably, both Brexit and Trump, even assuming they are "evil" (which I would dispute), have more to do with populism than national pride - a distinction the Moulinex concept-liquidizing brain of Dawkins seems incapable of making, any more than he seems able to appreciate the difference between the "national pride" of a hegemonic world power, such as present-day USA or imperial Britain, with the very different sort of defensive "pride" that a weakened, put-upon state such as contemporary Britain might muster in opposition to the predations of a much larger, more powerful entity such as the EU. I can't help associating this political tone-deafness on his part with his routine invocation of Mozart and Beethoven (not to mention "beautiful sunsets") whenever his rhetoric requires a cultural reference. I find I can't trust anyone who is unable to be at least a little quirkily individualistic in their spiritual preferences. Dawkins is, let's face it, as desiccated as they come.

In another corner, I had this:
I should specify that "his" refers to one Jared Taylor, self-described "hwite advocate" and racialist shit-stirrer.  I'd bemoaned a decision made by some Polish EU official to deny him a visa, continent-wide, but I'd done so purely on the basis of the standard free speech argument which I've rehearsed elsewhere in this blog at wearisome length. Apparently acknowledging his right to go around talking bollocks to whoever wants to listen wasn't good enough for his fan club, who wanted to know how I could possibly object to the sort of "freedom of association" that would, in Taylor's view, naturally result in (I think I'm quoting him right here) a "hwite homeland" (presumably one situated in North America, though he mentions Hungary with vague nostalgia). To end this conversation, I simply said I didn't see any good reason to want a racially segregated society. My Twitter adversary snuffled, stamped the ground, withdrew his horns and that was that.

It struck me afterwards, though, that in any such conversation Dawkins would probably have me down as a Taylor, and Taylor, as a Dawkins. Meaning that disagreeing with both maybe requires you to do a little marking of territory, for the young 'uns at any rate. So here goes.

Dawkins, according to his wikibio, is an evolutionary biologist. Leaving aside the above quibbles, this is what makes the above quoted tweet unexpected, astonishing even. Here's one Frans de Waal saying what I think most other evolutionary biologists and psychologists, as well as most of us thick laymen, take for granted about human nature:

“We’ve evolved to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are largely cooperative within our communities, we become almost a different animal in our treatment of strangers.” 

Of course, Taylor, for his part, would have no problem agreeing with the above. His schtick is that, since humans are tribal animals, we should just settle back into our tribal nature and, for the sake of avoiding conflict (not to mention "hwite genocide"), segregate ourselves into autonomous "communities" (countries, at a push) in which tribal identity and inclusion are determined along racial lines. Whitey's in his Civilized West, Darkie's in his Shithole Country (Taylor thinks that the black man can't "do" civilization - straight up), and all's right with the world.

Now, despite having read The Selfish Gene about thirty years ago and The God Delusion more recently, I don't recall what Dawkins says about tribalism, and we can't reasonably expect a single out-of-context tweet to dot any i's on the matter, but from the above it would appear he not only doesn't approve of it, but thinks we can "prefer" it away. Do you suffer from unsightly national pride? Take a dose of Beethoven. Next! And this is where we have to part company, since as Twain once said, "you can't reason people out of what they were never reasoned into in the first place".

What I mean is this. We have a tribal instinct, yes. Plenty of recent science supports this. This means we have a need - or perhaps "drive" is better - to belong to a human collective that includes some folks (on the basis of a shared attribute or several) and excludes other folks. It is also true that most, if not all, medium to large scale human conflict is between such collectives or groups, whether defined by nation (the default), religion, mythology, ideology, race or tribe. To this extent, Dawkins is right - nationalism, among other isms, can indeed have "evil" consequences: it can make people fight and kill each other. Where I think he's wrong (and I would be surprised if most evo-psychologists/biologists didn't agree on this) is in this idea that you can inoculate humanity against all these evil isms by simply replacing them with humanism - with membership of "humanity" as the ultimate tribal belonging. Would that it were so easy.

Why doesn't this work? Well, as far as I can tell, the warm glow of knowing you are lucky enough to belong to the human species - as opposed to, say, being a Martian or a Velociraptor -  only lasts as long as the science fiction movie you are watching manages to keep alive in your mind the idea of a rival, alien intelligence that enters into competition with that of your own species. Beyond that, it has no seductive power - that is, unless you are the sort of person who can keep the fun going by redefining people or groups of people as "not human" on a whim. Put differently: inclusion is not meaningful unless there is also exclusion. Who, after all, would wish to belong to a club that already has everybody as a member - what would be the point? And in fact, Dawkins unwittingly underlines the pointlessness of this tribalism-hack by invoking Einstein and Beethoven. Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the immense gulf, the vast ocean of ignorance and incompetence that separates our pedestrian minds from such immortals as these. A category that stretches to accommodate both us and them is therefore simply too elastic to have any possible significance in our lives. If you win a trophy after coming last in the race, just for being there, and later find that even those who were off sick that day still got the trophy, as well as the actual winners, it's not something you're going to want to show off to visitors. There can be, whatever Dawkins says, no real "pride" in a category founded on non-achievement.

I'm not saying we should ignore or discount or belittle common humanity. For me nihil humani a me alienum puto is an important guiding principle: no argument there. What I'm saying is that the yearning to self-validate by belonging to something meaningful and a bit special, something with standards, won't be fobbed off with placebos - and a community so broadly defined as to include not only Einstein and Darwin but also Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega clearly has no standards, and is equally clearly a placebo. We can do better than that.

I actually think we can - each and every one of us - do better than that. There is a group, a community, a club, that every last one of us can join on the basis of who we are, what we know, what we do or can do, how we behave, what we like or want, or where we live. In fact, for most of us, there are myriads. That's, as I understand it, what makes humans a bit special, a bit different from chimps, and "tribal" not quite the right word for the human version of the belonging instinct. Other, dimmer primates may only manage one belonging - to the extended family or tribe - but the typical human may belong simultaneously to a family, a workplace, a company, a political party, a following for a soccer team, maybe a fan club or two, a church, a religion, a town, a region, a nation, a social class, a stance on Marmite and much more. Not only do we juggle multiple belongings, we also prioritise them more or less consciously. Membership of one peer group may sometimes have to be sacrificed for membership of another, more desirable one: consult almost any Young Person's Novelist. Our desire to belong and our knowledge of consequences can negotiate and sign complicated armistices. But, as I say, the defining feature of such communities - and where the "pride" comes from - is that they have to be at least somewhat picky about who they let in.

If you're going to get bums on seats at churches, your God's gonna have to damn at least as many as he saves. If he saves everyone, why bother, when there's wild blackberries to be picked this lovely Sunday morning?

So, to sum up: on the one side we have an unctuous racist serpent telling us to abandon our birthright as complicated, multifaceted, multi-connected creatures, capable (at times) of extraordinary feats of empathy, and simplify ourselves to chimps flinging poo at one another over a "whites only" border sign (I should have mentioned that "race", to Taylor, appears to equate roughly to skin colour: don't be too hard on him, he's American), the punchline being that this proposed trashing of civilization is enjoined in the name of preserving civilization. On the other side, we have a sanctimonious professor telling us to be proud to belong to a species that is practically defined by its unwillingness to be proud of any such thing, and chiding us, not just for our poor choice of populist leaders, but apparently for the mere fact of wanting to belong to a country or have a leader at all. This high-minded disconnect is, to my mind, as tragicomical as Men's Rights advocates telling men to show gender solidarity with other men, oblivious of the fact that males can be practically defined as the intra-competitive sex, the one whose members are condemned by a cruel destiny to compete, duking it out amongst themselves for that ever more elusive female favour.

In sum, the choice here seems to be between "be worse than you are" and "be unrealistically better than you are". Scylla, meet Charybdis.

Is there a Third Way (TM)? Well, it would seem so, since neither the Taylors nor the Dawkinses seem to be overly happy with what we've got at the moment, and as readers of this blog (all 0 of you) will recall, I tend to be biased towards what we've got, on the basis that existence per se is no small recommendation in a world where most of the things we dream of have an exasperating tendency to refuse to exist, and also on the basis we're damn lucky to have anything at all. So I will simply observe that, where there may indeed be a little of the thoughtless racist and the jingoistic nationalist and the religious bigot in all of us, we seem to have contrived a society that manages to keep these regrettable tendencies in check with an unexpected degree of success (in the best of cases), and (on a good day) actually invites us to make the mental and spiritual effort to see past them in the direction of our common humanity - but that it seems we can only do that when our belonging instinct has been properly appeased, which means for the time being, we need territories and communities of one sort or another to belong to. Further, that those territories and communities need to have standards, and therefore, need to exclude people who don't belong, until they do.

To which a common retort is "well, you didn't do anything to deserve being a German/a Brit/an American, did you? You just happened to be born there (just as you happened to be born rich or poor, male or female). So what 'standards' can you possibly invoke?" Well, there's the thing. I didn't do anything to be born (consults notes) a teacher, I just sort of fell into it, but once there, I still had a choice: bring honour upon my unchosen profession, or bring disgrace upon it. That, at least, is something I can decide. And it's something any Brexiter or Trumpist can likewise decide, too. It's not what you're given, it's what you do with what you're given. Or so it seems to me, anyway. Which is why, if we're going to summon the effort to keep our team from sinking to the bottom of the League, we may yet need a little bit of pride to keep us going.


Sunday, March 24, 2019

Postmodern Pat

The other day, I stopped off at a local KFC and ordered chicken and fries. As I picked up my order and was about to head out to the car, the woman serving me glanced up and said, "Have a postmodernist day!"

No, that's not true. What she did say was: "I'm afraid we're all out of regular chicken, so you've got postmodern chicken instead." Or - on reflection - maybe that was "spicy chicken", but she said it with a postmodernist expression.

No, that's not true either. Actually, I didn't go to KFC at all. I was just trying to figure out how I might use "postmodern" or "postmodernist" in a sentence in a way that might convey something - anything really - to the reader. As you see, it's not easy.

I think many people have the same problem. The true meaning of "postmodernist", assuming there is one, is fenced in by a wall of impenetrable books, invariably in French, that few people dare to read and none seem any the wiser for having read. This has led some to one of the following conclusions: (1) it's a word we don't need; (2) it's some sort of conspiracy, perhaps involving Marxists. I think they're both wrong (pace Jordan Peterson). It's a word we might one day be grateful for, but it's one of those annoying variables that has to be reset, or redefined, every time we use it - like, say, "love", or "liberal", or the position of a toilet seat. So here's the definition I'll be using henceforth:

Postmodernism is the hangover you get after you've overindulged in modernism.

This would be fine if we could all agree about what modernism is or was. Unfortunately, it seems we can't do that either, at least when we are talking about modernism in the arts. So once again, I'll have to provide my own definition, for the purposes of what follows. This would be:

Modernism is the belief that by rejecting tradition and outdated social structures, and embracing rationality, we can bring about social progress.

Seen in this light, we can find instances of the Modernist outlook in the Utopian thinkers and movements of the nineteenth century (Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen et al), in pop-Marxism, in Nazism, in the eugenics movement, in some of the social-Darwinist ravings of HG Wells and GB Shaw, and of course in the Fabian Window. But why stop there? The belief in social progress, and in its rational underpinnings, coupled with contempt for mere "tradition", is a staple for the majority of thinkers of the contemporary left (the fact that some of them call themselves "progressives" is something of a giveaway). Modernism is very much alive and well in the present day - so much so that some will find it deeply mysterious how anyone could seriously disagree with the idea of social progress. For the benefit of any such, here's how:

If progress is to mean more than what is presumably referenced in the annoying cliché "going forward", i.e. "not going backwards in time", one assumes it's about getting better over time. This "better" clearly involves a value judgment. But value judgments, whether ethical or aesthetic, are subjective, and can only be made by individuals, not by groups or societies. We may be able to build some degree of consensus over our shared values - this is arguably a sine qua non if you want to have a society at all - but such consensus will only ever be partial, and minimal, and subject to permanent revision. For example, it seems likely that the majority Catholic population of the Iberian peninsula following the Reconquista saw the Edict of Expulsion and forced conversion of Muslims as "progress" towards a "better society", but most people today would not view the imposition of a religious monoculture by force as in any way progressive. Thus, a person who at the time opposed this policy would have been seen as regressive by his contemporaries, and would be seen as progressive today.

What I'm driving at is that a great deal of contemporary thought and political activism today seems to be imbued with Whig history - that is, with the seductive notion of a large-scale transhistorical progression towards greater and greater well-being for more and more people, and greater and greater convergence towards "enlightened" (good, "true") values among the world's population - a notion that I would argue is both fundamentally Modernist, and fundamentally mistaken.

It is wrong, and dangerous, for a number of reasons. First, it instills a false sense of security: if all history is a continuous crescendo of human advancement, then tomorrow will inevitably be better than today - and we don't need to worry about the national debt, or the credit bubble, or global warming, since the superior knowledge and competence of tomorrow's technocrats will solve whatever problems today's profligacy has caused, or worsened. Secondly, it encourages you to take a side wherever you find a diversity of conflicting interests, and to adopt an aggressively moralistic stance in support of that side. If, for example, you detect a tendency for "modern" societies to abandon religious belief, you may conclude that the abandonment of belief is "progressive", and its preservation "regressive", and will be tempted to write off religious believers as reactionary, as obstacles to progress, or even as morally defective (all the while blissfully unaware that your own belief in "progress" is as much a blind leap of faith as any of the religious dogmas you oppose). Thus, we tend to find among "progressives" a strict conformity of views with little tolerance for diversity, an aggressive policing of opinion and a tendency to exclude and ostracise dissenters, in spite of the fact that many self-styled progressives claim to favour a liberal, tolerant and inclusive society.

This smug belief that we can arrive at a good approximation to Utopia simply by plotting graphs across history and extending the lines rightward and upward (more affluence, more "equality", more "rights", more government regulation, more longevity, more automation, more globalisation, smaller families, etc. etc, Pinker has the list) tends to obscure and conceal both conflicts of interest (between individuals, between the individual and society, between groups within society, not to mention the environment) and the tradeoffs and complexities that necessarily underlie any sensible definition of human flourishing. It becomes hard to accept that as a species (or as a "nation"), we have advanced in some respects, but have comprehensively fucked up in others. Ignoring one or other side of a complex tradeoff is always so much easier.

Worst of all, Modernism tends to harbour a collectivist mentality. If we are concerned with the "progress", not of an individual, but of a "society" (species, race, nation, Volk, according to taste), the conceptual decoupling of the collective (the thing that "progresses") from the individual (the thing whose welfare is, presumably, the sole determinant of said "progress") leads us to hypostatize the collective and treat it as something with legitimate interests above and apart from those of the individuals comprising it - perhaps the most dangerous error that the human mind is capable of.

At which point, enter postmodernism.

I know this isn't the only reading of what postmodernism is, but to my mind, it's the best entry point. If PM is to be more than just an effete intellectual pose, a pretentiously opaque style of writing or an adaptive mutation of intellectually bankrupt Humanities departments, it must - surely? - trace part of its genesis to the fact that the Modernist ideal, as described above, in spite of its enduring appeal, demonstrably led, in the twentieth century, to some of the greatest horrors ever seen in human history, in the form of the various century-defining totalitarianisms (Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism and the rest). Today's leftist "progressives" like to think that they are as far removed as it is possible to be from the Petri dish of fascism; yet it is disturbing to find, on examination, the same intellectual pedigree (and, arguably, the same temperament) underlying both. You don't need to believe in horseshoe theory to notice the same smug dogmatism, the same fanatical devotion to a Greater Good, the same quasi-religious pursuit of an earthly Utopia, the same hatred of ideological enemies, in the staring eyes of the neofascist and the neomarxist. To which the postmodernist (by my understanding) says "fuck this" - or rather, to use one of the several canonical terms, "deconstruct this". "I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives," says Lyotard, where such metanarratives may be presumed to include the epistemic framework of conviction that is required for the fascist or Marxist to prioritise her important, "progressive" truth above the humanity of her intended victims. Postmodernism acknowledges that the various scientific and political and metaphysical discourses we encounter are constantly vying with one another for superiority ("hegemony") in some mental hierarchy - whether in the individual mind or the social "marketplace of ideas" - and rather than throwing its weight behind any one of them, attempts to lay bare the limitations, shortcomings and internal contradictions and hypocrisies of each, to "decentre" them, to separate the Emperor from the discursively constructed new clothes - and thus, hopefully, to render them less murderous than they might otherwise have been.

The trouble is - and this is where things get a bit confusing - this promise or potential to reveal the contingent, compromised nature of a particular discourse, and the illegitimacy of its claims upon our assent (or even our attention), dovetails rather neatly with the much earlier claim of orthodox Marxism, that dominant ideas and discourses within a society are nothing more than the cultural superstructure that rests upon and partly conceals the "economic base", the unequal relations of power and oppression that indirectly determine what we can and cannot say and how we can say it. Since the mechanisms of causality obtaining between this economic base and cultural superstructure were never fully explained by the bushy-bearded Master, it's hardly surprising that Marxists post 1968 should have been drawn to a body of work (Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, etc) that promised, in tandem with the Frankfurt School, to provide the tools to substantiate the whole "superstructure" theory - to show how what appears to be a persuasive logical argument, or a sound scientific construction, or an all-conquering consumerist ethos, is in fact merely the expression of an unequal power relationship, relying for its efficacy on our own fatal investiture in the system. Thus, the future leaders of the Revolution, by adopting the opaque terminology and stylistic idiosyncrasies of the French deconstructionists, are equipped both with an explanation for why the masses have so far failed to rally behind their cause (too much hyperreality, doncha know) and a means to demonstrate their fitness to lead (by demonstrating a Houdini-like ability to escape from even the heaviest logical and discursive chains and padlocks, armed, faute de mieux, with the rhetorical skeleton key of strategic Bulverism).

In short, a philosophical tendency that, in appearance, was born out of a healthy opposition to the sort of Grand Narratives that lead to genocide, was (in some quarters) opportunistically co-opted by purveyors of the sort of Grand Narratives that lead to genocide.

Which is why I find it convenient to characterise Postmodernism as a hangover. You need, after all, to be a very special type of person to experience reading a page of Derrida as anything other than a sudden, vicious, stabbing headache. But just as the hangover is a necessary transition to sobriety, so the Walpurgisnacht of nonsense that the postmodernists cavort in may be seen as a necessary purging of the intellectual hubris that led to the Final Solution, the Killing Fields or the Holodomor. Well, that's if you want it to.

It would appear that, for some, Derrida and Foucault are already old hat, and so is Postmodernism. That would be a shame if so, since the first readable postmodern document has yet to be written, and the label still languishes in want of a worthy referent. But until the philosophical prodigy appears who can inject some inspiring content into the bloated body, we're left with the ugly spectacle of Modernists of varying stripe - some Marxist, most just poorly educated instinctual "social justice" despots - squabbling around the carcass, and picking at to the terminology - the decentering, the deconstructing, the decolonising, the dewhatevering - to feed their illiberal agenda.


Friday, March 8, 2019

The end of everything

When you're not young, and have already forgotten most of what being young was about, there are still a few knotty recollections that serve to remind you that whatever being young was, it wasn't at all like being old. Sex is one of those things. When you're old, you can still keep a candle burning to sex if you want - and it seems somehow fitting to have some small shrine flickering away there, for nostalgia's sake if nothing else, and to dedicate the odd votive offering and yard of kleenex - but what shocks, and rankles, is the undeniable fact you used to be its slave. This is one of the surreal things about youth, that young people don't even see as odd because they're so used to it, and because the culture encourages them to see it as normal - this tyrannical power that sex, in whichever of its various manifestations, exercises over us. I won't go into this because I've talked enough about it elsewhere. But that's definitely one thing.

Another thing, which my reading last night brought back forcefully to me, is our non-acceptance of death. That is very much a young person's foible, it seems to me. I can still - with difficulty - remember the feeling of bottomless, inconsolable dismay I felt as a child on being apprised that I was not going to live forever. The only possible response the nine-year-old me could shore against this incredible piece of bad news was the wilful adoption of a fairy-story ending to my life, in which death would prove to be only apparent and would actually turn out to be a mere house-moving exercise, where I would eventually end up in some large, airy, cloudy place in a community of harp players kitted out in El Greco togs, smugly brandishing a down payment on eternity. I don't have very clear memories of this, but I suspect the same sense of doom, terror and desperation returned to haunt me at some point during my teens, when the power of the aforementioned fairy-story to command intellectual assent began to wane.

What I do remember much more clearly is that, by the time I was in my early twenties and reading Unamuno, I was already extremely unimpressed by his insistence that the death of the individual ego was such a tragic thing that to pretend to be resigned to it could only be the pose of a hypocrite or a liar. This conviction seemed to me, then as now, merely revelatory of Unamuno's own lack of emotional maturity. After all, most people, by the time they are in their twenties, have been through at least one of two formative experiences, viz. falling in love, and discovering empathy, both of which have the effect of curing you of any misconception that your ego is, in comparison with that of the (beloved or admired) Other, all that special. It's true, of course, that the simple knowledge that, in losing you, the world will not have actually lost anything particularly fine or unique, does not always work as consolation against the fierce, irrational instinct for personal survival, especially not to begin with - but in the absence of any alternative comfort, it at least goes some part of the way, and as you get older, and life finds ever newer and more ingenious ways to frustrate and disappoint you and take you apart and turn you into a sick parody of your youthful dreams, you come to regard the prospect of your own death pretty much in the light of a holiday, or a well-earned retirement: ultimately, you reflect, your existence was never other than an obvious mistake, an unfortunate accident, a bureaucratic cock-up, a needless duplication of an already existing set of resources. And that's pretty much where I am now, when it comes to my own death. If I'm honest, I'm rather looking forward to it. I love the idea of never having to head out to work again.

Hopefully, when the time comes, it will be quick and painless.

But is that all that life is or can be about - stumbling through the maze in the half-light, avoiding pain, shrinking from the thorns, until we find the blessed exit at the other side and sink back into our natural state of permanent non-existence?

Perhaps it is, looked at in a certain way: but the point I wanted to make here is that this way of looking at life isn't the one that comes most easily or naturally, even to me. That, at least, is what reading Catherine Ingram last night made me think.

"It is through cultural worldviews and through self-esteem that humans ward off the terror of death," she observes, referencing Ernst Becker. It is the "cultural worldview" part that makes sense to me here (self esteem never having been my forte, as readers of this blog will have noted). For me, this "cultural worldview" is a cognitive construction, which hoovers up all those experiences one has as an individual and to which one attaches value - experiences of creativity, say, of Jewish Aunts (q.v.), of sex, of epiphany in the Joycean sense, of love or intimacy if you're one of the lucky ones - and represents them to your consciousness as Universal Experiences. Thus, you assume that your particular experience of joy is simply an instantiation, within your own consciousness, of a broadly identical experience which is simultaneously occurring in the minds of millions of other people at any given time (or is at least permanently available to those minds). The fact that it is not unique to you means that your own personal death, and the consequent definitive loss of any further such instantiations within your own deleted identity, appear trivial: not because you do not attach value to those experiences in question, but rather, because you assume that their value is preserved and guaranteed by the persistence of the species. As long as there are people to live, to breathe, to feel, to enjoy life, every detail of the Universal Human Experience remains secure. Such a worldview is actually very practical, in that it provides you, the individual, with a ready-made mission: to ensure that anything of value you discover in your own experience is made available to others, whether in the form of an artistic product, or set of instructions, or whatever else may be called for, but ideally in some stable reproducible form. And that's what it's all about.

There is, of course, that niggling question which has often exercised me: are people feeling all this enough? Wouldn't it be awful if I was the only person able to derive this peculiar, unsavoury, morbid pleasure from this particular piece of trashy music, such that when I died, that particular variant of morbid pleasure became, in the overall human emotional fauna, an extinct species? Also: might I not be idealising the consciousness of others? Why is it sometimes so hard to chase away the pernicious fiction of a Collective Consciousness; and why, having done so, does it feel so necessary to posit present and future goddesses, gifted with unfeasible powers of sustained attention and depth of sympathetic insight? Am I not mythologizing "universal human experience" just a little? Am I counting on there being superior consciousnesses lying around that real humans seldom or never possess? Am I not (with the goddesses, with the imaginary aliens picking over our fossils in rapt fascination) secretly inviting God in by the back door?

But leaving all these questions aside, what is the proper way to face the imminent (according to Ms Ingram, and I believe her, having come to similar conclusions myself independently) extinction of the human species, and of most life on the planet beyond the hardiest bacteria? Sure, we can still, for now, argue about when. I will cling to the bad-faith, unfeasibly optimistic scenarios if they will let me imagine, for my son, an immediate future that isn't a nightmare of disease, discomfort and starvation in the midst of a terrifying, post-apocalyptic anarchy about to fall on us. What else can I do? other than try to leave as shamefaced inheritance a chemical quietus or a bare bodkin? But even hoping for a short stay of execution, enough to get people used to the idea of not bringing more kids into the world, it isn't sensible to suppose humanity can hold out for long against such a vast array of existential threats as we now face. And what is curious is how, as I face the extinction not only of myself, of my genes, but also of my species, I persist in looking for some justifying external consciousness, some onlooker or watcher of the skies, in whose calm, understanding gaze something can be one day revived, at whatever degree of remove. This is where Great Filter theory appears, to stamp out the embers of our last remaining hope. There will be no later, sympathetic discoverer of our species' abortive attempt to civilise itself. There can be no such entity, because it is an evolutionary impossibility. Anything that reaches a certain level of intelligence is destined to destroy itself soon after. Intelligent life is not something our universe is well suited to foster or preserve. It's a flash in the pan. It doesn't really belong.

I agree with Ms Ingram about how we can or should respond to our predicament - all the way to "What if we forgave everybody everything?". Obviously, there will be an admixture of self-deception and wilful blindness in whatever we choose to think or feel. It could scarcely be otherwise: we aren't designed to live without hope and without purpose. We're stuck with how we're built. At least, I am.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Top intellectuals "coming apart before our eyes"

"The idea of Europe is in peril."

Really? That surprises me. Evidence?

"From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause."

OK. If I understand you right, you are defending a Europe, or "an idea of Europe" in which "criticisms" and "insults" cannot be tolerated. Or - let's break down the process - in which initially mild "criticisms" are loftily ignored by a bureaucratic elite, to a point where frustration builds up and "insults" begin to be heard.  And then, when even these are ignored, or are responded to with further "insults", you affect to be surprised that "desertions" begin to take place. Is that it?

“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry."

Wait a moment. You said that the idea of Europe is in peril. Which idea, precisely, do you mean? I ask because the notion of Europe as a continent has been in circulation at least since Herodotus, and was well established in intellectual common currency by the Late Medieval. It is therefore hard to imagine that such a venerable and useful idea as "let's draw a line roughly down through the Caucasus crest and give the landmass to the West a special name in recognition of its shared history" is going to disappear simply, as you suggest, as a result of a sudden swathe of poor electoral choices.

Let's be clear then. What is in peril, according to you, is not "the" idea of Europe, but A PARTICULAR idea of Europe, one which you happen to approve of. If so, why not come out and say it? What's wrong with being honest?

“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry. Let’s reconnect instead with our “national soul”! Let’s rediscover our “lost identity”! This is the agenda shared by the populist forces washing over the continent. Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues."

If such abstractions only existed in the minds of a demagogues, it is hard to see what danger there could possibly be. If I stand on a soapbox and tell curious crowds that we must reconnect with our "national cohnbendit", it is unlikely that I will gain a large following among the majority who confessedly have no idea what a "cohnbendit" is or might be. Once again, try being honest. You know perfectly well that "soul" and "identity" are abstractions that exist in the minds, not only of the demagogues, but of the large numbers of people who form their natural or target constituency. While ill-defined, and thus vulnerable to manipulative resignification, the concepts are not meaningless. For example, ask a sample of Dutch citizens whether they regard the opera as part of their "national identity", then ask a sample of Italians, and compare the results. If "national identity" was a meaningless term, you would not get those results.

People have an idea of their country. Its name evokes images in their minds. Some of these have strong emotional associations. This should not be a problem (unless the images in question involve, say, pogroms or book-burnings, and the emotional connotations accruing thereto are positive, which I suspect is not the case outside of the diseased imaginations of a tiny number of psychotic extremists, if that).

And if such vague but benign notions of national identity are not a problem per se, nor appear to contradict the existence of an "idea of Europe", why do the demagogues (as you describe them) find it necessary to place "reconnecting with the national soul" in opposition to "building Europe", as you say they do? Might it not be because there is a particular "idea of Europe" - the one you defend here - that is perceived as a threat to this "national identity"?

Wrongly perceived, you will perhaps reply. Well, maybe so. If you want to make the case that there is no necessary opposition between your "idea of Europe" and, say, a Brit's "idea of Britain" or "national identity", that the two can coexist in perfect harmony, fine, I'll listen, and I might even end up agreeing with you if you make a good argument. But loftily and sneeringly dismissing "national identity" as a mere piddling "abstraction" is hardly a promising beginning to such an argument. After all, your "idea of Europe" is every bit as much an "abstraction" as the national identities you profess to despise... and, unfortunately for you, one that is far less widely shared, or stable, or evocative of strong feelings and loyalties.

"Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes."

The first sentence here, with its coy refusal to name names, its incendiary rhetoric and almost complete lack of falsifiability, strikes me as a textbook example of demagoguery (that thing you were railing against in the previous paragraph), but let's leave that aside. What we find here is, first, a frank admission that the UK (that mere "ally...across the Channel") is not and never was an integral part of your "idea of Europe"; and second, an extraordinary rewriting of history, whereby the sacrifice of 20 million Russians who also helped to "save [Europe] from suicide" merits not the barest mention.

Once again, let's be clear. The people who saved Europe from suicide in the last century are not to be found in the governments of any country today, nor are they represented by those governments. Those heroes have not "abandoned" anyone or anything. But if we think their sacrifice was important, we could do worse than remind ourselves what it is they thought they were fighting for. No, you tell me. You're the Top Intellectuals. Put that fragile ideal into words. I dare you.

This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May. Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known. They will give a victory to the wreckers. For those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius there will be only ignominious defeat. A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. Disaster will have befallen us.

Nobody sane wants explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. If we are serious about opposing these destructive forces, we need to look at what might be causing them. Here are a couple of summary analyses:

 (A) These unpleasant consequences derive from the unwillingness of the dull-witted, uneducated masses, prey to the blandishments of "demagogues" and "false prophets", to kowtow humbly to the "intelligence and culture" of their betters, specifically the powerful, unelected lunimaries of the EU's policymaking superstructure.

(B) These unpleasant consequences derive from a combination of global economic downturn (2008 onwards) and the rise of populist political forces taking electoral advantage of genuine, palpable failings in the political system in which they find themselves.

Personally, I find (B) not only more persuasive, but also more constructive as an analysis,. Rather than indulging in handwringing over the alleged stupidity of the masses (to which the only short-term solution would appear to be some sort of massive onslaught of propaganda and attempted brainwashing, along the lines of what you say the Kremlin is doing, but this time conducted by the "right" machiavellians), I prefer to think that there are specific political issues that need solving, and that the best way to find out what these are is to listen to the views of the electorate in the countries in question. Furthermore, I also find it highly significant that the rise of populist political tendencies has turned out to be not a local or national but a continent-wide phenomenon.  This would suggest that at least part of the problem that needs to be fixed is likewise continent-wide in scope. I don't want to be excessively reductionist or simplistic, and I'm not going to advance the absurd proposition that the EU is the source of all Europe's current ills; but it does at least seem, prima facie, to be more a part of the problem than anything else.

"We count ourselves among the European patriots (a group more numerous than is commonly thought, but that is often too quiet and too resigned), who understand what is at stake here. Three-quarters of a century after the defeat of fascism and 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall there is a new battle for civilisation."

I personally have never met a European patriot. That is, I have never met anyone who would be willing to march into battle to the strains of An die Freude. I can't say that I'm sorry. I'll take your word that this is not an empty set, but you haven't given me any reason to care what such an exotic coterie of people might think.

I agree that civilization is not a given, and has to be fought for. In fact, I think this proposition might command near-universal assent among the very deluded, unwashed masses you so pompously rail against. Perhaps the difference is what is understood by civilization, and what is considered a threat to it.

I have written endlessly on this elsewhere, but if you want a summary of what I think: civilization is a state of affairs likely to obtain in a society wherein certain basic freedoms are guaranteed and no one has too much power; current threats are varied, but include authoritarianism; the accumulation of power by unaccountable bodies remote from the citizens they purport to serve; dogmatism and illiberalism visible in a proliferation of petty regulations (corruptissima re publica plurimae leges); in some cases, frontal attacks on ancient freedoms; and increased social polarization derived from the aforementioned broken covenant between citizenry and government, in which the EU is complicit insofar as it has spent the last forty years undermining the accountability of national democracies to their voters, in part by providing them with the perfect alibi for poor decisions and fatalistic inaction.

Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited, which we believe to have been the one force powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past. We believe it remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages. What is at stake forbids us from giving up.

I find the word "virtuous" in the above sticks out like a sore thumb. So this is where we're at now? "My Europe is more virtuous than yours"? Likewise, "above themselves" is very, shall we say, Freudian. You just can't help it, can you, Top Intellectuals. Every word here drips with lofty, supercilious contempt for the common citizen.

I won't bother quoting the rest, although the peroration is interesting:

In this strange defeat of “Europe” that looms on the horizon; this new crisis of the European conscience that promises to tear down everything that made our societies great, honourable, and prosperous, there is a challenge greater than any since the 1930s: a challenge to liberal democracy and its values.

Yes - there is a challenge. No - the EU (your blinkered, elitist, romantic and authoritarian notion of "Europe", so elaborately disguised and tricked out here) has nothing to do with what made "our societies" great and honourable, or even prosperous (such prosperity as we saw in Europe prior to 2008 was the direct result of the single market, and not of the ECJ, the Commission, the EP or the Brussels Gravy Train). If the intention is to counter authoritarianism, xenophobia, antisemitism, religious interference in secular matters, neo-Nazism or islamofascism, we are all on the same side. If the aim, as it rather seems here, is to defend the corrupt institutions of a bloated and outdated centralised political federation whose long-term mission creep has, in the course of the Brexit negotiations, boiled over into blatant revanchism and the most sinister form of overreach, then I'm afraid that, if you want to get anyone on board your proposed new "surge", you're going to have to hold your Top Intellectual noses, come down from your ivory tower and actually engage with the European citizens you so openly despise: perhaps, even, by actually presenting, in place of the overblown High School rhetoric, some cogent arguments.

Or have today's "intellectuals" forgotten how to do that? I've often wondered this of late.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Row Jimmy




Older incarnations of this blog had songs pulled from YT as a regular feature (one day I might even get round to tagging them). Sometimes there'd be brief commentary, most times not. This morning I had the idea of using this space to annotate some more music, in the hope that my favourite elusive mythical beast, the Actual Blog Visitor, might discover something they liked. Seems a harmless enough activity for a Sunday night. Seems a common way to go, even.

"Row Jimmy" appeared on the Grateful Dead's Wake of the Flood album, which along with various other Dead albums, and a smattering of prog and Motown soul, provided much of the backing track to a goodly chunk of my unspent, bedroom-bound, lightly sozzled adolescence. Forty-odd years later, I still like both the song and the album.

At that time, the meaning and reference of the lyrics of Row Jimmy seemed fairly obvious to me, apart from the cryptic middle 8. Since then, courtesy the Internet, I've discovered that my naive teenage interpretation is endorsed by precisely no one else, and certainly not by the lyricist, Robert Hunter. However, there doesn't seem to be a canonical, coherent alternative, so I'm sticking to my fanciful "antebellum Mississippi" version. Here's a short extract from where I got it from:

“I see a light a-comin’ roun’ de p’int bymeby, so I wade’ in en shove’ a log ahead o’ me en swum more’n half way acrost de river, en got in ’mongst de drift-wood, en kep’ my head down low, en kinder swum agin de current tell de raff come along. Den I swum to de stern uv it en tuck a-holt. It clouded up en ’uz pooty dark for a little while. So I clumb up en laid down on de planks. De men ’uz all ’way yonder in de middle, whah de lantern wuz. De river wuz a-risin’, en dey wuz a good current; so I reck’n’d ’at by fo’ in de mawnin’ I’d be twenty-five mile down de river, en den I’d slip in jis b’fo’ daylight en swim asho’, en take to de woods on de Illinois side."

Attentive readers will recognise the accents of Jim, the escaping slave in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, describing the first stage of his bid for freedom. I'd read this book a few years before I came across the Dead, but still had it fresh in my mind, and it seemed to me plain enough that the Jimmy of the song title was this Jim, or someone very like him, and the "rowing" of the chorus was his method of escape (OK, so you don't "row" a raft. A mere quibble, if you'd asked me). The detail fell into place easily enough:

Julie catch a rabbit by his hair
Come back steppin' like to walk on air:
"Get back home where you belong
and don't you run off no more!"

I'm not sure there's a Julie in Huckleberry Finn, though there is a Judith. Maybe Miss Watson, Jim's "owner", was called Julie? At any rate, here she catches Jim, or another slave - the figurative "rabbit" - in an earlier escape bid, and tells him to get back home and not run off no more.

Don't hang your head let the two-time roll
Grass shack nailed to a pine wood floor
Ask the time - "Baby I don't know:
Come back later, gonna let it show"

I tended to vacillate between the speaker, here and passim, being Jim talking to himself, or being a sympathetic third party (someone like Huck, or Tom): it didn't seem to matter much. "Don't hang your head" : try not to look guilty while you're planning your next escape bid. "Let the two-time roll": practise dissembling. "Grass shack": Jim's current accommodation. He needs to know the time as part of his carefully devised plan: his interlocutor doesn't know, but promises to give him a signal when the moment is right to head down the river bank.

And I say row, Jimmy row
Gonna get there? I don't know
Seems a common way to go
Get down and row, row, row, row, row

Self explanatory. "There", presumably the North, and freedom.

Here's a half a dollar if you dare
double twist when you hit the air
Look at Julie down below
the levee doin' the do-pas-o

A benefactor has given Jim money to help him in his escape attempt. He has to swim out (as in the book), and perform an evasive manoeuvre in the water ("double twist") when he comes up for air, in case anyone tries to shoot him. Before he can make it to the river, he finds himself peering from a wood above the riverbank, looking down on the townspeople, including Julie, crowded around the levee, almost as if there was a country dance (do paso) going on there (I think do paso is a contraction of dos pasos, which would be a two-step, though in archaic Spanish it might also mean "where did he go")

repeat chorus

Broken heart don't feel so bad
Ain't got half of what you thought you had

I have always loved Hunter for these lines. Regardless of what you make of the rest of the song, they are perfect. A subject for another post, perhaps, but yes: one day you realise you never had the friends you thought you did, and a whole other emotional weather system (loneliness, a broken heart) installs itself in your soul, and you then realise that, well, it's something you can, despite earlier fears, adjust to well enough.

Rock your baby to and fro
Not too fast and not too slow

(? A far fetched interpretation would have the "baby" as a raft or canoe or similar conveyance, but I never really bothered to think these lines through. They just feel right.)

repeat chorus

That's the way it's been in town
ever since they tore the juke-box down
Two-bit piece don't buy no more
not so much as it done before

OK, this part always floored me, though if you pushed me I'd say the sort of people who tear down jukeboxes are just exactly the same sort of people who would have had slaves and hunted them when they ran away, and that we are all of us (slaves or not) the worse for their interventions ("two-bit piece don't buy no more"). Empathetic identification with the downtrodden? Good enough, or not, you decide.

repeat chorus, end

The music. The beginning of the song always sounds unexpectedly slow and dragging, and the rhythm throughout seems calculated to evoke slowness, stoicism and dogged determination, with extra bars of repeated cadences thrown in here and there to emphasize slowness and difficulty. The harmonies are simple and appear to want to evoke a rustic, backwater, country feel. The ethereal backing vocals on the chorus suggest isolation and a nocturnal ambience. Garcia's vocals, sad and elegiac. Ghostly feeling in the outro, as if the camera ends on a wide shot of the river just before dawn. A simple song, but nothing missing, a nuanced instrumental accompaniment that never merely repeats anything, and as much emotional depth as you want to put into it.


Three words

I've blogged elsewhere on semantic degeneration (to adopt the Bloomfield typology ). It's a depressing fact of life: just as the qua...