You can’t look after others if you are dead: Blogging the Octonauts – Manatees, S2, E19.

Having three children under 10, a reasonable proportion of my time is spent watching children’s programmes. While I have of late been damning the notion that there is such thing as a digital native, no one can doubt that we live in a far more media saturated world than the one we grew up in. Whether this actually has far reaching cognitive impacts is another thing, but it is a challenge as a parent to find the balance in a world where children could theoretically watch a programme literally all the time. This is even more so the case in world where the moral posturing and virtue signalling around children’s culture (a rather clumsy formulation, but there you go) is stronger than ever

Anyhow, one of my very favourite programmes is the OctonautsSlightly magna-ified sea creatures posse who embark on Jacques Cousteau-ish adventures, this show – based on Meomi’s book series (though somewhat more grounded in realistic marine biology)

The shows are warm, engaging, and often rather witty. It feels a little churlish to begin a series of occasional blog posts with a mild criticism, especially in an otherwise delightful episode… but here we go.

The Octonauts and the Manatees” involves the Octonauts moving a group of manatees away from a lightning storm. In this episode, the manatees themselves are engagingly detailed, laid-back surfer-dude type vegetarians. Gentle tiki tiki music plays as their theme. Indeed, they are one of my favourite among the creatures the Octonauts help (and in real life too – and I am sad to report just discovering that Snooty the world’s oldest manatee died only a couple of weeks ago.

Back to the Octonauts, what’s not to love? Well, there is one thing… probably the only quibble I have with the whole Octonaut canon (except possibly a mild tendency to product placement)

In this episode, Captain Barnacles’ GUP is struck by lightning. This is what leads to him meeting the manatees in the first place, and therefore his rescue. However, Barnacles has to abandon his GUP and finds his paw stuck in a giant claw. He cannot move at all. Yet he does not ask his fellow Octonauts for help – despite multiple occasions to do so, and ultimately runs perilously short of air. I won’t ruin anything else (well, this is a children’s programme) but Barnacles is show subjugating his own life or death situation to the need to have the manatees looked after.

The Octonauts spirit of helping all creatures great and small is admirable (although the moral dilemma of how one helps prey evade predator, and in the next episode predator out of their snafu, is not fully grappled with) In this episode, however, I was a bit disturbed by how far Barnacles takes the principle of not asking for help while the manatees need help. It is a well established principle that if you take care of others, you need to take of yourself. In life support courses from simple CPR ones to Basic Life Support to Advanced Cardiac Life Support it is emphasised to check one’s own safety first. This is for a good reason; dead, you can’t help anyone much.

Octonauts is a wonderful show and I hope to blog more (and in a more openly enthuiastic vein) about some of the episodes in future – but this rather reckless self-denial is something I wish were a little different.

Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

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“A culture is no better than its woods” – W H Auden, “Bucolics”

From Auden’s sequence “Bucolics”, part II, “Woods“, dedicated to Nicholas Nabokov

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Soviet Timelessness – from “Le Testament Francais”, Andrei Makhine.

From the novel also known as Dreams of My Russian Summers:

I almost leaped up from  my stool beside the television. For I understood so perfectly Charlotte’s reasons for being fond of her little provincial town. It would have been easy to explain her choice to the adults gathered in our kitchen. I should have talked of the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past.  I should have spoken of the dusty streets that led nowhere, as they emerged, all of them, into the same endless plain. Of the town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses’ had banished all notions of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks

“become adept at letting things go” First Known When Lost: Milosz, Derek Mahon and Taigi on the passing time

From here at the wonderful blog First Known When Lost. As well as bringing to our attention much outstanding poetry that has the great merit of being unfashionable or forgotten, Stephen Pentz is a consistent source of a kind of reflective wisdom very much contrary to the spirit of our busy, proudly restless age. One may not agree with everything he writes to find him an refreshingly countercultural presence online.

 

Do we grow wiser with age? Well, let’s not get too carried away. Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this: I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one’s ignorance is a good thing. It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair. It relieves us of the great weight of trying to “figure things out,” of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed. It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start: loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go. As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits. If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost. Something along these lines is required:

Learning

To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go. There’s no stopping them.

Dream Days

‘When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.’

For the days are long —
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity. But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long — “an eternity.” (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?) The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

Calm days,
The swift years
Forgotten.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.