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.

“Something terrifying and majestic at the same time” – From “Broken April’, Ismail Kadare

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Without the knocking at the door, everything would be so different that at times he was afraid to think of it, and he consoled himself with the notion that perhaps it had to happen this way, and that if life outside the whirlpool of blood might perhaps be more peaceful, by the same token it would be even more dull and meaningless. He tried to call to mind families that were not involved in the blood feud, and he found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that, sheltered from danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that. Whereas clans that were in the blood feud lived in a different order of days and seasons, accompanied as it were by an inner tremor; the people were more handsome, and the young men were in favour with the women. Even the two nuns who had first passed, when they had seen the black ribbon sewn to his sleeve that meant he was searching for his death or that his death was searching for him, and looked at him strangely. But that was not the important things; what was happening within him was the important thing. Something terrifying and majestic at the same time. He could not have explained it. He felt that his heart had leaped from this chest, and, opened up in that way, he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large, a butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow, or the depression rain falling on that very day. But all that – and the sky itself might fall down upon him – his heart endured, and could endure even more.

Some extracts from “The Woman Who Waited”, Andrei Makine

‘She is a woman palpably meant for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being) and yet so casually, it seems, she has chosen solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to love …’

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But one their secret has been decided, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorising. It all becomes comprehensible, reassuring. Now the routine of a relationship, or indifference, can take over. The other one’s mystery has been tamed. Their body reduced to a flesh and blood mechanism, desirable or otherwise. Their heart to a set of predictable responses.

At this stage, in fact, a kind of murder occurs, for we kill this being of infinite and inexhaustible potential that we have encountered. We would rather deal with a verbal construct than a living person….

 

 

It must have been during those September days, in a village among forests stretching all the way to the White Sea, that I noted down observations of this type: ‘a being of inexhaustible potential’, ‘murder’, ‘a woman stripped naked by words …’ At the time (I was twenty-six) such conclusions struck me as vastly perceptive. I took enjoyable pride in having gained insight into the secret life of a woman old enough to be my mother, in having summed up her destiny in a few well-turned phrases. I thought about her smile, the wave she greeted me with when catching sight of me in the distance on the lake shore, the love she could have given so many men but gave no one. ‘A woman palpably meant for happiness …’ Yes, I was pretty please with my analysis. I even recalled a nineteenth-century critic referring to a ‘dialectic of the soul’ toe describe the art with which writers probe the contradictions of the human psyche: ‘… A woman made for happiness, but …’

That September evening I closed my notebook, glanced at the handful of cold, mottled cranberries Vera had deposited on the table in my absence. Outside the window, above the dark treetops of the forest, the sky still had a milky pallor suggestive of the somnolent presence, a few hours’ walk away, of the White Sea, where winter already loomed. Vera’s house was located at the start of a track that led to the coast by ways of thickets and hills. Reflecting on this woman’s isolation, her tranquility, her body (very physically I imagined a tapered sheet of soft warmth surrounding that female body beneath the covers on a clear night of hoar-frost), I suddenly grasped that no ‘dialectic of the soul’ was capable of telling the secret of this life. A life all too plain and woefully simply beside the intellectual analysis.

The life of a woman waiting for the one she loved. No other mystery.

 

William Gerhardie – review of “God’s Fifth Column”, The Dabbler, 2015

Another William Gerhardie piece, this time ten years on from the SAU blog one and covering much of the same ground about his odd kind of fame. The Dabbler had a feature called the 1p book review, on books that, in theory at least, cost only 1p via Amazon marketplace. I also had encountered Gerhardie again in the memoir of Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec, financial manager of the Rolling Stones.

 

1p Book Review: God’s Fifth Column by William Gerhardie


Seamus Sweeney reads God’s Fifth Column: A Biography of the Age 1890-1940 – an unusual work by an author who at one time looked like becoming one of the greats…

William Gerhardie has achieved an odd kind of fame; famous for not being famous.

He is a writer whose champions specifically focus on his obscurity, or rather the obscurity of his later life. Gerhardie was well-known in his early career, and the same few quotes that recur in his blurbs give testament to his appeal to his contemporaries. Evelyn Waugh said of him, “I have talent, but he has genius”, and for Graham Greene “to those of my generation he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life. We were proud of his early and immediate success, like men who have spotted the right horse.”

Born in St Petersburg, Gerhardie was an English merchant of great wealth who was thrown into a sack in the 1905 Revolution. According to his son, he was only spared by being confused by the mob with Keir Hardie (this does have the air of a somewhat convenient anecdote). A Russian education for William was followed by being packed off to England to prepare for a commercial career of some kind; he ended up returning to the land of his birth as part of the failed Allied intervention after the 1917 Revolution.

As well as the acclaim of Greene, Waugh, Katharine Mansfield and Edith Wharton, Gerhardie also achieved a fair measure of worldly success, being taken up by Lord Beaverbrook as a potential protégé on the strength of The Polyglots. Beaverbrook’s attempts to turn him into a bestseller failed, and a lengthy decline into obscurity began. In 1931, aged 36, he published an autobiography, and moved into Rossetti House in London, behind Broadcasting House. He would remain there until his death in 1977, “a hermit in the West End of London” in the words of Holroyd and Robert Skidelsky’s introduction to God’s Fifth Column.

Every so often, Gerhardie achieves some revival  degree of revivial. I myself tried to stoke the embers in 2006. William Boyd, a longtime admirer partly based Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart on Gerhardie. Michael Holroyd seems the most devout keeper of the flame.

 There was another flurry of interest when his biographer, Dido Davies, died in 2013. Davies was a former heroin addict and author of sex manuals who had her funeral written up in Mary Beard’s blog.

 Of his novels, Futility, Doom and The Polyglots are widely available. Futility is the most amenable to (my) contemporary taste,  while Doom and The Polyglots are much shaggier stories but with much to recommend them. The latter,  with its vain narrator, is notable for a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of children free of sentimentality or faux-toughness. The former features a fictionalised Beaverbrook and a piecemeal apocalypse.

 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.’

 After his death, within various cardboard boxes labelled “DO NOT CRUSH”, was found the manuscript posthumously published as God’s Fifth Column. He had been working on this from 1939, and it made it into the Metheun catalogue of upcoming publications for Autumn 1942, but was then withdrawn (the relevant correspondence disappeared during the War; Gerhardie claimed he had withdrawn it at his own request for revision).

The “god’s fifth column” of the title is the comic spirit, subverting humanity’s well-intentioned, seemingly rational plans. Gerhardie defines it thus:

God’s Fifth Column is that destroying agent – more often the unconscious agent, sometimes malevolent or maladroit in intention – of spirit within the gate of matter. Its purpose is to sabotage such structures and formations of human society, built as it were of individual human bricks, as have proved to be unserviceable for association into larger groups of suffering units because insufficiently baked by suffering to cement with their immediate neighbours.

Later, he writes “Comedy is God’s Fifth Column sabotaging the earnest in the cause of the serious.”

Despising overarching explanations of history, and keen to defend the individual against all the collectives, from family to state, that seek to the control the “suffering unit” that is the individual person, Gerhadie’s history is a series of tableaux, of scenes in which the same figures -Tolstoy, Shaw, Margot Asquith, Arthur Balfour, various royals of various  nations – recur.

Holroyd and Skidelsky edited out a quarter of the text which was unready for publication; the bulk of the text  relates to the 1890-1919 period, with the next twenty years much more briefly dealt with.  Gerhardie’s judgments are direct, his authorial voice magisterially certain of his subjects. A sample:

Bernard Shaw sent the greater writer of the Russian soil [Tolstoy] his The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet, which drew a blank from Tolstoy, who answered that he ‘looked forward to reading it with interest’. Which, in author’s vocabulary, may be taken to mean he had already dipped into the thing without much interest and elected to write before he had to confess disappointment. In his accompanying letter Shaw stressed that virtue was ineffective because habitually cloaked in pious language, and would gain by the prestige of blunt, full-blooded, pithy speech, in which vice masquerades attractively before an admiring adolescent world.

 This suggestion also seems to have drawn a blank. Virtue knocked dumb by meekness drew tears from Tolstoy’s old eyes, and he could not see it swaggering in jackboots.

 But the letter is key to Shaw. He is a swaggerer, and he knows it and enjoys it. A man of trepidation in most things, he takes a double step. Metaphorically, even physically, as he strides up like a conquerer before the cine-camera. He adds an incongruous flourish of defiance to his old-maid’s signature: uses belligerent barrack room terms to convey Salvation Army sentiments.

This extract is fairly representative. God’s Fifth Column is full of entertaining anecdote, and Gerhardie has extracted from a host of memoirs of the age a host of arresting observations and unexpected encounters. His style, lapidary in Futility, tends to the verbose (not to mention tendentious) here, and ironically given his disdain for the great abstractions that press on the “suffering unit”, much of the narration is taken up with abstraction.

Read at length, the style becomes slightly grating; however as a book to dip and out of, it works very well.

 

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“a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement.”

From the April 21 TLS, a review by Cynthia Haven of Andrezj Franaszek’s Czeslaw Miłosz biography and Miłosz’s own previously unpublished science fiction novel “The Mountains of Parnassus”:

At one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951 Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine year old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura , an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded French embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

Miłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth.” For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacked from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and ever other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and  two sons again for more than two years.

Haven’s summary of “The Mountains of Parnassus” is also worth quoting:

Cardinal Vallberg in the novel describes his contemporaries, our descendants, whose “imagination had been incapacitated and could no longer hold a Heaven, a Purgatory, or a Hell”. This “second space” would haunt Miłosz’s last poems. What is left after its loss is a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement. As one character explains, “time both terrified and offended us, and thus it had to be destroyed and replaced with intensity of experience in every living moment, so that a great deal could happen before the hands of the clock revealed the passing of even a single minute.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, does it not? This is expanded on by Emma Schneider in her review at Full Stop:

The philosophical strength of The Mountains of Parnassus amplifies as it moves from one story to the next, concluding in an appendix that depicts the dissolution of religion and art and the reformation of ritual. Milosz lingers in this final section; he muses over humanity’s increasing inability to believe in the divine — not for a lack of desire to believe, but for a lack of imagination. Milosz describes the multitudes of artists that proliferate in the postmodern age who print their “100,000 almost identical poems” every day and create a din “like an enormous hall filled with endless rows of pianos. Everybody was playing his own instrument, straining to drown out the others” and unable to hear more than a neighbor, even were he to pause his fingers and try to listen (124). The future Milosz presents is marked by hurried, empty excess. Meaning is ever harder to believe in.

And yet, there remains hope throughout his writing in the option of slowing down and returning to earth, as the Astronaut chooses to do. This choice is one that accepts death as one of the bounds that gives life significance and shape. In his introduction to the text, Milosz accepts the partiality and imperfection of his own production and hopes that “the reader’s imagination will receive no shortage of small stimuli, but also an expansive area in which it can freely glide — which perhaps is better than having everything spelled out and constrained by the twists and turns of the characters’ stories” (11). Indeed, it is a text that presents just enough information to raise questions about this speculative world but answers none of them. Although this sparseness induces confusion, even detachment on first reading the novel, it, like a poem, opens holes to consider upon meandering back through its prose.

The main sections’ hazy tone coupled with minimal world-building threaten to drown the reader in lassitude, but the introductory remarks convey Milosz as playful and personable, a compatriot who derides the “diabolical boredom emanating” from many contemporaries novels ‘tormented by structuralist theories,” which “seems hostile to the very vocation of narrative (6). Although written for its initial (unsuccessful) trip to the publisher in 1972, the introduction’s commentary on the state of the novel remains strikingly accurate. Indeed, perhaps the entire novel proves better suited to the current moment than to the one it was born out of 45 years ago. As life moves ever faster and mysteries are persistently revealed, Milosz’s unusual song amidst the roar of the pianos creates a necessary excuse to pause.

Hannah LeGrand (and Dante) on sloth, thoughtlessness, intellect and reason 

At Comment Magazine, an essay by Hannah LeGrand on “thoughtlessness, sloth, and the call to think.”

It is well worth reading and reflecting on. LeGrand begins with Hannah Arendt’s famous account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is best remembered for Arendt’s observation on the “banality of evil”, and LeGrand takes this for a starting point:

The story that the world anticipated hearing from the trial, and indeed, the story Arendt herself expected to find, was the story of a villain, the final act in a grand and horrifying life of evil. However, presented with Eichmann in the flesh, Arendt found no trace of such a narrative. Eichmann was not Iago. His testimony had none of the drama or torment of Macbeth. He had no grand evil motives. Indeed, he seemed to have no real motives at all. He insisted that he had just followed orders. He was striking exactly because of his thoughtlessness.

Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is the most famous text to emerge from this trial, but LeGrand’s essay then follows another of her works: 1971’s The Life of the Mind:

There is something in the act of thinking itself, she argues, regardless of content and conclusions, that constrains evildoing and plays a key role in our ability to make moral judgments. And she ponders a worrisome possibility: What if, in an age of so much stunning advancement, we have somehow forgotten what thinking really means? In seeking to recover the meaning of thinking, Arendt sounds less like a German philosopher and more like a desert father. Her insight into the habit of thinking and why it must be incorporated into a society so prone to thoughtlessness is as contemporary as ever.

This leads to the core of the essay:

For Kant, reason and intellect are two distinct aspects of our mental life. The intellect, on the one hand, is driven by our need to know and, accordingly, is properly concerned with those things that can be known—sturdy and graspable truth. It is our intellect that drives our science and makes our technology possible.

Arendt worries that in the modern age, while we have been wildly successful in the use of our intellects and our knowledge about the world has grown more rapidly than ever before, the work of reason has been dangerously neglected. For reason, on the other hand, is never fully satisfied in the realm of what can be grasped. While our intellect drives our need to know, reason equips us with an “urgent desire to think,” an inclination to cast our minds far beyond the capacity of our intellect, to push farther and deeper.

While it is tempting to think that such a grand gesture should produce even grander results, we shouldn’t mistake this activity of thinking for an elevated science. Nothing can be built on what cannot be grasped, and when I have finished thinking I have nothing tangible to show for all my mind’s wanderings. For Arendt, the activity of thinking is more like a conversation with a friend than mapping the human genome. If our intellect is building a house, then thinking is cleaning the kitchen. It is daily work. As Arendt writes, “The need to think can never be stilled by allegedly definite insights of ‘wise men’; it can be satisfied only through thinking and the thoughts I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I want and am able to think them anew.”

Once we begin to understand this distinction between the intellect’s knowing and reason’s thinking, then we can also begin to see that the thoughtlessness which concerns Arendt is not mere ignorance. For Arendt, it was not that Eichmann did not know what he was doing. It was that he did not think about what he was doing. The thoughtlessness that allows evil to flourish cannot be dispelled with new facts or better information, and the society that has forgotten how to think needs to do more than inform its citizens. Instead, like stretching unused muscles, it must relearn the daily habits of thinking. Like rekindling old friendships, it must nurture thoughtfulness as a disposition toward the world.

This distinction between the knowing that is acquiring new facts and new information,  and the use of reason, is worth reflecting on. One can sometimes marvel that any first year physics undergraduate “knows more” than Newton (and is unlikely to be into alchemy) or indeed a Psychology 101 student “knows more” than Freud (and is unlikely to be into the dodgier bits of Freudianism). Of course, they have more information, and this information is verified more extensively.

This discussion of Arendt leads into one of Aquinas, via a consideration of sloth, which is far more than mere laziness:

 

 

However, as Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung points out in her book Glittering Vices, the vice of sloth is really more than mere resistance to work or exertion. First articulated in the monastic tradition, sloth originally refers to the weariness solitary desert monks would feel with their commitment to the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, the spiritual life. Sloth, as fourth-century monk Evagrius of Pontus writes, is the “noonday demon,” which seizes the monks, making them despair in their calling and long for their old lives in the city. One aspect of this despair was often an apathy toward monastic duties, and so it is not hard to see the fruits of this vice reflected in our modern understanding of sloth as rather harmless opposition to a strong work ethic. However, the roots of this noonday demon were much more serious.

Aquinas opposes sloth not to work but to charity, which, as Aquinas writes in his Summa theologiae, is “a kind of friendship of man for God,” which aims for “the fellowship of everlasting happiness.” Sloth, for Aquinas, is not primarily a sorrowing in our work, but a sorrowing over our friendship with God.

The vice of sloth when understood in this way is at once something serious and baffling, for it picks out a human aversion to the spiritual good in us. It names, as DeYoung writes in her essay “Acedia’s Resistance to the Demands of Love,” “the overwhelming urge to stay with the comfortable and the known rather than risk change, even if it promises improvement.” Sloth is not simply becoming weary of doing good works. Rather, sloth is remaining complacent in the present and the status quo. It is preferring to accept a lackluster life rather than responding to the demands of a relationship with God.

It is interesting, as a sort of accompaniment to this essay, to consider Dante’s treatment of Sloth in Canto 18 of the Purgatorio. The Columbia University “Digital Dante” commentary linked to above focuses on the poetics of this canto which discussion of Love, and particularly distinctions between Dante’s previous stance that Love is a force that cannot be opposed – and can become attached to unworthy or actively harmful objects of affection – to a more mature one with a subtle role for Free Will. 


The slothful purge their sin by the opposite of what they indulged in in life – unrelenting speed. The commentary suggests that the compressed treatment of Sloth – the whole terrace within Purgatory being disposed of in half a canto – is a structural reflection of the purgation of sloth. In the commentary, one gets the sense that the depiction of slothful is very much secondary to the opening discussion of Love. However, reading LeGrand, especially her sections on Aquinas, I wonder if the slothful are more central to the discussion of Love than the commentary might suggest.

“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.