High Fidelity

Whilst reading Victor Hugo’s highly acclaimed 1862 novel Les Miserables, it occurred to me that it was not very much like the film version I had seen starring Russel Crowe, Ann Hathaway and Hugh Jackman. There was much about the film that I found quite confusing, and in so far as it was trying to tell me a story, I was not able to follow the story through the film. Much of what the characters did seemed divorced from anything that had gone before and appeared to have no influence on anything that followed.

There was, for example, an official-type person called Javert who for some reason had taken it upon himself to follow the Hugh Jackman character around the country to wreak revenge upon him. But the film seemed to assume that the viewer already knew why this was happening and made no attempt to clarify this for people who, like me, were new to the story. This had the effect that Javert came across as a mean spirited bully who was using his official status and position for personal motives and Jean Valjean was not going to be allowed to forget that he was an ex-convict.

Reading the book gives a completely different interpretation of these two men, gives a much better account of the friction between them and explains their motives and actions in a much more rounded and plausible way. Part of this is because a novel can take its time to provide deep background information that puts other events into meaningful context. In Les Miserables, the novel, we therefore get forty pages on the Battle of Waterloo specifically so that a dying man can meet a camp-follower stripping valuables from the countless dead of the battle. This is an important scene in the novel and motivates the actions of a central character almost to the end of the story, but neither the battle nor any of the three characters involved in this plot development so much as appears in the film version of the story.

It should not come as any great surprise that a film is not the same as a book but I think it worth spending a minute to think about why they are not the same, and why it is that some films seem to be exactly like the book while other films seem to bear very little similarity to the book upon which they claim to be based.

I should perhaps clarify that when I say book I almost always mean novel. There are films based on non-fiction books; Unbroken (2014) based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography of Louis Zamperini being a notable recent example, but films do tend to be based on novels, which are works of fiction. It becomes useful, therefore, to think about what fiction is so that we can in turn see what a novel is and why it is that despite story telling being something humans have done since they invented fire in order to sit round the fire and tell stories to each other, the novel did not appear until the fourteenth century. The late appearance of the novel suggests that a novel is not simply a way of telling a story, it must be doing something else too.

Chaucer told stories. He told a whole bunch of stories that he wove together into a frame story of a group of people walking from London to Canterbury and back. As they walked they told stories to pass the time and we read this hugely popular work today under the title, Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s stories were told for amusement, merely because they were fine stories to tell, and crucially, he told them in verse. Chaucer wrote poetry and translations of them into a more comprehensible form of English for the benefit of modern readers vary in their adherence to these poetic roots but they are still great stories, an impressive work of fiction, but not a novel.

After the poetry of Chaucer we encounter the medieval Romance, those stories of brave knights who went off on epic adventures and fought in single combat to win the love of their lady. Chaucer’s characters had a purpose, they were going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and these knights have a purpose too. They want to win the love of their lady, but for these guys love is not, despite the name of the genre, romantic love, but a special form of an idealised esteem. In these stories the knights are all doing the same thing for the same reason with the same ultimate objective so there is no need to explain why they are doing these things. A knight is a man who does these things, they are knights and therefore they do these things. They are not individuals with personality and character, they are just knights doing whatever it is knights do.

The difference between a story like those told by Chaucer or a knight’s romance and a novel such as Pride and Prejudice (1811), is that the novel provides the reader with an insight into the inner life of its characters. Chaucer tells us what a man wore and how he earned his living and the things that he did but Jane Austen tells us why her characters did these things, what they hoped to get out of their actions and how their hopes and fears affected what they did and how they responded to their interactions with the other characters.

A novel, then, is a story with this extra layer of insight woven into it. A layer of insight into the inner life of multiple characters that it is extremely difficult to represent within the time frame imposed by the medium of film. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is twelve hundred pages and took me almost two weeks to read. A film lasting three hours is considered exceptionally long and half that time is more usual. Within that time frame the things that happen get preference over how characters feel about those events so that film viewers are far more likely to see the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre as a grim portrayal of violent death than they are to see a depiction of the logical reasoning behind the prohibition on sales of liquor that was the underlying cause of the massacre.

For this reason, much of what makes a novel into a novel is absent from film and is in any event almost impossible to depict in a visual medium. In Goodfellas (1990) we see Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) walk across the street to the cab stand where he gradually becomes a gang member and we have his voice over telling us how he felt about that and why he crossed the street in the first place. But this technique, the voice over, is just about the only way that a film can depict the inner life of a character in real time.

Take, for example, Dances With Wolves (1990) based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Michael Blake. The film is an extremely accurate depiction of the novel, it is not just a film based on the novel it is the novel brought to the screen. Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) reads to us in voice over notes taken from his diary, a book that also appears in the film and at one point is seen being torn up for toilet paper and then floating down a river. Or maybe, Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), a Scott Hicks film based on the 1994 novel of the same name by David Guterson. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a newspaper reporter recounting the story of his transgressive relationship with a Japanese American girl and how this affects their lives and his reporting of a later trial. The reporter gives us voice over to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of how two cultures collide in a small town. Or maybe Cold Mountain (2003), an Anthony Minghella film set during the American Civil War and based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. In this film both Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and W. P. Inman (Jude Law) provide voice over at different times to give us their perspective on the journeys they are taking towards each other.

Which makes it interesting to think about those films that are based upon novels but where such techniques are not necessary. Can you think of a film based on a novel, that is an accurate depiction of that novel, but that does not require this technique to achieve the desired effect? I guess your answer would depend to some extent on how you define the term, “accurate depiction of the novel,” and how much of the novel can be excluded whilst remaining true to its source.

Also of relevance would be the extent to which you think a film should aspire to being an accurate depiction of its source material. My own view is that a film need not aspire to this but can have its own aims and ambitions so that it stands alone as a work of art in its own right rather than merely reflecting the story being told in the novel. Those crucial words in the credits, “based upon the novel by…” can mean exactly what they say, based upon the novel, but high fidelity to it is not, in my opinion, necessarily required.

An excellent recent example would be the Todd Haynes film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (1951). It is a visually stunning film in which the viewer is never in any doubt about what the two central characters are thinking without any annoying voice over, and other than a minor change of career for the younger woman it is uncommonly true to its source. Whether this is due to the quality of Highsmith’s original material, Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay or Todd Haynes direction would be difficult to pinpoint but it is a remarkable achievement by everyone concerned.

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We Need to Talk About Sex

Words have meanings. This is how we communicate with each other. The words I use have specific meanings and I use the words that communicate the ideas I am trying to talk about. When I say apple you know what an apple is and you might picture an apple or remember eating an apple and the word conveys to you the idea of the appleness of an apple. When you ask me to buy you some apples I come back home with a bag full of stuff and in due course we have an apple pie on the kitchen table which is what you wanted when you asked for apples. Words have meanings.

Unfortunately, language also evolves. This means that the meanings of words change over time. Take the word gambrel, for example. It derives from the French word gamberel which comes from gambier meaning a forked stick. Its original use was in the forestry trades where sheep hurdles, shepherds crooks, and walking sticks are made but over time it came to be applied to other things bent in the same way and in due course became the name for a joint in the upper hind leg of a horse. It then travelled to the United States where it was applied to roofs with two different slopes. At the bottom the roof has a steep slope and then the roofline bends like the stick and the slope becomes more shallow. Such a roof is referred to as a gambrel roof and the term can be found quite liberally sprinkled through the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

Then he went back to Arkham, the terrible witch-haunted old town of his forefathers in New England, and had experiences in the dark, amidst the hoary willows and tottering gambrel roofs, which made him seal for ever certain pages in the diary of a wild-minded ancestor.” The Silver Key (1929), H. P. Lovecraft

Language evolves, which means that anyone can use the, “language evolves” defence to cover up their mistakes. Any infelicitous, incorrect or inappropriate useage can be defended in this way and “language evolves” becomes a hedge behind which anyone can hide, whether they deserve the protection of the hedge or not. Which is why we need to talk about sex.

Sex, as a noun, is a binary distinction between male and female. For some species to reproduce requires a male and a female to interact in some way to create offspring. They might lay eggs as do both fish and birds or they might produce live young as do both bears and humans, among many other species. But the start of this process is one individual of each sex getting together to mate. The mating process itself uses sex as a verb.

In grammar, the word gender is applied to the labelling of objects as either male or female. In some languages, but not in English, pencils and chairs have gender. They are either male or female objects. The French say le pencil or la chair according to the gender of the object. In German they use der, die and das in the same way and in Spanish they use el and la. But this is a randomly applied label that has nothing to do with what the object actually is. There is no sense in which a pencil is either male or female, a chair does not have male or female characteristics, it has simply been decided, by fiat, that each noun will have a pre-determined gender and the rules of such languages then label the objects in the appropriate way. Here, gender is a grammatical category that has nothing to do with sex, or biology, or reproduction, or with anything really. It is just a construct.

It is also worth noting that it is a construct that has nothing to do with the English language and has exactly zero influence on the way English is used written or spoken.

Outside of grammatical constructs, gender, as a noun, insofar as it applies to individuals of a species, is a label for a position on a spectrum. It is not a binary distinction but one with infinite variety. As it applies to humans it is a self-assigned label for a person’s sexual identity.

It is used for the relatively recent discovery that people do not all fit into two big boxes. A person can be born with male sexual organs but not identify as a male. A person can have female sexual organs but not identify as a female, or not identify that way all the time, or for all time. A person is free to choose who they are and to identify themselves in any way they choose. And they are free to change their mind about this and to identify differently to different groups at different times. It’s your body, so you get to choose who you are.

This means that I know what my gender is and you know what your gender is but neither of us can tell what gender the other is just by looking. The only way for me to know what gender you are is to ask you.

It also means that there are many more than two gender. I don’t know how many gender there are. There are as many as are required. If there isn’t a box into which you fit then you are free to invent your own box, including the box labelled, “I identify as being gender neutral,” and if you end up being the only person in your self-assigned box then that’s fine too.

Our language has evolved to deal with this idea so that not everyone has to subscribe to the old-fashioned idea of being either male or female or of using male or female pronouns. You don’t have to be a he or a she but you can choose your own pronoun and if you want to be known as, “they” then you can. You can also choose something else if you want. It’s your choice. Individual autonomy is the new Model T Ford. Where, once upon a time, everyone, supposedly, aspired to owning a Model T Ford, we can now all aspire to exercising autonomy over our own body and identity.

Feminists, however, have not embraced the word gender in quite the same way. They use the word gender as a synonym for sex. Feminists talk about the, “gender pay gap,” when they mean the apparent difference between what men and women get paid. They talk about, “gender equality,” and they unfortunately make comments about, “gender stereotypes” where, in each case, they are using gender to make a binary distinction between the male and female sexes. This happens because, basically, they are too coy to say sex when that is exactly what they mean. If you mean sex then say sex. If you are making a binary distinction between men on the one hand and women on the other then you mean sex and should say so.

This habit has some consequences and the reason I mention feminists is because those consequences are more important in feminist debates than they are in, say, completing official forms. You will have come across a form that asks you to enter your “gender” and then provides you with only two options, male or female, and in such situations it is obvious what is meant. It is disappointing that they couldn’t say what they mean but we do at least understand what is meant. When a feminist uses the word gender instead of sex it has more serious consequences because feminism is supposed to be about equality. When a feminist uses “gender,” as a coy synonym for sex what she is doing is erasing the distinction between gender that true equality and respect for individual autonomy requires, and then lumping all those born with bodies similar to hers into the single category she calls, “women.” She is, ironically, denying anyone who looks like a woman the right to choose who they really are. She is essentially saying that her definition of what equality looks like is the only one that applies and that people are not allowed to choose their gender for themselves.

Feminism does have a point, and there are still wars to be fought over the ways in which society discriminates against various groups of people, but feminists are not doing themselves any favours by denying others their right to define themselves and pick the battles they want to fight. Feminists should give, “gender,” back to those who need it and use, “sex,” instead. Words have meanings, and if you start by saying what you mean then people might eventually take you to mean what you say.

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War and Peace

The man at my local bookshop asked me what I was reading and when I said, “War and Peace” his eyes lit up. “Oh,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to read that, what’s it about?”

At the time I was only half way through the novel and didn’t feel ready to offer an opinion but threw out a one-liner based on what I had read so far. “Chance is not a synonym for genius,” I said.

Having finished the book I now know that as a pithy one-liner that is not actually a bad stab at summarising the book, but War and Peace is thirteen hundred pages long so is obviously about more than just that. War, Tolstoy tells us, seems at some level to be a highly organised human endeavour. The prevailing wisdom is that we have the art and science of warfare which together dictate the extent of the possible, from which plans are developed at the highest level. We then have a chain of command from the general at the top threading through armies and divisions and regiments and companies all the way down to individual foot soldiers on the front line, and at every link in this chain well-trained officers and men obey orders in a highly disciplined manner to execute to a degree of precision unrivaled in human civilisation the strategic plans devised by the clever person in charge, from which the desired tactical objectives are achieved. Which is, obviously, all entirely due to the sheer genius of the Commander-in-Chief.

The only trouble is that warfare, as War and Peace amply demonstrates, is not like that at all. Who is meant to go where and what they are supposed to do when they get there is, admittedly, sometimes planned out to a surprisingly high degree, but what actually happens on the ground in the midst of battle is, by comparison, utter chaos. Tolstoy demonstrates this with, among other things, a highly detailed account of the Battle of Borodino, an important battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, a battle so important that the two sides concerned cannot even agree on which date it was fought much less who won. The French think it was fought on the 7th September and that they won because they held the field at the close of play, but the Russians think it was held on the 26th August and that they won because they were not defeated.

At one point in the novel Napoleon is depicted on a hill overlooking Moscow requesting a special escort for his decisive advance on the city while his advisors are anxiously conferring as to which of them should advise his Excellency that the Russians have withdrawn and French soldiers have already entered the city. It then becomes a little problematic to argue that the city was taken in accordance with the plans detailed by the military genius who knew nothing about it.

And, big clue in the title of the novel, War and Peace also says that it is not just war that is like this, but that life, in general, is like this. History, Tolstoy argues, is not an ordered sequence of events each consequent upon some prior event so that for any given event we can look back and find its cause and the reasons why it happened. No, history is really the simultaneous occurrence of numberless unplanned acts by people acting entirely at random in, they hope, their own interests. Which will no doubt come as something of a surprise to those people who think they are running our country.

Having got that far I asked myself why it was that in order to make this point Tolstoy concentrated on the upper classes? In telling his story he stuffs it full of princes, counts and the landed aristocracy and their wives, daughters and mothers but there is very little of the ordinary citizenry, what we today might think of as the ninety-nine percent. There are footmen, grooms, ostlers, serfs, peasants and sutlers in War and Peace but they are largely there to serve their masters, to be grooms and footmen and so on rather than to be people with hopes and dreams and desires. Why is it, I asked, that these people are not cited as examples of the populace thinking their lives are occurring in accordance with some highly organised scheme of cause and effect?

The answer, of course, is complex, and I will mention just two reasons. The first is that these people already feel as though their lives are not under their control. The serfs and peasants of Tolstoy’s Russia are not in control of their lives but are merely actors in a drama being directed by their masters. An important scene where Princess Mary Bolkonskaya tries to give the serfs some grain to relieve their suffering emphasises this point. The grain is a reserve known as Landlord’s Corn, and the serfs have an existential fear that if the Landlord’s Corn is given away there will no longer be a landlord and they will of necessity cease to have a home. They need there to be a landlord for them to serve and Princess Mary cannot simply end the play by benevolently giving away her corn.

The second reason is that even the aristocracy, the ones who think they are in control, are not in control of their own lives anyway. They have this rather quaint idea, not unique to the Russian nobility but shared with the aristocracy of many nations, that they are participating in some kind of developmental breeding programme where they choose partners for their sons and daughters based on their heritage, their education, their dowry, their degree of social integration and acceptance and on their manners and courtly demeanour. They think the fact that their daughter can sing light opera and play the piano means that she will be the perfect bride for a properly educated noble man who appreciates these values. But the reality of life as it is lived rather than as it is dreamed about is that love knows not the meaning of piano playing or manners or adherence to the constantly changing rules of fashion. Men and women fall in love at the drop of a hat, when two eyes meet and detect that indefinable spark of recognition that lights the fires within.

It is to demonstrate this point that in the novel Pierre, Count Bezukhov, marries the beautiful, talented, rich but exceedingly ill-matched Princess Helene Kuragina and spends virtually the rest of the novel regretting it. That his marriage was made precisely in accordance with “the rules,” but turns out to be an utter failure makes Tolstoy’s overall point that there are no rules. And since there are no rules life cannot therefore be a game played in accordance with them. Life, Tolstoy says, all of life, not just the War part but the Peace part too, is not a game being conducted according to some set of rules comprehensible to the enlightened few, it is a continuous sequence of random events.

Tolstoy wrote this novel one hundred and forty years ago, and it is widely considered to be one of the finest works of literature, it regularly appears on “Best of…” lists or the top 100 novels lists or those lists of books you absolutely have to read before you die. Which does kind of beg the question: Why don’t we believe him? If it is such a fine piece of literature that proffers so clear, compelling and comprehensible a point, why is it that we still tend to believe that we are in control of our lives? How can we simultaneously believe that War and Peace is both brilliant and wrong?

That, my friends, is why we have Dostoevsky, and Hardy, and Trollope and Hemingway and Balzac and Flaubert, to name just a few. If we already understood the answer to that we wouldn’t read fiction. If we knew the answer to that we wouldn’t need Madame Bovary, The Idiot, Far From the Madding Crowd, For Whom the Bell Tolls or any of the other thousands of novels that deal with the utter perplexity of life and the contradictory nature of us mere humans. We believe in logical rational thinking but allow our actions to be driven by our emotions, we believe one thing and do another, we change our minds and follow our noses and this makes us unpredictable and inexplicable and it is these very qualities that make us infinitely interesting as the subjects of fiction. If we weren’t like this we wouldn’t want to read or write about us.

If Alex Garland‘s film Ex Machina (2015) starring Alicia Vikander as an artificially intelligent robot ever came true, the robot us would not sit round fires telling our stories or peck away at keyboards writing novels about ourselves, we would not sit night after night at kitchen tables composing poetry or arise in the pre-dawn hush to write songs of hope and desire because these are the creative outputs of what it means to be human. In a utopia stuffed full of robots there would be no art and that explains why we need both war and peace and also why we need War and Peace. Life without them would be an intolerable perfection.

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The Unexamined Life

Everything has to have an origin story. For some reason, it doesn’t matter very much whether the story makes any sense or whether a nine-year-old girl would be fooled by it, what matters is that there is a story to be told. The tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina has an origin story, according to which, W. T. Blackwell, the founder of the factory, thought that Colman’s mustard was made in Durham, England, so he borrowed the bull from their label and attached it to his tobacco factory and called it Bull Durham Tobacco.

Sports teams in Durham, and for the purposes of this article that means baseball teams, minor league baseball teams, then took the name and are known as the Durham Bulls. A film, ostensibly about just such a team, was then called Bull Durham (1988).

In the film, “Crash” Davies (Kevin Costner) is a minor league baseball player and has been for a long time. He once got to the majors but it didn’t last long and he is conflicted between pining wistfully for his few moments in the spotlight whilst being resigned to the certainty that his baseball life will end largely un-noticed in the minor leagues. The one thing he thinks he can do is prevent other players from making the same mistakes he made, which is why he is signed to the Durham Bulls to mentor their star pitcher, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) who has a million dollar arm and a five cent brain. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who preaches at the church of baseball, comes between them, and the film is as much about the boys competing with each other for her attention as it is about them cooperating with each other to get “Nuke” to the major league.

Towards the end of the film Crash, out on the road with the team, hits his 247th minor league home run, a record that goes largely un-noticed, exactly as Crash expected. At home in Durham, Annie tells us in a voice over that she knew the moment he hit it, though the sports papers never mentioned it. Then she quotes a line of poetry, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. Thomas Grey,” she says.

This is an accurate quote from Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Grey, published in 1751. It is an elegy in name only, more similar to an ode, it embodies a meditation on death, on the unknown lives of those buried in the churchyard, and thoughts on how we each approach death and are remembered after death. In this context Annie means to draw attention to the unseen nature of Crash’s achievement, and that it not being acknowledged does not diminish it in any way, which can be thought of as similar to the unknown lives of the obscure rustic persons buried in Grey’s churchyard. Their lives are not less noble or meaningful for being hidden from us. A thought that seems at face value to contrast with a line from the Greek philosopher Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Not a lot is known about Socrates, about the context in which he said these words and whether or not they are meant to be taken literally, and I am certainly not scholar enough to debate philosophy with Socrates, but I think it possible to draw some sensible conclusions.

Socrates was, I think, talking about the life of a human being. He didn’t mean that a beetle or a seal should examine its life, or that the life of a horse was not worth living because it went unexamined. He was talking about the life of a moral being, a person capable of making ethical choices and of knowing right from wrong. He was, I think, saying that if we do not make those choices by examining ourselves and questioning our motives and our morality then our lives as moral beings are effectively no more purposeful than those of the beetle, the seal or the horse.

Whenever I consider this thought of Socrates I am minded to think about the tens of millions of young men who have joined their nation’s military to, in many cases, fight a war they do not understand against an enemy they do not know. I am not suggesting the young men are blind fools, merely that comprehending the real reason their country is at war requires a level of political and philosophical engagement rarely seen in the young, and that would, in any event, require information normally not available to them, or to you and me for that matter.

Take the First World War, for example. An Austrian duke called Franz Ferdinand was riding in an open car on his way to the town hall in a place called Sarajevo where he got shot by a man called Gavrilo Princip, one of six assassins. Within weeks, most of Europe was at war and it doesn’t, I suggest, require any stretch of the imagination to suppose that the majority of the millions of men who died in that war had no idea what started it or what they were really fighting for.

A Serbian shot an Austrian, as a consequence of which English soldiers gathered in a ditch in France where they were shot, bombed, and gassed to death by Germans. In their millions. If it were not such a tragic waste of human life it could almost be the plot for a political satire.

My point is that if the men do not have available the information that would help them make the moral or ethical choice then their choice is not being made along the lines identified by Socrates. Which, he seems to be saying, suggests that their lives are not worth living and that their sacrifice is therefore pointless.

Thomas Grey said that the lives of the noble rustic labourers buried in the country churchyard were not rendered any less by us not knowing who they were or what they had done or how they had done it. Socrates appears to be saying that even though we know who those millions of young men were, and how they got into that ditch, and why they died there, their lives were not worth living simply because their choices had not been made morally or ethically. It seems to me that Grey and Socrates cannot both be right.

The American author John Williams (1922 – 1994) wrote a novel on this theme. Stoner (1965) is an immersive study of the life of one man who in many ways can be equated with Grey’s rustic persons who lead noble but simple and largely unobserved lives. By the end of the novel we know quite a lot about John Stoner and we have shared with him the ups and downs of his life in a story told in a language that both takes your breath away and insistently urges you to keep turning the pages. It is a one-sit read, an unputdownable novel that quietly but urgently requires the reader to answer the question of whether Grey was right, or was Socrates right. The very special quality of Williams’ writing is that unlike both Thomas Grey and Socrates, he doesn’t tell you the answer. Instead, he gives you everything you need to know to decide the matter for yourself.

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Hunting a Real Whale

Herman Melville’s groundbreaking 1851 novel, Moby Dick is an account of one man’s obsessive hunt for the whale that bit off his leg. It is also both not really that at all and an awful lot more than that, so that describing Moby Dick as a whale hunt is a bit like describing Don Quixote (1612) as one man’s obsessive search for a woman whose name he can remember but whose face he can’t quite recall.

Published in 1851, the novel is set some time before that, “some years ago,” within the life of the narrator Ishmael, and it isn’t immediately obvious why Melville thought it necessary to say so. What possible difference could it make if it was set in 1747 or 1847? The answer to that question is, I think, useful to an understanding of Moby Dick. The fact, irrelevant in itself, is one of many small reasons we have for supposing the events actually happened.

In an interview in Paris Review the American author Philip Roth used the word aboutness to describe a property that some stories have, that they are the product of something more than the imagination of their author, that the events and people portrayed in a story have an existence somewhere outside the pages of the book. It is this property of aboutness that Melville creates with this simple statement about the origin of the story. On its own it means nothing, but it is just one of many similar strands that are twisted into a great thick cable of facts that anchors the book in a comprehensible and believable time and place.

In his own lifetime Melville saw the book receive mixed reviews and he died in 1891 in obscurity as a poor, retired customs inspector. In the same way that Beowulf, also a story about the hunt for a monster, was resurrected by a new critical appraisal, after World War I Moby Dick resurfaced from the deep as a story of something more than just a whale hunt, and both it and Melville are now rightly praised and appreciated by all book lovers. In the case of Beowulf it was J. R. R. Tolkien who resurrected it and for Moby Dick the reanimator was Carl van Doren (1885 – 1950) in his 1921 study The American Novel.

Rather than discuss the whole book it is this property of aboutness that I want to talk about here. There are a number of chapters in Moby Dick that do nothing to advance the story but instead extend and advance the reader’s knowledge of whales and whaling. There is, for example, Chapter 24 The Advocate, which sets out to refute some commonly held myths and misperceptions about whalers and their craft. One of the criticisms often leveled at Melville’s work is this sort of lengthy digression that although interesting in its own way could quite usefully have been omitted without detracting from the tale and thereby made the novel considerably shorter and therefore more accessible. Such critiques do, in my view, miss the point of these chapters which, for different reasons, contribute to this very useful novelistic property of aboutness.

The first reason is that they add to the reader’s sense that the novel might be true. If whales actually exist and whaling really is a thing then a story about a man becoming obsessed with catching one particular whale might, conceivably, be true. In her series of novels about a boy wizard, J. K. Rowling did not spend very long on the science behind how spells work or why putting an owl feather inside a stick makes it any different from any other stick because, quite frankly, none of it is true. The reader either grasps the essential premise of her story or they don’t and there is not a huge amount Rowling can do for those readers not sucked into the required core belief in the magical properties of sticks. But Melville can describe why a whale ship looks the way it does, and how harpoons are made, and where the oil comes from, and how to reeve the whale line round the loggerhead, and what exactly a man sees when he is standing in an open boat in the middle of the ocean and he looks up to see a whale fluke bearing down on him, and all of these details accrete to an overwhelming sense that all of this might actually be true. Ishmael knows so much and saw so much and can describe in great detail sufficient of whales and whaling for us to just know, to a high degree of certainty, that this happened and he actually was there to see it.

A second reason is that it adds immeasurably to our understanding of Ishmael. It tells us about the things that interest him, how his mind works, what his values are and it legitimises his desire to go whaling in the first place. If he had chosen some other activity like carpentry or playing poker then we would have formed a very different view of the man but he chose whaling, and by telling us exactly what a whale is and what a dangerous and useful and noble pursuit whaling is and how inaccurate are the depictions of whales in art he enhances our estimation and understanding of who he is.

And third, it gives us the impression that Ishmael is a fundamentally honest fellow who is not merely reporting what he saw but placing the events into a wider context. In Chapter 35 Mast Head, for example, he tells us about the difference between the crow’s nest on a northern or Greenland whaler and that on a southern whaler. This detail is unnecessary for us to know since the Pequod is a southern whaler, but it tells us that he has troubled to check his sources and is not merely repeating blindly those things he thinks he knows. This impression, however, is slightly offset by his insistence that the sperm whale is a fish when most authorities agree that whales are actually mammals.

Maybe having him make a mistake is a sign of something. There are lots of signs and symbols in Moby Dick and making sense of them can begin to feel like a full-time occupation. There are bible references and Egyptian Pharaohs and various gods and their wives and stories of death and repentance and cannibals and widely different religions. There are also skins, the various guises that people adopt and the faces they wear and obviously the whale itself and a one-legged man and a wide variety of ancient buildings and exotic animals and after a while the reader becomes overwhelmed by all these signs.

Imagine someone gives you a lottery ticket. Then they give you another, and another, and then six more of them and eleven more tickets and then they tip a bucket full of lottery tickets over your head and then more and more and whole handfuls of lottery tickets and a sack full of them until you are sat in the middle of the floor engulfed by and drowning in a whole mountain of lottery tickets. The winning ticket might be in there somewhere but you have no way of ever finding it and that is how the reader feels with Melville’s signs, they overwhelm you until eventually you start to wonder whether being overwhelmed by them is actually the point.

In real life we have clues to the next step to take and we have lessons we can learn and indicators to what people really meant or what they are going to do next, but we also have no way of knowing which of these things really matter. Maybe the overwhelming torrent of signs and symbols in Moby Dick is a way of making the story seem less like a story and more like real life in that sense. In a detective story there are specific clues, one or two red herrings (a fish) but the clues you need are all there and if you pay attention you can usually figure out who done it. It doesn’t usually work like that in real life, though, so Melville has made sure that it doesn’t work that way in Moby Dick as a way of saying that this is not an allegory or metaphor or parable, it is not even just a novel, it is a story that actually happened in real life. It is about something, deal with it.

In fact, Melville tells us this, in plain English, in Chapter 45 The Affidavit, “So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”

Could he have said it any plainer than that?

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This month I went to a reading at my local bookshop. Three ladies came along to read from their recently published anthology of short stories on the theme of closure. To add to the topicality of the event the three ladies were all members of the black and Asian community and their stories featured black and Asian characters.

The first story we heard was about a couple who had some problems keeping it together because one of them had drug and alcohol dependencies, had fidelity problems and had anger management issues that came to a head causing the other partner to leave. While I was listening to this story I remembered the words of the French literary theorist, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) who identified a concept called the punctum. He was actually talking about photography, but the idea has since been drawn into literary studies to mean the one telling detail in a scene that makes it all hang together, the specific thing about the scene that pierces the invisible wall between the reader and the story and draws the reader into the world the story inhabits. Instead of fully describing a character you just say which particular shade of red lipstick she is wearing or the exact shape of her hat and this somehow magically brings everything else into focus.

The author of this first story, Louisa Adjoa, who called herself a poet having a tentative first go at fiction, identified what was for me the punctum in a number of the scenes in her story so that with only a few very well-chosen words she was able to draw the scene in a way that really brought the events to life. I was actually sitting in a brightly lit bookshop on a rather drab winter afternoon with a howling gale blowing outside but in my mind I was in that room with the green door where Akeem and Zoe were having their confrontation. Based on this experience I would like to think the poet in her will give this fiction lark a go because she has a definite affinity with it.

The second story was a slightly spooky story about two women in a darkened room having a conversation in which a third person intercedes, a third person who may or may not really be there. Listening to this story is a slightly strange and unnerving experience that wasn’t diminished for me by having heard it before. The story does, however, rely for its visual imagery on a pair of metaphors repeated three times, and whilst each on its own is perfectly fine the combination just doesn’t work for me. In my mind they each create an image that renders the other impossible, and that might even be the point, but it prevented me from picturing the carriage clock at the centre of the story so that instead of picking out the one telling detail the author left me standing behind an opaque veil gazing at events as though through mist or fog.

The third story was about a meeting between three women confronting a situation they would rather not be in. The women had different back-stories and different reasons for being there and quite different approaches to their situation but they all had the same fundamental problem to confront and it was these differences, brought out with some subtle dialogue and acute observation, that made the story resonate for me. It was also very interesting for me, a man, to be given a view of a uniquely female experience. No man ever has or ever will be in that situation and try as I might I cannot imagine what it is really like, and the story did much more than just invite me to, it made me, see things I might not otherwise be privileged to see. It was, if you like, a lifting of the veil, like taking a vegetarian into a butcher’s shop and forcing him to watch chops being cut. No man can come away from reading that story without new levels of respect for what it means to be a woman.

This post is not, however, just an advert for the book. It is an advert for the book, it was called Closure (2015) and it is published by Peepal Tree Press and you should get hold of a copy if you can. But it is not just an advert for the book because in the post-story discussion some very interesting points came out.

One gentleman asked a question about character strengths. This was given to Louisa Adjoa to answer and her main character had lots of easily identifiable weaknesses but no obvious strengths. She had drugs issues and alcohol issues, she was forgetful and irresponsible, she was not faithful and she got angry when these issues were brought up. But at one crucial point in the story her partner suggested she might lose her child and that got a response from her. That was the point when a glass flew across the room, that was the motivating moment that brought about the closure her partner required.

So she might be on the edge, she might be staring into the abyss but she is not completely lost because despite all her faults she is still a mother and has that instinct to, above all else, protect her child. This suggests to me that there might be a redemption narrative in her future and if that is the case then it might be worth remembering that couples do break up, they argue cuss and fight but they also reconcile sometimes too. Which means that the glass flying across the room signaled closure for Akeem but it also helps us, the audience, realise that maybe closure here isn’t a final and irrevocable kind of closure. It might be just one step along a path to a different kind of future they can still have together. I found this bifurcation of the potentialities of the story a really pleasing aspect of it and I found myself still thinking about Zoe and Akeem a few days later. Testament, I think, to the powerful way the story was told.

Also in the post-story discussion Akila Richards used the expression, “Black experience,” a phrase I had heard a few days earlier in an interview with Marlon James, author of the Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015). He was asked to comment on the expectation that writers of colour should write about the “Black experience,” and in his reply he said that writers are often enjoined to write about what they know, and it seemed to him that what all writers know about is their own cultural milieu, the interface and interaction of their own culture with others and it seemed to him perfectly normal for anyone to want to write about this but that they can write about other stuff too. Which, for him, means that the expectation, if it exists, is unlikely to be realised any time soon.

If we then think about these three stories within the context of Marlon James remarks we can see that the stories are not about a uniquely black experience. Couples of all cultures have problems, they argue, fight and break up. The middle story might have voodoo elements I didn’t pick up on but didn’t strike me as being a uniquely black experience and the third story was a uniquely female experience but not a uniquely black experience. That made me think of a quote from David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest (1996) and The Pale King (2011). In an interview he said, “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and that is precisely what these three stories were about. They resonated with and spoke to the audience precisely because they were intensely human experiences.

They were written from a black and Asian perspective and they featured black and Asian characters but they were fundamentally stories about what it means to be human, and that, I think, says that Lynne Blackwood, Louisa Adjoa, and Akila Richards might have very different colour skin to mine but their heart still beats to the same passions as mine, they have the same wants, needs and desires as I do and it says that we are more alike than some people might care to admit and that those similarities are much greater than any differences we might perceive. We are all human beings together.

It is one of the fundamental paradoxes of being human that we all want to be known for those traits that make us special as individuals, we want our achievements, skills and talents to be recognised and acknowledged but we also want to be one of a community of people who are considered alike in some respects. We want to be different as individuals, and yet we also want to be the same in community. Stories like these go a long way to resolving that paradox not just for writers of colour, not just for people in the black and Asian community and not just for women, but for anyone who has the least bit of humanity within them.

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Experimental Ways of Living

Near the end of March, 1845, Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) took an axe into the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, and he built himself a cabin by a lake where he lived, on and off, for the next two years. He went into the woods for a number of reasons and in the book that he subsequently wrote about it he gave three of them. In Walden (1854), he said that he went into the woods looking for the seclusion to write a book about a river trip he had taken with his brother who had recently died, he went into the woods in order to live deliberately, and he went into the woods because he had got ready to go into the woods.

Walden is pretty hard to categorise or describe to someone who has not read it, and only once you have read the book do you properly understand the difficulty of describing what you just read. It is not a diary, as such, but it is a roughly chronological account of the experiences to be had living in the woods by a lake, and much of what he describes did happen to him whilst he lived there. But the time is telescoped into one narrative year and it does not in any event claim to be a true account of the particular two years that he spent in the woods.

And, importantly, although he is talking about living in the woods, that is not what he is really talking about at all. His real topic is the lives of the people who do not live in the woods. Going to the woods is a way of contrasting what Thoreau thought of as “modern life,” with its magnetic telegraph and steam trains and indoor plumbing and all, with the more fundamentally honest and pure mode of living to be had if we were only to look at life, the world, our environment, in a completely different way.

Walden is a philosophical enquiry about the nature of modernity and the benefit, if any, of living our lives as though we are tools in a capitalist machine. He gives a number of examples of people he meets whose lives are made miserable and hollow and without joy or pleasure of any kind purely because they view their life as an attempt to earn money.

One man he comes across lives in a shack on a small parcel of land with a wife and some children. The man goes out each day to a piece of land owned by someone else where he digs peat all day. The landowner pays him for the peat and he then goes home exhausted from a long day of hard manual labour with barely enough energy to do anything else and with barely enough money to feed his family. Thoreau points out, quite reasonably, that if the man stopped digging peat and grew crops on his own land and kept chickens and a hog he could feed his family for free. But the man won’t change, because he is scared of not having any money. He views freedom from poverty as being about how much money he has.

Thoreau, meanwhile, spends his day walking in the woods picking huckleberries and wild blackberries, fishing in the lake, harvesting wild honey, growing corn and beans and watching the squirrels playing in his woodpile. Just like the peat-digger, he doesn’t have any money, but neither does he spend eight hours a day digging peat so that someone else can make money out of it. Thoreau’s point was that neither man had any money, but they were not equally poor.

Walden is beautifully and lyrically written and is a joy to read but it is also a polemic consisting of long looping and rhetorically convoluted debates about the incomprehensible reasons why, to take one example, farmers work their whole life to pay off a mortgage on land that was essentially given away for free. The words themselves are simple, well-chosen and easily read but the thoughts they express are complex and require some work from the reader, work that is rewarded with political and economic arguments that are compelling but have ultimately failed to convince large numbers of people.

Later on I read another story about a person living on their own. Her name was Joyce Carol Vincent and she lived on her own in a housing estate in London, England. She did not intend to live on her own and she wasn’t doing it to prove a point and didn’t write a book about it, she just happened to be on her own. When the local council banged on her door to find out why her rent had not been paid they found her on the sofa, with the television flickering and just-wrapped Christmas presents gathered at her feet. She had been dead for three years, and no one had noticed.

Documentary film maker Carol Morley took an interest in the story and eventually made a film out of it. She spoke to Vincent’s friends and family, she met previous boyfriends, work colleagues, friends on the edge of the music industry through whom Vincent had met Stevie Wonder, punk legend Captain Sensible, American disco singer Judy Cheeks and the soul singer Betty Wright. Morley even unearthed a video of Vincent meeting Nelson Mandela when he came to London. So Vincent wasn’t a loner, she wasn’t one of those sad drug addicts no one wants to know or an angry drunk who drives their friends away, she just happened to be alone when she died, and no one noticed for three years.

The point that both of these stories are making is that if the world were in some way better, these things would not happen. If the world were a better place we wouldn’t have to dig peat for eight hours a day in order to feed our children and people with no friends would not die alone in their two-bedroom apartment in a tower block filled with strangers. In the language of the sixties, “Come the revolution, brother.”

This thought led me to a surprising piece of American poetry. Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron came from Chicago where he was born in 1949. His mother was an opera singer and his father was a football player, the first black man to play with Glasgow Celtic. His parents separated when he was seven and he went to live with his grandmother in Tennessee. She died when he was 12-years-old and he went to New York where he lived with his mother.

This broken childhood, is, I think, important, because his childhood taught him that there wasn’t anyone looking out for him and he had to take care of himself, and this made the adult Scott-Heron a self sufficient and somewhat bold and assertive person. He became a blues poet, speaking poetry over a musical accompaniment that incorporated elements of what would later become the rap and hip-hop styles of music.

One of his more famous pieces is a poem called, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1970). When I read the title the first thing I thought of was the Arab Spring appearing on Youtube videos and Twitter feeds and how the sanitised version of the news we see on television is only a very small portion of, and a highly politicised version of, the actual events. I thought about how we only got to see one side of the war in Syria, or the War in Vietnam. I thought about how, as a young man, I had watched the news of the troubles in Northern Ireland and how after a while I gradually realised that only one side in the conflict were getting to tell their story. What I imagined Scott-Heron saying was that when the revolution comes the media companies will not be showing those events on television because political forces will ensure that news of it is covered up. “They,” won’t allow it to be shown. When I actually read the lyrics of his poem I, not unnaturally, learned that he was saying something else altogether. The first verse says:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised

Gil Scot-Heron (1970)

What follows is a long list of things the revolution will not be. It will not be sponsored by Xerox, or star Natalie Wood or Steve McQueen, NBC will not be able to predict the winner and there will be no signed pictures of Wilie May.

Eventually, I realised that what he was saying is that the life we are living is the revolution. The revolution is happening day by day, it is taking place and will continue to take place so that the modern life Thoreau railed against no longer exists and would today be considered old-fashioned hardship. Scott-Heron was saying that this is the revolution, you are in the throws of the revolution, always have been, always will be. And so it goes.

Which means that those two stories about what might happen in a better world, will not just organically happen in a better way, “come the revolution.” A better world will only let things like that not happen if we actively do something to create that better world. We can’t just sit back on cruise control watching the revolution taking place all around us hoping for a better world, wishing for a world where no one goes to work to make money for super-rich oligarchs with more money than they know how to count, unless we actually do something about it.

I don’t go to work and I don’t live in a house I built myself and my mother gave my fishing rod to a jumble sale so I haven’t caught a fish in thirty years. I don’t have a mobile phone or a Facebook account and can’t imagine ever saying anything in 140 characters on Twitter, but I am happy in a comfortably basic Thoreau-in-the-woods kind of way that doesn’t require constant consumerism to validate my life. So far, I have looked online and learned that to buy an axe would cost me fifty-three pounds. I have not actually bought an axe, much less walked to the woods to build a cabin with it, but I have read Walden (1854) and will know how to live when I get there, and I have come to realise that what Thoreau said to that man who was digging peat is as relevant to us today as it was in 1854. We can change the world by the way that we live from day to day and that everything we do, even the little things, picking huckleberries and buying books from Amazon, both matter and have consequences. We get the world that we make, for ourselves and for our future.

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