Archive for June, 2018

Consider the Lily

June 23, 2018

There’s a classic Lee and Herring sketch featuring Jesus talking to his disciples. The Son of God, here portrayed by Stewart Lee, notices that one of his followers seems troubled. What’s the problem? I gave up my work to follow you, Matthew says, and now I can’t afford to eat or feed my family. Could Jesus advise him? After some thought, Jesus declares: ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. And? the disciple asks. Aaaaah, says Stewart Lee. ‘No, not ‘aaaah’, that doesn’t answer my question. Answer the question!’ But the group is turning against him: the other disciples are all reciting ‘Consider the lily’, and ‘Aaaaah,’ claiming that they understand exactly what is meant, that it’s easy-peasy. In the hubbub created, Jesus quietly escapes the hard question.

I thought of this on reading 12 Rules for Life by psychology professor Jordan Peterson. His twelve rules are ones I would agree with in normal circumstances: stand up for yourself, listen more than you talk, remember you can learn something from everyone. The book earns its bestseller status. Peterson is clear and compelling in his writing. He makes you consider the world afresh, and tells you some things you don’t know. I do not doubt the testimonies that he has helped people.

In my life I have been treated by many clinical psychologists. I am glad that Dr Peterson wasn’t one of them. Why?

Part of the answer is the heavy religious overtones. Long sections are based around biblical analysis. Faith and psychology mix easier than you would think. Peterson put me in mind of the psychiatrist M Scott Peck. Peck’s People of the Lie is a sharp and thoughtful work on everyday evil. Using examples from his clinical practice and elsewhere, Peck explored the manifestation of malevolence in the twentieth century. As the professor says in Sophie Hannah’s Lasting Damage, it offers the best definition of human evil any of us are likely to come across. But Peck was very faith oriented. He claimed to have taken part in exorcisms.

Peterson draws from many spiritual disciplines. The Bible is chief among them. At somewhat wearying length Peterson explains to us the sacrifice of Abraham, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Great Flood, the travails of Moses, the Sermon on the Mount – yes, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. Skip a bit, brother, you’re saying, to no avail. Peterson talks also about the Garden of Eden, the temptation, and the Serpent – and this is important, because for Peterson the snakes are everywhere, they’re writhing behind every goddamn bush.

12 Rules for Life is subtitled An Antidote to Chaos. For Peterson chaos is everywhere. Life’s course is a rickety bridge across a yawning chasm of chaos. It’s a well worn path through a dark dangerous forest. Listen up, and step right, because safety is a miracle, success an aberration, and if you take the wrong step even slightly, you’re over the edge. The road less travelled is less travelled for a reason. ‘Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed,’ Peterson writes. ‘It’s the place you end up when things fall apart; when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth’.

The doctor’s cruel vision has a lot of truth in it – and I could take the harshness were it not allied with a grim simplistic worldview less suited to the seminar room than to the frathouse or incel chatboard. Life is about winning, Peterson says. You need to be a winner, so you can have ‘preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact… the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.’ I must say that being a winner sounds great – certainly better than being a loser. Peterson warns of this fate, also. ‘You’re in poor physical and mental condition. You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone, unless they are as desperate as you. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you.’ Sad!

How to escape such dismal prospects? Sleep properly, eat a good breakfast – ‘fat and protein-heavy’ but with ‘no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip’. Drinking too much is not good for you, Peterson sternly informs us. It fucks with the flow of good brain chemicals that keep us happy and expectant of good things. The heavy drinker, it appears, ‘has learned to drink to cure his hangover. When the medication causes the disease, a positive feedback loop has been established. Alcoholism can quickly emerge under such conditions.’

Perhaps some Christian compassion is in order here? Not at all. To avoid becoming a loser, it’s necessary to cut losers out of your lives. You may be tempted to help an old friend who has gotten into trouble. Not a good idea, Peterson says. For once people stray from the magic path, they go to deep dark places very quickly: ‘it is much harder to extract someone from a chasm than to lift him from a ditch. And some chasms are very deep. And there’s not much of the body at the bottom.’ In fact, with some exceptions, Peterson seems exasperated by most people, not just the losers in his life. He’s forever complaining about his small-town ne’er-do-well alcoholic friends, the parents he knows who are too soft on their kids, his feckless court-ordered patients – and they must have done things pretty bad, these convicts, to be sent to the perennially impatient Dr Peterson. Why does he bother? Why do you bother, in fact?

Perhaps orders and systems inspire Dr Peterson more than people. ‘I dreamt one night,’ Peterson writes, ‘that I was suspended in mid-air, clinging to a chandelier, many stories above the ground, directly under the dome of a massive cathedral. The people on the floor below were distant and tiny.’ Authority matters. Tradition, culture, society everything we know, is the result of the sweat and blood of millions of our ancestors who laboured long and hard so we could enjoy brief moments of safety and plenty – so show some respect. True enough – although the house of tradition has many rooms, and some of those rooms are boarded up for a reason: there’s an awful lot of dried blood on the walls, and some nasty-looking manacles, but never mind that for now.

Because the house of tradition is under attack – isn’t it always? Here’s where Peterson begins to sing a familiar tune, perhaps it’s the song that gave the Canadian psychologist a warm welcome on these shores. Society is falling apart, Peterson says. It’s too easy to get divorced. Women should concentrate on having babies. And as for the great halls of the university, well, you should see it these days. It’s a fucking zoo. Postmodernism, genderqueer theory, political activism – what’s next?

‘It’s worse, I think, for young men. As privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy, their accomplishments are considered unearned. As possible adherents of rape culture, they’re sexually suspect.’ There are too many women at university, Peterson gravely informs us. ‘If you eliminate the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs (excluding psychology) the female-male ratio is even more skewed.’ We are all, in fact, being feminised. ‘When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination… The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process, as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of far-right political parties even in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden and Norway.’ Pundits commonly attribute the rise of contemporary fascism to economic anxiety and mass immigration. It is at least original to blame college admission quotas.

Last year was my tenth anniversary of writing this blog and I played with the idea of writing a ‘life lessons’ post summing up the insights I had during the ten years. Suffice to say there weren’t very many, the year passed and I abandoned the attempt. Reading Peterson, however, brought some of those ideas back. They come from things I learned from psychologists, from books, and other places.

If I were asked – and why would I be, but indulge an old man for a second – for a golden rule of life, I would say: remember that the people above you, your family, your peers, your teachers, your employers, the government, aren’t necessarily right in what they say, and don’t necessarily have your well being at heart. People waste years in dark places because they feel they have to follow some words of not-so-wisdom dispensed by an authority figure – and ‘authority figure’ – can mean anyone with enough self importance to claim to be so.

When someone looks at you and says ‘Aaaaah,’ don’t be afraid to say, ‘No, not ‘Aaaaaah’.’

My second piece of advice would be simply ‘It’s okay’. Sophie Hannah wrote in The Narrow Bed that a great avoidable amount of human misery comes from being ashamed of our feelings, and she wasn’t wrong. It’s okay to feel rage, sadness, terror – let it come, acknowledge it all and take ownership of it. The present is not (as Peterson sometimes says) a preparation for the future. The present is the moment and the moment is being alive. It’s okay to be in the present and not think about the future. It’s even okay to be weak. As Beecher says in Oz: Maybe I’m a weak man – but I have the balls to admit it.

At the end of Nothing But the Truth, Anna Politkovskaya’s collection of journalism, there is a section called ‘The Other Anna’ where Politkovskaya leaves the horrors of the Chechen war and Putin’s regime behind for a while, and talks of more human things – her love of the Tango Argentino, the city of Paris, and foreign travel. Included here is a piece about Politkovskaya’s dog, who she called ‘van Gogh’. This was not an easy dog to live with. As soon as Politkovskaya got him home, he started pissing – and kept it up with some regularity. The worst was that the dog seemed to be ashamed of his incontinence, ‘hiding away or, even more awful, trying to lick it up so we wouldn’t see it.’ He had an inflamed bladder. But a huge part of it was anxiety. He didn’t like going outside. Politskovskaya persisted. She took him out for walks. Not easy. ‘I had to half carry him, half drag him like a sledge, 40-50 kilograms of resisting live dog, between the cars.’

People said: why bother with the expense, the hassle? Shouldn’t he be put to sleep?

Politikovskaya wrote:

It is evening once again. I turn the key in the door and van Gogh hurtles to greet me from wherever he is, every time. No matter how his stomach may be hurting, no matter how soundly he might have been sleeping, no matter what it was he was eating […]

I take him, I lead him to the car, I drive him to the road. I leap alongside him to get him to jump about with the other dogs in the square. I show him how he ought to play with them. I run the obstacle course with him to help him overcome his fear, and I take him over to other men. I take their hands and stroke van Gogh’s ears with them, and try to persuade him they are not dangerous.

And that is a great deal more profound than anything I learned from Jordan Peterson.

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Like Doctors From House to House

June 15, 2018

How Eros must have wept, Martin Amis wrote, at the milkman’s disappearance from our streets. In contemporary fiction the milkman has not so much disappeared as curdled. Stephen King wrote a pair of very creepy stories about a rogue milkman, collected in Skeleton Crew, and it’s a milkman who brings the underworld to Billy’s door in Joseph Connor’s The Salesman – Nap, ‘the milkman of fuckin’ human kindness’. And let’s not forget Pat Mustard of Craggy Island, who turns murderous once his morning trysts are exposed.

The milkman in Anna Burns’s novel isn’t really a milkman. He’s a connected man in the novel’s small community, who takes a creepy interest in Burns’s nameless narrator. A nameless eighteen year old woman known only as ‘middle sister’, the narrator has no interest in the milkman – in fact, she’s repelled and shaken by his attentions. But the protagonist’s family, and the village gossips, assume that she is in a relationship with this older connected married man. Complications follow.

I think what with the #MeToo movement a lot more of us have become familiar with what feminists call ‘the male gaze’ and how it can make women feel. Helen Lewis wrote: ‘I think of sexism as a Bullshit Tax. On top of doing my job, I have to: smile weakly at weird men who shout at me in the street, in case they get offended and try to kill me’. Milkman gives you some idea of being on the wrong end of that gaze.

This had been a movement unnatural, an omen of warning, originating in the coccyx, with its vibration then setting off ripples – ugly, rapid, threatening ripples – travelling into my buttocks, gathering speed into my hamstrings of where, inside a moment, they sped to the dark recesses behind my knees and disappeared. This took one second, just one second, and my first thought – unbidden, unchecked – was that this was the underside of an orgasm, how one might imagine some creepy, back-of-body, partially convulsive shadow of an orgasm – an anti-orgasm. 

It’s not just the milkman who gives middle sister this feeling. The milkman is not just a creep and a predator, he’s a signifier of a creepy and broken community. Burns is hazy on time and place, but the world of the milkman is some kind of Irish border town in the 1970s, the sort of place where the local provisionals held mock trials in public, and everyone knew more than was healthy about everyone else. Expectations are ground to nothing. Bitterness and disappointments are borne stoically, almost with a perverse pride. Most people in your family seem to have either joined the provisionals or been disappeared by them. If you’re a woman, your role is to marry young, and raise children to participate in the same toxic ecosystem.

We’ve been here before, but Burns’s prose makes it seem so much more real. In long sentences that spool into pages, she details the hierarchies and assumptions that entrench in poor communities. Middle sister is already something of an eccentric (or a ‘character’ as the provincial phrase goes) and her worries about the milkman, her family and village perceptions – they go on and on into the narrative like the fretful spiral of an anxious thought. Milkman is a modernist panic attack of a novel. The effect is stressful but also compelling – Burns invests you too much in the reading experience to abandon it for long. There is also a startling relief when perceptions shift and we realise that other, better things can be perceived of as possibles:

So I nodded at the sunset, at this horizon, which made no sense […] and it was at that moment, just as I was thinking, what the fuck are they – that something out there – or something in me – then changed. It fell into place because now, instead of blue, blue and more blue – the official blue everyone understood and thought was up there – the truth hit my senses. It became clear as I gazed that there was no blue out there at all. For the first time I saw colours, just as a week later in this French class also was I seeing colours. On both occasions, these colours were blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue […] Question was, was it a safe something or a threatening something? What was it, really, I was responding to here?

So Milkman is not a miserabilist novel – there are dreams, moments of hope, signs of gradual and incremental change. It’s just a very self contained novel. I recommend it absolutely – but only readers with strong stomachs and iron nerves should apply.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Hangover

June 9, 2018

Last month there was an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the TLS that I’ve been thinking about, by the novelist Natalie Olah. I’ve read it again and these for me are the standout passages:

Nathalie Olah: There’s a sense of culture really becoming strangled recently by this pervasive tone or moralizing and preaching, helped along by social media and the consensus culture of likes and retweets.

Bret Easton Ellis: It’s terrible. And it’s a terrible way to live as an artist. You see it affecting the arts on a vague, vague but vast scale – where is the taboo? Where is the Other? So what if it’s offensive? Good! Where is this bizarre idea of art created by committee, by a democracy, coming from? Art isn’t created by a democracy! And there seems to be this thing, especially on social media, of group-approved art, that’s chilling.

I don’t believe utopia is in our DNA. I think we’re deeply flawed animals with a sort of sexual lawlessness, that we are violent, that we want to be on top, that we want to be in control of things. We obviously don’t want to be killing each other in the streets, but we’ve got to get realistic about who we really are and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a gay man.

I wouldn’t have been the writer I am if I’d been raised in a very safe, no-bully environment with a nice mom and dad who looked after me and made sure everything was ok. I was talking to Laura Jane Grace, who’s a transgender singer from a band called Against Me!. She’s a powerful songwriter. When she finally became Laura Jane Grace the songwriting jumped up a hundred notches. She made three great records with the band. But she said there is no way she would have ever done any of it had she had a normal childhood with parental love and acceptance from her friends. I think your experiences of pain and alienation and people marginalizing you is what forces out this expressiveness. I think we’re becoming a society that wants to erase all of that. Put everyone into this safe group that is all taken care of and everyone’s the same and no one’s different and we all love each other and we’re eradicating all pain and it’s all very nice and it’s all very utopian; I just don’t think that’s who we really are and I don’t know what the end game of that is.

How much there is to unravel here! I love Ellis, but there’s a familiar tone in his remarks, that of the older maverick intellectual who no longer really understands how the world is changing and retreats into defensive cynicism and outrage seeking. It’s far more common in England where we have a very strong tradition of anti-modern disillusionment (beginning with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, maybe even before them). With contemporary shock columnists like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, there’s a sense they are trying to tap into this High Church aesthetic. There’s the US counterpart as well – the Grand Old Man of the counterculture, obsessed with ethnic struggle and complaining about the crazy students at Harvard these days.

Ellis’s points about virtue culture are obviously well founded but what Ellis (and many other adversarial commentators) never take into account is the backlash to that kind of culture. For every woke left virtue signalling tweet there’s a very clever man online who will spend hours deconstructing it. There’s a cottage industry now of ‘lol SJWs’. This industry has its own vanity (‘look how clever, and rational, and unemotional I am!’) and its own sensitivities. The latest thing is the phrase ‘gammon’ to describe a certain kind of reactionary, middle aged fellow. No sooner had this term entered usage then the other side of the culture war mounted its high horse, and damned the term as offensive towards white working class people – or people with hypertension, I can’t keep up.

My point is that virtue culture and SJWs used to dominate discourse but it’s darker and more complicated than that now. I am convinced that more and more people are getting turned away from political discourse because it is so toxic and full of this kind of self aggrandisement. Perhaps that is the point. But writers don’t often say so, because the poetry of fighting SJWs has a strong simple lure of its own.

What does all that say about social justice? Like Ellis, I don’t think utopia is in our DNA. We’re wired up for survival rather than happiness and the realisation of this is a huge psychological boost, it has been for me anyway. Where this feeds into Ellis’s points about generational cultures is, again, where it gets more complicated. Millennials tend, in my experience, to be more hardy and practical than older people – they have learned to manage without the welfare state and full employment that older generations took for granted.

Does that explain ‘why there isn’t a Great Millennial Novel. Or The Great Millennial Novelist’ as Ellis asks? Who knows, I can’t name an epic Augie March style defining book for millennials, although there have been fine books by millennials and perhaps that epic definitive work will come. It is – contra the envy trope that writers have to be hot, young and marketable – not easy for young people to get stuff published.

Utopia is not in our DNA. What is there is a striving for positive change and positivity, and it comes, incrementally and gradually. Bad experiences may make you stronger, or more creative, but more often that not they leave nothing but bad memories. Like Ellis says, who knows what the end game will be or what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps safety and happiness is an illusion – but it’s worth looking for, all the same. And the search may be our one reliable instinct.