Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Cromwell, in Kosminsky's adaptation of Wolf Hall

In search of lost time? Mark Rylance as Cromwell, in Kosminsky’s adaptation of Wolf Hall

“Too many notes,” says the philistine Emperor Joseph II to Mozart, in the film Amadeus. “It’s quality work, … there are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect!” I feel very afraid that I am playing the part of the Emperor when I read Hilary Mantel’s novels because I often find myself thinking “Excellent, wonderful, but … too many scenes, too many episodes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

That’s one reason why the television adaptation of Wolf Hall is so pleasurable. As John Sutherland, reviewing episode one in The Guardian today says, “with a mere six hours and 60,000 words of dialogue at his disposal,” Peter Kosminsky has given Wolf Hall pace. Every scene, every word, advances the story.

If you read the novels expecting a similar advance from every scene you will be making a mistake. Many scenes feel like they ought to be read not so much as narrative but as portraiture, the product of Mantel’s apparent desire to pull out of the darkness and into the light as many episodes in Cromwell’s life as she possibly can.

I find that difficult. Perhaps, as a reader, I should restrain my hunger for narrative and just enjoy contemplating these well-crafted word-pictures. But it could be argued that some of them aren’t best placed in the novels themselves, that they should be viewed separately, as part of the author’s rich imagining of the world from which the novels themselves are sculpted by the creative process of cutting. Think of Tolkien’s immensely prolific creations, his millennia-long fictional histories and mythologies of Middle Earth. These gave The Lord of the Rings a wonderful stage but would have destroyed it if they hadn’t been confined to The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, or to Tolkien’s study.

“There are just as many notes as are required, Majesty. Neither more nor less,” says Mozart, and he should know. Likewise Mantel. Such an intensely careful writer as her must have very good reasons for including all of the scenes that I found “too much.” What might those reasons be?

Beyond Black, Mantel’s story about a medium, suggests a possible answer to that question.

In Beyond Black, Alison Hart is a woman who sees ghosts. She makes her living from this ability, touring theatres and giving her audiences a means of contacting people in the afterlife. But she is also tormented by it. The ghosts that surround her are intrusive, unreasonable, and they compel her to remember a childhood that was violent and abusive. It is easy to see Hilary Mantel herself in the character of Alison Hart. Mantel seems to feel the presence of her characters very vividly. They take up residence with her for the duration of her writing projects, like Alison’s troubling ghosts, and stay overwhelmingly close. About Wolf Hall, Mantel says, “the camera is behind Cromwell’s eyes.” In other words, within the world of the story the novelist is peering out from within Cromwell’s head. Which suggests that, in the world of the novelist, our world, Cromwell is peering out from within her head, a very intimate presence, perched inside her in the same way that “Morris,” Alison Hart’s foul and violent spirit guide, is perched in Alison’s home, slumped repulsively against her bedroom wall. So I wonder, is Mantel oppressed and bullied by her characters like Alison is by ghosts? Does ruthless Cromwell make too many demands on her, compelling her to see and write everything that brings him out of obscurity and into public view? Is that why the books are so long?

It’s a lovely picture to conjure, and perhaps there is something in it. Some authors are led by their characters more than others. But I don’t think it is quite the right picture. Mantel seems a rather strong woman, who keeps an assured hold on her books’ meanings in the face of commentary and interpretation from readers with whom she disagrees. I think she could handle Cromwell pretty well.

So here is a slightly different picture, also drawn from Beyond Black, also involving compulsion; but this time it is a compulsion arising not from imperious characters but  from the very nature of the project of uncovering lost history.

Beyond Black is about terrible childhood events, so traumatic that they produce amnesia, and it is about the horrible process by which that amnesia is eroded, the disruptive presence of ghosts compelling Alison to return again and again to her buried past and excavate it. The book’s title hints at the afterlife, which is black to Alison’s clients but dimly seen by her. But it is also suggestive of the “beforelife,” the time-before-memory from which we emerge as young adults only dimly recalling many of the events and forces that have shaped us. To try to understand ourselves we have to overcome forgetfulness, to get beyond the black redacted spaces. That isn’t always an entirely voluntary project. Alison’s story is about forced remembering, imposed by her intrusive, beleaguering ghosts.  And we know, not least from all the recent high-profile cases of historic child abuse, that the victims of abusive or otherwise traumatic childhoods don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to be preoccupied with the past. The “return of the repressed,”  the problematic, involuntary, resurfacing in our lives of the fallout from ill-processed features of our past, affects most of us to some extent.  For most of us there is something in our lives that provokes us into an Ancient Mariner compulsion, conscious or unconscious, to return to awful events and hammer them into a narrative which we hope will subdue them.

The Wolf Hall books are similar to Beyond Black because they too are about a memory gap, a hole in the historical record. They are about a man who “arrives from nowhere.” Cromwell appears on the historical scene fully formed, shaped by events that are largely lost to history. The Cardinal wonders about Cromwell’s past, so do Cromwell’s rivals, so does the King, so do historians. And so does Cromwell, I think. At various points in the story he is searching, unsuccessfully, for Guido Camillo’s “memory machine,” whose nature is left mysterious. Why does he need this machine? He has a supremely efficient memory for inventories and debts and recipes and rumour. His memory is one of the talents that keep him always a step ahead of his enemies. I think that Cromwell craves a memory machine because his own past is partly a mystery to him, just as it is to others. A childhood scarred by his father’s violence has produced something of the traumatic amnesia that Alison suffered. And his arrival in a position of great power, from a background very different from most of the people around him, has disoriented him. It has made him ask himself, “How did I get here?”

Forgetfulness, and a compulsion to remember. The need to pull half-remembered events out of obscurity and into the light. To get beyond black. That is one of the themes of Mantel’s books. The compulsive nature of that quest for memory is expressed in the content of Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, and Beyond Black. But it is also expressed in their structure and length. Scene upon scene upon scene, fractured, confusing, sometimes hampering progress, dragging us back when we want to move forward. That is what is so difficult about Mantel’s stories. But it is also what is difficult about the debilitating way that our memory can work, when we feel driven to bring it to bear on the dark experiences that shape a human life. We are dragged backwards. We hoard fragments of memory that seem to offer the hope of understanding but never fully deliver. We don’t, usually, manage to perceive, comprehend, and accept these fragments so well that we can have done with them, release them, and achieve a lean account of the past that lets the narrative of our life move smoothly forwards. They stay with us, so that the books of our lives are unwieldy and exhausting to read. The excess of episodes in  Mantel’s novels is a replication of that. So it is good to be frustrated, overwhelmed, confused, when reading her work. “Too many notes” is just the right amount.

©Claire Creffield

“Too many notes” — clip from Amadeus

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St Peter’s Toes

(This blog post first appeared at Talking Philosophy.)

This summer I visited Rome for the first time. Like most visitors to the city I was keen to anchor my diffuse knowledge of ancient Rome by actually seeing the actual, real remains of the old city. I wanted a direct encounter that book learning could not give me. But as I wandered around the Colosseum and the imperial fora I was disappointed. Although the ruins were so stunningly numerous and rich, so generous in the detail they provided to the onlooker, I didn’t (of course!) find the real ancient Rome there. It seemed to me that it was more convincingly present in books that I had read. And indeed it seemed that “the real Rome” was doomed to be always elsewhere: when I am reading about it, I can imagine it lurking in fallen buildings, and when I finally get to see the fallen buildings, it runs coquettishly away back into the books.  Freud reports a feeling of “derealisation” on seeing the Acropolis, and although he gives his own very characteristic Freudian explanation for this, invoking his personal biography, I suspect that his feeling was very much like mine, and that the kind of disappointment I felt is not at all uncommon.

My disappointment was inevitable because my desire to encounter “the real thing” was inchoate and absurd. Apart from anything else, I was making the physical a kind of talisman for the real. I wanted a broken marble column to present the reality of a lost civilisation to me with an immediacy that a sentence from Pliny, say, can make us yearn for but cannot itself supply. That is a lot to expect from stone.

However ill-defined it might be, this quest for “the real” is pervasive. Tourists are notorious for it. At its most discreditable, it is the quest for the real, authentic culture and traditions of a region, a demand which is profitably supplied by the provision of ersatz, commercially generated resemblances.  But that particular anthropological quest is just one example of something more generic. What we are often trying to get hold of when we travel is “the real” itself. This imperative is made clear when we see tourists crowding around, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta, which can be barely glimpsed beyond its barriers and behind its bulletproof glass. I assume that excellent reproductions afford much better opportunities to explore it. But we want the real thing. The ancient Colosseum, too, can perhaps be better glimpsed in the CGI reconstructions of it that graced the film Gladiator. But we want the real thing.

How do we feel when we confront all this actuality? We are often frustrated. Looking is not enough. We want to have some satisfyingly full experience of the object in question. One of the things we want is to understand it, and looking at just a few of the synonyms for understanding gives a vivid insight into our anxious appetite for the real. To understand something is to comprehend it, and  the archaic meaning of “comprehend,” – “to take together, to unite; include; seize” – meshes nicely with modern idioms: when looking at something with understanding, we “absorb” it; we “take it in.” We want to have it within us. Tourists taking photograph after photograph seem to be anxiously seeking and failing to reassure themselves that they have absorbed into themselves and now truly possess some iconic bit of reality. Just looking thoughtfully at an object has not given them what they need, so they apprehend it in a purely mechanical way, perhaps with some hope that future looking, at the acquired image, will provide the assimilation that has thus far eluded them.

I didn’t bring a camera on holiday with me, so my own attempts to master a sense of separation from the real involved touching. Where signs did not forbid it, I put my hands on things of beauty or interest that I saw in an attempt to “grasp” them – to experience them more fully, to register my encounter with them more securely.

And that brings me to St Peter’s toes. In St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, there is a bronze statue of St Peter, at least 700 years old, possibly much older. He is shown giving a blessing and holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Several of his toes have been worn to flatness by pilgrims over the centuries touching (and kissing) the statue. Pilgrims were the tourists of their day and they are numerous among today’s tourists in Rome. It is interesting to consider the possibility that pilgrims and (other) tourists have a motivation in common. Both groups are seeking a satisfying encounter with “the real.” You could argue that pilgrims are lucky, because they have a relatively clear idea of what this yearned-for absolute is: it is God, conceived as (something like) a universally underlying entity, from whom all particular existences are emanations. And pilgrims have a rich and beautiful set of images and stories that help them to conceptualise an encounter with it. The loss of innocence at the Fall begins our human career as exiles from the presence of the absolute; Christ’s exclamation “Wherefore hast thou deserted me?” is its tragic culmination, and his crucifixion is the means to its transcendence by all of us. The keys held by the bronze St Peter symbolise the possibility of a successful readmission to  the presence of the absolute. When pilgrims touch St Peter’s toes they know what they want: they want him to endorse them and help them in their quest for entry.

Now, regardless of whether it is true or false, that Christian story (of a separation from God and of striving for a redemption that brings a new unity with God) seems to map onto a form of human yearning, a sense of exile and incompleteness that is in some sense prior to religion and can be experienced in a secular fashion. If the Christian story is false (and there is no God, no separation from him, and no reunification either), then pervasive belief in that story cannot be explained by reference to it’s being true, and might well instead be explained in terms of this prior human yearning and sense of exile or separation.

The most plausible explanation for this prior-to-religious sense of a fundamental separation that must be overcome is likely to be a psychological one. But there is one particular manifestation of a secular “yearning for the real” that probably has at least a degree of autonomy from psychological causes. It is our interest in philosophy. Speaking naively, the project of philosophy is to characterise the real, and in particular to give an account of reality that succeeds in overcoming the big mystery that our first forays into philosophy generate: namely, the mystery of how it is that we can have any knowledge of reality at all.

Those first, naive, forays into philosophy occur very naturally to us all, usually in childhood. How do I know if there is anything there at all, really? Am I the only mind? Do you see the same as me when you see something you call “yellow” or feel the same as I do when you feel something you call “pain”? These are intuitively compelling questions that lead us into an equally intuitive and compelling naive philosophical scepticism. As soon as we ask these questions we are cast into a kind of exile from the reality that we had previously been immersed in. Our confidence that we are apprehending reality is shaken. The task of philosophy then becomes the laborious business of rebuilding that confidence, overcoming exile, reuniting us with the real.

It does this either like St Peter by supplying keys of various elaborate sorts that allow passage between our humble consciousnesses and a transcendent reality, or (perhaps more respectably) by providing a critique of the naive questions (together with their naive answers) that prompted our scepticism in the first place. Wittgenstein offers such a critique. When he says that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he is referring to the fact that just as pilgrims and tourists, on their holy days and holidays, travel far afield to engineer an encounter with the real, philosophers (i.e. all of us, as soon as we ask those first naive questions) take language out of its home territory on a trip of a lifetime which is aimed at finding reality but in fact just problematises it in a way that generates the need for the kind of “therapeutic” philosophy that Wittgenstein practices, which largely involves taking language back home again.

Both religion and philosophy offer us ways of conceptualising and seeking to resolve a profound sense of exile or separation from reality, one that we also seek, rather blindly, to resolve in our daily life  (including, in my case at least, when we travel as tourists). Whatever psychological causes there are for this sense of exile are supplemented by the genuine intellectual concerns that give rise to philosophy. Historically, religion has served both to soothe the psychological sources of perceived exile and to address intellectual concerns about the nature of reality and the place of our consciousness within it. Over the centuries, those intellectual concerns have been inherited by philosophy. But while philosophy is the place to look for answers, religion continues to give us a rich mythology of our quest to apprehend the real. And if the real seems to remain beyond our grasp no matter how hard we study, or how many photographs we take, or how many stones we touch, the Christian story and all of its rich imagery at least gives us the consolation of making our exile a thing of great beauty.

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The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas. Doing wrong, being bad, and how novels help us to see the difference

“It’s always wrong for an adult to hit a child, but …”

How do you feel about that “but”? Could it ever it carry any weight for you? Or does it infuriate you? Perhaps it calls to mind a time that you hit your own child, despite your best parenting intentions, in a moment of … what?

If you are Christos Tsiolkas the “but” contains a whole novel. The Slap begins with a man, Harry, hitting a misbehaving child, and it addresses what is arguably a glitch in our moral response to violence against children. On the one hand we all (or nearly all) endorse the claim that it is simply wrong, very wrong, for an adult to slap a three-year-old child in the face. No caveats, no complexity: it is wrong. But on the other hand, as the story helps us to acknowledge, that simple assessment fails to capture what you might call our overall moral response to the incident. Most characters in The Slap agree that the act is wrong but they still differ wildly, some thinking of the perpetrator as a monster who should go to jail, others unwilling to blame him.

The book employs a distinctive structure in order to treat seriously the diversity of possible moral reactions to the slap: each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, so that the novel causes its readers to view the assault on the child and all of the unfolding consequences of that act by positioning and repositioning themselves successively within the consciousnesses of several of the main participants and witnesses.

The question that I find interesting about the book is this: How, exactly, does this journey between perspectives, this project of travelling for the duration of a chapter inside the life of each of a range of characters, help us to see the truth of the matter – the truth, that is, about how, morally, we ought to view violence against a child?

An obvious answer, but one that I think is inadequate to the aspirations of the book, is the following. We need to understand people, we need to walk a mile – or a chapter – in their moccasins, before we judge them for their wrongdoing. When we see a person “from the inside” we become aware of mitigating or exacerbating factors that affect how we respond to their misdeed. And furthermore when we see a succession of “inside views” those perspectives combine in such a way that we can gain a universal, impartial, overall picture that is fair and humane because it combines empathy with objectivity.

There are a few assumptions behind this answer. One of them is the assumption that the rightness or wrongness that we, as readers, are judging is something given entirely independently of our empathetic entry into the life of the perpetrator. We know what Harry has done, so we know that it was wrong: we just need to know more about him to understand why he has acted in this way before we can decide how leniently to feel about the wrongfulness. This is an assumption about morality. Specifically, it involves the assumption that the primary object of moral judgement is the act. An alternative approach makes the person not the act the primary object of judgement. I’ll come back to this distinction in a minute.

A second assumption behind this answer is about truth, or at least about truth as revealed in literature. Just speaking very (very) roughly, it is the idea that truth has a certain relationship with objectivity. According to this assumption, we are profoundly interested in the partial, subjective insights brought by our temporary immersion in each of the characters in the novel, but only as contributions to a complete picture of whatever truths the novel conveys: ultimately, we are looking for the author to assemble these perspectives in such a way that we can see things “as they really are.” I want to come back to this assumption about truth in a subsequent blog post.

So, let’s talk first about the assumption regarding morality – the assumption that the primary locus of moral judgement is the act not the person. Making an action, not a person, the object of moral assessment means looking at the properties of the action in itself, distinct from a particular performance of it by a particular person, to determine whether it is right or wrong. We might say, for example, that it is right or wrong because it falls under a certain moral principle (“Always tell the truth,” “Don’t harm the innocent,” etc. That’s the Kantian approach. Or we might look at the consequences of the action, asking for example, as utilitarians do, whether the action produced more happiness than there would otherwise have been.

Making the person, not the action, the primary object of moral assessment, means asking, not “Is this action the right thing to do?” but, instead “Is the person performing this action a good or a bad person?” It doesn’t mean that we shift our gaze away from action: it means that we analyse actions in a different way – specifically, we look at how a certain action, as performed by a certain person, expresses a nature that is good (in one or more of a range of ways – kind, courageous, generous, even-tempered, etc.) or bad (unkind, cowardly, mean, quick to anger, etc.).

Importantly, to the extent that we make the person not the action the focus of our moral gaze, we mustn’t look at the action in isolation from its particular performances by particular people. Coming back to The Slap, there are three “performances” of slapping a child. Centrally, there is Harry’s hitting of a tantruming three-year-old. Later in the book an elderly person recalls an episode from years ago when a child put himself in danger during a family party by climbing on to a roof. When he is safely down his mother smacks him hard. The third slap in the book comes in the final chapter and again the perpetrator is a mother. She hits Ritchie, her near-adult son, because, as it seems to her at the time, he has behaved shamefully in a way that has deeply hurt her friends.

Now, we could look at those three assaults in terms of the degree of mitigating circumstances that are present in each case. Harry’s patience had been worn thin by the child’s bad behaviour – which culminated in the child threatening Harry’s own son and kicking Harry painfully. The mother of the roof-climbing child had been terrified by the possibility of an accident befalling her much-loved child. And Ritchie’s mother is sensitive to her friends’ suffering, and also frightened by the spectacle of her son behaving badly (an apparent moral fall which is as devastating to her as the possible fall from a roof was to the other mother).

But Christos Tsiolkas gives us something much more radical than mitigation. Mitigation concerns circumstances which make a wrong action explicable, understandable, worthy of excuse or leniency even though it is wrong.

Tsiolkas’s more radical project is, I think, to show us that it is morally  inadequate, confining, impoverished, to assess the rightness or wrongness of an action in isolation from its embedded status in the life of its performer. In The Slap each act performed by each character is a distillation of the life of that character.  The three slaps that we witness aren’t simply three tokens of the same action-type – the action-type called “hitting a child.” They are expressions, or epitomes, of three different lives – lives which themselves are the objects of moral assessment and which are illuminated in successive chapters by the novel’s shifting perspective. Harry is a bad man. We don’t know this when we see him slap the child, but it becomes clear in the later chapter written from his perspective. He is controlling, quick to anger, prone to regard others with scorn and to use them as means to his own gratification. Once we see enough of him to understand his nature we retrospectively revise our characterization of his assault on the three-year-old. His slap comes to be, essentially, characterized in terms of this controlling, scornful, angry nature. When we know him, we have morally relevant knowledge that subverts our earlier assessment of his action. Ritchie’s mother is a good woman. She cares deeply for her friends, she enters very deeply into the soul of her son and wants the very best for him – which includes wanting him to be good. Her slap is, essentially, characterized in terms of her loving, concerned, morally serious nature.

People are good or bad (or, more usually of course, a mixture). The actions people perform are the expressions of their good or bad (or, more usually, mixed) nature. We miss this when we make abstractions from people to acts, and assess acts in themselves. Literature, especially literature like The Slap which requires us to immerse ourselves in the lives of a succession of characters, gives us back the concrete; it forces us to take seriously the “embedded” nature of action.

And literature also greatly simplifies that embeddedness in such a way as to highlight morally significant features – because of course in a novel people have a relatively small set of characteristics, compared with real-life complexity, and every one of these characteristics  is present to the reader (provided that the reader reads thoughtfully enough). There is nothing hidden, nothing beneath the documented characteristics, so the relationship between a person’s nature and the expression of that nature in action can be made fast and clear and determinate. There is no similar clarity in life. Too many variables, too many secrets. That is one of the reasons why we need literature so as to be able to rehearse and clarify our moral responses.

I don’t think that this moral focus on the person as distinct from the action constitutes the whole of our proper moral response to the situations we encounter. It is a part of our moral life. The alternative approach, the one that makes actions primary and looks just to the action itself (not its performance by a concrete individual) as the source of right-making or wrong-making properties, is another part of our moral life.

“It is always wrong to hit a child”: that is a legitimate judgement issuing from our actions-based moral thinking. “But …”: that is a legitimate counterweight issuing from our persons-based moral thinking. Both have a part to play, and they aren’t reducible to or wholly reconcilable with one another. That is one reason why our moral reactions are glitch-prone.

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Why flawed writing is better than none: the richness of imperfection

Claire Creffield

former (shoddy) title:  “Why shoddy writing is better than good writing”

I tried to write a perfect piece for this blog last week. It was going to be about how online conversation might fail to give us the deep communication with other people that I had optimistically credited it with in my last post (Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the internet). I was going to talk about the facile ways in which we use the internet to make mirrors of ourselves, seeking out similar people with similar views, honing our lists of friends and followers to create an uncritical image of ourselves projected outwards, on to other people, rather than inviting those others inwards to join in the kind of conversations that rework, revise the conceptions of ourselves that we have. I wanted to relate our mirror-making use of the internet to certain discussions of the ways in which we use great literature to revise our conceptions of ourselves – in fact to reconstitute ourselves. On these accounts of literature, each work – each novel for example – is completed by each reader in her act of reading it, and in its completed versions it is about the reader. This literary mirror-making might seem like a rather imperialist account of reading, in which we displace diverse fictional others – those great personalities of Achilles, Hamlet, Dorothea Brooke, etc. – by making them the locations of a rehearsal of our own personality. But that is not straightforwardly right, because these accounts of literature are ones in which the reading self is not constituted antecedently  to each individual’s  project of rendering it in words, in narrative; and for that reason each reading self is completed in each literary work just as much as each literary work is completed in each reading self: the mirror is a two-way one. When I make a mirror of myself, either by shaping my online contacts or by reading a novel and finding myself there, that can be saved from being a crassly uncritical, other-denying act by a recognition that my self is made and remade in the course of its reflection in others, and in the course of reflecting those others. On one account in particular, given in Garry L. Hagberg’s “Literature and the Constitution of Personhood,” this kind of mutuality flows from Wittgensteinian thoughts about the essentially public nature of meaning, the generation within collaborative linguistic practices of much that is wrongly thought of as existing antecedently to such practices.

As I say, I tried to write of these things. And I tried to get it right. And I failed, and so I posted nothing. That seemed ironic, and more than usually self-defeating, because the attempt to make a piece of writing perfect is overbearingly excluding of the contributions, the reactions, the active presence of readers in much the same way as we are guilty of when we engage in the crassest, most uncritical mirror-making in our formation of online contacts or in our reading of literature — when we engage in the kind of mirror-making that seeks only self-confirmation (the confirmation of a ready-made unchanging self) from interaction with others. What is left for the reader when a text is perfect, other than to say ‘Yes!’ (which is make their mind a mirror of a set of meanings rendered antecedently)? What becomes of the idea that the writings in which the self is rendered are radically incomplete before being read, and are completed in the course of being read, in the course of being apprehended in the active mind of a reader – who simultaneously attains part of her self-completion?

When I think of my notional reader saying ‘Yes!’ to my words, I’m reminded of Joseph Grand in Camus’s novel The Plague who has spent many years working on a novel but has yet to complete the first sentence, because he wants it to be so perfect that on reading it a publisher will call ‘Hats off!’ to his staff, to honour its perfection. It is very important to Grand his sentence is ‘true’. He says that he wants it to be a ‘photograph’ of reality (to be a mirror of something antecedently given). Truth is an honourable ambition, and indeed Camus calls Grand the hero of his novel. But Grand’s pursuit of truth is absurd, because truth in a novel is not captured in sentences: it is false that Grand’s “elegant young horsewoman” might have been “seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne,” no matter how much he tinkers with the words. Truth in fiction is captured in far larger units, perhaps in the narrative taken as a whole; and Grand’s perfectionism is suspending that narrative – in his book and in his life. Mesmerised by a mirroring relationship between a sentence and a woodland scene, he is excluding himself from a creative exploration of truths that are constituted in our active fluid investigation of them.

Much better, perhaps, for Grand and certainly for me, to write a piece that is full of holes, a piece that is porous – open to others’ correction, enlargement, clarification, completion. Blogging seems the ideal platform for this kind of constructive imperfection. What’s said online can be said accumulatively; it can be said once today, and again and differently tomorrow and the day after, with the value of what is written being observed in the  progression through many flawed efforts rather than simply in some notional final rendering. That accumulation would be a narrative of the repeated formation and reformation of meanings in the course of an attempted communication with others and in the light of their responses. As such, it would display the truth that, here and in my previous post, I am trying to state: the essentially communicative, social nature of the project of knowledge.

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Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the internet

Claire Creffield

In a moving essay on the relationship between philosophy and literature, Richard Shusterman1 suggests why the philosophical project of “knowing oneself” cannot be an austerely solitary exercise, but must embrace the joy and beauty of carefully expressed communication with others. Solitary introspection – “digging into oneself, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being,” in Nietzsche’s words – is not only psychologically dangerous, it is also a flawed and limited investigation. We need our self-examination to be conducted in terms that allow and encourage the participation of other people.

At its most basic, this is simply the claim that introspection requires language; it requires us to make more or less precise verbal representations of ourselves in the medium of shared and public meanings. But more than this, on Shusterman’s account the commitment to expressing oneself in language moves us rapidly to acknowledge the value of criticism. “What seems right in one’s interior thinking may ring false and inadequate once it is actually said or written down,”  he says. We  achieve a valuable critical distance from ourselves by the project of rendering ourselves in words, one that allows us to refine or transform the terms in which we think of ourselves. And this distance is also a space into which criticism from others must be invited. When I put down some words in the hope that they convey something truthful and important in the project of coming to self-knowledge, I will typically assess them in terms of the sense they might make – or fail to make – to others. I imagine a reader, and her reactions. Without that regulative ideal, the project of rendering oneself in words has no adequately independent standard of success.

And if an imagined reader is of such value, how much more valuable must an actual reader be. Her actual reactions to my words will be a sterner sort of criticism than my imagined version of her reactions. Or perhaps a kinder sort of criticism. At any rate they will have more of the robust autonomy that the concept of critical distance commits us to. And more than that, a reader, a real reader,  might be a source of support, advice, encouragement, consolation, in the difficult project of self-examination. In Shusterman’s words:

This need for a dialogical friend in the pursuit of self-knowledge and self-improvement is already clear in Plato’s Alcibiades, where Socrates not only uses his external perspective to show his interlocutor’s lack of self-knowledge and need for self-cultivation, but also repeatedly frames his exhortation to undertake this pursuit by underlining his enduring love for Alcibiades and assuring him of his faithful, affectionate support in this self-ameliorative struggle: “[S]omeone who loves your soul, will not leave you as long as you’re making progress” (Alcibiades 131d).

Now think about the forum in which one reveals oneself to a reader. In the literal “forum” of the urban spaces in which classical Socratic dialogues took place, we can imagine that there was amongst the participants a very strong commitment to making the greatest possible effort at frank and insightful self-revelation, and a strong faith that such efforts would be met with acceptance and reciprocation. This face-to-face conduct of shared introspection, says Shusterman, evolved during antiquity into a practice of philosophical letter-writing, in which , because “there is no fear that one might have to face an embarrassed, bored, or disappointed look from one’s interlocutor at the very moment of one’s self-expression … self-exposure can be freer still.”

Think about the forums for shared introspection that we have today. Online forums. At their best (and I am talking here only about our best experiences of online discourse: we know too well the mediocrity or worse that predominates), online forums have two wonderfully creative characteristics: they have all of the immediacy, all of the intimacy of Socrates’ marketplace conversations with his friends, but they also have some of the distancing characteristics of an exchange of letters.

The creative distance from our thoughts that the best online forums can give us is quite easy to formulate. Even in the fastest-moving online exchanges we tend to be able to take a little time to achieve a critical distance from our thoughts, compared with what tends to happen in face-to-face discourse. We craft our responses to make them as clear as possible; we have the time to reflect upon them in ways conductive to truth-seeking. If we are lucky there is a shared enjoyment of the written word, a joint project of clarity. Moreover, we need not fear “an embarrassed, bored, or disappointed look” (except perhaps in emoticon form) when our conversational partners are hidden by the vast intervention of technology.  We and they might  be further hidden by anonymous usernames. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (Oscar Wilde). In this way, distance, separation, makes the challenging commitment to frank exchanges of difficult truths a little easier.

But this enriching distance is not at the sacrifice of intimacy. A conversation in which all of the concrete particularities of one’s interlocutors are suppressed – in which one is in conversation merely with usernames, and their age, sex, ethnicity, dress sense, accent, etc., are all absent, so that the exchange can seem at first almost like an unpeopled flow of ideas – can be one in which all of the inessential barriers between self and other are miraculously dismantled. My first experience of online conversation reminded me strongly of my first experience of reading Russian literature. Thanks to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I found myself directly inside the heads of people very different from myself. If I showed up in nineteenth-century Russia I would be overwhelmed by difference, by the foreignness and impenetrability of countesses and criminals so unlike me that I would be in a very poor position to share their wisdoms and perplexities. But excellent novels abstract from differences to give us a (nonetheless highly textured and engaged) account of shared experience. Similarly, I am capable of being overwhelmed by the difference, the foreignness and impenetrability of my nearest neighbours, of allowing their high heels, or the crucifix round their neck, or their youth, or their age – or the possibility of their similarly prejudiced judgements of me – to dim my perception of their wisdoms and perplexities. By hiding these differences, the internet, like the novel, puts our deepest selves in direct communion with one another.

On top of this abstraction from difference, online conversation breeds a further intimacy: the shared experience of the forum itself, its particular conventions, and the history of the enriching conversations had there.   And that allows intimacy to grow and deepen, even when we come to lift the veil of mutual ignorance a little and meet – sometimes in person – the actual particular individuals with whom we have been talking.

For all these reasons, I have found online conversation an immense resource in the development of my thoughts.

There is quite widespread endorsement in our culture of the practice of journal-writing as a means of achieving better knowledge of ourselves. Often these journals have been very private affairs, published only incidentally or not at all. But the essentially social nature of self-examination that I have been thinking about here clarifies the limitations of private reflection. What’s needed, then, is journal-keeping plus publicity, plus the unique combination of intimacy and distance facilitated by online forums: which equals … blogging.

Blogging might seem (has always seemed to me) like a hideously public way of conducting personal reflection, but its saving grace is its joyful acknowledgement of the inescapably communicative nature of thought.  Blogging puts into practice a recognition that, if a private language is an impossibility, so, too, it is impossible to pursue self-knowledge by means of a wholly private use of language.

One good thing about coming through the above reflections to an awareness of the value of blogging is that, although it involves acknowledging the conceptual need to reach out to a reader, it can survive the actual absence of that reader (which is the fate, as I understand it, of the majority of blogs). As well as actual exchanges of letters, philosophy has been conducted through fictional exchanges. Augustine, for example, directed his Confessions to God, addressed “ as a dialogical partner … an intimate, loving, caring, attentive (though infinitely superior) friend with whom one could share one’s deepest secrets, struggles, and hopes for self-knowledge, self-improvement, and salvation, and who provides the sturdiest support for this pursuit of the good while also being the ultimate judge of its success.” Perhaps there is a God, but more than likely there is not. Perhaps my blog might have a reader, but more than likely it will not. Either way, the imagined eyes of another, sympathetic but critical, intimate but distanced, are an aid to careful reflection.

1 Richard Shusterman, Philosophy as Literature and More than Literature. In Garry L. Hagberg and Walter Jost, A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 7–21. All quotations in this post are from this work.

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Fellow Patients: bite five

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The afternoon’s grey daylight had begun to fade, and fluorescent lights coated the room with a bleachy sheen, not bright but thorough. Every dark contour was pulled into a smooth illumination, making a frictionless scene that slipped past Paul unreachably. He looked around,  his veering glance seeking something that would hold his attention. Something that would hold him.

He saw Len, standing in front of him now, saying something to him. ‘Do you want a cup of tea? I’ll get yours if you like. Milk and sugar? Same as me?’

Len looked eagerly at Paul as the tea trolley rattled into the room. ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Paul, and they set off together.

Paul did not look around for his guardian nurse as the other patients began making their way back into the dayroom. He and Len stood next to one another in the queue for tea.

‘I threw up in the van, on the way here,’ said Paul. ‘It was because of thinking about what I had done. The security man wouldn’t clean it up; he just left it there the whole journey.’

When the guard who travelled with Paul had seen the vomit at Paul’s feet, he had in fact gone quite readily to get disposable gloves, disinfectant and paper towels. Prisoners often got travelsick in their claustrophobic secure enclosures in the van. But Paul seized the chance to tell his captor how he felt. He wanted not to be hated. So he explained to the guard why he had been sick:

‘I kept on thinking about that poor girl. It made me nauseous. I didn’t want to hurt her.’

That was too much for the guard. He didn’t think that a puddle of vomit really made the grade as a token of repentance.

‘Is that right?’ he said, before leaving Paul locked in with the mess.

At the head of the tea queue now, Len poured a cup for himself and one for Paul, adding milk and sugar to both. He handed Paul his tea.

‘You’re looking in the wrong place, Paul. That guard, he’s one of the good guys; they never let you off the hook,’ Len said. ‘It’s like when I kept telling Jesus how bad I felt about what I had done to him. It was hopeless. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” that’s what he preached. Well Jesus is without sin and he lobs stones at me all the time. The way he looks at me … so disappointed, so hurt.’ Len spoke lightly but he shook his head and gave Paul an imploring look.

‘It’s because I’m not weak like you. He’d forgive you. But I’m his father and I’m supposed to get things right.’

Paul recalled the girl’s miserable face after he raped her. She had looked right at him when he told her he was sorry, but then she looked away again and kept on crying. Why hadn’t she shut up and let him look after her? She would still be alive then and he wouldn’t be here. Bitch. He allowed himself to think that word.

He sat down among a cluster of other patients. He looked around at them and wondered what they had done to end up in this place. Probably some of them had committed famous crimes that he had read about in the papers. May be he could ask them.

A nurse came up behind him and spoke quietly. ‘Just to let you know, Paul, you’re off assessment now. You seem to have settled in well and we’ll have a chat soon about fitting you into all the ward activities.’

‘Welcome aboard!’ said the man sitting next to Paul, raising his teacup and then chinking it against Paul’s. Len was standing at the centre of the group. He took a couple of steps towards Paul and knelt down, so that his bloated face was close to Paul’s. He looked angry again and Paul was afraid.

‘Remember, Paul, Jesus is just an errand boy. What does it matter what he thinks? I’m judge and jury, nobody else. Stick with me. You’ll be fine.’


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Fellow Patients: bite four

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four:    Len tells Paul about his crime

‘I’d built a nice place for them,’ Len began. ‘I wanted them to be happy, really I did. But they fucked it up. They made me angry, they were always making me angry.’

‘Who? What did they do?’ Paul asked.

‘You know what they did. I told them not to, but they ate the apple!’ Len slung a mischievous look at Paul. He knew that his words were exasperating and seemed ridiculous, that they spiralled away from the crime report Paul wanted to hear. It was funny to make Paul’s skin prickle and his stomach turn with the fear of madness.

He shook his head and sucked air between his teeth, like a builder about to give a rip-off estimate for a job of work.  ‘I told them not to do it, but they did it anyway.’

‘Oh right,’ said Paul. The anger had dropped out of his voice, which was now bleakly comic. He gave a short laugh and lowered his head. ‘That makes sense. Go on then, tell me about that instead.’

Len was warming to his storytelling now and put his plump hand on Paul’s arm as if to stop him walking away.

‘And that’s how it kept on and on with the whole lot of you afterwards. I kept giving you chances to make everything ok again and you kept screwing it up. I got so furious. I was sick of you. I just kept killing and tormenting.  But it never changed anything. And then – at last! – I had a new idea. Forgiveness! Let them have a fresh start!’

Paul wanted to hear about forgiveness, even from a madman, and he relaxed a little in his chair. Len had a story to tell, and it didn’t matter if it was a true story, or a mad story, or just something to soothe Paul or pass the time. Len took his hand from Paul’s arm and leaned back in his chair.

‘Right from the start I had rammed into them how sinful they were. But then I decided to try a bit of positive parenting.’ Len grinned. ‘You know how the childcare books go on about it? “Ignore your child’s failures and praise his successes. Tell him you love him no matter what.” I decided to try something like that. People are always so stupidly determined to think well of me! They say that I offered up forgiveness as a kind of a free gift because I was so brimful of love. But it was just a tactical decision! To try to squeeze out a bit of goodness.

‘I had to have a way of telling them they were forgiven – and making them believe it. To start with that was the only reason for sending Jesus. He just had to tell them the good news. But there was another thing. The really difficult part. I had to actually stop punishing people, or nothing Jesus said would mean anything. And the way I felt then … I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them get away with it. I started to realise that the only way I could give up hurting these people, these ungrateful bastards, was by genuinely forgiving them. And how could I do that?

‘I made some special plans for Jesus. I decided to give myself the pleasure of punishing one more time. I decided to hurt him, really hurt him badly. That would let me be nice again.

‘I had to make him perfectly forgiving – the opposite of me! Because then he would be able to convince people that it didn’t matter what they had done.  They would be able to see that he really, really meant it, he really loved them. Even while I was making him I could feel the forgiveness just pulsing through him. He saw and forgave, saw and forgave. He saw all you sinners and he just wanted to run up and wipe away the tears. But when he saw me! There was a moment when he could tell. He could see that what I really wanted was revenge, and that made him frightened, for a little while. That’s when he could have stopped me. If he had said anything it would have made me too ashamed to do it. Stupid man.  He wouldn’t let himself believe that his precious dad could be so wicked.

‘Anyway, there he is. Down on earth. He grows up, he preaches, he gets arrested. The soldiers knock him about a bit. Then there was the crown of thorns. I liked that. Just a scratch and a niggle to begin with, but with all the effort of hauling the cross about it soon turned into a throbbing headache. The blood dribbled down his forehead and got mixed up with sweat. It went into his eyes so that he had to screw them up and he couldn’t see where he was going. When he bumped into people in the crowd they shoved him back and yelled at him. I told him: “Don’t expect too much from that lot! They’re sure to let you down.”

‘Then they hammered in the nails and the agony was – oh, it was fantastic, such a relief. It was everything that I had wanted.

‘But I was enjoying myself so much that he saw – finally! – what a good time I was having. He saw that he was my victim – we weren’t just partners.  “My God! Why have you deserted me?” When he said that …! That was the best part. I got what I wanted.

‘But that’s what made it all come to an end – you know about that, don’t you? About that moment when you’ve done it – you’ve got the nasty little pleasure that you’d been planning,  so you switch out of the fantasy and see how things are. That’s right, isn’t it, Paul? You see what you have done. I was devastated.  I couldn’t believe I had done it. I still can’t believe it. I tortured my little boy to death.

Len leant forward , his forearms resting on his thighs. He stared blankly.

‘It worked, though,’ he said. ‘You were all forgiven. I don’t give a fuck about you anymore.’

Len looked at the clock. ‘Anyway, it’s nearly tea now,’ he said. ‘Do you feel better? Has it helped?’

Go to the next installment

Copyright C. A. Creffield

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