Said and read – February 2019

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What is it about options that is so difficult for us? Why do we feel compelled to keep as many doors open as possible, even at great expense? Why can’t we simply commit ourselves?” – Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

Once more I have not managed to read as much as in previous years, and this makes me a bit sad. I hope to pick up more books starting in March.

Previous Said and read blog posts: 2019 – January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February:

What holds true for a conversation holds equally true for reading, which is—or should be—a conversation between the author and the reader. Of course, in reading (as well as in a personal conversation) whom I read from (or talk with) is important. Reading an artless, cheap novel is a form of daydreaming.” –Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm

Highly recommended

*Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our DecisionsDan Ariely

I was surprised to find that a book I stumbled on accidentally as a part of my psychology studies was quite engaging. Essentially Ariely explores decision-making, and how we think we are being perfectly rational as we make decisions. Many influences come into play, often largely invisible, unconscious forces, and Ariely and colleagues have run a number of experiments to examine some of these influences and the irrational conclusions of our decisions. It’s fascinating stuff looking at how, for example, something is framed, changes our perception of its value or importance, whether it is negative or positive.

Most of all I enjoyed the parts about how humans love to collect more and more options, leaving all options open, but forego in many cases, the truly important or most valuable outcomes, in an effort to never have to make a choice or let go of the endless options before us (stuff like online/app-driven dating presents this dilemma with great immediacy). Strangely, Ariely cites Erich Fromm, the only other thing of significance I finished reading in February, on the topic of too many options, too much opportunity.

Good – really good

*Fascism, Power, and Individual Rights: Escape from FreedomErich Fromm
*To Have or To Be? – Erich Fromm
*The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – Erich Fromm

On some level, I am disappointed in myself for reading so few books in February, but I do try to remind myself that the Erich Fromm volume I’ve just finished reading is actually several books within one volume.

Fromm has been coming up in my readings on psychology, philosophy and some other more New Age type reading I did over two years ago when I started my mission to read more (I started by reading some books a friend had asked me to read to her and record a very long time ago, which included these “New Age” type books). These antecedents coupled with my own curiosity and the relevance of these theories given the current political and social climate gave me a reason to get through these books, which weren’t always easy. I found it best to read these when I was a captive audience and basically had nothing else to do but focus, i.e. on plane journeys. Most recently I was flying between Frankfurt and Glasgow, and a flight attendant scared the shit out of me by standing very close behind me, staring over my shoulder (without my realizing it) and almost whispering in my ear, “That’s the smallest font! You must have excellent eyes.” But apart from that strange interruption, I was able to read these books in peace.

It was perhaps most interesting to see Fromm’s assertion in Escape from Freedom: “The United States has shown itself resistant against all totalitarian attempts to gain influence.” Perhaps so, at the time of writing. Fromm was not blind enough to think the situation static: “Yet all these reassuring facts must not deceive us into thinking that the dangers of “escape from freedom” are not as great, or even greater today than they were when this book was first published. Does this prove that theoretical insights of social psychology are useless, as far as their effect on human development is concerned? It is hard to answer this question convincingly, and the writer in this field may be unduly optimistic about the social value of his own and his colleagues’ work. But with all due respect to this possibility, my belief in the importance of awareness of individual and social reality has, if anything, grown.

As Fromm examines the societal shifts that came about as a result of the shift from economic systems of the medieval era to what is now capitalism, we see echoes of the kinds of questions being raised in how we live (and in many cases suffer) today:

In one word, capitalism not only freed man from traditional bonds, but it also contributed tremendously to the increasing of positive freedom, to the growth of an active, critical, responsible self. However, while this was one effect capitalism had on the process of growing freedom, at the same time it made the individual more alone and isolated and imbued him with a feeling of insignificance and powerlessness.

He also writes at length about something that is one of my personal annoyances – boredom (or “insufficient inner productivity”). He argues that this belongs to the kind of society we live in, the creation of the need for constant stimulation and the disintegration of man’s place in society (having a role and knowing what he should be doing):

“Chronic boredom—compensated or uncompensated—constitutes one of the major psychopathological phenomena in contemporary technotronic society, although it is only recently that it has found some recognition. Before entering into the discussion of depressive boredom (in the dynamic sense), some remarks on boredom in a behavioral sense seem to be in order. The persons who are capable of responding productively to “activating stimuli” are virtually never bored—but they are the exception in cybernetic society. The vast majority, while not suffering from a grave illness, can be nevertheless considered suffering from a milder form of pathology: insufficient inner productivity. They are bored unless they can provide themselves with ever changing, simple—not activating—stimuli.”

On so many levels, the readings are deep and difficult and range across so many different subjects from history to linguistics, from philosophy to the nature of love or collective versus individual identity; it is hard to summarize here (and is probably not even necessary – if you’re interested in these kinds of things you will seek this out).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Half-Blood BluesEsi Edugyan

It took a long time to get into this book, but once I did I enjoyed it and was able to reassess the style that made it hard to “crack”. It does not immediately come across as linear and is hard to insert oneself into, but once you do it’s got quite rich language and a wholly new perspective. It is possible one I will need to read a second time to appreciate fully.

Coincidences

No great coincidences this time.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I really read anything disappointing… boring textbooks don’t really count since they are useful and required, even if they don’t ignite creativity or excitement in the way that fiction or poetry might.

Zero-sum game: Learning to give

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I read recently that there is a backlash to e-book sales in the UK. I love the immediacy and convenience of being able to get books on my Kindle device, especially because I live in the country, and even if bookstores were more accessible, I’d find precious little to suit my tastes. I could never feed the hunger for a book a day that is my current appetite, and if I could, I would not find quite the range of things I want. Thus, I appreciate e-books, but there are moments that I long for the real thing. (I suppose this is not unlike something like … if I may be so crass, sex toys/masturbation versus actual sex. Imitation does its job and in many cases may even be more effective, but it’s more clinical. Nothing is quite the same as the real thing. And guess what? It’s National Masturbation Month now! Take note!) In fact, imitation is one of the ways we can isolate ourselves, which is the point of this meandering ramble.)

We could praise this shift – moving to more compact and “less wasteful” modes of producing information, but we lose tradition and the ritual that comes with selecting a new books – the heft of it in your hands, the smell of the paper, the thickness and quality of the paper, the artwork/design, the way the book’s spine wears and pages grow tattered. We love them in a way we will never love an e-book. As cumbersome as it was to travel with books, for example, I enjoyed taking books on the road with me and then leaving them behind in airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, friends’ houses, cafes, wondering if their story would continue – would someone else take possession of the book and get something completely new? What would happen to a book I purchased in Iceland and left in Halifax, Montreal, Mexico City? Now, this will never happen again.

We have certainly lost something – not just in consuming and loving literature but in the way we live, the way we define ourselves, the way we consume, the way we relate to and love others and ourselves and, fundamentally, the way we are. Perhaps it does not matter because the universe as a whole is just a long series of losing things – or things imperceptibly changing. But observing the moment we live in, it feels hollow. No amount of flashing lights and distractions can distract from the emptiness the culture creates.

Dubravka Ugrešić writes in Karaoke Culture:

“The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”

“We walk through the world with our memory sticks around our necks, each of us with our own homepage, each of us with an archive stored on the web. We, are everywhere . . . And the more voluminous the archive that trails us, the less of ourselves there seems to be . . . We don’t communicate with each other . . . Oh so modern, we put things on YouTube so anyone can gawk at them. We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks out of our lives. We enjoy the orgy of being, twittering, buying new toys, iPhones and iPads, and all the while our hunger just grows and grows. We wear memory sticks around our necks, having of course first made copies. The memory stick is our celestial sarcophagus, our soul, our capsule, our soul in a capsule*.”

“In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world, irrespective of whether the discontented individual uses the bark of a tree, his or her body, the Internet, photography, an act of vandalism, murder, or art. In the roots of this culture, however, lies a more serious motive: fear of death. From the surface of karaoke culture shimmers the mask of death.”

We are indeed more alienated and isolated – both from others and, even more alarmingly, from ourselves. But with gadgets, platforms and forms of high-tech mirrors, we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-aware because we are self-involved, self-obsessed even. But it’s the superficial self we plaster all over every new social media channel and into every app – crying out for attention – and connection – but moving further away from it all the time as we turn ourselves into caricatures, and eventually, commodities. And we start to see each other as commodities for exchange.

Treating each other as commodities, and treating ourselves as objects we must market and ‘improve’ so we can place the highest value possible on ourselves (but in a way that somehow empties us of self-esteem), started as a pet peeve for me but has grown into a full-blown worry as the trend has accelerated in the digital age and become its own form of epidemic. Dehumanized automatons cataloging themselves online for consumption in one form or another. I am no less guilty of committing this commoditization crime, subscribing to the “marketplace” idea of love or care. We convince ourselves there’s an endless supply of other, better, more interesting options, and so teach ourselves to dehumanize – that there is nothing to treasure, and nothing to trust in. It’s not a new idea, attempting to assign an ROI to people, to cut losses. It’s a game of emotional preservation, but it’s also a perversity. Eventually it does become about summing up balance sheets and ensuring you’re not playing a zero-sum game. And what in the hell does that have to do with care, love, compassion, feeling? It’s not just treating others this way – it’s an internal devaluation that leads us there in the first place.

Erich Fromm captures these very concerns in his The Art of Loving – and did so long before the advent of the internet:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.”

“At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one’s own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.”

It’s not just technology that has created this, as evidenced by Fromm’s observations from the 1950s. But technology sprays fuel on the fire and changes. Ugrešić highlights how technology radically changes the perception of everything. I relate, having succumbed to the same mindless tv addiction she describes and am now “clean”. I take it a step further to say it has changed our perception of who we are – how we are – what we are capable of (so much more in some ways, but so much less in others):

“It’s a notorious fact that technology radically changes one’s perception of everything, including time. Thirty years ago I could wile away the hours on the cinematic aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and similar directors. Today I am ashamed to admit that my eyes have simply been weaned off them; the shots are too long, too slow, and the plot, if there is one, plodding and ambiguous. I used to love all that auteur stuff, but today I don’t have the patience. In the intervening time I’ve become hooked on cinematic “fast food.” Flowing in my veins, this fast food has changed the rhythm of my heart, my attention span, and the rhythms of my respiration. The truth is that I overdosed on television, and so I don’t watch it anymore. I’ve been clean for a while now, and I don’t miss it a bit. But I do watch lots of documentaries—it doesn’t matter what they’re about, the most important thing is that they’re “slow food,” that they offer me the illusion that what is happening on the screen really is happening. The way I read has changed too. At first I was surprised when friends told me that they were going to speed-reading courses. Now I’m thinking about enrolling in a course myself. My eyes are too slow, the computer screen just gets richer and faster, and my attention span is ever shorter. From the sheer quantity of information my memory is getting worse and worse. It’s not just that I have no idea what I consumed on the Internet yesterday, it’s that I don’t remember what I sucked up five minutes ago.”

Should we be alarmed? It can be argued that laws, social mores, technology of earlier ages also came along and changed things. Airplanes, telephones, cars, inheritance laws, vaccines, and so on and on. Every generation predicts the end of civilization (or possibly something slightly less hyperbolic but nevertheless negative) because of change. But change is inevitable. Does it matter, for example, if young people’s brains end up being wired differently because of their affinity for devices? Does it contribute to this disconnection people my age and older are screaming about? Does it matter that taking notes in longhand will make the information stick if young people never really learn to write? Should these be the things we get upset about? Should we listen as Pope Francis chides the digital world for acting as a roadblock to “learning how to live wisely, think deeply, and to love generously”?

Is the loss of tradition, ritual, care going to objectify everything and everyone? Have we already crossed that line? We already “value” everything that is instant or fast. We cannot seem to handle things that are ambiguous or hard. Where do we find hope in this landscape?

Maybe it’s in all those people who take up knitting; all these “rebels” embracing old-fashioned books and letter writing; maybe it’s the neighbor planting a garden. And at the core, perhaps, it is also extending the sense of humanity and connection – building love, which is actually one of the most difficult things. No wonder we run in terror.

Fromm again:

“This attitude — that nothing is easier than to love — has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm poses a question, which he may actually, in some measure, have answered himself:

“Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?”

The answer, as I see it, apart from finding a way to love, is to cultivate true giving. The two go hand in hand.

“Nothing’s free unless it’s freely given” – Charlie Hilton, “Pony”

We can only love if we give freely, and we can really only give freely by loving. Actively. And through both, we can feel alive.

“Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answers to the question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated. People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation that to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

*See also Hal Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life.

The bony prominence

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there’s a body on the railings/that i can’t identify/and i’d like to reassure you but/i’m not that kind of guy” –robyn hitchcock & the egyptians, “raymond chandler evening”

The gaze of the besotted: “You could talk, and I could simply… stare.” And the response of the sensei-like object, quietly bearing witness to repeated patterns and burned one too many times: Soften this with caution. After all, on Friday, all the animals behaved strangely. Deer and cats all racing up and down hills and into hiding with swiftness that suggested they were all being chased by some invisible predator. Birds were flying in strange, almost panicked, patterns. Should this signal that we take cover, adopt caution as the mantra, or that we should live with reckless abandon?

“What does a yellow light mean?”
“Slow down.”
“Whaaat …. does …… a yel-llllllow……light… mean?”

In the simmer of the slow, thoughts on the theme of training or re-training (the self) resurface. I wondered, after reaching middle age, having spent most of the first half of my life alone (the adult part), whether it is possible to train yourself to – and can you – be around another person – that is, all the time? Not just a dinner date or a weekend together in the Algarve. But really be together. All the evidence I see around me says no. And all the case studies of people who have toughed it out for 20, 30 or even, like my parents, 43 years (actually more than that, but 43 years of marriage as of this past suntanned Friday full of wild and domestic animals run amok), indicate that it’s more misery than mirth.

Having lived without sharing space or time, can you shift the routine and way of thinking to accommodate another – can you even become desirous of spending life’s second half (or some part of it) with someone else? Or is the temptation of liberal and free abandon too great? I wonder sometimes if this form of isolating oneself is actually a form of alienation, which Erich Fromm touched upon:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.” (from The Art of Loving)

On the other hand, Calvino offers:

“And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it’.” (from Invisible Cities)

The aged: A life of training

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“How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved mystery.” – Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (Carlo Rovelli)

J said to me: “You seem to be someone who is blissfully, refreshingly, enviably free of… pressure.”

Perhaps this too is an unsolved mystery. It took time to be this calm. Or indifferent. (Picture John Hannah here, menacingly responding to an entreaty to calm down: “I’ve never been more calm.” I’d include the video but couldn’t find it.) Pressure isn’t building, even if heat bubbles up under the surface. That’s different: but how does the gravitational field behave when it heats up? We all want to know. But it’s probably not a pressure cooker.

Calm, one would think, comes with age. But not really. It’s an individual thing. Some continue to grow more uptight, rigid and agitated as time goes on and responsibilities, decisions and grievances accumulate. I, on the other hand, have moved slowly in the opposite direction. Is it some discipline that was once conscious that shifted imperceptibly into a natural, unconscious behavior? Some form of lifelong training?

FROM The Spirit of Place
-Adrienne Rich

Are we all in training for something we don’t name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not

survive what was done to them    whom we ought to honor
with grief    with fury    with action
On a pure night    on a night when pollution

seems absurdity when the undamaged planet seems to turn
like a bowl of crystal in black ether
they are the piece of us that lies out there
knowing    knowing    knowing

But it does not matter. Not the why or how. Just that I am.

Many things that end up attributed to age, aging or being aged, may not in fact be related to age. Duh. Experience, and perhaps even more importantly, openness to experience, imbues one with a curiosity and, as Erich Fromm describes it, a concentration/sensitivity. It is learning to stand on your own two feet, to be freely alone, to embrace patience, to be sensitive not only to oneself but to others. I am not always good at these things, but it is a process:

“If I am attached to another person because I cannot stand on my own feet, he or she may be a lifesaver, but the relationship is not one of love. Paradoxically, the ability to be alone is the conditions for the ability to love. Anyone who tries to be alone with himself will discover how difficult it is.”

“To have an idea of what patience is one need only watch a child learning to walk. It falls, falls again, and falls again, and yet it goes on trying, improving, until one day it walks without falling. What could the grown-up person achieve if he had the child’s patience and its concentration in the pursuits which are important to him!”

Mature sex: Stay calm, but hot

Embracing age, being alone and even the fundamentals of unconditional love (as a concept), we are still left with our bodies and the demands they make. And then what is most telling is how one thinks about the sexuality of the aged/aging. I’m calm, facing the realities of wild and dramatic corporeal metamorphosis (when is the body not changing, either from uncontrollable forces or our own manipulations?) and half a lifetime of experience and observation. I know the story isn’t finished. We are not a very mature society, at least from an anglo-world perspective, imagining sexuality to be the domain of the young, nubile, and virile, turning away from and denying that it may very well drive us at all ages, continuing to add fuel to the fire of our lives, until the end.

In a somewhat related sphere, I have come to evaluate the people I meet based on how they react to a specific film: Cloud 9/Wolke 9 (a German film – not the Disney film). I wrote about it before. Basically it’s a story of average, normal senior citizens and their love and sex lives. It acknowledges how the body, how the perspectives, how the perceptions, how the wants and desires change. Do you stop wanting sex – or, more importantly, the intimacy of being with someone with whom you can talk and laugh and be understood through it all just because you’re old? No. I keep coming back to and referring to this film. Not that it was a masterpiece, but I have rarely seen these issues that we will all face depicted in a real, honest and stark way. Somehow “old people sex” as a topic is the butt of sitcom jokes and lines the pockets of big pharma.

I tell everyone I meet about Cloud 9 and gauge their reaction. I don’t love or rely on knee-jerk reactions and wholesale judgments based on something like this, but their immediate reaction gives me a glimpse of how the person works – and ultimately about their respect and compassion for the aged, for others, for themselves – and the aged people we will all become. A reaction of disgust or laughter causes me to pull back mentally. And frankly this is the reaction I usually get. Except from senior citizens, generally, although even they often tell me, “I would not want to see that.” Then I actually brought it up with someone recently, who said, “I saw that film at a festival. I found it very moving.”

After wading through so much nonsense, and living a life of experience and training “for something we don’t name”, that is exactly what I wanted to hear.

Photo (c) 2013 pelican used under Creative Commons license.