The Knowing Narrative

1 November 2008

What Literature Says About Life

Literature reveals a good deal about life. Even the most fantastic of narratives offers an understandable structure, breaks complex sequences down into something the reader can follow. As John Irving once wrote, you can’t get away with the sorts of things in novels that happen in life. A father can’t just die suddenly for no apparent reason, a mother can’t walk out to do the shopping and never return. Literature offers a way of seeing the world in a sort of prospective hindsight – you might be reading about a situation for the first time, but much of the action is most probably distilled from life’s randomness, explained in such and such a way, and set out as progress towards some sort of climax.

Through literature our lives make a rudimentary sort of sense, once removed.

Not, I should add, that it really matters what sort of literature it is. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that my concept of literature passes through comics, science fiction, the classics and much else besides. I don’t have the sort of bookshop literature- section snootiness in mind, just the telling of a tale, and telling it well. If a narrative explains something of the human condition it fulfils the requirement for literature.

Yet narrative doesn’t always work in the ways you might imagine. During the late 1990s I spent a good deal of time researching and pondering the Vietnamese tale “Tam and Cam”, an equivalent of what to many people will be the familiar “Cinderella”. As it turns out, the Vietnamese version of the tale could well be the original – the lines of transmission being long, defused and sometimes confused. But from the 1860s the two tales clashed, dragging literature and life together.

In 1866 French Marines went ashore at My Tho in what we would now call southern Vietnam, determined to place what they knew as Annam, particularly the Mekong Delta, under imperial control. It sounds a little distant now, but imagine the grief and sacrilege in the hearts and minds of Annamite villagers, the death and destruction that came with the stealing of another person’s plot of earth, the conquest of another land.

But amidst the confusion and dismay was the curious figure of Gustave Janneau, just out of his teens and within a year of abandoning the Marines for a distinguished career in colonial linguistics. As his compatriots did their best to destroy any sign of resistance, he was in My Tho collecting traditional tales, including the “Cinderella” analogue “Tam and Cam”.

Like “Cinderella”, “Tam and Cam” tells the tale of a downtrodden girl who finds her prince with the aid of a supernatural helper. Janneau’s translation was by no means as derogatory as those later produced by colonists, including the Governor-General of French Indochina, but he did accentuate something of the ‘confusion’ with which Annamese were said to regard their spiritual world. The supernatural helper – we know her as the fairy-godmother – is alternatively a spirit and a genie, depending on the translator’s whim.

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The Joke’s on Us

18 October 2008

Irony in the History of Humour

Adversity will always bring on the chuckles. Anyone who has ever spent more than a short while in the Philippines will know that 500 years of plunder by a rapacious elite has been met with smiles and self-deprecating asides. Life just has to go on. And even more abrupt crises draw out the sort of humour that deflects us from thinking that chance alone has saved us from a particularly unpleasant fate. Iceland, you might know, is in deep trouble at the moment, but that might be all you know about it. “What’s the capital of Iceland?” asks Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. “About $20”.  We joke because it’s immediate – we understand the danger of the situation and are always prepared to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

That’s the power of irony – the deflection of difficult meaning; saying something otherwise, usually in quite the opposite direction than is expected.

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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Out of Time

13 July 2008

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

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Conventionally Speaking

6 June 2008

How We Listen to Nothing

NO, by neil-san, with Creative Commons licenceWho speaks in the silence between words? In his masterly essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote of hackneyed phrases, terms that enter the popular imagination deprived of their original meaning, devoid of context and “ready to think your thoughts for you”. They appeal to the emotions rather than the rational mind, and use silence as a shield, as a way to stop true understanding. Their intent is negative – by excluding something they allow someone or something else to speak quietly to you, urging you to ignore what you already know.

Some of these phrases are deliberate manipulations, others are unfortunate cultural lapses. All are dangerous.

Consider first a term that I often see in my professional capacity as an editor in Hong Kong – the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Now regardless of the dubious capitalization, what does this describe? An event that took place in Tiananmen presumably, and anyone with a little curiosity could easily find that the site is a plaza in Beijing, a famous meeting place and home to Mao Zedong’s tomb. But what does the term refuse to say? That 19 years and two days ago the Chinese military, at the instructions of the government, massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, mainly students.

Speak out for Peace, by mudkat, with Creative Commons licenceThat’s common knowledge, right? Yes, but in China it’s not commonly spoken. And in Hong Kong, that little part of China which really isn’t China at all, academics tend not to use the term ‘massacre’. They sanitise the situation with ‘incident’. That’s the official government line, and as Hong Kong academic Carsten Holz argued in the April print edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review last year, those who don’t listen to the voice in the silence soon find that their research in China generates few useful results. Data are not forthcoming and the mandatory local research partner is unlikely to be found.

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Ideology

18 May 2008

First Thoughts on Perceptions and Belief

Mountain HDR, by blackbodypie, with Creative Commons licenceWhen my wife was a teenager she spent her days walking through the hills of her province, a grenade in her pocket, carrying messages for the local sugar workers’ union. The man who would become her first husband was a charismatic union organiser in the years before his untimely death, a leader of men. My wife’s sisters and brothers had all joined the movement, the Communist-led rebolusyon, in the desperate hope that things would change. Their ideology was less the maxims of Marx and Lenin and more a collection of social norms. They were working against the outrage of massive unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, subsistence-only wages and political exploitation in their own way. And then everything did change.

This was the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship, just before people power, before the EDSA revolution in 1986 showed the world that enough people with enough hope could change the way of things peacefully.

An important point to realise about that revolution, the first ever to succeed in the Philippines, is that the Communists did not participate, and neither did most of the self-identified left. They simply isolated themselves from history. As with many successful revolutions, people power gave voice to middle class anger, was led by the disaffected amongst the upper classes, and changed an old land-holder regime for another, in the form of Corazon Aquino’s new administration.

Aquino’s ilk are known as trapos – traditional politicians – and they believe in market norms rather than social norms, even though many people would argue that patronage is their prime method of maintaining power. As a way of framing my initial thoughts about ideology in this post I’m drawing the distinction between market and social norms in line with Dan Ariely’s recently published Predictably Irrational. In previous posts I’ve argued that the market is a social system, which I still believe, but I want to suggest here that market norms can be defined by price in some way or another, and that social norms are determined by obligation. They might be part of the same overall system, but they’re definably different.

10 Pesos - S3is10Pesos, by Daniel Y. Go, with Creative Commons licenceI also want to argue that market norms alone cannot form a true ideology (capitalism, here, would be a mix of social and market norms). Relating that back to landholding trapos in the Philippines, who are often mired in corruption and are clearly manipulative of the political system, the pure market basis should be obvious.

Everything has a price, even life and death.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

7 April 2008

Throwing Poo at Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur

Three Wise Monkeys, by Leo Reynolds, with Creative Commons licenceThe world needs a stirrer, someone willing to dislodge existing patterns of thought. Think Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein or Marie Curie. They all worked carefully against the orthodoxies of their times. Andrew Keen tries to ape that sort of iconoclasm in his Cult of the Amateur, but just makes a monkey of himself.

Or does he? Monkeys are far more clever than he seems to think.

First, let’s consider what Keen has to say. He takes issue with Web 2.0, the participatory culture of social networking sites like Facebook, the carnivale of YouTube, the black economy of file sharing and the gabble of blogs. He argues that amateurs are ruining the Internet by dumbing it down, like the infinite monkeys who might – given enough time and typewriters – tap out a masterpiece. In the meantime they’ll just type rubbish and abuse copyright, encouraged by a cabal of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, particularly Tim O’Reilly.

Guard Statue, by Jennoit, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, Keen claims, is hard times for the newspaper and music industries, clearly without any understanding of the creative destruction that helps industries grow through innovation. He also frets at the loss of control by “gatekeepers” – editors, journalists, authors and the like, those traditional arbiters of information content. Or you might think of them as bereft zoo keepers now that the monkeys have escaped the enclosure.

Keen initially reserves his monkey comment for bloggers, who he thinks never read – at least books like his to go by comments reported in the Guardian. So I imagine empty shelves around me and – behold! – I feel a tail growing. I want to take Keen on his word, and see how a monkey could suggest that today’s Internet is actually improving the world.

Now where’s my banana.

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