Death in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld

‘For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver’ – Walter Benjamin

Yesterday we heard the news that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, has died. Walter Benjamin would, perhaps, argue that Lagerfeld has been dabbling with death for his entire career (see this essay’s epigraph), but yesterday he passed away in Paris at the age of 85.  Fashion design was, undoubtedly, his entire life (apart from his love for his cat, Choupette), and such extraordinary dedication to his craft is what has made him legendary. Although he may not have openly exhibited the emotional naiveté of designers like Alexander McQueen or Raf Simons (two of my all-time favourite designers), by golly he was a figure of creative and commercial genius. Lagerfeld was able to fearlessly embrace both history and modernity, turn fashion shows into aspirational spectacles, and take his understanding of brand power to astronomical levels.[1] Those inter-locking Cs are immediately recognisable worldwide thanks to him. Although he claims that Coco Chanel would have hated his commercial transformation of the fashion house, he has adhered to her philosophy that fashion was dress-making: clothes are meant to be bought, sold and worn.[2] For Lagerfeld, as it was for Coco, fashion most definitely is not an art-form.

Karl has never been my favourite designer, even though his shows, clothes and perfume campaigns have made Chanel products ridiculously desirable (I wear Coco Mademoiselle because it smells divine and just because Keira Knightley). I am, however, not OK with the way in which he described Germany’s open-door refugee policy in 2017, which reeked of hateful Islamophobia.[3] I am not OK with the way that he has spoken about Adele, Michelle Obama or Pippa Middleton: I would find it very difficult to take if someone said that I should only show my back because my face isn’t pretty enough. It was undeniably a fucking mean thing to say.[4] For all of his designing excellence and great taste, he had a mean streak that was completely ungracious, unbecoming and offensive.

Nevertheless, his passing is deeply significant. It feels like the passing of one of modern culture’s greats, like the deaths of Seamus Heaney or Aretha Franklin. He is an icon of popular culture who has achieved the feat of having grown into a ripe old age, where so many creative lives have been cut short by illness or personal tragedy. He has traversed, witnessed and helped to create so much change over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, evidenced in the fluctuations and ideas presented in his extraordinary backlog of visual work. His death leaves a large void in the cultural fabric of the 21st century, and it’s going to be interesting to witness the unfolding transition in the wake of his death both at Chanel and Fendi, and across fashion in general.

Fashion is a funny thing: I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s conception of it as a dialectical social construct, encapsulating both commodity fetishism and the release of utopian desire and energy in a moment of historical awakening. It is both frivolous and fruitful. Whether you care about it or not, it shapes and literally dresses the world around us (please click on the picture below for the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada for further reference and explanation). Lagerfeld’s passing is another one of the great transitions we witness in life: the dying of the old ways, the liminality of not knowing what is going to come next and, ultimately, the emergence of something else, something we don’t yet know or understand. Whatever and whoever comes next, life in fashion and beyond, is going to continue to fascinate.

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[1] Lagerfeld’s adeptness for creating and designing extraordinary fashion shows is particularly significant. Classic runway exhibitions have become increasingly outdated thanks to the industry’s demands for instant, immediate access to fashion, with collection turnarounds that beggar belief. (Again, it is important to emphasise here Lagerfeld’s enormous and unparalleled creative output: he worked tirelessly and wholeheartedly to produce collections for Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort, Cruise and couture for three labels, as well as an additional Metiers d’Art for Chanel). By creating fashion shows that turn a collection presentation into a show and a spectacle (Lagerfeld took us to an enchanted forest, a beach, a jungle, a cruise ship, a brasserie, a rocket launch, an iceberg, a data centre, Ancient Greece and a barn amongst others) he not only preserved the sanctity of the runway when it had all but become a stale, outdated method of introducing new collections, but, indeed, breathed new life into it. A ticket to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel show was perhaps the most covetable of all the fashion month shows, never mind just Paris, and were as Instagrammable as they come. As a side note, I would LOVE to compare the shows and performances of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld at some point.

[2] ‘What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did’. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/karl-lagerfeld-quotes-120855 [accessed 14:36, 20/02/2019].

[3] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chanels-karl-lagerfeld-claims-muslim-migrants-are-affront-to-holocaust-victims-cm2tr9prt

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/karl-lagerfeld-controversial-quotes-intl/index.html

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: I am a witness

Ever since my first foray into podcasts, I have become an avid listener of one channel in particular. Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul conversations are inspiring listens: she discusses life, love and death with a variety of spiritual leaders, academics, psychotherapists and artists in an attempt to connect us to ourselves, each other and the greater world around us. There is no specific religious angle that the podcast takes: it simply asks and provides perspectives on the biggest questions that confront us all: what happens when we die? What is love? What is reality and what space is there for the spiritual? I have enjoyed reading philosophy and cultural criticism for a very long time, but this realm of spirituality is one in which I feel quite out of my depth. In a world full of distractions, this podcast directly reacquaints us with perennial questions that it may be worth integrating into our lives on a more regular basis.

One of the episodes that touched me the most was the interview Winfrey conducted in 2012 with Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016. There are so many amazing words of wisdom that Wiesel imparts over the course of the interview but one of the most important moments comes 27 minutes in:

‘All of us who went through that experience [the Holocaust] consider ourselves witnesses. When the last witness will be gone, I don’t want to be that one, too tragic. What will happen? So on one hand you can become pessimistic: with the last witness, all of the knowledge, all the experience, all the memories will be buried. Then what? So I came up with a theory, which I think is valid. To listen to a witness is to become one. To listen to a witness is to become a witness. Therefore, those who have listened to us, who read my books and other survivors’ memoirs… we have a lot of witnesses now. And they will protect not only our past but also their future’.

There is a profound message of solidarity and hope here that, I think, is very inspiring. Although the survivors of the Holocaust will not be alive forever, their memories will endure through the people who listen to them. I am a witness: from having read Anne Frank’s diary, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and from having seen The Pianist, God on Trial and Schindler’s List. I have also listened to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark (also known as Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre) and from visiting the death camps when I was 16 years old as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’. For the latter, we were encouraged to disseminate what we had witnessed and learned about the Holocaust amongst our peer group, to improve understanding of the Nazi atrocities with the hopes that we can all prevent bigotry and hatred becoming a political killing machine once again. My friend and I planned an assembly about our experiences that sadly never came to fruition; therefore, for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019, I wanted to post about my experience with the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’, and in honour of Elie Wiesel, to openly declare myself a witness to genocide.

I first learned about the Holocaust from reading a Children’s Encyclopaedia when I was about 7. This photograph captured my attention perhaps more than any other in my book:

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Interestingly, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when I listened to Oprah’s conversation with Elie Wiesel and decided to write this essay about it, that I learnt that he is one of the men pictured in this photograph (he is lying on the second row up, seventh to the right). I remember looking at this photograph for the first time and thinking that something very, very wrong had happened to these men. They look so thin and ill, tightly packed in together and using pots as pillows. I didn’t think it was possible for people to look like this. Their expressions are extremely intense: they don’t look pleadingly, they don’t look hopeful, they don’t look relieved at having been liberated. Their expressions are gaunt, calm and unflinching. They are the stares of people who have witnessed and experienced abject horror and brutality. It is the least I can do now to write this essay to say that I saw and still see them, I will listen to their stories and I will do my best to live a life where such horror is not forgotten or delegitimised.

In 2009, at the age of 16, two History students in my year group were to be given the opportunity to represent our school in the East Midlands cohort of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. I applied and was successful, along with one of my best friends. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing: embarking on a deeply harrowing and moving trip was really made all the more bearable by having a close friend to share it with. The project began with an orientation seminar at the Albert Hall in Nottingham where ambassadors were split into groups to discuss what we were all doing there. We talked about the Holocaust, how it unfolded, why it should be remembered and, most importantly, how we remember it with the respect and dignity its victims and survivors deserve. We discussed the ethics of taking photographs at the death camps; we critiqued the difference between listening and reflecting on survivor testimony as part of the trip, as opposed to turning a visit to Auschwitz into a tourist box-ticking exercise.

(As an aside, it still horrifies me that 10 years after my experience on the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project that some stag do packages for Krakow still list a trip to Auschwitz as a suitable activity, alongside Kalashnikov shooting, strip clubs and water parks. The hideously named ‘Last Night of Freedom’ site is the worst, see below).

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The orientation seminar was an excellent way to prepare us for the trip because it established a context about Holocaust remembrance, but also prepared us for our reactions to the Holocaust trip. In short, there is no correct way to emotionally respond to the death camps once you are there: we were told that fear, sadness, anger and numbness were all feelings that might arise. To feel one, any or none of these was fine. There was plenty of support available, from our fellow ambassadors, volunteer teachers who were to accompany us, and the Holocaust Educational Trust course Educators themselves.

On 29th March 2009, we caught an early flight from East Midlands airport to Krakow. My cohort was accompanied by Andy Reed, who was the MP for Loughborough at the time, as well as photographers and journalists from the Loughborough Echo and Leicester Mercury newspapers.[1] The first location we visited after landing in Poland was the small town of Oświęcim, more renowned for its German name of ‘Auschwitz’. Here, we were taken to a Jewish cemetery. This was such an important part of the trip because it helped us to understand that prior to the Second World War, Jewish culture and communities in continental Europe had been thriving: indeed, in 1933, Europe had been home to 9.5 million Jews. Oświęcim itself had been home to 5000 Jews, 20 synagogues (including the Great Synagogue that was burnt down by the Nazis in 1939) and a bustling Jewish neighbourhood. Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, the town’s Jewish population were all deported. Whilst some returned to the town after the liberation of the death camps, there are now no Jews living in the town today: the final member of the pre-war community who returned to Oświęcim was a man called Shimshon Klueger who died in 2000.[2] In total, 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children. The cemetery at Oświęcim formed the resting place for only a few Jewish men and women: but standing in front of these graves, knowing that the death of just one person is such a loss, such a great loss to the world and to loved ones left behind, the figure of 6 million became immediately and horrifyingly vast.

We were then taken to Auschwitz I, which houses the museum. We saw mountains of shoes, suitcases, glasses, prosthetic limbs and human hair, all forcibly taken from prisoners at the camp. The attempt to dehumanise the prisoners, to strip them of their dignity and their very identities was plain to see. We saw dingy corners of the camp where prisoners were hung or shot; and the cramped living quarters where prisoners were forced together like animals.

We were then taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the bigger, more spaced out camp with its infamous railway tracks and watch tower. We were taken to the different barracks, including the Family Camp where a frieze of Disney’s Snow White was painted on the wall, into the watch tower itself and to the crematoria. At each stage of our tour, we paused to reflect, to listen to a piece of survivor testimony or to a poem, helping us to personalise the experience. The barracks, toilets and train tracks weren’t just shells or husks of the past, they were brought back to hideous and heartbreaking life through the words of the people who were forced to live and die there. We learnt that the toilets became one of the most desirable places to work for the prisoners because in spite of the smell and the mess, it afforded prisoners the chance to work inside and out of the cold. And believe me, it was cold. We visited Auschwitz in March, so not the height of winter but still cold enough for snowfall. We were wrapped up as tightly as possible in layers of hats, scarves, gloves and big coats; we were keenly aware that the prisoners would have been in painfully thin prison uniforms without any of our protections against the absolute freezing cold.

Going into the watchtower was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for me because from such a high vantage, you could see every corner of the camp. I truly began to appreciate how big Auschwitz was, how big the Nazi desire was to kill people. The Nazis really had gone to such a lot of effort to kill people, and the scale of their hatred was reflected in the enormity of this camp. Auschwitz involved killing on an industrial scale, approximately 1.2 million people were murdered here. To see it all laid out, coldly and clinically organised, with barbed wire encasing rows and rows and rows of barracks, was terrifying and sickening to behold. From the watchtower, we saw groups of Israeli students, walking down the tracks waving a Star of David flag. It was defiant, it was funereal, it was a celebration: the Nazis had tried so hard to destroy the Jewish race, and here we were 64 years later, witnessing Jews coming to Auschwitz alive, healthy and full of pride, to mourn the colossal attack on their people and the whole of humanity.

The visited concluded with an emotional memorial service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who sang a prayer in Hebrew for all victims of the Holocaust. He named Dachau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and many of the other camps where Jews were transported and murdered: whilst Auschwitz is the most famous death camp, there were many others spread around Poland, Germany and even Austria. It began to get dark and we lit candles, which we laid on the tracks.

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Copyright: AndyJReed, Flickr

The whole day, with the enormity of what we had witnessed as well as the flights to and from Poland, felt like a bit of a whirlwind. Once we had returned home, we attended a follow-up seminar which, looking back, was absolutely essential. It enabled us to process and ground ourselves with everything we had seen and learnt. We discussed what we had experienced, what our reflections were and, most importantly, what we were going to do to increase Holocaust education and awareness. Ten years on, I still reflect on the trip I took to Auschwitz. What I have learnt is that the primary aim of this whole experience was to help ensure that with enough understanding of the past and with enough hope for the future, something like the Holocaust will never happen again. In the Super Soul podcast, Elie Wiesel was adamant that the biggest challenge in the present moment and in future was fighting indifference:

‘I’ve dedicated my life to not only fighting evil, too difficult, but to fighting indifference […] the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference […] indifference enables everything that is bad in life. And, therefore, fight indifference’.

Raising awareness and talking about the Holocaust lifts people out of the mundanity of day-to-day life and confronts us with what humanity is capable of. It is not comfortable, it is not pleasant but it is absolutely essential. Although hatred and bigotry act as sparks for crimes against humanity, it is indifference in everyday life that fans the flames of hatred. It is indifference, apathy and the belief that something that does not impact you personally isn’t your business that is the slippery slope towards unimaginable bigotry and violence. At the root of hatred and bigotry, I believe, is a profound fear of difference. If we were to explore this fear, crack open stereotypes and confront the inherited confusion and anger that fear might entail, we might bring about some positive change in the world. Indifference is a state of ignorant detachment. Indifference prevents you from truly feeling and experiencing life. It is a self-interested, privileged indulgence. I agree with Elie Wiesel that indifference is as great a threat to human life as hatred.

With anti-Semitism once again rising in the UK and across Europe, and worshippers recently being shot at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, it is imperative that the horror of the past is not forgotten. Genocide should have stopped after the Holocaust; however, there have been many instances of genocide since the Holocaust. Indeed, genocide is taking place right now in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To me, the fact that human beings should wantonly forget or underplay horror on such a scale in the 1930s and 1940s is unfathomable. I defy anyone to go to Auschwitz and not come out knowing that human beings can and must do so much better for one another. I think the most fitting way to conclude this essay is with the man who inspired it, Elie Wiesel: a man who suffered so much cruelty but who was able to cultivate indelible light and hope out of the darkness of hate. He is still an inspiration to us all:

‘[I am] part of a generation that has felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind and yet I believe we must not give up on either. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children; between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves for not. I know I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man’.

 

[1] I learnt only recently that Andy Reed had signed an early day motion in 2008 in support of government subsidies for the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project, which can be accessed here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/35229/holocaust-educational-trust-auschwitz-trips

[2] ‘Your Visit: Lessons From Auschwitz Project’, The Holocaust Educational Trust, p.15.

Love Note – TV 2019

After watching the first season of Netflix’s Master of None in 2015, I casually appropriated Dev’s declaration that we were living in the ‘Golden Age of Television’. I mostly bring out this phrase when I want to irritate my boyfriend with semi-pretentious cultural musings, but I think it has fairly accurately described the creative output for the small screen over the past few years. Of course, there have been great television series prior to the Noughties and Teens of the 21st Century, but the quantity of high-quality and compelling drama available to binge watch and tune into every week is at an all-time high. Indeed, I feel like I’ve reached a personal saturation point with all this television. There’s always something I feel like I ‘have’ to watch, that I ‘can’t miss’, a show that’s absolutely amazing. I’m sure they all are, I really do. I just don’t have the time or the emotional energy to spend on them all. When I watch a TV show, I get utterly and overly enthralled and involved with what’s going on, which means that I just can’t commit to all the ups and downs and twists and turns to all these shows all at the same time. It’s just too darn much! Additionally, I spend a lot of my waking time at work or getting to and from work and, as a result, my down time feels very precious to me. Watching TV every night of the week just isn’t the most valuable use of my time. I’ve consciously tried to read more, do cooking, go to the gym and catch up with friends over the phone or face-to-face so that I really make my free time meaningful.

Having said all of that, I am really looking forward to 2019’s TV offerings. They are all returning shows that I have become very emotionally attached to over the past few years. Continuing these stories, or re-emerging myself in the style of the anthology shows, is a very exciting prospect. I may be a bit of a stick in the mud when it comes to watching TV, but these shows are going to have my undivided attention. Obviously, writing a Love Note before watching the shows is pretty presumptuous, because they may all turn out to be crap. This is as much a Love Note to healthy anticipation as it is to the good stuff on the box.

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True Detective – Season 3

I watched the second series of True Detective before the first and hold the perhaps unpopular opinion that it is as every bit as amazing as its predecessor. True Detective season 1 saw the birth of the McConaissance, was thrilling to watch and brought existential malcontentedness to the small screen in an utterly compelling and accessible way. Yet, season 2 was every bit as fraught and tense, if not moodier. The inner turmoil of the main characters was drawn out like a long spool of string, with episode 6 in particular providing revelations and the most heart-stopping escape scene I have ever watched on TV. Additionally, Vince Vaughn’s performance was transformative.[1] After a long break, we have the next series starring Mahershala Ali and I am very excited for the broody detective and emotional work to commence.

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Big Little Lies – Season 2

There’s no denying that Big Little Lies was a commercial and critical success when it was released in 2017, with its haul of awards at the Emmys, SAG Awards and Golden Globes a testament to the fact. It’s set to get even bigger with the arrival of Meryl Streep playing Alexander Skarsgard’s mother, as we inevitably witness the fallout of the chaos that revealed itself in the last series. I loved Jean Marc Vallee’s direction of the first season, with its patchwork, dreamlike construction of the women and their entangled, complicated lives; but I am as excited about Andrea Arnold who has taken up the mantle this time round.

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Game of Thrones – Season 8

Last season ended with a hell of a ‘holy shit’ moment. Spoiler alert guys, but The Wall is down and personally, I am terrified that that has spelt the end of Tormund who was on The Wall at the time. We’ll just have to wait and see. What we have been building up to since the first moments of the first season is coming to fruition and there’s no doubt that the final twists and turns of this amazing series are going to be epic. I have long had a sneaking suspicion that Game of Thrones is an allegory about climate change (stupid humans fighting amongst themselves, burning children, catching greyscale and having sex whilst ignoring/unaware of the Night King and his army of the dead accumulating momentum) – but maybe that’s an article for another time. I am slightly sheepish about the feature length episodes that we will have to commit to, but it’s the biggest conclusion to a TV series, perhaps, ever. I’m here for that.

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Stranger Things – Season 3

I was so glad that the Duffer brothers decided to take a break between the second series and the third. Whilst I loved season 2, it felt like there had been a slight rush to get it out after the unbridled success of the first. As such, it was suffering a little from what I’ve called Star Wars Syndrome: there were a few new characters and a few new tensions to explore, but the main premise and action was very similar. Instead of exploding another Death Star, the cast were once again turning Joyce’s house into a living and breathing map of The Upside Down and Eleven used her powers to stop the monsters. Now that the writers have had some breathing space, I think Stranger Things 3 is going to be a cracker. In particular, I’m looking forward to my faves returning to the screen: Steve, Erica and Joyce.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 9 CR: Bravo

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and New York

My beautiful beloved trash. I have so many questions: what the hell happened between Lisa Vanderpump and the rest of the Beverly Hills gang? What on EARTH is Brandi Glanville doing back? Will Lisa Rinna’s pill bag make an appearance? How will Carole Radziwill’s exit affect group dynamics in New York? Will Dorinda get messy after another dirty martini? Will Bethenny Frankel stop picking on Ramona and just accept that she’s slightly unhinged but the best thing since sliced bread? SO MANY QUESTIONS.

 

[1] My friend and I watched episode two first by accident, which opens with Vince Vaughn delivering a monologue about his father whilst staring at a mould stain on the ceiling. We thought this as an unbelievably audacious way to begin a series and were totally here for it. We soon realised that the disorientation we experienced soon afterwards was not a narrative construction but the fact that we’d missed an entire hour of set-up. Nevertheless, Vince Vaughn’s acting here is just amazing.

Love Note – Ave Maria

Amongst the usual merry-go-round of Christmas songs, one song has captured my undivided attention this year: Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Ave Maria. It’s not necessarily a Christmas song; it’s not necessarily a song that I have cared much about in the past; and I only really started caring about Frank Sinatra two years ago when ‘One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ literally stopped me in my tracks.[1] This year, however, Sinatra’s rendition of Schubert’s much-loved piece has been the gentle yet sublime musical offering that I have needed during this busy time.

The combination of Sinatra’s deep voice with the soaring choral accompaniment is both uplifting and deeply comforting. He sings a popular Latin interpretation of the song that describes Mary mother of God being with ‘us’ in the hour of our death. This, understandably, could be read as extremely morbid, but for me, feels more like a lullaby. On a basic level, the speaker both entreats and asks for everything to be alright, but through the reassuring ebb and flow of the choir, the plucked violins, and Sinatra’s grounding dulcet tones, we get the sense that everything is already more than alright. How can anything be but OK when we use the present moment to tap into hope, appreciation and gratitude?

I would describe myself as spiritual, rather than religious, and whilst Ave Maria has some serious Catholic affiliations, thanks to the previously mentioned Latin prayer that was later attached to Schubert’s composition, there is ample room for further interpretation. Schubert originally composed Ave Maria as a musical setting for Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake: more specifically, Ave Maria is a musical dramatization of Ellen’s song ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, whispered by the heroine Ellen whilst sheltering in a Goblin cave with her exiled father. There are some problematic references to Mary being ‘undefiled’ and ‘stainless’, which reinforce the virginal standard of ‘perfection’ that has been used to hit women round the head with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of the lines, however, in their appeal for some kind of divine maternal protection are beautiful:

‘The murky cavern’s heavy air

Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;

Then, Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer,

Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!’

The poem entreats a greater, spiritual power for comfort, safety and support; to dispense the dank weight of the air in the cavern with the gentle smile of benevolence and clarity. Whoever has felt like a captive in the churning and chattering or their own mind knows the yearning for relief and for lightness; the cavern that Scott describes here, trapping Ellen, could easily reflect the headspace of anxiety, depression and worry.[2] A calm, serene smile in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain is a wonderful image of transcendence and acceptance. Whilst we may remain critical of the traditional, patriarchal imagining of femininity here, this is undeniably a prayer from woman to woman: Ellen appeals to Mary’s young womanhood here, so uncannily like her own, yet not her own. Ellen is at once a woman like Mary, but so in need of nurture and support, like a small child; Mary’s small child. She appeals to a maternal figure so much greater and more powerful than herself, currently trapped in a desperate predicament. In this reaching, in this supplication to something beyond herself for direction and guidance, she finds peace and joy in the declaration: Ave Maria! It is that same feeling I alluded to earlier of asking that everything be made OK, whilst knowing in the very asking, that everything in this present moment is OK, is as it should be.

Ave Maria then, whilst used in many religious circumstances for this most important time of year for Christians, is also welcoming beyond those confines. Life is so uncertain and awe-inspiring, and it is pieces of music like Ave Maria, and what it has come to mean for me, that soothe our fears. It takes us out of the worries and patterns that keep us stuck and afraid, and opens us to the possibility that if we look beyond ourselves into the mysterious, strange and beautiful world and Universe around us, that we can find inner stability and peace.

 

 

 

[1] My first experience with Ave Maria (as with most of my favourite pieces of classical music) was watching Disney’s Fantasia. The film finishes with the calm parade of pilgrims after the chaos and profanity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

[2] This also reminds me of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which could easily be a metaphor for the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul that many, if not all of us, will encounter at some point in life: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’.

Love Note – Fantasy Football

It started off as fun.

I joined my dad’s Fantasy Football league in about 2008, propped it up for approximately 8 years and now things have changed. I’ve got easy access to the Fantasy Premier League app on my phone and all of a sudden, I am taking Fantasy Football far, far, far too seriously. And I know that I’m not alone. My boyfriend and I have in-depth debates about transfers, tensions flare when my dad and I are neck-and-neck, and I set up a work league where the formerly Fantasy Football nonchalant now have spreadsheets, follow pundits on Twitter and are constantly pondering their fantasy budgets.

I’ve always been a football fan: I have steadfastly supported Liverpool since I was first shoved into a red shirt by my parents at the age of four, and it has been a lot of hard work ever since. We won the Champions League in 2005, but we haven’t won the Premier League in my lifetime, we have an uncanny ability to lose crucial games with devastating mistakes (Gerrard’s slip in 2014, John Arne Riise’s headed own goal in 2008 etc.) and because of a crappy fan club ticket-buying system, I haven’t been able to go to Anfield in about ten years. Nevertheless, I’m a Kopite for life and I’m sorry but not sorry to admit that I cry every time I hear ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I’m not entirely sure why, it just happens.

Playing Fantasy Football has been addictive but also an eye-opener, largely because it keeps you interested in the game beyond the basic tribalism of supporting a football team. I will never ever care for Manchester United, but I do care whether or not Marcus Rashford will be starting come Saturday; similarly, Chelsea are one of my least favourite teams ever but thank god for Marcos Alonso who is integral, along with Virgil Van Dijk and Andrew Robertson, to the defensive dream team I have going on. Additionally, I have developed a deep appreciation and respect for the smaller teams whom I may have snobbily disregarded a few years ago. I think Leicester’s surprise Premier League win in 2016 reminded us all to never underestimate an underdog, and last season I was pleasantly surprised by the defensive capabilities of Burnley and Pascal Groβ’s attacking record for Brighton and Hove Albion. This season has seen the blossoming of Bournemouth’s midfield and forwards who have been giving the best and most expensive top flight players a darn good run for their money.

Whilst some football fans will not have required an interactive game to notice and appreciate other teams, Fantasy Football has introduced me to all of these players and more, and has developed my deeper appreciation for the game. I would argue that this is something that football has required: with the amount of oil and oligarch money that has been poured into certain teams, football had in recent years lost some of its magic. Of course, the quality of play that has been purchased at teams like Manchester City has been absolutely phenomenal; yet, with the Premier League trophy all but guaranteed to head back to Manchester; extortionate ticket prices across the league; the ease with which managers from all teams seem to be picked up and discarded when the going gets a little bit tough; Sky holding a monopoly on football coverage, and the number of football stadiums that now bear a corporate name (Emirates, Etihad, Vitality, King Power etc.), football seemed to lose some of its charm in its obsessive pursuit of capital. Yet, with Fantasy Football focusing primarily on good play and healthy competition based on a broad array of talent, football is, in mind, regaining relevance and its special place in the lives of ordinary people.

Love Note – Expecto Patronum

It is a futile endeavour to try and name the single best thing about Harry Potter. The seven books in the series captured the imagination of millennial children like little else, and continue to be a source of escapism, fun, and belonging for many. Whilst the Lord of the Rings trilogy will always be my franchise of choice, Harry Potter was an integral part of my childhood. I cannot count the number of times I’ve saved people from the purgatory of not knowing which Hogwarts house they’re in by encouraging/forcing them to take the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz, nor the number of extremely serious conversations I’ve had with people about the key issues of Snape’s morality, the discrepancies between feisty-cool Ginny in the books and lacklustre-wooden Ginny in the films, and about which magical career would have been my calling (Hogwarts professor? Wandmaker? Knight Bus Conductor? Who knows?!).[1] We have been offered a vivid, imaginative literary world to immerse ourselves in and I am here for that any day of the week.

The world has always been a dark and scary place, but in times like these, with right wing sentiments re-emerging across the world, bigotry and fear running rampant and uncertainty hanging around all us in a dense fog, it seems particularly, and uncannily, dangerous. We need hope and optimism more than ever. As such, the Patronus charm created by Rowling, and first seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the beautiful, protective and empowering force we all need in our lives right now. It is apparently a notoriously difficult spell to cast that affords protection from dark and devastating forces, acting as a guardian and defender. Indeed, the Latin translation of the incantation ‘Expecto Patronum’ is ‘I await a guardian’. I love everything about how this charm is presented in the book. Harry is in such a vulnerable position when he meets Professor Lupin (one of my all-time favourite HP characters) because he is a mere thirteen years old and, with a litany of traumatic experiences filling his past, is overpowered by the profound darkness and desolation brought upon by the Dementors. I would argue that out of all the adults across all of the books, Lupin gives Harry the greatest educational gift: he equips Harry with the ability to draw from his own internal resources to find protection, safety and joy. Lupin teaches and enables Harry to access hope and wonder when everything appears bleak beyond repair. He doesn’t necessarily save him, but instead offers him something much more valuable: the means to save himself.[2]

On Pottermore, the Patronus charm is described as ‘the awakened secret self that lies dormant until needed, but which must now be brought to light…’ and appears in the form of an animal. There is so much room here for a Jungian depth-psychology analysis, but let’s just leave it at this: whatever stories our chattering minds weave for us, strength, wisdom and courage resides in all of us, all the time. The Patronus charm may be just another abstraction from a wonderful creative mind. However, as with a lot of good writing, the Patronus is a literary representation of a psychological, cultural idea. It can take being broken open, a juncture, a confrontation with extreme fear or the very act of growing up to learn how to access them; but strength, courage and love are always there within us. And in times like these, we need those deep, wise, hidden reserves more than ever.

[1] I’m hopelessly inquisitive and shamelessly talk about books as if they’re real. I’m in Ravenclaw, could you tell?

[2] All whilst dealing with his own monthly lycanthropic nightmares, might I add. Such a babe.

#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].

Love Note – The Spice Girls

Last Saturday, I managed to get tickets to see the Spice Girls and I am very excited. I first saw the Spice Girls in 1998 at Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium, sadly minus Geri who had left at that point, then again in 2008 for their reunion show in London. Now I am sticking to my rough 10-year schedule and seeing them for a third time; this time minus Victoria who is, understandably, keeping herself and her sophisticated and successful fashion line at a healthy distance from the gaudy, nostalgic pop-fest that encompasses all things Spice. I will miss her because although I related more to Sporty, Baby and Scary when I was younger, I always appreciated the presence of the scowling chic one in the little Gucci dress. I will also always reject the idea that she didn’t contribute much by way of vocal prowess. With perhaps the exception of Mel C, none of the Spice Girls meet truly exceptional heights of singing capability, and that’s OK because that was never the point.

So here I am, twenty years on from my first encounter with the Spice Girls, which is both horrifying and wonderful. The first time I encountered the Spice Girls was watching the iconic video for ‘Wannabe’ on Top of the Pops. After that, my life was Spice mad: I had the CDs, Spice Girls birthday cakes, Spice Girls dolls, Spice Girls posters and my long-suffering dad took me to see Spice World: The Movie. I was utterly convinced that they could see me at the end (fans of the film will know what I’m talking about) and I had absolutely no time for my dad’s protestations that they were ‘looking down a camera’. They were partially responsible for mine and my school friends’ ambitions of being world-famous popstars and I was a keen adherent to the crop top craze á la Sporty Spice: my favourite because she could sing the best, also supported Liverpool Football Club and looked the most like me. I think this was largely their (commercial) magic: there was a Spice Girl we could all relate to or identify with in some way or other.

What I was not so aware of when I was younger was just how commercial and marketised The Spice Girls were. I remember them being everywhere, to my delight at the time: they were all over Pepsi, Walkers Crisps, Polaroid cameras, Asda and Cadbury products and even fronted a range of temporary tattoos amongst their many other marketing campaigns. In addition, I can completely see now why people found this manufactured, product placement band next-level irritating. Similar consumerist endorsements from today’s popstars and musicians annoy me no-end: yet with their chemistry, their bubbly advocacy of ‘Girl Power’, the way they used to invade space and trample over their interviewers, their undeniably catchy songs and my young and unfiltered eyes, the Spice Girls were absolutely loveable. Indeed, they are still loveable in a nostalgic, escapist, harmless pop way. Despite my slight ambivalence, I have no qualms about re-visiting some of my favourite childhood pop songs for a few hours in Wembley next June, some of which include:

Who Do You Think You Are – Pumped up party tune posing a deeply existential question as a statement. Favourite lyric: ‘The race is on to get out of the bottom / The top is high so your roots are forgotten’.

Denying – 90s faux-RnB tune demanding acceptance from friend/lover/family member. Favourite lyric: ‘You think you’re so cool / Hey big man you’re old school’

Naked – Seductive ballad-esque situation that has matured better than some of their other output: emphasis on the female gaze is particularly progressive. Favourite lyric: ‘Undress you with her eyes, uncover the truth from the lies / Strip you down, no need to care, lights are low exposed and bare’.

Step To Me – Sassy song demanding relationship compliance that came as a Pepsi CD supplement. Favourite lyric: ‘Come on a step to me / Shame the devil, tell the truth / I can tell you don’t know what to do’.

Too Much – More 90s faux-RnB ballad gold dust, tapping into my early-twenties interest in the concept of ‘nothing’ and ‘nothingness’. Favourite lyric: ‘Too much of something is bad enough / But something’s coming over me to make me wonder / Too much of nothing is just as tough / I need to know the way to feel to keep me satisfied’.

First Response: ‘Tao Te Ching’

I first became interested in Taoism after reading Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh and Te of Piglet. This book, first published in 1982, brings together A. A Milne’s classic children’s book character Winnie the Pooh with the ancient philosophy of Taoism. It explores the ways in which these texts talk to and illuminate one another despite being produced in different veins, centuries apart. It is an excellent, funny and poignant introduction to Taoism (and Winnie the Pooh for that matter) which I highly recommend. It led me to pick up the original text that informs Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, which is the world’s second-most widely translated book after the Bible and which accompanied me around New Zealand in April of this year.

The ‘Tao’ is often translated into English as ‘The Way’ and ‘Tao Te Ching’ translates roughly as ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtue’.[1] The book is a Derridean dream: the combination of contradictions and paradoxes within the text’s ‘teachings’ combined with the aphoristic structure of its 81 chapters points to the instability and consequent inability of language to successfully explain what the Tao is and how it manifests. For example, we are woven into a big knot with aphorisms like number 71:

‘Knowing ignorance is strength,

Ignoring knowledge is sickness

If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick

The wise are not sick, because they are sick of sickness

Therefore they are not sick’.[2]

Sick is repeated so many times here that it’s easy to lose track of what we originally interpreted as sickness. Indeed, the aphorism is a befuddlement of sickness that does not present much in the way of resolution: does being sick of sickness refer to another kind of sickness or not? But what does this matter anyway when this state of being (being sick of sickness) results in the wise not being sick. In this vein, we can see that the book is humorous, frustrating and whilst conveying wisdom, knowingly withholds comprehensive understanding all the way throughout, reminding us that ‘the truth often sounds paradoxical’ (aphorism 78). It playfully reminds us of language’s limitation as an arbitrary system of signs that constantly constructs and deconstructs. It also introduces us to the concepts of ‘wu wei’ (‘non action’), ‘pu’ (‘the uncarved block’: a metaphor for the natural spontaneity and state of being), yin and yang, and makes political observations about war, weapons and leadership. I would argue that there is definitely room here to draw in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus for comparison, but that might have to be another post for another time.

Some of the concepts raised are initially quite jarring from our Western ideological standpoint, for example ‘non action’. This idea is brought up throughout the text:

‘Open your mouth,

Always be busy,

And life is beyond hope’ (aphorism 55).[3]

 

‘Practice non-action.

Work without doing’ (aphorism 63).[4]

 

‘Those who act defeat their own purpose;

Those who grasp lose.

The wise do not act and so are not defeated.

They do not grasp and therefore do not lose’ (aphorism 64).[5]

In a world where injustice abounds, it is difficult to accept that non-action is the right course of action. Whether it’s those currently suffering at the hands of tsunamis and earthquakes in Indonesia, the election of men like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power when they have been widely accused of sexual assault, the massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the world’s poorest losing their homes and farms to rising sea levels when they have contributed the least to levels of carbon in the atmosphere etc. is non-action the best way of protecting and helping those in need? To fight tyranny, care for our environment and spread love and understanding, we must act, we must ‘do’.

The Tao Te Ching, however, deals in paradox and not absolutes. In aphorism 37, we are told:

‘Tao abides in non-action,

Yet nothing is left undone.

If those in power observed this,

The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

If they still desired to act,

They would simply return to the simplicity of formless substance,

Without form there is no desire.

Without desire there is tranquility.

And in this way all things would be at peace’.[6]

Here we can see that non-action does not necessarily equate to a sense of inertia or apathy; rather non-action begets action. The ‘ten thousand things’ refers here to the cosmic power of the Universe, the source from which life on Earth manifests and what we attempt to return to through meditation and inner work beyond the thrashings of ego in life. Non-action, therefore, is so much more than not doing; it is about finding harmony in the bigger, more mysterious picture of the unfolding universe, by which we find a sense of belonging, purpose and direction. As Jacob Needleman observes in the introduction to the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English text, conscious receiving and acceptance of the universe is an opening, rather than a doing.[7] Through non-action, we transcend the moralistic trappings of Earth-bound ego and return to something more powerful, connected and spiritual. More specifically, the idea laid bare in aphorism 37 is that if leaders attempted to cultivate and acceptance of flexibility, changeability and uncertainty, all the things that effectively characterise the Universe, this would permeate all of society and we would live in a more accepting and serene world. Unfortunately, we see too much ‘action’ in the form of exclusionary politics, rampant capitalism, war, environmental destruction; all of which distract us and prohibit us from collectively finding peace and oneness.

The Tao Te Ching is a mind and spirit-expanding text that comes to us in the guise of a short, digestible read. It is a disorientating text that offers with obscurity, humility and wit, a significant challenge to a great many of our Western orthodoxies. I get the impression that the more often this text is read, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from it. For many, spirituality and connection with the universe may seem like something fantastical, cheesy, ‘unscientific’ and something dreamed up by hippies; however, I am coming to believe that with the world in such a shit state as it is, it is perhaps only by understanding ourselves and the deep connection we have to the world and the other people within it that we have a hope in hell of finding peace. We cannot underestimate the impact we have on others in every moment of every day. The Tao Te Ching, as with any other text that deals with a form of mysticism, is effectively a guide, an inscription of ancient wisdom and knowledge. It offers us something more than the cynical two dimensional social structures, hierarchies and politics that we are accustomed to and largely disillusioned with today: a perspective on the perennial questions of who we are, where we are and how we can understand the world around us.

 

[1] As with all works in translation, we have to be careful of the numerous potential discrepancies in the translators’ interpretation of the text and how this may impact our own reading of it. I opted for the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English revised translation (first published in 1972, revised in 2011) because they collaborated to honour the simplicity and clarity of the Classical Chinese whilst making the text accessible for Western readers.

[2]Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu trans. Gia-Fu Fung and Jane English with Toinette Lippe (Vintage Books: New York, 2011), p.74.

[3] Ibid., p.58.

[4] Ibid., p.66.

[5] Ibid., p.67.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Ibid., p.xxi.

Leaving Facebook

Facebook has become something of a monolith since its inception in 2004, and stands as one of the biggest hallmarks and influencers of 21st century culture. The sheer volume of people registered to Facebook (2.2 billion in January 2018) has meant that it has demanded cultural and critical attention. For a long time, however, this was quite severely lacking. This is partly because Facebook evolved and grew faster than it took for us to collectively understand what it was doing, but also, perhaps, because it was mythologised in films like The Social Network. This focused our attention on the melodrama of Facebook’s turbulent founding and not how it explicitly came to affect its users’ daily lives.[1]

We are getting a better sense of this now. The list of breaches and indiscretions with which Facebook has been involved is building into an unsavoury rubbish heap: hate speech and uncensored violent content is uploaded and left unchallenged by Facebook’s moderators; democracy has been undermined with the prolific use of ‘fake news’ campaigns being employed on the platform during elections worldwide (including the 2016 EU Referendum and the US Presidential election); personal data was harvested and used by Cambridge Analytica to implement targeted electoral campaigns without user permission; the use of algorithms to ‘personalise’ the experience of using Facebook has created echo chambers that reduce the diversity of content, thus stifling debate and difference[2]; and last year in the UK, Facebook recorded revenues of £842.4m but only paid £5.1m in corporation tax, opting to route revenues through Ireland where the rate of corporation tax is significantly lower.[3]

It is important to recognise that very rarely have Facebook actually broken any laws, bar the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, for which they have been fined £500,000 by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).[4] Many of these indiscretions fall into murky territory that, whilst ethically questionable, do not come against any legal roadblocks. This is because they are largely editorial decisions and actions taken by the senior executives at the company, imparting policies and practices that develop and evolve beyond law-makers’ abilities to interrogate and keep up with them. As a result, some might argue that users should take more responsibility for engaging with Facebook: that they should build a greater understanding and awareness of user algorithms and limit the amount of data they share. I would argue, however, that users are woefully under-informed about the mechanisms behind Facebook. Collectively, we have limited critical capabilities to pin down and analyse something that changes so frequently, bogs its own privacy policy down in heavy, technical jargon and has been actively complicit in giving user’s data away regardless of said ‘privacy’ policy. As Virginia Heffernan writes in Wired: ‘Nothing about Facebook is intrinsically organized or self-regulating. Its terms of service change fitfully, as do its revenue centres and the ratio of machine learning to principled human stewardship in making its wheels turn’.[5] She implies that it is difficult for users to take responsibility for their use of Facebook when the people controlling it place the platform in a permanent state of flux, barely taking responsibility for any of the changes themselves. Facebook’s questionable mechanisms seem to be kept obscure until they become glaringly obvious, by which time users are playing catch up with the various data and privacy difficulties that they find themselves in. Again, Facebook aren’t doing anything illegal with their practices, but the moral implications of how they treat billions of people is becoming increasingly sour. No wonder we’ve seen desperate saccharine Facebook adverts appearing on TVs and billboards in the past couple of months promising to re-build trust with their users, in attempt to recover their damaged reputation.

Things get even murkier when we acknowledge that we are currently witnessing the unfolding of an enormous mental health crisis that is, in many ways, being fuelled by social media platforms like Facebook.[6] Indeed, the head of the NHS in England has stated that ‘there is emerging evidence of a link between semi-addictive and manipulative online activities and mental health pressures on our teenagers and young people’ on social media sites like Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram.[7] He urged social media companies to ‘take responsibility’ for the way in which their platforms cultivate anxiety and depression in the people who use them, in particular young adults. Again, Facebook has not broken any law in developing a user experience that encourages people to compare themselves to others, cultivates FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), establishes unrealistic standards of happiness and perfection, and reinforces compulsive posting with likes and shares. However, when we see mental illness becoming an increasingly dangerous, pervasive and normal condition that 1 in 4 people suffer from at any one time, and we know that social media use contributes enormously to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and isolation, Facebook has to start being accountable for what it gives to the world.[8]

Facebook

In light of all of this, I come to myself. I rarely write blog posts about my personal life; however, seeing as so much of my personal data is in the hands of those who seek to make it public both with and without my permission, it seems fitting that my break-up with Facebook is similarly public. I am aware that none of this is anyone’s business other than my own and that I am most probably indulging my tendency to be over-the-top, but here it is anyway. In writing this, I do not want to self-righteously judge anyone else’s opinions about or use of Facebook. I know that for many people, Facebook isn’t really a big deal and they use it proactively with a good amount of emotional distance, which is more than OK. In the words of my favourite yogi Adriene Mishler, it’s important to ‘find what feels good’ and try to live the kind of life that you want to live: I’m working out how best to do me.

In November 2007, I was 15 years old and fresh from a school Classics trip to Rome and Sorrento. The trip was great because I met lots of really nice people, ruins are cool and we had lots of hilarious adventures. Afterwards, I joined Facebook so that we could all share our photos. In the ten years since then, Facebook joined me during my GCSEs, A-Levels, my undergraduate degree, my Masters and on my first years in the world of full-time work. I still cannot believe that I have spent a whole decade of my life logging onto Facebook. It was the site of an ex-boyfriend asking me out (I know) and then dumping me a year later (I KNOW); used as a rudimentary marketing platform for various plays I performed in, magazines I worked for and blogs I wrote for; a place where my post-adolescent identity crisis played out in the form of taking and sharing every Buzzfeed quiz possible; it helped me to engage with the wave of inspirational intersectional feminism that swept into my life aged 19 and has empowered me ever since; it was where I engaged with the resurgent socialism of British politics in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; and I used it to full effect when I published my first novel, Tender is the Gelignite. I bloody loved Facebook.

Now, I have decided to leave Facebook. I am leaving Facebook for a combination of reasons, most of which I discussed at the beginning of this post. I think of myself as someone who tries to the best of their ability to make informed, conscious decisions about how I spend my time, in everything I think and do. I no longer want to support a site that purports to be a platform for sharing and collectivism when it undercuts basic freedoms to democracy and contentment with life. Capitalism, with the way in which it isolates and alienates us from ourselves and each other, leaves a big vacuum for connection. It does not surprise me that billions of people use Facebook in an attempt to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. In many ways, it is the new opiate of the masses: simultaneously a reflection of people’s lives and an illusion by which people live. It is constructed, under the guise of being a communal space, to distract us from taking care of ourselves, which is ultimately the work we need to do if we are to live our content imperfect lives and be of help and support to others.

I am also becoming increasingly aware of the insidious way that social media use can affect the way in which our brains function. This is not only with regards to mental health but with the way in which our neural pathways are affected by Facebook’s carefully constructed mechanics. Very recently, I listened to a podcast from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s series ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ entitled ‘Silicon Valley Serfs: protecting kids from tech overload’. It is an excellent episode, featuring the amazingly eloquent Baroness Beeban Kidron and Dr Richard Graham, which does well to veer away from a frantic reactionary view that all technology is harmful. It does, however, acknowledge the large impact that social media use has on children’s social and neural development. I couldn’t help identifying with many of the things they were discussing, largely because when I first started using Facebook I was still effectively a child. After a solid ten years of use, how much has Facebook potentially affected the way in which I think, perceive and respond to the world around me and the people in it?

In particular, I am concerned with the neural responses and ‘highs’ from having my posts and photos, and by extension myself, being validated with likes. In 2017, Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, discussed the ‘social-validation feedback loop’ that Facebook’s developers helped to create with the ‘like’ button, which acts as a little ‘dopamine hit’.[9] This dopamine hit, a boost in positivity, encourages users to upload more to their wall/timeline, thus stimulating a potentially addictive or compulsive set of behaviours. It is for this reason that users who have taken a break from Facebook have reported symptoms of not only relief from the pressure of uploading, but also of withdrawal.

To be perfectly honest, I like getting ‘likes’. It feels nice. It feels like people care about what I say and what I do. However, it is falsely self-satisfying and damaging. I am sharing certain, predominantly positive things, to present myself in a certain way that isn’t 100% authentic. I have realised that in doing so, I don’t just get validation for whatever is happening in my life, I also get validation for the behaviour of sharing certain things that happen in my life in a certain way. I am someone who suffers from bouts of low self-esteem and it slightly terrifies me how much weight I have both consciously and unconsciously staked on people liking my posts. When I was younger, I definitely deleted posts that didn’t get much attention, I definitely compared the likes I got for photos with other people and I thought the number of ‘friends’ that I had on Facebook had some kind of bearing on how well-liked I was. It is not a healthy way to have lived and conducted myself for ten years and I am concerned about the way it will impact my thinking and self-worth going forward. Whilst I am more conscious of the way in which Facebook works now, and I have definitely distanced myself from the platform in recent years, it is time to take more definitive action.

Up until now, on a practical level, I have only been toying with the idea of leaving Facebook because there are a number of binds that are keeping me stuck. The first is that Facebook is an undoubtedly extremely convenient way to keep in touch with friends. Messenger is a good app and because phone numbers change so frequently, it is a very useful way to always have a means of communicating with people. The second bind is that whilst I know that it is politically problematic and probably damaging to my mental wellbeing, Facebook is a very good tool for sharing and marketing my work.

I have two solutions to this problem. If you want to stay in touch with me and don’t have my number, please message me in the near future and get my number! I also have an email address on my blog that you can use to contact me and I am on Twitter @E_S_Harper. At the moment, I find Twitter to be the least problematic social media platform that I use. I cannot say the same for Instagram, which I feel is just as problematic as Facebook, if not more so. I have been curtailing my use of that and going forward, will only use it in as professional a capacity as possible, to promote my writing, and to talk about other books, music, films and artworks that I like. I also have to admit that I have relied on Facebook to help track and remember special events like birthdays, which is great but also ridiculously lazy. If I’m going to be a responsible adult, I need to start taking this shit more seriously. You are all going in my diary.

Additionally, I have set up an author page called ‘Elizabeth Harper – Harping On’ that I would love people to like and subscribe to. I will be switching the admin rights to another Facebook account which will be virtually blank and with which I can post articles onto the author page. The author page will be my primary form of interaction so please do follow my updates there. I’m still very excited to write and share my work and I believe that this will be a much healthier way of doing so.

[1] I would go as far as to argue that The Social Network, released in 2010 and based on a book called The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich in 2009, was made far too soon after the founding of Facebook. I think it is hard to be comprehensively reflective about a major cultural development only 6 years after it first began, which is perhaps why they both focused heavily on the biographies of the individuals involved and not what Facebook actually did and meant. I look forward to future books, films, podcasts and other forms of media that will deliver a more thorough critique of Facebook and its cultural impact.

[2] ‘Facebook Said Its Algorithms Do Help Form Echo Chambers. And the Tech Press Missed It’, Huffington Post [accessed 14:50, 11th July 2018] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/zeynep-tufekci/facebook-algorithm-echo-chambers_b_7259916.html

[3] Facebook tax bill edges up to £5m in UK, The Financial Times [accessed 15:25, 11th July 2018] https://www.ft.com/content/67f9c34e-a909-11e7-93c5-648314d2c72c

[4] ‘Facebook fined for data breaches in Cambridge Analytica scandal’, The Guardian [accessed 15:21, 11th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/11/facebook-fined-for-data-breaches-in-cambridge-analytica-scandal

[5] ‘Who will take responsibility for Facebook?’, Wired [accessed 11:46, 12th July 2018] https://www.wired.com/story/mark-zuckerberg-who-will-take-responsibility-for-facebook-now/

[6] ‘A systematic review of the mental health outcomes associated with Facebook use’, Frost, R.L. and Rickwood, D.J., 2017, Computers in Human Behavior, 76, pp.576-600. [accessed 11:27, 12th July 2018] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217304685?_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_origin=gateway&_docanchor=&md5=b8429449ccfc9c30159a5f9aeaa92ffb#!

[7] ‘Facebook has young people in an ‘insidious grip’, warns head of NHS England’, The Daily Telegraph [accessed 15:17. 11th July 2018] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/08/facebook-has-young-people-insidious-grip-warns-head-nhs-england/

[8] https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/

[9] ‘Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’’, The Guardian [accessed 13th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/09/facebook-sean-parker-vulnerability-brain-psychology