Love Note: Skiing and Snowboarding

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

I am fortunate enough to have spent many years learning how to ski and it is one of my favourite things on the planet. Esther Greenwood’s description of the sport in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (see above) is absolutely accurate and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am aware that skiing is a leisure preserve of the middle class and is obscenely expensive; indeed I haven’t been on a skiing holiday in years because I can’t afford it. However, through skiing, I have had some life-changing experiences, met some amazing people and had a whole lot of fun:

Experiences like being five years old and falling off a drag lift and crying in despair (I thought I was lost forever). My instructor, Yannik, scooped me up, tucked me safely in front of him and got me safely up the mountain. There, he kneeled down next to me and pulled off his glove revealing that his right hand was missing. Seeing this shocked me into silence and he said warmly, ‘If I can ski with one hand, you can do anything’;

Bouncing through bumpy forest trails as part of a crocodile of squealing children, gasping with laughter, barely in control and skiing through the most magical wintry surroundings;

Having existential conversations with fellow ten year olds on chair lifts: kids I met and knew for a week, put the world to rights with and then never saw again. This included one British kid I met in Colorado who, after an extensive conversation about winning the lottery, turned out to be related to my P.E. teacher who had taken early retirement after winning the Lotto jackpot a mere two weeks before;

Battling my way down notorious slopes like ‘Sache’ in Val-D’Isère, ‘Shock’ in Breckenridge, ‘Creux Noir’ in Courchevel and ‘Ghengis Khan’ in Vail;

Experiencing the elements in a visceral way, whether it’s gliding around in brilliant sunshine and sparkling snow, or using your gloves as a makeshift mask when snow is hitting your face in sharp pellets;

Learning how to properly carve by an Australian called John who lived his best life teaching kids how to ski during the winter and working as a carpenter in the summer;

Witnessing and experiencing a multitude of mishaps and injuries, for example: falling off a chairlift due to a cacophony of communication errors; falling off a T-Bar with a friend due to a lot of bad luck (why am I always falling off things?!); watching my dad plough into a snow wall he couldn’t see because it was the same colour as the cloud we were skiing through (I almost wet myself laughing); chomping on my tongue during a fall and spitting blood for ten minutes; watching someone in my ski group snap a ligament in her leg and being tobogganed down the mountain; and, the worst, watching 18 year old Neal Valiton tumble to his death during the 2007 IFSA World Freeride Championship in Tignes.

Skiing is fun and some mistakes are unfortunate and unavoidable, but anyone who doesn’t take yours and their safety extremely seriously isn’t worth skiing with. The mountain is beautiful but it is not always your friend. In light of this, it can become an incredibly mindful sport: you plonk yourself on the side of a mountain and somehow you have to get down as safely as possible. For me, crazy as it sounds, what ensues is a very clear and concerted inner conversation with myself. I have to navigate my way through ice and moguls, through white outs with zero visibility and the chaos that are nursery slopes at the end of the day, deciding how big or short my turns have to be, how much speed I can afford to pick up and how the rest of my group are getting along. In the process I give myself pep talks, sometimes even sing to myself when I get a good rhythm, and the whole effect is ridiculously calming.

This was proved again last weekend when I had my first snowboarding lesson at the Tamworth Snow Dome. To begin with, it felt almost sacrilegious because I had abandoned skis and poles for extremely comfortable boots and a single plank with sharp edges. But, after a shaky start, which included screaming in the instructor’s face as he helped me to edge down the hill, I dropped down into that calm, mature inner place that doesn’t always make itself known on a day-to-day basis. It was clear and confident, and sounded like: ‘OK Harper, we’re here now, on a snowboard, slightly out of control, what are we going to do about it?’ I slowed down, becoming mindful of my body and it’s movements (including the limits of what I was currently able to do) and, in so doing, embraced this new and disorientating experience. I have realised that my work is to try and tap into this place a lot more often.

 

 

(Featured image is my photo of El Pas de la Casa resort in Andorra, 2015)

World Book Day 2019

I have always loved World Book Day. At school, I loved receiving a book token and legging it to Waterstones to buy something new to read. I explicitly remember Roald Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’ and Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Lizzy Zip-Mouth’ being two of my World Book Day purchases, which I re-read about twenty times each.

You guys: World Book Day is not just for childhood, it’s for life. I continue to enjoy World Book Day because it gives me an excuse to happily blither on about books for a whole 24 hours (not that I ever really needed an excuse but, you know). Reading is such an incredible, immersive pastime, a treat for the imagination and important means of acquiring vocabulary in childhood. It is also so important to help explore the limits of language and to challenge our preconceptions about race, gender, age and sexuality. I think we should all be encouraged to read as much as possible. I know that our lives are so busy and we’re all perpetually tired, but I try to follow my Dad’s example: he will not end the day without reading, even if it’s just one page of a book. Not only does this help me wind down after a day of work, it means that I create distance between myself and my screens and helps to take me somewhere beyond my busy, chattering brain.

In light of World Book Day, I wanted to share with you some books that I really think you need to know about:

The books I have just finished

The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart both by Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron

I have always been interested in spirituality and these books, written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, introduce basic concepts of the Buddhist dharmas in an accessible, relatable way. They have become a go-to for me when I feel anxious, uncertain and groundless. Every single word of these books is steeped in wisdom: I almost wish I could have eaten them so that I could digest it all properly. I have enjoyed learning about Tonglen meditation, which is a practice that involves breathing into anxiety, uncertainty, fear and anger etc. and breathing out clarity, spaciousness and peace for yourself and behalf of everyone else who is suffering. With Chodron’s help (and that of another great Buddhist friend) I have learnt how to embrace the impermanence that characterises life, making our relationships all the more precious; and the importance of compassion, non-judgement and moving from a place of loving-kindness. I saw on Twitter recently someone’s opinion that ‘being kind’ is a wishy-washy, beige way of living life: after a read of Chodron’s work, however, I couldn’t disagree more. I have come to realise that there is perhaps nothing more radical or fearless than accepting egolessness and consciously moving from a place of joy, compassion and care for the world and everyone else in it.

The book I am currently reading

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

I am half way through the former First Lady’s memoir and I am enjoying it immensely. Her story is compelling and characterised by a complex mixture of personal drive, determination and striving, whilst juggling her African American heritage with the white patriarchal power structures of Ivy League universities and law firms. Race is central to the book, as Obama recounts the frustration of the lack of opportunity afforded to her talented, smart grandfather and uncles and her own frustration of being caught between not being black enough (a cousin/classmate asks her early on why she ‘talks like a white girl’) and not being white enough (she finds herself outnumbered by predominantly white men at Princeton, Harvard and in the law firm Sidley and Austin). As such, it is a really important read that directly challenges the unthinking white privilege of many of the readers who are likely to pick up her tome. Obama also gives us a tour of her treasured friendships, her family and, of course, her relationship with Barack Obama. I know I get mushy really easily but, seriously, their story is bloody romantic. I know that she opens up about marriage counselling later on in the book, and I am very much looking forward to reading a refreshingly un-Disney account of what it really takes to be in a long-term relationship. And Trump. I can’t wait to see what she’s written about him.

The book everyone should read

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

This book is beautiful but was definitely a tricky one to get into at first. After 100 pages I was still not finding myself suitably immersed, which is a testament to how brilliantly challenging this book is. I persevered because I am slightly loathe to leave a book I’ve started reading unread, and was so glad I did. 100 pages in, and after a lengthy and hilarious description of various groups of people protesting various political and religious in a central Delhi square, I was swept away. The novel features a myriad of interesting characters, but centres on Anjum, a transgender hijra living in a cemetery in the heart of Delhi. Infused with Urdu poetry, political satire and witticisms, Roy’s novel investigates love, conflict and chaos in the colourful and brutal Indian capital, through the life of an extraordinary character. Reading this novel feels all the more pertinent now that tensions are once again flaring up over the region of Kashmir, which features heavily in the novel’s second half. I learnt so much about Indian culture and politics in this book, in particular regarding the country’s Muslim population, and was entranced by the unfolding drama and Roy’s bewitching prose. As such, I would recommend this novel time and time again.

 The books I’m going to read next

This is both my most and least favourite predicament: I have easily 50 books on my shelf that are lined up for reading and I get choice paralysis every time I need to decide what to read next. The main contenders include:

Milkman by Sarah Burns

Natives by Akala

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (really interesting that she is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 US election)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Milkman AkalaMarianneWar and PeaceNaomi againNancy Mitford

Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.

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.

devilwearspradabelts

[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:

elie wiesel

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).

last-night-of-freedom-1.png

 

last night of freedom 2

 

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.

andyjreed - flickr group

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.

#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].

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

#HandwrittenShakespeare – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

As a belated birthday present, I was taken to see an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s melodramatic yet fabulous Gothic ancestral pile in north Nottinghamshire. This play is one I am particularly familiar with, having first studied it at age 11, performed in it at 14 (Snout the Tinker for life), studied it again at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at university, and then having given a paper on it at a student conference.[1] An evening spent on a picnic mat with a bottle of plonk, watching the Chapterhouse Theatre Company performing such a lively interpretation of the play was gorgeous.

DSC_3032

Sitting in the audience of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me of a number of things. Primarily, that The Mechanicals pretty much steal the show every single time with their farcical production of ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’, a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written and performed in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[2] The Shakespeare geek in me just loves that these two plays sit alongside one another in the Shakespeare chronology: Romeo and Juliet is so elevated in our culture as the epitome of tragic romantic love, yet the next play that Shakespeare wrote effectively takes the piss out of it. It suggests that the tragic escalation of Romeo and Juliet should not be beyond comedy (there are many moments in the play that nod to the comic tradition of the carnival-esque) and that the meta-theatrical clap back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be underestimated or under-acknowledged.

The performance also reminded me that for all the cultural grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the big names treading the boards in West End productions, some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen have been the rabbly raucous ones; those productions that have been comprised of well-trained but little known actors, who truly capture the playfulness and humour of Shakespeare’s writing. It is often forgotten that Shakespeare plays were the 16th century’s chief forms of ‘low brow’ popular entertainment, and I love productions in the 21st century that are aware of this and attempt in some way to recapture that.[3]

Finally, I was reminded that alongside being funny and magical, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of moments that are steeped in poignancy, taking the play well beyond its cultural box of ‘fairy story cum romantic comedy’. One such moment came in the following lines delivered by Theseus, which I felt inclined to write out in full:

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 1

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 2

It is important to acknowledge first the racism implied in ‘Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’. This line suggests that people who are in love are so frantic in their minds, that they see beauty akin to that of famed, Classical beauteous woman Helen of Sparta/Troy in a face that is not to be thought of as beautiful. In a move that speaks volumes of the 16th century’s perception of non-white non-Europeans, Shakespeare opts to conflate ugliness with the facial characteristics of Egyptians; because as people of African heritage, they were not thought to conform to standards of Western beauty and physical perfection.[4] This is extremely problematic and as a result, and as much as I love Shakespeare and the rest of this quotation, we cannot let him off for explicit racism.

The specific line from Theseus’s little speech here that had me reaching for the Shakespeare Concordance after the play had finished was: ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’. [5] I was interested in the intertextual presentation of these three groups of people. This is because they are described as almost amorphous in Theseus’s discussion of the power of their collective imagination.[6] Imagination, he suggests, throws up images and distorts perceptions of reality with ‘frantic’ visions of ‘devils’, amongst other things. This culminates in the longer description of the poet, whose pen turns ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’. This suggests that what the poet accomplishes is the giving of life to what could have remained intangible and unreal, effectively a nothing. The irony of this is that the poet, like the lunatic and the lover, seemingly has no choice or control over their imagination. It is imagination that ‘bodies’ forth the forms of things unknown, which suggests that whilst thoughts and images are ‘nothings’, they are brought into language and expression through a corporeal being or experience.[7] This suggests that the imagination is something different and, perhaps, more complex and ambiguous than reason and rationality (‘Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’). It has the fluctuating, changeable nature of all bodies but also possesses the physical corporeality that grounds us all in life. As such, it is a powerful almost tangible thing that is fluid, changeable and very difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Shakespeare takes this further by emphasising in the last four lines how this powerful, bodily imagination can bring about both the greatest joy and greatest fear, what Theseus describes as the ‘tricks’ of strong imagination. A modern translation of ‘tricks’ would be that imagination is a manifestation of some kind of cognitive dissonance: it is so powerful that it effectively establishes a disjunction between what it perceives as real and what is actually real. When something joyous happens, imagination establishes something or someone in the mind that brings that unparalleled joy; out of fear, imagination would convince us that a mundane bush is a ferocious bear. As a result, we can see that imagination, in the way that it acts uncontrollably and almost independently of a rational self, can disorient and confuse.

Theseus’s example of the poet, lover and lunatic suggests that these three groups of people, as a collective, demonstrate this intense, two-pronged relationship with imagination. To have such an active imagination requires the mind to be performing at a certain level of creativity, which welcomes those who, inadvertently or otherwise, express themselves with words and love. Furthermore, an intense relationship with imagination might also feasibly be called an intense relationship with anxiety. T.S Eliot famously wrote that ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, and I think this could serve as a reading of Theseus’s speech here. Eliot suggests that creativity is accompanied and perhaps even enabled by the presence of anxiety; that expressions of writing and love walk hand-in-hand with what the 16th century would use rudimentarily describe as ‘lunacy’ or ‘madness’. I would add, in Theseus’s vein, that having an active imagination can be read here to be the greatest blessing when it comprehends and brings forth in a tangible bodily way great joy and positivity. In an equal and opposite way, however, imagination can also be the greatest burden and responsibility, when fear distorts our conception of the world around us and ourselves. It is entirely possible to argue that anxiety is the manifestation of creativity (and active bodily imagination) gone awry.

[1] Just in case you’re interested, I used Jean Baudrillard to explore Lysander’s seduction of Hermia through the use of figurative language, brought the concept of Bottom’s ‘translation’ into an ass into discussion with Jacques Derrida’s ‘On ‘Relevant’ translation’ and used my conference paper ‘Wastelands’ to compare Titania’s description of the changed and damaged seasons through her conflict with Oberon with T.S. Eliot’s war torn landscapes in part one of his poem The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

[2] The Beatles seemed to think so too. I love this very grainy footage of them performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg

[3] As well as the Chapterhouse Theatre Company, I refer to Filter’s absolutely hilarious production of Twelfth Night that I saw at HOME in Manchester, where members of the audience were encouraged to sing, clap, dance about and some brought onto the stage to drink tequila and play catch. We were all then jointly chastised by Malvolio for gabbling ‘like tinkers’ and for having ‘no respect of place, persons, nor time’. This line seemed all the more pertinent because the fourth wall separating the actors and the action from the audience had been completely comically demolished.

[4] I would like to show some awareness here that still today, people from non-white BAME backgrounds struggle to have their beauty, alongside their stories, perspectives, talents and intelligence, respected as much as those of white people. Whilst many BAME men and women have blazed trails for black beauty in fashion, music and film, popular culture is still slowly catching onto the fact that beauty encompasses more than skinny able-bodied white men and women.

[5] The Shakespeare Concordance is an excellent reference point for finding recurring words throughout Shakespeare’s plays. I searched for ‘poet’ in the Concordance when trying to find this specific line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/

[6]Before I continue, I think it’s important to say that I haven’t written about Shakespeare in a long time and never, I think, outside of an academic setting. Historically, I have been quite reluctant to talk about Shakespeare beyond an analytical or theoretical perspective, because I am highly sceptical of the value of reader response criticism. I have realised quite recently, however, how much I have missed throwing myself into the poetry, tensions and conversations all taking place within and between Shakespeare’s texts. I am hoping that in this new ‘Handwritten Shakespeare’ series that I want to bring to the ‘Creative’ section of Harping On that I can explore a new casual and therapeutic way of approaching Shakespeare: handwriting a quote I find interesting and then unpacking very briefly what is going on.

[7]  Thus also pointing to the idea that ‘nothing’ is always potentially ‘something’.

New Zealand: podcasts we listened to

I have come to the podcast game very late indeed. Friends have been recommending podcasts for years and years but I just never got involved. Whenever a cultural phenomenon or ‘thing’ has been hyped up and managed to pass you by, which for me also includes watching Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Breaking Bad and listening to any albums by The Arctic Monkeys, it’s hard to motivate yourself to get on the band wagon. Feminist friends and film buffs have linked me all sorts, yet I have remained a stick in the mud and never got round to listening to any of them. Apparently, however, it took the prospect of four 11 hour flights and six weeks of driving around New Zealand in a campervan to get me out of the gate. Armed with my recommendations and CastBox newly downloaded onto my phone, I sunk my teeth into the following shows:

My Dad Wrote a Porno

My Dad Wrote a Porno

I did not know what I was getting myself into with this podcast, except that it had caused the friend who recommended it to keel over with laughter whilst out on a run. It is potentially the weirdest concept ever: Jamie Morton reads out the erotic novel Belinda Blinked, written by his dad under the pseudonym ‘Rocky Flintstone’. Alice Levine and James Cooper critique, comment and cringe along as we are dragged through the absurdly lascivious world of Belinda Blumenthal, the sales director and sexual maven of Steele’s Pots and Pans. Any lingering Freudian weirdness- that of a son reading his dad’s erotic constructions- is soon eclipsed by the novel’s monumental and unintentional hilarity: it is unpredictable, graphic and glorious. Part erotic novel, part business manual, part prolonged plotless and syntactically challenged sexual insanity and part fake news in its explorations of the female anatomy (Peter Rouse did not grab Belinda by the cervix to pleasure her), Belinda Blinked had us hooked from the beginning. Even when vivid images of men in black thongs, breasts hanging like pomegranates and the most perverse tombola ever conceived left us feeling, quite frankly, nauseous, no journey across the South Island of New Zealand felt complete without finding out what madness was going to happen next. Driving, cooking and breathing were all compromised whilst listening to My Dad Wrote A Porno but it is certainly one of the most entertaining, if questionable, cultural productions I have decided to commit to.

Serial logo

Serial

About four episodes into Serial, we made the executive decision to stop listening to it. I have finished the podcast since returning to the UK, so I feel equipped to talk about it, but whilst in New Zealand, it had to be put aside. Listening to Serial was unsettling and jarring. On a surface level, hearing the gruesome details of the murder of Hae Min Lee was practically guaranteed to freak us out when we were camping alone in some secluded woods outside Rotorua. However, what unnerved me about Serial was not just the story that was being offered, but how it was being offered and why it was being offered at all.

Serial has been hailed as a cultural achievement for marrying investigative journalism with podcasting, bringing both to an enraptured mainstream audience. It has also been met with heavy criticism for its ethical ambivalence, using the murder of a young woman as entertainment and instigating listeners to turn into would-be detectives to pick holes in the court case against Adnan Syed. It is worth remembering that Hae Min Lee’s family have been extremely critical of the podcast in this regard, saying that ‘unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials – so many witnesses, so much evidence’, and for whom the whole experience of the case being resurrected through Serial has evidently been traumatising.[1] I think what is important about this quote, in addition to the enormous emotional distress that Lee’s family continues to experience, is the reference to all the witnesses and evidence that the family came into contact with. The problem with Serial is that so much of the information that viewers receive is secondary, so we are relying entirely on the honesty and integrity of Sarah Koenig to tell the story.

This becomes problematic when we know that Serial’s main intention is to entertain, not inform: Ira Glass, one of the producers of the show, described the aim of the podcast as: ‘We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving’.[2] The aim of the show was to create a compulsive listening experience, in the same vein as House of Cards, Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black and any of the other shows that are uploaded to be binged on. This means, therefore, that it has been constructed in a certain way to keep us involved and on edge: important details and evidence can potentially be withheld or strung out to help build tension; Koenig’s own doubts become our doubts because she is leading us through evidence that we have no access to; and with its cliff hangers and teasers, it certainly does leave you perversely wanting more. It was so unnerving to listen to because I didn’t trust the facts because Koenig didn’t trust them, but also because I didn’t trust Koenig. I kept asking myself why she was doing this, what was the whole point? We receive the story as secondary information, yet Koenig acknowledges herself in an episode called ‘Rumors’ that some of the calls she gets from the public after the podcast’s broadcast were secondary information, and so inherently untrustworthy. It begs the question: how much of the entire podcast is actually reliable?

The main argument in favour of Serial would be that it has helped advance Adnan Syed’s journey to overturn his conviction; giving a man who has always professed his innocence impetus and evidence to appeal, thanks to public exposure and interest in the inadequacies of his defence and the case made by the prosecution. The shortcomings of the American legal system are laid out for us and it’s only right that an innocent man shouldn’t be condemned to live his life behind bars. It’s hard to argue with this; however, my problem with Serial is, again, to do with its process. In my opinion, one of the most revealing moments was when right at the end, we learn that Syed writes a letter to Koenig from prison, outlining how the whole experience of talking to her has disrupted the emotional equilibrium he has established living his life in prison. He writes that he has become anxious and afraid of judgment, and he’s looking forward to the whole experience being over. If the argument is made that Serial has helped Syed in any way, close attention has to be paid to this letter. The podcast has been emotionally damaging for Hae Min Lee’s family to live with, but this moment suggests that it has been emotionally damaging for Adnan Syed too.

Serial is an interesting listening experience and I’m glad I returned to it once we were back in the UK. However, I think we have to be very careful with real life stories, in particular those involving murder, that we don’t just consume them for entertainment. In the aforementioned quote, Ira Glass describes the people involved as ‘characters’, even though they are not imaginative abstractions. They are real people who live with the reality of what happened in 1999 and with the reality of wannabe detectives attempting to work out their lives for them on the internet. We might think we know everything about this case as a result of listening to the podcast, but I think it is ultimately untrustworthy, and needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism.

The Guilty Feminist

The Guilty Feminist

There are many aspects of this podcast that I love. Not least, it has introduced me to absolutely hilarious female comics that I had somehow spent my whole life not knowing about, for example Dana Alexander, Bisha K Ali, Desiree Burch and Sindhu Vee. In addition, any show that invites Gemma Arterton as a guest to talk about sexism within the film industry is on the right track: that woman is a much underappreciated theatrical and feminist icon whom I have loved unwaveringly since her seminal performance as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Guilty Feminist is really great at making feminists feel better about our inconsistencies. In particular, the podcast provides a space for women to acknowledge that, against our better judgement, we can and do align ourselves with various sexist and patriarchal standards that we have been conditioned our entire lives to adhere to. In particular, this can revolve around the way we look, our expectations of men and how we perceive and judge other women. It is non-judgemental about this, making a point to laugh and make light of our ridiculous double standards. In doing so, the podcast encourages women to show the same empathy and compassion we hold for other women and their struggles, with our own internal contradictions and patriarchal anxieties. It is fun, funny and I’m not going to stop listening to it any time soon.

Perhaps my only criticism would be that at times, the podcast doesn’t want to be radical enough. I very much enjoy the focus it brings to women’s charities, youth campaigns, the burden of emotional labour etc. However, the outlook isn’t, at times, the transformational approach to feminism that I subscribe to. This manifests at times in the economic discussions that take place, which predominantly revolve around the pay gap. In one episode, entitled ‘It’s a Man’s World’, the argument was made that to help companies understand the value of women, feminists needs to adopt the language of economics to make our case of being ‘economically viable’ more convincing. I take issue with this because the language of economics is ultimately patriarchal. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be in a situation where women are generally paid less, are told that tampons are luxuries or suffer the most at the hands of austerity thanks to cuts to local services, childcare and crisis centres. Furthermore, whilst many women raise awareness of these issues through writing, speaking or on their political platforms, women seem to be consistently absent from the actual conversations and decision-making. If we were to use the language of economics to make ourselves more palatable to men, we would be using the language of patriarchy to get onto a better footing within the patriarchy. If we want to remove patriarchal structures, which extends to racial structures too, we need to change the language that props the entire system up.

Ultimately, however, the podcast is a great comforting and affirming endeavour. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect (and I definitely include myself in that) and this podcast strips these unachievable and unrealistic expectations away. I think both women and men will be all the better for listening and engaging with it.

I would like to thank Char Bender, Mark Beer and Jess Action for their excellent recommendations. I’m finally catching up with you guys.

[1] ‘Serial case: victim’s family offers rare statement before hearing resumes’ [accessed 12:59, 12th June 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/feb/07/serial-case-hae-min-lee-statement-adnan-syed-hearing-baltimore

[2]This American Life channels True Detective in popular new podcast’ [accessed 18:49, 14th June 2018] https://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/09/ira-glass-sarah-koenig-julie-snyder-serial-podcast-this-american-life/