Let the Good Times Roll

 

But when people say,
Did you always want to be a writer?,
I have to say no!
I always was a writer

Ursula le Guin

When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’

They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.

I don’t buy this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.

Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.

Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.

So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the

le guin
URSULA LE GUIN

question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:

Ursula K Le guin rejection letter

Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.

By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. left hand darknessImagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.

 

My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.

Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’.  It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language or smoking weed out the back garden. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse.  This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. Depression has certainly a marked chemical or genetic component, but it also has a societal aspect, a marked societal aspect. Our pain is framed by our world. If this pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.

So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.

So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.

But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.

Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.

“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”

(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.

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The Length of a Piece of String

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I am a bit worried about what I am writing at the moment.  People see me spend long stretches working, and ask me in a roundabout way actually I am working on, and I don’t really want to say.  There are two reasons for my uncool evasiveness. Firstly I only have a few central ideas and a new raw stylistic idea for what I am working on, and the newness of these ideas are a little scary. So my evasiveness is borne of insecurity.

Secondly the actual plot of what I am working on is something of a moving target these days. this also is new. Generally,  I am the type of guy who sits down, makes a plan, then executes it. I mean its not that I usually know every plot move, but I generally know. So I am doubly insecure, in as much as I am not sure where I am going or how long it will take.

This leads me to the third question I get asked:

‘When are you going to be finished?’

‘How long is a piece of string?’ I say, meaning I don’t know and I worry when actually I will be done.

 

function-arclength
length of string….

 

 

My novel started out as a nice respectable middle aged crisis type book with a few literary and thriller elements attached. Now, three major drafts later and three years later, it has become a monster. Now its got more to do with horror and thriller elements than the tame reflective rather self absorbed piece I started out working on. And as I go through drafts and as it subtly changes me, I become more and more uncomfortable with how raw and visceral the book is becoming.

It also makes me think about the art and craft of writing. Where am I going with all this work, all this drafting and redrafting and rewriting? Is there a point when one runs out of ideas, a limit to the amount of books your produce before you begin to be a cliché? Someone who produces a slim tome every eighteen months to keep up with contract requirements? What’s the point of writing?

I don’t have and don’t really want an answer to that question. But I do think once you learn about writing, the craft, how to plot, how to pace, the elements of story, using different types of styles for differing elements of a text, you find that having the craft is not enough. One wants to go deeper, certainly I do. One throws away language games and well worn plot clichés to get at the core of things.

I think that writing is an act that leads one to shed elements of a false self and it leads you to ones core, that’s if you want to go there. J D Salinger famously stopped publishing because he wanted his writing to be as free of the demands of others as possible. The thread or piece of string one leaves down as one journeys through the labyrinth of words is just long enough to get to the centre. That’s how long the string is.

On Being Who We Really Are

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Pictured in 2017 in Karpacz Poland

I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an  opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop.  Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library  and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age  blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.

Facebook and Wasting Time.

reality check ahead

Facebook is like the Hotel California. You can never leave. Rather than leaving or deleting, a number of events made me ‘discontinue’ my Facebook account.

1.  The politicization of Facebook.

Facebook was originally designed as a social media platform, somewhere folks of all stripes can connect. Mark Zukerberg also saw huge potential down the line for selling advertising as soon as people adapted to Facebook and saw it as an extension of their friendship circle. Sadly those innocent days of mere data analytics and targeted advertising are gone. Aside from every intelligence agency and advertising company and multinational corporation being all over Facebook friendsphere, the amount of political rants from varying sources, from all sides of the political divide has made even the most dispassionate and objective bystander hard pressed to maintain their objectivity and enjoy surfing and commenting on Facebook. The era of Trumpism, with its extreme divisiveness, misogynism, racism and xenophobia, and its consequent political fallout has made it impossible to enjoy any kind of social media, except if one enjoys rants and calls for political change and bitter disputes. If one adds this to the ongoing data harvesting, the analytics and psychological profiling, Facebook has become an arena for at times extreme social experimentation, targeted advertising, and monitoring of users. Nowadays elections are staged on Facebook (recently a US congressional hearing  heard how approx. 10 million people in the U.S. saw at least one of the 3,000 political ads bought by accounts linked to the Russian government)

*For more information check out the Steele Dossier

*See here for a CNN discussion of hacking. Note how blame is being shifted to Russia. http://money.cnn.com/video/news/2017/10/01/facebook-information-warfare-rs.cnnmoney/

2. Too Many Friends.

Facebook allows for 5000 ‘friends’ – which is an absurd number that serves Facebooks advertising and analytics more than the user. At the point of exiting Facebook I had about 4700, and I was beginning to think it was a bit nuts. Studies show that anything more than 150 friends and your brain can’t take it – 150 being the number beyond which groups begin to have real difficulties in social cohesion  Robert Dunbar,  an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, noticed a correlation between brain size and a persons capacity to sustain friendships. See this pic:

friends_dunbar

 

This friendship capacity is directly related to the size of ones neo cortex, depending on the primate. There are four main circles of intimacy, the largest number of deep intimates we can handle being about five. Dunbar goes on to speculate that the evolution of language comes directly from the notion that the alternate to language is social grooming, meaning time spent stroking and engaging in physical rituals. Someone told me recently we share 97% of our DNA with our chimps.  Amazing how similar the pic below is with a few guys down the pub after a couple of pints. I can’t show a pic of humans because well, it might cause offense. But google a few pics under the search protocol ‘pals having pints down the pub’ and see what I mean.

 

chimp-group1

Talking generally and humour especially, enables one to reach more people more efficiently, otherwise we would be half our times grooming and stroking others. So having a thousand or two thousand ‘friends’ is an illusion.  All one is doing is giving Facebook more data, and indeed any company using Facebooks phenomenal freely acquired data horde.  What keeps friendship alive is not online interaction, it’s human interaction.

See also this excellent article

3. Facebook is Time Consuming.

In 2016  Mark Zukerberg reported a profit margin (net) of $1.6 billion, and mentioned in passing that the average user time spent daily on Facebook was 50 minutes. In 2014 it was 40 minutes. We spend about three hours watching TV and movies, and about 19 minutes reading books. Looking elsewhere, according to comscore more than 14% of our total time spent online is spent of Facebook with an overall score of 1650 million users – per month. This is followed by 55 million monthly users (Instagram) followed by Twitter and Snapchat. Moreover, in an age of increasing atomization and isolation, Facebook gives one the illusion of intimacy. The most powerful virtual tool right now is the Facebook ‘Like’ button. One ‘ Like’ and you get a little endorphin kick. Its a form of stroking, as Dunbar describes it. A dose of Oxytocin (aka the ‘hug drug’).  Facebook gives all the appearance of being addictive.  See also Some Notes on Facebook

 

4. We are being watched.

Xkeyscore is an interesting program. It was developed by the NSA, is a meta search program, and has over 700 servers in over 150 sites across the planet.  It is largely a passive search engine but has associated programs such as QUANTUMINSERT, QUANTUMHAND, QUANTUMTHEORY and others that allow for both active intervention and a deep dive data harvesting. Anything you do on Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms comes under the purview of these powerful and evolving programs.

“Beyond emails, the XKeyscore system allows analysts to monitor a virtually unlimited array of other internet activities, including those within social media.

An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data

5. Facebook is addictive.

See here for more information.

A Tiny Jot on the Horizon

 

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A WARNING ABOUT XENOMORPHS FROM WEYLAND YUTANI CORP

Aside from being a huge fan of the Alien franchise, over the last months I have started stargazing. Despite the endless rain we have in Kerry in South of Ireland, the night sky down here is mainly free of light pollution, that is when those clouds finally clear. Given  a fairly clear night, an hour or two without rain, a warm coat, some gloves and a bit of hot whiskey, fun can be had (sadly Im on a diet – so no whiskey). Also, and most happily, my landlord has a pretty cool telescope. We spend hours looking at the moon and Saturn and occasionally a tiny Mars appears. There are countless stars out there and just staring into a telescope gives one and incredible rush of transcendence. There before one’s eyes are actual proof of other galaxies and other planets and other constellations. Call it a Galileo (remember what happened to him?) moment but we humans sometimes forget how small we are and how vast it all is out there. I find I love to look out through a telescope as opposed to looking into a computer screen. I find it wonderful to sit out on a clear night and allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark after countless hours of artificial light. After a while the clouds disappear and I look up.

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FORMULA FOR CALCUALTING THE PROBABILITY OF ALIEN LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE

 

So many stars. Satellites come out at night. It’s fantastic. It’s literally a trip. Try it. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Go up a hill at night and look at the sky. If you have a telescope all the better. But even with the naked eye looking at huge boiling stars lighting up the night sky millions or billions of light years away, is the most fun you can ever have without spending a cent. For me it’s a consciousness expanding exercise. One theory postulates that we occupy only one of multiple universes, how many we just don’t know. In this particular  universe some say there are a hundred billion galaxies. Others say its two hundred billion. Others again say there are five hundred billion galaxies. (I got these figures from a google search, so many results emerging I don’t see how I can provide links to same). When you take the difference between one and five billion, it becomes clear just how much about the universe we just dont know.  Also, I think that even if we don’t agree on the number of galaxies in the known universe we can say this. There are almost an uncountable number of them and as such there must therefore be an uncountable number of stars in the each of those galaxies. Right now its an unknown, but a immense number.

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If there are a vast number of stars, then there has to be even more planets. Planets form usually from the leftover parts of stars (how planets form), so for every star, there are usually a number of planets rotating around them. Then notion then that we are alone in this incredibly vast, impossibly complex universe, that humanity and the dolphins and the great apes and so on are the only sentient creatures, well anywhere, is so vastly improbable as to be at this stage funny. Its an extension of the junk science isolationism and anthropocentrism we see pervading our culture at present, to think this universe is especially for us and we are alone in it. Though without an ET we got no proof, its also equally true its a mighty vast universe with just one planet that supports life. To me the geeks and conspiracy theorists will be proven right in time, the tinfoil hat wearing brigade talking about other worlds and alien visitations, however hilarious and at times, and, well a bit deranged, have a valid point. Its most theories that fit way outside the accepted agreed pool of belief systalien_kittyems are treated as a bit crazy, but the more one looks out on a vast canopy of stars the more one sees, well more stars. How is it possible we are alone in all of this? Furthermore if we are alone (unlikely), why are we killing each other for real estate or belief systems? We have unlimited places out there to make a home and live in peace. If anything the wisest course of action is to recognize how limited resources are here, treat this beautiful planet with love, and set about recognizing the dangers of overpopulation, and finding new homes elsewhere rather than killing other people simply because they dont have the same god or their ideology doesn’t match yours. The truth is maybe out there?

 

 

Be My Frankenstein

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The Perfect Human

Being a rather impressionable little boy, that is, when I was a little boy, I recall one of the most terrifying creatures of my childhood was Frankenstein, not Victor Frankenstein mind, but the Monster, or The Creature, also known as Adam, something I was reminded of by a friend. For now I am not talking about the book, but the movies. This huge bolt necked square headed silent killer that walked slowly and never stopped until you were dead was a prototype Terminator that was out to get me. Scary. Frankenstein haunted my dreams and my waking life. I had no doubt this creature existed. That scientists were building him somewhere, and that Victor Frankensteins Monster was a truly malevolent force. I became profoundly conservative in my thinking. I needed things to be safe and ordered and filled with ritual and nice middle class motifs. This was because my mind was frightening me. It was because he, the Frankenstein Thing was evil. Science was a doorway to a terrifying unknown. We should not mess with the natrual order of things.

Robert Cametti Frankenstein Heads art project for St. Jude's Charity
Frankenstein as Borg

 

This is of course was long before I actually sat down and read Mary Shelleys remarkable book and saw that this was not what the book was about and that the Creature was a fascinating damaged and complex being.

I mentioned earlier I was an impressionable little boy. I guess I am being a tad disengenuous. I was a scaredy cat. I was filled with phobias and terrors and oversensitivites. I had too many ideas and dreams, and I couldn’t control them or cope with them. Also I had no one to talk to about them. I had an incredibly vivid imagination and ghost stories and such like really gripped me. Frankenstein was real to me and something had to be done about it. I had to understand the monster. Getting to sleep at night became a real challenge. I tried strategies. I listened to the radio. I played music. I left the light on. I read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. And eventually, I dropped off asleep only to see ghosts and monsters of the Frankensteninian ilk lurch out of the shadows and come ambling for me with arms outstretched and a dull empty gaze that spoke of murder.  I would wake with a start and go downstairs and drink a glass of milk or something and try to settle myself. I didnt know what to do with all these ideas and dreams. It seemed to me that the world of science, of creativity was filled with possibilities for good or ill, but it seemed also that no matter what we did, how many countless brilliant advances we made, we were always left with the fruits of our creation, our monsters, our Frankensteins. In the future there would be the mass production and corporatization of pharmacology that we have now, along with drone warfare, robot troops and police, mass surveillance, and Donald Trump. Back then in the sixties and the seventies there were science fiction novels and small indications of the future one would occassionally see on Television and the Movies. The problem was that all the top minds in the world of the arts predicted a bad end to our journey into scientific progress, despite the fact that millions of lives were being saved by science and that statistically the numbers of people being killed in wars and other conflicts were dropping precipitiously. It all made no sense, that is until I realized what they were talking about was not what science cured, but that our potential for self annihilation was now absolute. That was the real monster. Not the Creature.real monster

One of the things that cured my terrors was the experience of enlightenment. I actually picked up Shelley’s novel and read it. Victor Frankenstein was not the mad gothic genius with a cliche eastern european scientific sidekick working in some fire and brimstone lightning filled huge secret laboratory. He worked alone. Mainly in dissection rooms. His goal was to create the perfect human, a creature free of human foibles and defects. And by all accounts he succeeded. Except like all very intelligent sensitive beings, the Creature, as it was called, longed for human companionship, for love and meaning and because it, the Creature, was isolated and shunned, loneliness and  rejection drove it insane and led to its downfall, not least because Victor Frankenstein destroyed the Creatures potential mate and condenmned it to a life of isolation an desperate meaninglessness. The Creature was eloquent, poetic, thoughtful, sensitive, and given to long philosophical soliliques. Victor Frankenstein was a classic romantic character. In him we have what is now a veritable movie and fiction trope of the lonely genius labouring to create a better world using the gifts of intellect and skill, trying to replace blind assumptons with knowledge, undermining groundless fears with the power of insight. Instead of doing that, Victor created a being that had no place in the world, a being that went mad and had to be destroyed, a lonely desperate highly gifted creature who because he was a new type of transhuman, he had no peer, no companion, no home.

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The Creatures in love

I am no longer afraid of the Creature. I feel a great sadness now about his fate. His creator, Victor Frankenstein killed his bride and left him to go mad and become a psychotic killer. Deep down The Creature dreamed of going to South America, far from everybody, and living quietly with his mate, a female Creature, someone who would understand him, share his life as an equal, drive away the sense of his unbridgeable distance from others, a distance he neither wanted nor created for himself in the first place. The truth was that Frankensteins Creation had no place in ths world. If he and his bride could take a rocket ship to the stars, perhaps he might still be out there, but alas he was a being ahead of his time, so the tragedy of Frankenstein is the tragedy of his creation. Each destroyed the other. As the meme generators on the internet so like to remind us, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor, not the so called monster.

The Extremely Cool Marcel Proust

 

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There are few extraordinarily gifted people people out there who can also be described as really good people. They exist of course, but Marcel Proust, a true artistic genius, was one of them. Kind, sensitive, thoughtful to a fault, a good and faithful friend and an extraordinarily generous man with his time and money, Marcel Proust deserves the title of being ‘extremely cool’. And his books have few peers in sheer scale of writing and breath of vision. They are extremely long, indeed an enormous committment, but the rewards far out weigh the effort in time and patience spent in reading these wonderful books. Forgive me if I sound as if an assumption is made here about prospective readers of Proust. As so much of contemporary culture is about instant rather than long term reward, I am advocating something somewhat counter cultural here. hence my caveat.

Marcel and Marcel – A life poured into a Novel
Marcel Proust poured his life into his novel Remembrance of Things Past, or, as in the original French, A La Recherché du Temps Perdu. From his life he composed so many unforgettable characters, living breathing people filled with ambivalent, sometimes clashing ambitions and sexualities, contradictory longings and sometimes devastating losses. These lives lurk within those famous long lyrical beautiful tortured sentences. There is the erudite eccentric homosexual Baron De Charlus, quoter of Balzac with a fixation for sado masochistic practices in male brothels. De Charlus pursues the gifted musician Morel, who eventually betrays him. Then there is Baron de Charlus’ nephew, Robert de saint Loup who though homosexual, courts and eventually marries Gilberte. Gilberte, with whom Marcel himself was once in love, is daughter to the coquette Odette. Odette is wife of the aesthete socialite, the fascinating and tragic Charles Swann, who risked exclusion from society for Odette, the woman he loved. Marcel, the “I” of the novel, the complex neurotic gifted sickly self-doubting central fictional narrator, has his own share of tragic love affairs. He falls passionately for the bisexual Albertine, whom Marcel jealously tries to control and possess completely. Albertine flees her captivity and dies tragically, something Marcel could never get past. There are other people too: the Guermantes family, the Verduins, Marcels parents, and the brilliant artist Elestir, among many others.

These characters are composites from Marcel Proust’s own life. In detailing their lives, Proust draws from the content of his consciousness, mixes compassion with irony, beauty with pathos, wit with savagery. This style and vision makes his novel addictive reading. It is surprising that there haven’t been more movies about the novel as Proust writes cinematographically. I know of two myself: Jeremy Irons in Swann in Love, and Time Regained with Emmanuele Beart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich and Vincent Perez. Both are fine movies.

Reading Marcel Proust’s Novel
Reading Proust is looking into the mind of a writer/narrator with a fetish for exactitude, an eye for emotional and physical detail that borders on obsessive compulsive. And this is why any at attempt at summarising A la Recherché du Temps Perdu is to subtract story from style, which is to miss out on one of the most unforgettable reading experiences one could have, no small loss in any lifetime. For Proust style is integral to substance, and the substance of the story is time, each moment of consciousness and identity being abolished by the next, time as death and rebirth captured and recalled and reborn in the truth of art. His work is filled with hilariously comic scenes of French society at the turn of the twentieth century. It is peppered with devastating ironies, depicting moments of extraordinary beauty and pathos and savagery. It has all the grasp of humanity, all the clarity and vision and beauty that only a mature artist can bring to a work at the height of their powers. It’s also in seven parts, and is three thousand pages long.

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) came to write A la Recherché only after an equally long journey of self-discovery. It is this journey which is the novels subject. Marcel Proust was the son of Adrien Proust, an eminent physician of provincial catholic descent, and Jeanne Weil, of a wealthy Alsatian Jewish family, born in Auteil, in France. He attended the Lycee Concordet (1882-89), which happily afforded a more relaxed regime than some of the scholarly Schools of the Quartier Latin, which served this sensitive person well. His school reports and essays and letters all speak of someone who loved reading and conversation, who avoided discord at all costs, who sought the companionship of his schoolmates and wrote for class magazines. His early childhood memories were recreated in A La Recherché in parallel with an intricate portrait of society life. One of his earliest memories forms the opening sequence of the novel, that of falling asleep at night. He speaks of dreaming, shifting consciousness, like a teleportation device taking one to other times and places. And yet he longs for the comfort of his mother’s goodnight kiss, his shield against night terrors. In parallel to his own private world, he draws in society too in the person of a family friend, Charles Swann, and later on in life hearing of Swann’s desperate pursuit filled courtship and eventual unhappy marriage to the unfaithful courtesan Odette de Creacy. Swann had met Odette years before at the Verduin salon, filled as it was with countless tiny torturous rubrics and rituals of propriety and nasty controlling gossip. Swann was based on the real life Charles Haas. He, Haas, was born approx. 1833 and was also a habitué of literary salons and artists’ studios. Haas, like Swann, was a Jewish dilettante who was well received in French high society. But Swann, unlike Haas risked his status and reputation for Odette de Creacy. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one. Proust did not intend to use Haas at all in the novel and actually gave Swann a very different personality than that of Haas. He said he found that Haas “was present at the conception of my Swann” (Corr vol XII p.387)

People like Haas, whom Proust met superficially or intimately, attached themselves to his memory and imagination, clinging like marker buoys to deeply submerged fragments of memory of his past life. These fictional people play out the tragicomedy of their lives as Marcel strives to find himself within this world of French high society.

 

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Drafts of the Novel ‘Swanns Way’

 

 

What actually happens – the story of the novel
The subject of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu is Marcel’s own evolution from sickly little boy to the artist who succeeds in his ambition to write a great work. The moment which gave the narrator Marcel the inspiration to begin the work is depicted at the end of the book. Here Marcel, now approaching middle age, is late for a musical soiree and is asked to wait in the library of the fictional Princess de Guermantes. The butler brings tea and cake. Marcel has at this stage in his life achieved the highest social acceptance. As he sits waiting, dipping his madeleine cake in tea, he unexpectedly has a climatic moment of realisation. He has a moment of involuntary memory. Memories of childhood wash over him. Suddenly he realises what he must do. He has found the great work he must write. The work is himself, his own journey. Edmund White in his fine book on Proust comments that perhaps “the strangest drama in Proust’s life is the transformation of little Marcel – the dandy and partygoer, the time waster who at thirty- four had managed to do little more than write a slim volume of short stories and two translation of Ruskin – into the great Proust, who wrote one of the longest and most remarkable novels of all time.” (Proust p.82) And now because of his crippling health problems, his ambition to succeed is also a race to against time to write, a race against death.

It is this ironic circular movement, this beginning and end, whereby Marcel in discovering his calling as an artist has to leave society, that make A La Recherché du Temps Perdu so memorable. He has to leave his life, or what he thought to be his life, and recreate the true life. He has to rejuvenate impressions suppressed by time, to recompose life and bring him back to his self, his boyhood and the love and companionship as he originally knew them. For Proust one creates fiction to recreate the truth, to resurrect it from the tomb of time where all things die. The work of the artist is the discovery of life hidden beneath self-love and intellect and habit, the underworld of life unseen because of the mundane and the ritualised. Ironically enough, the Guermantes salon where Marcel has his library insight is initially shown as a place of intelligence and poetry and high art. It is the initially the perfect circle for the fictional Marcel to revolve within. Moreover Marcel falls in love with the Duchess de Guermantes, but gets over it when he meets her in society after a trip to meet Saint Loup in his garrison town. Gradually Marcel’s disillusionment at the hollowness and vanity of Guermantes’ society surfaces. This fictional experience parallels Prousts deepening adult disenchantment with society, something that grew as became ever more upwardly mobile in society. As a boy he had suffered his first asthma bouts, a condition that was to debilitate him for the rest of his life. His childhood holidays (1880-89) were spent at Illiers and Auteuil or at seaside Normandy resorts with his grandmother. These childhood holiday scenes later became the Combray holiday scenes of the novel. During this time, as he played along the Champs-Elysees, he meets and falls in love with a little girl named Marie de Benardaky, just as in the novel the fictional Marcel meets and falls in love with Gilberte Swann, daughter of Charles and Odette. It is through Marie and other such children whose parents were society hostesses that Proust became as he grew older a habitué of some of the most exclusive drawing rooms of French society. Despite his chronic and recurrent ill health, Proust spent a year in the army (1889 to 1890), studied and took licences in law in 1893, and literature in 1895 at the School of Political Sciences. In 1896 he published Les Plaisirs at les Jours (Pleasures and Days), a selection of poignant stories already published in such magazines as Le Banquet and La Revue Blanche. Already he had begun to write the somewhat disjointed but brilliant novel Jean Santeuil (published eventually in 1955), which coincided with his increasing ill health, his gradual withdrawal from a society he could not tolerate.

 

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Prousts famous noise excluding cork lined room

 

The Dreyfus Affair and Withdrawal from the World
This world weariness reached a high point with his involvement in the Alfred Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer unjustly imprisoned in Devil’s Island for spying. The affair was highly controversial, and spilt France into two highly contentious factions. It also alienated Proust from his father. Proust assisted Dreyfus’ lawyer and organized petitions on his behalf. Again his sensitivity to rejection and abandonment, which probably lent itself to his extraordinary graciousness and wit and skills at mimicry, came to the fore. Though Proust was not blackballed in society because of the Dreyfus affair, he did lose friends and was subjected to snide remarks because of being half Jewish, though he protested himself to be catholic. In reality he was agnostic. More than anything it was the bigotry and anti-Semitism of French society which led to his final withdrawal from it. This need to find oneself in the world of society, to find acceptance in it, and consequent failure and retreat and disillusionment, rises and disappears in cycles throughout A La Recherché. Indeed Proust, now that he had no salon world to comfortably retreat into (aside from the very occasional sortie), truly feared his own destiny as a writer. He feared rightly that in beginning the great work he so longed to write it might take everything he had in life. Consequently it would have been easier to dither. Then he might at least continue to live, be among the beautiful creatures of desire that populated high society, write brilliant pastiches of Balzac and Falubert, translate the art critic Ruskin’s works as he had in younger days, and have something akin to a life. But he didn’t. He took the plunge and wrote on. The first volume, Swann’s Way was rejected by the highbrow publishing house, Nouvelle Revue Française on the recommendation of Andre Gide, who thought that a snob like Proust could contribute little worthwhile to literature. Proust’s housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, thought that the manuscript had not even been unwrapped, let alone read. Gide was later to apologise, and radically changed his views after actually reading the manuscript. After the initial rejection by the NRF, the courageous publisher Grasset published Swann’s Way in 1913. Further negotiations between Grasset, Proust and the NRF led to a simultaneous volume being brought out, Within a Budding Grove, for which Proust won the Prix Goncourt in December 1919. Three more volumes came out during Prousts lifetime: Le côté de Guermantes I (October 1920), Le Côté De Guermantes II – Sodome et Gomorrhe I (May 1921), Sodome et Gomorrhe II (April 1922). The NRF in collaboration with Robert Proust, Marcels younger brother, published the final volumes – La Prisonnière (1923), Albertine Disparue (1925) and Le Temps Retrouvé (1927).

Througout A La Recherché the narrator Marcel continually has the ambition to write a great work ever drawing him on. This desire remains despite his misgivings over his talent, and even though ironically his ambitions in society if not in love, are continually satisfied. In real time, for Proust it was the death of his parents, his father in 1903 and his mother in 1905 that ironically set him free both emotionally and financially to write. Proust lived within a cycle of dependency, especially with his mother. Just after his mothers death Proust wrote to the Comte de Montesquiou (the basis for Proust’s Baron De Charlus character) saying that with his mother’s death “My life has now forever lost its only purpose, it’s only sweetness, it’s only consolation. I have lost her whose unceasing vigilance brought me in peace and tenderness the only honey of my life” (Selected Letters 2:208). He sought that peace and tenderness in many forms, in the character of Albertine, the thinly disguised feminisation of Albert Agnoscelli, Prousts secretary and great passionate unfulfilled love. Albertine is first depicted as the leader of a group of girls running on the beach led by Albertine. Like Albertine in the novel, Agnostelli was held captive by Proust, fled from his possessive love and dies tragically. Albert Agnostelli died in a plane crash in 1914 during a time when Marcel saw that millions were about “to be massacred in a war of the worlds comparable to that of Wells” (Corr. Vol XIII, p 283). The death of Albert occurring at the outset of war, led Proust to the second great shipwreck of his life after the death of his parents. For him this death, like his mother’s death, represented the loss of love, loss of everything. It was a desperate passion, an unspeakable unfulfilled desire that Proust projected onto his secretary. With Albert dead as in the novel, he felt himself to be a spent force. His passion and desire and jealousy of Albert were thwarted, as it was always thwarted in life, this time by death. Beauty is lost as love is lost, and though Proust was at the height of his powers as a writer, he stopped writing for a time to heal from such a devastating shock. Just as it was Prousts discovery of John Ruskin’s art criticism back in 1899 that led him to abandon Jean Santeuil, so too during this terrible crisis, it was the spiritual discovery that there was no region of the soul that could not be penetrated with the clear light of art that led Proust to return to work. Proust depicted these scenes of irrevocable loss in the latter part of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, echoed as they were by other irrevocable losses through the novel of other characters as part of the inescapable truths of life, the emptiness of love and friendship, the ambivalence of desire and sexual attraction, that snobbery and cruelty are as common as beauty and kindness. The only champion against the ravages of time lie in the memories of loved ones and places and interactions stored in involuntary memory. There, outside time, life remains inviolate, beauty and truth becomes sustainable whereas in time it disintegrates. From the first pages of the novel, where through the eyes of the fictional Marcel one relives his childhood longings for his mothers goodnight kiss which was his shield against the terror of abandonment, we experience a hypersensitivity, a sense of dread and abandonment which never left him. It returned in later life as lovers left him, or friends and relatives died, whether naturally or as part of the thirty six million casualties of the First World War. But one of the novels deepest truths is the emptiness of friendship and love, as Beckett writes “Friendship according to Proust, is the negation of that irredeemable solitude to which every human being is condemned” (Proust p. 63) Ironically though, Proust both in life and in the composite fictional Marcel remained a faithful friend, and betrayed no one.

The End
Towards the end of the novel after Albertine’s flight and death and Marcel having spent some time in a sanatorium, he meets Baron de Charlus, now physically ruined by his sexual inclinations, betrayed by his beloved Morel and by the Verduins, his friends. Charlus begins to enumerate all the dead they both once knew: “Continuing to speak to me about the past, no doubt to prove to me that he had not lost his memory, he evoked it now… by reciting an endless list of all the people belonging to his family or his world who were no longer alive…with satisfaction at having survived them” (A La Recherché Vol. 6 p.211). This incident forms an initial link to a chain of events of memory that makes Marcel realize that the beauty and truth of the past still lives, and he begins the work of writing A La Recherché du Temps Perdu.

The novel has Prousts own homosexuality projected onto it, something that conspired along with his disillusionment and half Jewishness to producing a work written from the perspective of the outsider who ironically, is still fully accepted in society. It is precisely because of Marcel’s sense of otherness that allows him such a lucid deeply sensitised view of the society he grew up in. His fair minded exploration of all aspects of human nature, the beautiful and the bestial, broadened the range of his work, making A La Recherché du Temps Perdu into one of the greatest novels in all aspects of sexual love and of human nature. It is filled with brilliant insights into the nature and vanities of human love and sexuality, and profoundly influenced novelists and artists from Samuel Beckett to Virginia Woolf.

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The Late, Truly Great, Marcel Proust

 

Proust died on Saturday November 18 1922 of complications brought on by bronchial pneumonia. He died feted as a man of letters, still helping his friends and fretting over the as yet unpublished sections of his novel. He died a fulfilled person after years of apparent failure and anonymity. He died with a reputation that was to expand to astral proportions. He had succeeded in his ambition to write a great work, the sheer originality of it, along with his celebration of the extraordinary nature of everydayness, makes A La Recherché du Temps Perdu a true classic, a truly universal novel.