A Short Essay on Writing Essays

Essays can be on any subject. They can argue any point, give information, tell a story, try to solve a problem, or convince a reader about a certain viewpoint. In fact essays sometimes do many or all of the above things at the same time. In this short essay I will try to talk about how to write an essay, but the best way to learn is from the best writers of essays.

The first thing one has to do in writing an essay is to choose one’s topic. In choosing ones topic, it is best to write about something one knows, otherwise one will have to do a lot of research before sitting down to write an essay. If you do research (it can be engrossing and fun), choose reputable sources for your data, preferably two sources for each data point. After this, the most important thing in an essay is to stick to the topic of the essay. There are an infinity of possible subjects for writing. Choose one per essay.

Once you have chosen a topic, it is best to take a spare sheet of paper out and note down quickly everything you know about the topic. This should only take a moment and will save you time as you write your essay. Once you make your notes, then try to structure your thoughts in a clear and logical manner. Now you are ready to write your essay.

Introduce your topic at the beginning of the essay, tell your reader what you intend to do in the essay and be sure to conclude your essay showing your reader(s) that you have accomplished what you set out to do. As already mentioned, the most important thing in an essay is to stick to the topic of the essay. The second most important thing is to use clear language and make sure your ideas follow smoothly and logically. Use simple direct language, avoid jargon or scientific phrasing where it’s not necessary, and develop your theme from one paragraph to the next. When you go to write an essay in an exam, for instance, it is best to have had lots of practise in the skill of essay writing beforehand. Preparation is everything.

Write your essay out twice, if you have the time. The first draft usually shows a number of problems in style, structure and sources. The second attempt usually eliminates many or all of these issues. Then read over your essay with an eye to what works in your writing and what doesn’t. Check spelling grammar and quotes. And you are done.

In conclusion essays are an entertaining, informative, and straightforward way to impart information, argue a point, convince people of certain opinions, or indeed tell a story. They structure information in an easy to follow way, reach conclusions quickly and should be written in a clear and logical manner.

A Modest Proposal Regarding Eating Animals *

*This is a talk I gave a few years ago on World Vegetarian Day.

I am not a climatologist. Neither am I a nutritionist. I write fiction. And, occasionally I have the pleasure of giving talks on world vegetarian day. Vegetarianism is something close to my heart and I was chuffed when asked to speak. So thank you for having me. I have spent my professional life constructing fictions out of the raw material of reality. To do that I try to see things as they are. So while I spend a lot of time my writing fiction, I also spend an inordinate amount of time reading factual material. And one area has become a source of absorption for me is the environment and eating animals. I think there is a very direct connection between the way we consume the worlds resources and the way we consume animals. I think the origins of this attitude towards the environment is so deep and so all embracing that most of us, and to some extent I include myself in this, are in denial of the philosophy we have constructed and have interiorized to blind ourselves to our predatory attitudes to the environment. Much of it is based on bad science, rabid all-consuming greed, the extensive use of the most sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques, and the simple fact that many of us are simply struggling to get by and are too tired and distracted to deconstruct the complicated multi layered incredibly clever messages about what is good to eat, what is right to do, how to vote and how to live.  That we have become blind to this is no accident. We are distracted at times by very real concerns, and at other times we are fed such subtle messages both through advertising, the media, learned discussions, and sometimes by people we trust, like our parents for instance. So much of the message of vegetarianism, that it’s good for you, is inexpensive and delicious, and that eating animals is morally repugnant and not good for you, is something that people will inevitably realize. This knowledge is best shared by education and debate.  And science.

And there is a lot of science to back up vegetarianism. It’s important to have the facts. We want the facts. But facts are hard to get. And science is not about certainty, but probabilities. In an utterly absorbing book about nutrition by T. Colin Campbell, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, and his son Thomas M. Campbell II, a physician, called the China Study. My big problem with this book is the fact that so much of it is connected with or talks about animal testing. PETA for instance mentions on their website the following:

“More than 100 million animals every year suffer and die in cruel chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics tests as well as in biology lessons, medical training exercises,and curiosity-driven medical experiments at universities. Exact numbers aren’t available because mice, rats, birds, and cold-blooded animals—who make up more than 99 percent of animals used in experiments—are not covered by even the minimal protections of the Animal Welfare Act and therefore go virtually uncounted.[1]

There are also other issues around animal testing, its efficacy, the fact that humans have genetic and biological differences and that you can never for instance use animal testing to decide whether a drug is safe and effective for a human being but rather whether it should be tested on humans[2]. But, despite its liberal use of animal testing, something I vehemently oppose, The China Study remains one of the best-selling books ever on the subject of nutrition, and indeed a book about the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever made. It says the following about scientific research and results from scientific research:

“Proof in science is elusive. Even more than in the “core” sciences of biology, chemistry and physics, establishing absolute proof in medicine and health is nearly impossible. The primary objective of research investigation is to determine only what is likely to be true. This is because research into health is inherently statistical. When you throw a ball in the air, will it come down? Yes, every time. That’s physics. If you smoke four packs a day, will you get lung cancer? The answer is maybe. We know that your odds of getting lung cancer are much higher than if you didn’t smoke, and we can tell you what those odds (statistics) are, but we can’t know with certainty whether you as an individual will get lung cancer.”

Campbell goes onto say how things get even more complicated when we start talking about nutrition in people and its effects. There are just so many variables: genetic differences, lifestyle differences – of course food lifestyle and health interact in all kinds of different ways for different people that no matter how rigorous one is the best one gets is a statistical level of probability. It’s something we need to bear in mind when we look at what we refer to the facts. In other words one might be wrong, but there is a high level of probability one is not wrong, based on the analysis given. Something is significant statistically when there is only a 5% or so probability that the correlation is due to chance.  

So we need to be careful and be thoughtful. And more than anything else we need to start from the beginning. So let’s find the beginning. I think when we start talking about subjects, particularly subjects like modest proposals about eating animals and the direct relationship between meat eating and consuming the environment, we need perspective. We need to look at things from first of all a broad perspective and from there move our focus down to the subject that we are here to talk about and celebrate today. So, today is World Vegetarian Day. We are celebrating the fact of vegetarianism in the context of this wonderful, beautiful world. This Earth we inhabit. It’s a small planet we are on. This Earth. And life is not easy here for any species. Life is fragile. Life on Earth is very fragile. Let’s take a quick perspective of this planet we are on right now. Earth is the fourth planet in our solar system, the fourth smallest planet of the nine planets. Its 6,371 km in diameter, which is really tiny when you compare it to Jupiter the largest planet, which is just shy of 70,000 km in diameter, and a mere mote in the eye of our comparatively small sun which is 1.4 million km in diameter. Earth, revolving round the sun at 107,000 km/hr, is so small you could fit a million Earths inside the sun. Our Sun is but one star of 400 billion stars in our galaxy. Our Galaxy is about one of about 100 billion galaxies that are known of. So we are tiny. And we are fragile.

Just how fragile we are comes to the fore when we think about the Earth. Earth is a small planet in big trouble. The problem with Earth is that it’s warming up.  In a survey of eleven thousand scientific papers on global warming, those papers that took a position on climate change, it was found that over 97% agreed that global warming was anthropogenic, or human made[3]. That is a massive consensus.

The US EPA released the following fact sheet around global warming. It’s on their website:

“The global average temperature increased by more than 1.4°F over the last century.  In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record, and 2010 was tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record.  Rising global temperatures have also been accompanied by other changes in weather and climate. Many places have experienced changes in rainfall resulting in more intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced changes: oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising.All of these changes are evidence that our world is getting warmer.” (EPA CLIMATE CHANGE BASICS)

Between 1980 and 2000 were the two hottest decades since 1600. An increase in 2 degrees decreases crop yields up to 15%, up to a 10% increase in rainfall, a decrease in river flow in some basins. And wildfires – an increase of up to 400% in wildfires. We have all seen those wildfires on the news. Some scientists predict that the temperatures will increase between 2 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.[4] It’s reasonably predicted that the arctic ice caps, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre that

“Ice loss rates were quite steady through most of the month of August (2015). Sea ice loss for August averaged 75,100 square kilometres per day (29,000 square miles), compared to the long-term 1981 to 2010 average value of 57,300 square kilometres per day (22,100 square miles per day), and a rate of 89,500 square kilometres per day for 2012 (34,500 square miles per day).”

When the ice disappears, sunlight doesn’t get reflected back, and one of Earth’s natural cooling agent’s is gone. Instead of reflecting 80% of the sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90% of the sunlight. Temperatures go up, and the sea heats, which causes more ice to melt, which causes the oceans to rise.

So we have what the World Health Organization refers to as an “Escalating human pressure on the global environment.” Well, the WHO talk about climate change, ozone depletion, forest clearance, land degradation and cover change, loss of biodiversity, freshwater depletion, an costal changes and costal ecosystems change and loss. They also plot the effects of such changes. They are quite clear that we are in trouble: Direct Impacts include Floods heatwaves, landslides, water shortage, exposure to UV radiation and pollutants. Indirect impacts include reduce food yields, altered infectious diseases, reduction of natural medicines, mental health impacts as a result of destruction of a natural aesthetic, livelihood loss, population displacement, among many others.

Just to illustrate the kinds of impact: political, humanitarian and environmental that climate change can have: Take Syria, for instance. For forty years Syria had a pretty brutal dictatorship. Then between 2006 and 2011 Syria experienced the worst drought in living memory. Ninety percent of livestock died and most of the country’s pepper fields also died. The drought has been attributed to the effects of greenhouse gases, high co2 content, in other words – climate change. Well drilling rights for water were given out by the Assad regime on purely political grounds and people who spoke out against the regime were tortured and imprisoned. A million people lost their farms due to the drought and consequently moved to the cities. From there the unrest spread. Moving into the cities didn’t help. In fact the water shortage got worse. People were dying. People couldn’t get jobs. And a revolution began. For decades people lived under a brutal repressive regime. Climate change was what sparked the horrific situation we have today in Syria. The revolt actually followed the path of the drought in Syria, which took place in around 50% of the country. Overall as a result of both war which sprang from drought, there are over 12 million of the 20 million population are displaced, and 4 million of that 12 million are external refugees. The environmental impact of such an extended drought, loss of plant and animal life, is yet to be counted amidst the fog of war in the area.

Syria is a horrific and very telling example of a loss of plant, animal and human life, as well as a political destabilization of terrible proportions. But what of a less politically charged situation? If you take politics out of the equation what is happening in our world as a result of human activity? Well we have Habitat loss and degradation. We have excessive nutrient load and other forms of pollution. We have over-exploitation and unsustainable use of resources. We have invasive alien species taking over ecosystems that are not naturally their own. In other words we have the possibility of almost irreversible loss of species and wholescale destruction of the biosphere. In a short video that came out in 2008 The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes in this video that many species are threatened with extinction. 1 out of 8 birds, 1 out of 4 mammals, 1 out of 4 conifers, 1 out of 3 amphibians, 6 out of 7 marine turtles, 75% of genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost, 75% of the world’s fisheries are fully or over exploited, Up to 70% of the world’s known species risk extinction if the global temperatures rise by more than 3.5°C. 1/3rd of reef-building corals around the world are threatened with extinction.  Again I draw your attention that these facts and figures are available online from a simple search, and also to the fact that allied to this potentially irrevocable loss is the fact that human survival is inextricably linked to biodiversity and the survival of the ecosystem. On the 05 June 2015 the following statement was issued by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Director General, Inger Andersen for World Environment Day. I quote a part of it. The full statement is available online. Mr Andersen observes that

“…the same changes that have led to widespread increases in economic well-being are undermining the systems that sustain life on this planet. And we can expect more of this to happen over the next 15 years, in ways that bring hope yet further strain the planet’s capacity to support human needs and expectations.

The world is facing a rapidly closing window. The path we choose today will define nature’s ability to support us as a species during our lifetime and for generations to come. Everything is at stake. But how do we achieve our dreams of universal well-being while conserving the nature we depend on for realising these very aspirations? Is it even possible?

We at IUCN believe that this is not a zero-sum game; human progress and nature conservation are not mutually exclusive. There is a viable path: a profound transformation of our patterns of production and consumption that re-establishes a balance between human needs and natural endowments.”

Following from this, a recent Princeton Study the researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power, and we are dealing here with one of the biggest, if not the biggest economies in the world.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”[5]

It seems almost trite to say in the light of the overwhelming evidence that we are addicted to consuming the world. That we destroy habitats and homes, that we cause typhoons and floods and droughts, that we poison the air and acidify the seas and ruin entire species, that we have to stop eating the world. But we do. We have to stop eating the world. We need a rigorous policy of re-education to halt this economically driven, corporate driven policy of over consumption which is destroying our planet. In a study issued in 2013 Oxfam released an analysis of the distribution of the words wealth called “Working for the Few” in which they say the following:

“Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population, and seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. The World Economic Forum has identified economic inequality as a major risk to human progress, impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale.

This massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people presents a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other inequalities – such as those between women and men. Left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of ordinary people.”

To be more specific, the more wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer the more political power is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer. This means economic and political power is thus further removed from the majority, the more we are at risk from a continuation of the kinds of economic activities we are talking about here. The total world wealth is $241 trillion. The poorest half (50%) of the world have only 0.71% of that wealth, or $1.7 trillion. The top 1% of the world have $110 trillion, or 46% of the total wealth. This is 65 times the wealth of the bottom 50%. The richest 85 have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the world, or 3.5 billion people. In the US, the richest 1% got 95% of the post financial crises growth. The poorer 90% got poorer. The share of US income going to the top 1% in 1980 was 8%. In 2008-12, the share was 19%. Education of people about the consumption of the Earth is the only way this kind of inequality can be addressed. Education empowers people to act intelligently. And let’s be frank here. We are for the most part trained to work in the economic system. Education is an entirely different matter. It is extremely difficult to combat arguments that are calmly given and emanate from scientific theory. And scientific theory isn’t just a theory. Scientific theory is something that is rigorously tested and improved upon over time by testing and experimentation with falsifiable predictions. To dismiss scientific theory as ‘mere’ theory is an astonishing display of ignorance.

It is in this context, this economic and political context of out of control consumption driven by an ever centralized economic and political power base that we are consuming and slaughtering billions of animals in the most efficient, most brutal manner imaginable. The attendant marketing, advertising and nutritional rationale for this consumption also emanates from this powerbase. AnimalEquality.net make the following statement on their website:

“Over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year by humans. More than 3,000 animals die every second in slaughterhouses around the world. These shocking figures do not even include fish and other sea creatures whose deaths are so great they are only measured in tonnes.”

It’s an interesting thing to note you never see a movie star or a celebrity look meaningfully into a camera during a sponsored ad break, snap their fingers and mention 3000 animals are dead, then snap their fingers once more and say another 3000 animals are dead. It’s also interesting that despite the fact we legislate heavily against cruelty to animals we don’t see or hear of legislation being passed to ban this monstrous act of mass cruelty: the concentrated feeding, the lack of movement, the lack of light and air, the infections, the antibiotics. It’s also interesting that people think this is an entirely acceptable economic activity. Not only is it regarded as an acceptable way of life and an acceptable food source, it is deemed to be an extremely healthy one. But it isn’t. It isn’t in the least bit healthy. It’s rather bad for people. The best argument against forced livestock is threefold. One it’s cruel. Two it’s bad for the environment. Three it’s costly in health terms. In other words it makes the animals and it makes humans sick.

As we begin looking at the effects of mass farming of animals and its effect on humans, we have to go back a little bit just for a second and ask a basic question about the human body. What kind of body do humans have? Are we built for eating animals? Are we omnivores? Well, not really. Dr. Williams C. Roberts from the USA National Institutes of Health and Baylor University — who is the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology and one of the most prominent cardiologists in the world with over 1,500 publications in peer reviewed medical journals — summarized our answer very nicely. He wrote:

“Although most of us (humans) conduct our lives as omnivores, in that we eat flesh as well as vegetables and fruits, human beings have characteristics of herbivores, not carnivores. The appendages of carnivores are claws; those of herbivores are hands or hooves. The teeth of carnivores are sharp; those of herbivores are mainly flat (for grinding). The intestinal tract of carnivores is short (3 times body length); that of herbivores, long (12 times body length). Body cooling of carnivores is done by panting; herbivores, by sweating. Carnivores drink fluids by lapping; herbivores, by sipping. Carnivores produce their own vitamin C, whereas herbivores obtain it from their diet. Thus, humans have characteristics of herbivores, not carnivores.”[6]

So it seems that not only is the human race investing vast resources in livestock farming, and though we have spent thousands of years eating meat, our bodies aren’t even designed to eat meat in the first place. It’s also interesting to note that our bodies synthesize all the cholesterol we need, but that when we take in animal products, we begin to build up cholesterol, and run intro real dangers of developing atherosclerosis, and heart disease. Animals that are not designed to eat meat, like herbivores including humans, do develop atherosclerosis. You will never see a genetically designed meat eating animal, with a pacemaker. They never develop atherosclerosis.

Campbell in The China Study backs up the cholesterol theory about animal based products. They say how

“…several studies have now shown, in both experimental animals and in humans, that consuming animal-based protein increases blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat and dietary cholesterol also raise blood cholesterol, although these nutrients are not as effective at doing this as is animal protein. In contrast, plant-based foods contain no cholesterol and, in various other ways, help to decrease the amount of cholesterol made by the body.” They write that “these disease associations with blood cholesterol were remarkable, because blood cholesterol and animal-based food consumption both were so low by American standards. In rural China, animal protein intake (for the same individual) averages only 7.1 grams per day whereas Americans average 70 grams per day.” (p 80)

Campbell and Campbell argue that “the findings from the China Study indicate that the lower the percentage of animal-based foods that are consumed, the greater the health benefits—even when that percentage declines from 10% to 0% of calories. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that the optimum percentage of animal-based products is zero, at least for anyone with a predisposition for a degenerative disease.”[18] (P 242)

The authors describe several studies linking huge reduction in forms of cancers, brain diseases, osteoporosis, diabetes, eye diseases, obesity and kidney stones, again all linked by a plant and wholemeal based diet. Whether one agrees or not with the conclusions of the China Study, it seems to be backed up not only by considerable and extensive research, it also by and large has met with a positive critical response. For example the book was reviewed[7] byWilfred Niels Arnold, University of Kansas Medical Center who, praising the authors’ interdisciplinary approach, said the following:

“Any serious challenge to the “American Diet” is bound to elicit some academic, public, and food industry opposition, which will range from mild skepticism through agitated re-evaluation to bitter disdain. What makes this particular contribution exciting is that the authors anticipate resistant and hostile sources, sail on with escalating enthusiasm, and furnish a working hypothesis that is valuable. In fact, the surprising data are difficult to interpret in any other way.”

Of course the issue remains as to how useful data is drawn from animal experimentation. Probably one of the worst arguments I have ever come across was one put forward by the pharmacologist William H Carey in a letter to the British Medical Journal[8]

“We have 4 possible new drugs to cure HIV. Drug A killed all the rats, mice and dogs. Drug B killed all the dogs and rats. Drug C killed all the mice and rats. Drug D was taken by all the animals up to huge doses with no ill effect. Question: Which of those drugs should we give to some healthy young human volunteers as the first dose to humans (all other things being equal)?

To the undecided (and non-prejudiced) the answer is, of course, obvious. It would also be obvious to a normal 12 year old child…

An alternative, acceptable answer would be, none of those drugs because even drug D could cause damage to humans. That is true, which is why Drug D would be given as a single, very small dose to human volunteers under tightly controlled and regulated conditions.”

If drug D could cause damage to humans, despite the fact it harmed no animals, there is equally no guarantee drugs, A, B or C could be extremely helpful to humans despite the fact it poisoned the animals. It’s also entirely possible that even if the animals had no ill effects whatsoever, there is still a big chance that human subjects may become ill from side effects.

You have a one in five chance of getting seriously ill from any new drug that comes online. It’s far, far better to wait five years before trying out a new drug. Why? Because it hasn’t really been tried out on humans.(see footnote 9)

“Few know that systematic reviews of hospital charts found that even properly prescribed drugs (aside from misprescribing, overdosing, or self-prescribing) cause about 1.9 million hospitalizations a year. Another 840,000 hospitalized patients are given drugs that cause serious adverse reactions for a total of 2.74 million serious adverse drug reactions. About 128,000 people die from drugs prescribed to them. [9]” (Donald W Light)

Or do we need to be reminded that despite the truly extraordinary advances made in the drug industry, drugs and pharmacology is also extraordinarily if not extra terrestrially profitable? If not in terms of health benefits of being a veggie, think of the aforementioned environmental impact. Okay, 30% of the world’s ice free surface is used to support livestock, chicken, beef, eggs etc. for the purposes of consumption. In a Time Magazine article dealing with livestock production[10] Brian Walsh, drawing material from a paper brought out by the Academy of Sciences of the USA[11] says the following:

“40% of global agricultural gross domestic product, provides income for more than 1.3 billion people and uses one-third of the world’s fresh water. There may be no other single human activity that has a bigger impact on the planet than the raising of livestock.”

Combine Animal Feeding operations produce enormous amount of methane, and aside from the horrific cruel and unconscionable conditions which the animals are subjected to, the stress of confinement, the sicknesses, the feeding with antibiotics, the soya beans and GMO corn they are fed, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 % of all greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 % of methane emissions and 65 % of NO2 emissions. The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2.[12] Don’t forget that much of this livestock production is heavily subsidized by governments, so that the real costs of production are not passed onto the consumer.

As livestock farming is such a huge source of income for billions of people (global value in 2013 $883 billion [13]), as the production of meat and poultry and fish for supermarkets great and small all over the planet is such a lucrative undertaking, as so much research is produced each year about economizing and increasing productivity and efficiency in the livestock industry, as so many with the exception of the vegetarian and animal rights community point out the cruelty inherent in the beef and livestock industry, there is a strong and unfounded impetus to keep underlining the health benefits of eating meat, and to divorce the eating of meat from the enormous suffering and horrific cruelty endured by billions of animals world-wide every day, and every moment of every day. I think it was the Singer Morrissey who said in so many of his interviews that the very best way of turning people into vegetarians and away from meat eating would be to take them to an abattoir and invite them to spend an hour on the killing floor of any slaughter house and see the kind of horror that these beautiful creatures endure. Another interesting and often quoted thought experiment is the notion of pets. We would never dream of eating our pets. Why? We would eat a pig, yes. But the thing is, pigs make excellent pets. Warm playful, highly intelligent and clean, pigs are tremendous companions in the family. Why would we not eat our cat or dog, but eat a pig without a second thought? Why do we see a pig as a food source but not a cat? I would suggest the answer to this question is because we have been trained to see a pig as pork, a cow as beef, and a chicken as something served in a plastic bucket with special herbs and spices and the Colonel’s very special sauce. Why did the chicken cross the road? It was desperately avoiding Colonel Sanders. It’s a question of marketing, disassociation, and culturally approved actions. All animals have consciousness, language and a type of culture, by this I mean a socially approved and communally understood sense of expression. They suffer and love and live, have families as we do. To kill one and eat it, and not to kill another because it is forbidden exhumes a type of double standard that we have been culturally programmed not to see and pervades our entire culture. It’s a question of intelligence. Some animals are not so smart. Some are. As we go up the IQ points we get very sophisticated creatures indeed. Like Coco the Gorilla for instance born 4 July 1971, lives in Woodside California, understands 2000 words of English, speaks Gorilla Sign Language, has her own pet cats, and has something of a fondness for sexually harassing some of her carers. Strange as it might sound, there have actually been law suits from carers. Aside from these little moments, Koko is by all accounts a delightful playful funny companion. One of the more hilarious stories I heard about her was firstly when Robin Williams paid her a visit (check out the YouTube video) and secondly another occasion when she blamed one of her kittens for a damaged sink that was very clearly wrenched off the wall by a creature of extraordinary physical strength, is Koko herself. A sense of humour is a clear sign of intelligence. Koko seems to have a far higher understanding of language and an ability to express complex thoughts on a far higher level than her fellow Gorillas and has also invented new bits of sign language to suit her own thoughts. But whether we go up or down the scale of language, killing an animal because they aren’t as smart as we are, or don’t have souls, or that we were told its okay to do so (in other words the argument from authority) holds no substance whatsoever.

What is at the core of vegetarianism? Is it the idea that meat is not good for you? Or that animal cruelty is an abomination? Or is it the nutritional value of vegetarianism? Or the fact that the livestock industry is a hugely wasteful deeply environmentally unfriendly industry dedicated to the death of so many innocent creatures? All of the above is an aspect of the picture but I think there is something far more personal at work than merely having good politics and good food, which though excellent, does not to my mind get to the core of the problem. There’s a story told about Paul Mc Cartney, probably apocryphal, about how he and Linda became veggie. Apparently he was having a roast dinner with Linda in the 1970’s and as they were tucking in to dinner they looked out a window and saw lambs frolicking and playing out on the field nearby. They looked at each other and looked down at their dinner and said to each other that they didn’t want to continue eating meat. And thus not long after that they became vegetarian. It was something akin to a moment of enlightenment. The Mc Cartneys perceived a connection between the playful lambs and what they were eating. A connection which seems almost trite to us now, obvious, but if we can just think back to that moment, it was almost a spiritual experience, a moment of compassion and understanding that changed our world forever and gave us a sense of interconnectedness that has brought us so much joy and meaning. And if you haven’t had a Mc Cartney quarter pounder with cheese my friends you have not lived. I think this perception underlines much of the science and drives us not if you will. And I think this perception is the core of any kind of revolution. If this understanding can be communicated, that we are connected to animals, that animals are also profoundly connected with us and that if we are to continue to exist successfully on this planet we need to re-engineer our relationship  with animals.


[1] http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/animal-testing-101/

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/animals/using/experiments_1.shtml

[3] Environmental Research Letters Volume 8 Number 2  Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature  John Cook1,2,3, Dana Nuccitelli2,4, Sarah A Green5, Mark Richardson6, Bärbel Winkler2, Rob Painting2, Robert Way7, Peter Jacobs8 and Andrew Skuce2

[4] NRC (2011). America’s Climate Choices: Final Report. National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.

[5] Perspectives on Politics / Volume 12 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 564-581 Copyright © American Political Science Association 2014 

[6] WC Roberts. Twenty Questions on Atherosclerosis. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2000 Apr.; 13(2): 139–143.

[7] http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/feb2005/china_arnold.html

[8] William DH Carey, BMJ 2002; 324: 236a

[9] June 27, 2014 by Donald W. Light Edmund J Safra Centre for ethics http://ethics.harvard.edu/blog/new-prescription-drugs-major-health-risk-few-offsetting-advantages

[10] http://science.time.com/2013/12/16/the-triple-whopper-environmental-impact-of-global-meat-production/

[11] http://www.pnas.org/content/110/52/20888.abstract

[12] http://ecowatch.com/2013/01/21/factory-farming-global-warming/

[13] (Statistical database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.) http://faostat3.fao.org/

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:

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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.

 

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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.

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.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH ( I Mean Really )

EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE HEARD OF ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON

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ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON  (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.

Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)

I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron)  – called THE FLY SWATTER which is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of  a complex and profoundly fascinating character.

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An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.

Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages)  and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.

Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.

For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.

But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.

The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was  a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.

Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.

Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.

It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.

Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.

A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.

The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.

Charlie Hebdo Ate My Puppy

which is clearly not the case. Here is a picture of my ten week old puppy and she is zipping round our rented cottage like a pixie on amphetamines.

Puppy at rest. 5.5 kg and enjoying teddy bear #1

Charlie never so much as laid a tooth on the little creature. To accuse him of doing such a thing (as I implied in the title) is to cause Charlie grievous offense as Charlie is an animal lover and he used to regularly play with my puppy, who is quite the looker and is extremely well socialized, gentle and very playful, thanks to Charlie. In a sense I am way out of line accusing Charlie of puppy eating. I know the truth about Charlie. I know he is a good man, or I thought I did. And here I am flagrantly violating his ‘good’ name, and knowingly doing so, which is a low blow. The idea that I am free to spread lies about Charlie, to upset him with impunity, to ruin his life, simply because I have the power to do so is horrible. It is a monstrous act, especially because Charlie knows I write for a living, and I can sit here and fabricate things about him that might even sound credible. So I guess I am not free to do what I please. In fact I know Charlie spends his time rescuing animals and is a militant vegetarian. He believes deeply in animal rights. This of course adds hugely to the insult I am perpetrating on him if I were to write the Charlie Hebdo Puppy Eating Story. I think over the damage I am doing to his good name. I am attacking one of the pillars of his ethical stances. Its simply not on. I cant use my freedom to exploit another’s personal space, right to a good name, or in any other way hurt him, simply because I can. There is a core of natural rights belonging to Charlie Hebdo (and everyone else) that prevents him from being subject to my puppy eating accusations.

But then something happens in my long and warm friendship with Charlie. There is a room in his house I can never get into. Its always locked. I am a curious man. One day I find the key. Its filled with Nazi Paraphernalia.  I discover current membership cards for extreme far right organizations espousing xenophobic, racist political views. I make copies of the room and the cards and whatever else I can find just for the sake of having evidence. But it doesn’t matter. Deep down I am crushed. My bitter disappointment in my friend leads me to write a novel about him, this warm hearted charming fascist racist bigoted friend of mine. It sells five million copies and I am rescued from complete financial disaster.

But success is not without its suffering and its cost. Charlie sues me for defamation of character and loss of income (he lost his job after his party membership was revealed). Charlie and I are no longer speaking of course. He has put up his house for sale as he used to live near me. He wrote me a long bitter letter telling me what a terrible egomaniacal person I am and how little I care who I cause offense to so long as I can profit from the views of others. These views are private Charlie tells me. These views, Charlie says others have the right to uphold. After all, he says, he wasn’t hurting anyone holding these views. Millions hold these views. My novel sparks a huge debate. I didn’t actually think very much of my novel. I thought it was rushed and written with fire brigade emotions in my heart.

Oh, I forgot to mention the death threats. Charlie’s friends are going to kill me, my family, and my puppy. They are part of the same far-right groups Charlie was a part of. They nailed a dead cat to my door last night. Maybe Charlie had a right to his views. Maybe I should have left well enough alone.  Maybe I will survive this attempt on my life. Maybe the next time I write something, it will get me killed. I don’t know. I am not writing anything that is untrue. I am an enemy of extremism. I use my gifts to pillory the stupid, the bigoted and the downright dangerous. I cant help myself. Its who I am. I don’t discriminate between who I choose to satirise and those I exclude. After all Last time I wrote about Charlie Hebdo. And Charlie Hebdo was a long term friend of mine.

         

“100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing!”