Writing as catharsis

Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on April 1, 2014

George Orwell

Down and Out in Paris and London is George Orwell’s first published book, which saw a print run in 1933.

It is a sort of memoir of the period in which Orwell returned disillusioned from his time as a police officer in Burma, and intended to make his living as a writer. He spent two years struggling with poverty across the two cities.

Down and Out is a fairly slight read at 228 pages. Orwell’s style is clean, clear and crisp, following a sort of detached, journalistic style whereby conversations and events are reported with little of Orwell’s own character or judgement bleeding into the page. We can also see at this early stage of Orwell’s career his trademark dedication to the integrity of his written work.

George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and LondonThe bulk of the book tracks Orwell’s struggle to find work, budget his meager finances, his experience with starvation, his work in a Parisian hotel kitchen, his time tramping in London, and a retelling of the conversations, attitudes and interactions along the way.

At one point he goes without food for three days. On the experience he writes:

Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. It is as though one had been turned into a jellyfish, or as though all one’s blood had been pumped out and lukewarm water substituted. Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger…

His character-portrait of his boisterous, larger-than-life Russian friend Boris was particularly fascinating. At one point, when there were trying to find work together, Boris provides this sage advice:

It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you.

The man is a walking contradiction; starving, though of enormous appetite – bursting with enthusiasm one minute, and crushed by utter despair the next. His mind is something to behold.

As we might expect, the book closes with some thoughtful reflections on the nature of poverty; on the systems which keeps people trapped in the cycle of poverty, and on preliminary ways in which the cycle might be addressed.

Orwell meditates in particular on the absurd uselessness of a tramp’s life – the system in London effectively forces him to stay idle, waste time and continue tramping from shelter to shelter:

The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and sexually… the problem is how to turn the tramp from a bored, half-alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being.

His solution is beautifully simple – rather than have tramps spend their time either locked into soul-destroyed, stimuli-deprived shelters for hours each day, or tramping to another shelter (for they cannot stay in the same shelter twice in the same month), he proposes tramps spend their time contributing to communal shelter gardens or farms. Not only would this solve the crippling boredom and inertia, but help tramps take steps towards being productive members of society once more, and gaining crucial confidence. Of course, the food they grow can ultimately help feed them, too – and far better than the stale bread and cheese provided at such shelters.

Orwell’s final analysis of poverty is almost an afterthought to the bulk of the book; he does not spend a huge amount of time analyzing all he has experienced, which is a shame, but it keeps this book a simple, easy read that can help provide an insight into the nature of poverty. It also provides a clear indication of the great man Orwell is to become; a champion of free society, and justice.

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Review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals

Posted in Book review, Philosophy, psychology, Ranting and rambling, religion, Science by Lachlan R. Dale on February 23, 2014

John Gray's The Silence of Animals

A sense of bitter pessimism seeps through the pages of The Silence of Animals as John Gray confronts the darker side of human nature.

Gray’s aim is the dissolution of illusion; a desire to face existence as clear-eyed as possible in the hope he might uncover a key to more real and meaningful life. But first he must clear away the mythological debris in which modern thought has become entangled.

In the book’s first section Gray produces a wide-ranging commentary on society, religion and philosophy. He is ruthless in his pursuit of two targets in particular: belief in the irreversible progress of civilisation, and faith in rational, liberal humanism.

The two are somewhat intertwined. Liberal humanists believe that mankind is capable of overcoming it’s flaws through the development of rationality. They anticipate a transformation into a perfect, logical utopian man.

Belief in irreversible progress represents similar utopianism, albeit on a grander scale. It posits that civilisation has (or can) progress to such a degree that any further relapses into barbarism are impossible. The concept follows that we are gradually progressing towards a sort of heaven on earth.

Gray scoffs at both suggestions. He claims that the belief in the perfectibility (or even basic rationality) of mankind is a “dangerous conceit of reason”; naive and unrealistic. He points to countless instances of barbarism in the past century to argue that humans are only ever “partly and intermittently rational”, declaring:

If belief in human rationality were a scientific theory it would have long since been abandoned.

Gray says humanists delude (and flatter) themselves by crafting a mythological self that is more noble, controlled, rational and ‘good’ than sober reflection would allow. For instance; humanists would have us believe that all humans long to be free, and that, if given the chance, would choose to live rational and ethical lives. Gray’s response?

To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view all of history as a mistake.

The man has a point.

While this first section is littered with strong historical examples, Gray’s use of the rise of Nazi Germany to demonstrate mankind’s irrationality en masse is particularly apt. Under Hitler the general populous submitted to a totalitarian ruler. The ruling class utilised propaganda to stimulate brutal, primitive sub-conscious urges in the public — the lust for power, fear of the other, and the ‘collective psychosis’ of the mob.

This approach was effective primarily because humanity has not managed to completely divorce itself from its animal past – and no amount of self-delusion on the part of humanists can change this. Through National Socialism the German populace were liberated from the terrible burden of freedom and personal responsibility; which, when left unchecked, can open up a chasm of meaninglessness to swallow one whole.

Much of the history of the twentieth century demonstrates how easily ‘advanced’ societies can lapse into barbarism. It is a century punctuated by horrific atrocities and barbarism, from nationalist fascist movements, genocide, ethnic cleansing and world war. It is also one littered with millions of corpses from failed social utopias, sparked by people who believed that, through reason, a perfect society could be conceived. Thus Gray is easily able to erode any notion that mankind has somehow progressed beyond the days of barbarism. Civilisation is, as ever, remains a thin veneer.

When we consider humanity’s recent past alongside other facts of our existence, the optimistic self-image shaped by humanists fails to add up (however it’s lack of accuracy does not prohibit it from being a useful fiction). To Gray, humanism is a human-centric delusion which fails miserably to encompass what we already know about mankind – and while secular humanism may prove a valuable stepping stone away from the irrationality of unreflective religious belief, it still fails to resolve any of the central questions of existentialism, and tends to atrophy into a particularly detestable form of pompous egoism – precisely the form of mental stasis Gray wants to avoid.

As an alternative to such self-delusion, Gray advocates a form of naturalism that undermines the notion of human superiority over other animals. He wants the reader to recognise that as a species we are equally capable of great good and horrific evil – and that we are unable to simply deny the darker side of our nature:

There are not two kind of human being, savaged and civilised. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself…

Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

I certainly find it hard to argue him on this point.



How should we respond to the facts of existence?

Throughout The Silence of Animals John Gray is preoccupied with facing and accepting chaos in the universe. As a result he can seem to excrete measured nihilism and negativity.

Gray spends much of the second part of his book attempting to sketch out a world-view in response to the facts and perspectives expressed above. In particular he draws inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s philosophy of ‘stoic resignation’.

Freud recognised that mankind is innately flawed. His psychology did not seek to ‘cure’ man, but rather teach him how to live with the conflict and cognitive dissonance in his mind. As Freud saw it, all of mankind is sick and controlled by the unconscious. There is no order to human affairs, nor to the universe. Chaos is final, and in such an environment all there is for man to do is to assert his will against the inevitable end; to trudge on, without hope of reprieve.

Gray is attracted by this note of bitter, heroic resignation. In contrast he has no time for the dreamy mysticism and mythology of Carl Jung, and spends a few pages cutting down a few of his key ideas and casting aspersions on his character.

Another key figure of inspiration for Gray is British author Llewelyn Powys. Despite facing an early death, Llewelyn refused to give in to pessimism or to lessen his lust for life. Instead, he hungrily searched out the beauty, meaning and experiences that made life worth celebrating. Gray reveals much in his disposition when he comments that “the fact that (Llewlyn) was never far from death left him free to follow his fancy, which was the sensation of life.”

This sort of world-view strongly appeals to Gray. Llewelyn is a man who admits that “at the bottom of the well of life there is no hope” – but this seemed to just make him all the more determined to enjoy existence; to search out and create meaning. It’s a romantic image of a man waging an unwinnable war and asserting the self against the pitiless universe.



Godless mysticism

Here comes the reveal. Despite all this rather sombre talk of humanity’s flaws and life’s innate meaninglessness, Gray ultimately seeks is a path for yea-saying; that is, towards a philosophy of acceptance and embrace of life. He desires more abundant life – not less – and therefore refuses to view life-negating nihilism as a legitimate, long-term response to the questions posed by existence (though one suspects this might be for purely practical reasons, namely self-preservation).

Gray seeks to build a new perspective from the ashes of mythology, one that he has called ‘godless mysticism’. Robinson Jeffers describes this concept as:

The devaluation of human illusions, the turning outward of man to what is boundlessly greater.

No other sentence could better encapsulate the essence of The Silence of Animals.

Godless mysticism meets at a curious intersection of Eastern contemplation, stoic, cynical rationalism and paganistic regard of nature. The sort of reflection Gray advocates fundamentally differs from most disciples of eastern philosophy. Gray does not aim to “dissolve the self into an imagined oneness”. Rather he firmly rejects the metaphysics behind just mysticism*:

The freedom that nature-mystics look for beyond the human scene is like the spiritual realm of the religious, a human thought-construction… Godless mystics do not look to merge themselves with something larger they have imagined into being.

Where “monks and mystics try to still the mind so that it can grasp what it eternal”, Gray seeks to do the opposite; to “sharpen the senses” and better perceive the current moment; to absorb and reflect on it. Judging by his affinity for nature writer J. A. Baker this likely includes reflection on the beauty of natural world – but Gray also stresses we should not romanticise nature’s brutal and unsentimental character.



Conclusion

What John Gray strives for is an increased receptivity to reality. He is driven by a deep desire to break out of automatic existence, and to experience the present moment with more clarity and intensity.

Gray recognises humans tend to create abstract realities in which they can become trapped. The result is a barrier between the individual and the ‘real’ world. While Gray certainly refuses to entertain the notion that humans are capable of experiencing pure, undiluted reality (it would go against his strongly skeptical nature) he does believe that at times the sleep can get lighter.

The Silence of Animals has huge value in helping us think about the true nature of humanity, society, and the world in which we live. However, we need to recognise that Gray’s response (his affinity towards ‘stoic resignation’) is based on temperament. He would have us, the reader, praise and embrace existence in spite of it’s inherent meaninglessness – but warns us not to over do it. It would be equally valid to accept the same premises as Gray and be filled with joy, inspiration, love and gratitude for the chance to exist; and this would be no less valid than Gray’s sterner, strained reaction.

I admire strongly admire Gray’s resolve. While he embraces one of the most negative, cynical and sober perspectives I have encountered, he still looks beyond the horizon for a life-affirming state of mind. His naturalistic streak sees him searching for a deeper connection with the natural world, and ways in which mankind can live in harmony with the universe.

The book itself is a pleasure to read. At times Gray’s writing style seems almost stream of consciousness; he tosses up ideas as they spring to mind, and moves on as quickly as he had begun. From one perspective this makes The Silence of Animals a constant source of interest – the pacing is reasonably fast, and we are never bogged down in one strain of thought for too long – but it also means that some ideas or statements aren’t given the elaboration they require.

Some critics have lambasted Gray for over-use of citations (they run at about one-third of the book’s two hundred pages), but I’m quite comfortable with this approach. Colin Wilson utilised a similar citation-heavy style in his much-cherished portrait of the challenge of existentialism in The Outsider – and I will thank him forever for it. Throwing in passages from Conrad, Nietzsche, Borges, Freud, Schopenhauer and many more obscure writers and thinkers keeps reading fresh.

Gray’s is often thought-provoking. He touches on countless other ideas I have not been able to cover here for brevity’s sake. While Gray’s bouts of misanthropy, and his tendency to grimace might scare some off, for many this book will provide yet another useful perspective to consider the most important questions of our life.

The Silence of Animals is recommended reading to those who, like Gray, seek inner peace and freedom from delusion.

* Though I should note his argument against such ideas leaves much to be desire; he simply rejects them, then moves on.

Book review: An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

Posted in Book review by Lachlan R. Dale on July 11, 2012

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore ZeldinIt’s taken me some time (Goodreads informs me 3 months), but I have finally finished reading Theodore Zeldin’s ambitious book, ‘An Intimate History of Humanity.’

Zeldin’s stated objective is to provide us with a history of humanity that surpasses stale cataloging of kingdoms epochs, and ages. Instead, he turns his attention to some of the most important and defining dynamics of human society. He takes our fixed assumptions about the nature of humanity, and, through an exposition of engaging historical examples, reveals them to be far less fixed than we have previously assumed.

This quote perhaps sums it up best:

“Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of our existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable.”

That is the crux of Zeldin’s mission; he wants to provide readers with the tools and inspiration to look beyond narrow cultural and social assumptions, and imagine new ways of being; new forms of politics, ethics and morality. His is essentially an optimistic, humanitarian vision. Once more I quote:

“It is not enough to focus only on the minute synapses of personal encounters. It has become possible, as never before, to pay attentinon to what is happening in every corner of the globe. Humans each have a personal horizon, beyond which they normally dare not look. But occasionally they do venture further, and then their habitual way of thinking becomes inaequate. Today they are becoming increasingly aware of of the existence of other civilisations. In such circumstances, old problems take on a new appearance, because they are revealed as being parts of larger problems. The shift in interest away from national squabbles to broad humanitarian and environmental concerns is a sign of the urge to escape from ancient obsessions, to keep in view all the different dimensions of reality, and to focus simultaneously on the personal, the local and the universal.”

But how well does he succeed? The book begins with a brief introduction that outlines his intent. From there, we are presented with an almost relentless anthology of chapters that follow the same structure – pick a theme, provide an initial modern case study to open up the discussion of that theme, then delve into the other possibilities of being that are supported by examples cherrypicked from throughout human history.

Here is a sample of some of those chapter headings:

  • How men and women have slowing learned to have interesting conversations
  • How some people have acquired an immunity of loneliness
  • How new forms of love have been invented
  • Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
  • How respect has become more desirable than power
  • Why the crisis of the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity

Clearly Zeldin has not set his sights on low hanging fruit. Each chapter focuses on a particular thought or feeling, like toil, the art of conversation, voluntarism, compassion, attitudes on class and social status, and authority.

Throughout this book, there are signs that Zeldin would wrap up with an impressive, overarching concept – and indeed he does, but after finishing ‘An Intimate History of Humanity‘ I cannot help but think that a re-reading would be immensely beneficial. The concluding chapters provide essential context that I feel was missing from the introduction, and they really help illuminate the value in Zeldin’s approach and his objectives.

Perhaps his introduction is too brief – perhaps it would have paid Zeldin to revisit his objective in detail before the final concluding chapters – but I feel as though his concept was not explained as well as it could have been from the outset; and that this would have made for a more engaging book if he had taken more time to do so. Perhaps this is simple a flaw lies in my own comprehension.

Verdict: recommended.

Undeniably, many of the ideas in this book were intoxicating. Zeldin has immense scope of vision. His concept strongly appeals to my desire for a universal view of human nature and history – to cut through mere cataloging and classifying, and to draw out a better understanding of human nature drawn from across millenia.

While certainly not flawless in its execution, this book is groundbreaking in it’s approach, and will prove a worthy inspiration for anyone seeking a deeper level of understanding of human nature and the human condition. I finish this book very curious to where Zeldin’s thoughts and understanding are at today (the book was published in 1997), and hope that future writers can build off his concept. It might prove to be a exceedingly fruitful method of philosophical inquiry.

The sea is eternal: when it heaves
One speaks of waves but in reality they are the sea.

– Hamzah Fansuri