The Games We Play

Things we do early are of great interest. Where we show a natural propensity to do something – if we seem, so to speak, programmed to do it – the inference is that the behaviour is both ancient (to have become so ingrained) and important (to have persisted so long). The obvious example here is speech, though I think ‘expression’ would be a more accurate description of that instinct.

A less obvious one is playing games. Not all play amounts to a game, but there is a large area of overlap; the game, if you like, is the complete expression of play. We shall come to a definition of ‘game’ presently.

There is a considerable obstacle to seeing game-playing as an activity of fundamental importance: though tolerated, even encouraged to some degree in children, in adult life it is permitted only as ‘recreation or sport’. Notwithstanding the fact that it can be pursued professionally (and there it is a form of entertainment for a mass audience) – it is regarded as essentially pointless, frivolous, unserious. In adult form it tends to be codified and regulated and exhibits great variety, from field sports such as the various forms of football, cricket and golf to board games such as chess and draughts and nowadays that interesting development, computer games.

(Indeed, such is the variety of the things we call ‘games’ that Wittgenstein doubted if they were capable of a common definition in terms of characteristics which they all shared, and suggested instead that they might resemble one another as members of a family do, some alike in this respect, others in that; a gentle grenade lobbed into an apple-cart that philosophers had been trundling since Aristotle’s day, the notion that whatever had the same name shared the same essence or set of defining characteristics that made it what it was and distinguished it from what it was not; but that is by the way)

I think that games are at their most interesting and revealing in their primitive form, when they are nearest to being a natural, instinctive behaviour, and there I think we can identify common characteristics, not so much in the content of the game as in the behaviour it involves.

Although games are regarded as frivolous, idle, fundamentally unserious, ‘just for fun’, the most striking thing about children is how seriously they play: what they do is done in earnest, and adults who join in but do not show the appropriate commitment will be reproved for ‘not playing properly.’

This earnestness shows chiefly in the degree of absorption in the activity: the child will be described as ‘in a world of his own’ ‘lost in the game’ and so on. The utter solemnity with which children conduct themselves in play can strike adults as amusing (though it can also wring the heart) and it is worth asking why that should be so. The answers are often given in terms of a contrast with ‘real life’ – the child can (briefly) enjoy the pleasures of play, but all too soon he will learn that ‘life isn’t like that’ and the time will come, as St Paul has it, ‘to put away childish things’.

We will come back to the relation between the world of play and ‘real life’ presently. In the meantime, I would like to consider what I think are three fundamental characteristics of playing games as a natural or instinctive activity. All three are related, and could indeed be seen as different aspects of the same thing, but I will separate them for ease of consideration.

One is that the game occupies its own space, not just physically, but as a plane of existence. There may well be actual boundaries – ‘a field of play’, if you like – but these are the embodiment of an idea, the idea that ‘in the game’ identifies a space or plane of existence where things happen differently than outside  or ‘not in the game’.

Within this space, objects and actions are invested with a significance which they do not have elsewhere. For instance, when children play indoors, they will often commandeer the furniture to play some part in their game: a line of kitchen chairs can be a train, for instance; the space under the table, a cave; a rug can be a raft on the carpet sea, an armchair a ship, and so on. The child is perfectly able to distinguish between what any of these objects is in itself and what it is ‘in the game’ – there is no confusion or delusion, a point to which we shall return.

The final feature, alongside having its own space and investing objects or actions in that space with significance, is the idea of giving oneself a rule to follow. The game consists in doing things in a particular way. The thing to grasp here is that this rule is self-imposed, which is a kind of paradox: you are free to do it any way you like, but you act as if you have to do it this particular way. There is no concept of cheating in this primitive stage, for the simple reason that the game is to follow the rule; ‘winning’ (insofar as the concept can be applied) is following the rule successfully; not following the rule is, literally, ‘not playing the game’. (Again, adults who join in and make a false move will be told ‘you can’t do that’).

Trying but failing to follow the rule may be attended by penalties, but again these are self-imposed, and operate ‘in the game’. So, bears will eat you if you step on the cracks in the pavement; if you fall in the carpet  sea, or down the chasm that you were trying to leap across, you will die – but only in the game; and in the game you may have several lives, which permit you to start again. (If the rule proves either to difficult or to easy, it will be adjusted, which again shows an implicit understanding of the dual worlds of ‘in the game’  and outside it, and the dual role that implies – the child is both the game-maker and the game player.)

The language that is used is interesting. In the case of a game that evolves spontaneously, a group of children may be milling around, each doing his own thing, but as their activities begin to converge, someone might say ‘let’s make it that you have to -‘ and will add some activity that then becomes the game. ‘Let’s make it’ casts the players in the role of legislators, defining what has to be done; ‘that you have to’ brings out the sense of agreeing to be bound by the self-imposed rule.

‘Acting as if’ goes to the heart of playing games and it is a concept worth examining in detail because it sheds light on our curious reluctance to accept this ancient instinctive behaviour as serious and important, our insistence on classing it as frivolous.

The adult observer of a child at play may say things like ‘it’s as if she’s in another world’ or ‘it’s as if he really believes he’s driving a bus – he’ll talk to the passengers, take their fares, then drive off to the next stop.’ We may picture the child as being assisted in this by various props – the sofa may be the bus, with the driver’s seat a kitchen chair at one end; the passengers might be various toys.

‘As if’ carries an implication of pretence, that what is deemed to be happening is not actually happening, is not real. it is worth examining the viewpoints involved in this, though it can become difficult, because we may find language working against us.

The first thing to say is that the judgement about what is real matters much more to the adult than it does to the child. Some adults worry themselves quite seriously about the status of ‘imaginary friends’ because they seem so vivid to their child; they may engage in conversations to lead them to the view that Mr Wotsit ‘isn’t really there (like mummy and Daddy are’ that he is ‘just pretend’ and ‘just in the game’ – to which the child will probably assent quite happily, if only to reassure their anxious parent.

Play does not involve delusion – believing something to be other than it is – and I think the difference is easily demonstrated; but the root of the problem is that the adult’s conceptual framework lacks the flexibility to describe the child’s behaviour accurately.

If we consider the theatre – one area where ‘make believe’ is allowed in adult life – at no time in the performance of Hamlet does the audience actually believe itself to be in the royal court of Denmark, nor that David Tennant (or better still Maxine Peake) has ceased to exist and has become, for the time, the eponymous melancholy Dane; nor for that matter does Peake or Tennant think this either. Notwithstanding, people will say things like ‘Maxine Peake is Hamlet’ and ‘for three hours, we were transported to Elsinore’ – but these are just attempts to express the power of the performance,  not factual descriptions.

There is a type of confidence trick that employs a similar set up to the theatre – there is a set to be dressed (perhaps a vacant country house) a cast of players (in character, perhaps in costume) and action (a party, perhaps, where the rich and famous discuss matters of high finance and good investments). The difference is that (for the con to work) the intended audience – the ‘mark’ – must take what he sees at face value, must believe it genuine; in other words, he must be deluded, in a way that the theatre audience is not.

It is worth examining the two different kinds of belief  we encounter here. There is ‘believing something to be the case’ which we encounter in the con: the mark believes the party etc. to be genuine, while in reality it is a set-up. That defines ‘delusion’ – believing something to be other than it is.

But the child does not believe himself to be a bus-driver in this sense, nor his toys to be passengers, any more than David Tennant or Maxine Peake believe themselves to be Hamlet. People will talk of ‘belief’ and ‘believing’ here, but it is in a subtly different sense.

Wittgenstein somewhere observes, in discussing scepticism, that if you want to know what a man believes, you should observe what he does, rather than heed what he says – he may profess doubt as to the reality of the world of appearance, yet he will still sit in chairs without a qualm,  cross floors without fear of plummeting into some abyss, go through doors in the expectation of finding himself in the next room and so on; in other words, he behaves as if the world exists, even if he claims to doubt it.

‘Behaving as if’ is at the heart of play whether it is playing Hamlet or playing at being a bus driver. It is the sincerity of Maxine Peake’s performance that brings Hamlet to life, just as it is the earnestness of the child’s play that makes the adult say ‘he really believes he’s a bus-driver.’ Peake’s performance is done with conscious skill, though I think it draws on the same natural instinct that the child demonstrates; the one is a studied and refined version of the other. It is worth considering them side by side.

As I have remarked elsewhere, there is a deep-rooted ambivalence in our attitude to Art in almost all its forms, illustrated by our use of the same language to describe telling stories and telling lies. Art seems indistinguishable from lying, since both involve representing something as other than it is. It is a problem that has troubled philosophers since Plato’s day; and indeed it surfaces in Hamlet, in respect of the counterfeiting of emotions that acting seems to involve:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

No-one would accuse the child of insincerity or counterfeiting when he is playing at being a bus-driver, yet the same child may well counterfeit emotions if he thinks he can get his own way by it, so the distinction exists even at that level – and it shows our confusion that such behaviour  – crying to get sweets, say – may well be described by the parent as ‘just play-acting,’ meaning that it is insincere.

How is this puzzle to be resolved?

I think we need to consider two things that we have already touched on: our notion of being ‘in the game’, that the game is on a separate plane of existence, and the nature of belief. In the theatre, as in the bus-driver game, the planes of existence are separate and distinct. What happens on the stage, with the actors in costume, may occupy the same space as the set and messrs Tennant or Peake and the rest of the cast inside their costumes, but the action of Hamlet is understood to happen in Elsinore and to involve Hamlet, Horatio and the rest, not the actors who play them. Likewise the bus-game occupies the same space as the living room furniture, but in a different plane, where the sofa is a bus and the assortment of soft toys are passengers.

The con, on the other hand, whether it is counterfeit tears for sweets or a grand scam involving a dressed set and a cast of players, succeeds when it is thought to be taking place in the same plane as the observer: i.e. he thinks this is an actual country house party, that this is genuine grief and real tears.

There is an implication here that is not immediately obvious but is profoundly important: the planes of existence are equal. Whether they are equally real or equally fictitious is unimportant, no more than a manner of speaking. To put it another way: there is not one game being played here, but two; but one of the games – ‘the game of Real Life’ – is accorded special status. If you want to be the only game in town, you dissociate yourself from all the rest and either ban them or banish them to some lowly status. So it is part of the Game of Life that it is not regarded as a game, and that the concepts of ‘being real’ and ‘existing’ are restricted exclusively to it and are not allowed in any other game.

So the ‘bus’ is really a sofa, the ‘passengers’ are really soft toys and the ‘bus-driver’ is really a wee boy called Hamish who is nearly 3. It is at this point that Language becomes a serious obstacle, for the good reason that Language is instrumental in giving the Game of Life its special status. However, let us make the attempt.

The argument I am trying to construct can be illustrated again with reference to Hamlet, where there is at one point a play within the play. In regarding Hamish at his bus-driver game, we think ourselves like the audience in the theatre, and his game the action on stage; but I am saying that we are actually the players on stage, and his game the play within the play. The question then becomes what is the third thing, the reality in which these two games are played, the equivalent (in our illustration) of the theatre?

We can come at it by an oblique route. As I have discussed elsewhere, the distinction we customarily make between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ is that favourite term of the philosophy student, a false dichotomy. Most of what we consider ‘real’ are works of the imagination. If you look around you, how much do you see that does not owe its existence to having passed through the human imagination? I can see trees and a hill that might be exempted, though the trees are still where someone chose to put them (and may even have been bred by some human effort) while the hill has certainly been shaped by human thought. But the houses, indeed the whole city in between, with its infrastructure of roads and railways, watersupply and drains, all that – real as it is – was first an idea in some human mind.

The succinct way of putting this is that you can have the plans without the house, but not the house without the plans. What we call ‘reality’ is in most cases a degree of embodiment: the architect’s vision, the detailed plans he draws and the completed building are different versions of the same thing.

We have imposed our imagination on this planet to an extraordinary degree: quite apart from the physical embodiment of our ideas in various forms, there is the map we have overlaid on the planet, dividing it into various territories, and within those territories a highly complex structure of custom, law, industry and so on. While the general inclination might be to suppose that the child playing with model figures on the landscape of the floor is imitating these larger entities – ‘the real world’ – I would suggest that the reverse is nearer the truth: the great world we have built around us is a development of the same imaginary powers that have their first expression in creating other worlds on the floor, in the living room or in the garden. The difference is in scale and degree of realisation, not in kind.

The ‘third thing’, our actual situation, the default position if you like, is immediate experience. Again, language is an obstacle here, because it mediates experience, interposing a picture of objective reality and ourselves as detached observers who exist in that world objectively, as individuals. But our immediate experience is subjective and involved: we find ourselves here (wherever ‘here’ is and whatever ‘ourselves’ are) and the rest is invention – a word which, neatly, can mean both ‘making what was not there before’ and ‘discovering’.

On the matter of belief, we need to distinguish between the common but rather narrow sense of ‘believing something to be the case’ and the wider sense of ‘having confidence or trust in’. The injunction ‘do it with belief‘ (which we hear as advice to performers of various sorts – singers, actors, even footballers) relates to the second kind of belief, not the first. To do it ‘as if you really believe in it’ is not an injunction to counterfeiting and hypocrisy, which it seems to be if we understand ‘belief’ in the first sense, since ‘as if’ implies that we do not actually believe it to be the case; rather it is to do it seriously and earnestly, to recapture the commitment of the child to his game, to do it properly, as if it matters.

And that is the secret: by doing it as if it matters, we make it matter: we invest it with importance and meaning. Ritual has no intrinsic value or meaning; that is conferred on it by our performing it meaningfully, seriously, as if it matters.

This sheds an interesting sidelight on Existentialism,  which was first explained to me in Sixth Year, when we were reading Camus’ L’Etranger: ‘Life has no meaning save what we bring to it,’we were told. It seemed to me then a grim and depressing philosophy; now I find it a hopeful one. I still think L’Etranger a bit grim, but Beckett makes me laugh and gives me hope. I rather like the idea that our participation is necessary to give life meaning, that we invest life with meaning by living it earnestly, wholeheartedly, as if it matters – by becoming, indeed, like little children.





Filed under Uncategorized

An Age without a Name, 2: Progress or Digression?

Myths are stories we tell to explain how we see ourselves and our place in the world. One of the dominant myths of the current age is that of progress, which sees the human story as one of continual improvement over time, with that tendency accelerating in recent centuries, particularly the last. (It is worth reminding ourselves that technically ‘progress’ is a neutral descriptive term: it simply means to go forward, or go on; and since that is something we have little choice but to do, you could argue that the positive charge we have given ‘progress’ is a case of making a virtue of necessity).

An illustration of human progress might look like this, presented in the style of a contour profile:

DSCF5149 (1)

C is the beginning of history, which starts with the possibility of written records, some 5,500 years ago – a date that is much the same as our invention of metallurgy. D is the start of the Classical Period in Greece, some 2,500 years ago. The dip about a thousand years later is the Fall of Rome, the beginning of the Dark Ages, though the dotted line reminds us that the Dark Ages were a local phenomenon – the level of civilisation attained in Classical Greece continued in the Eastern Roman Empire and was maintained by the Golden Age of Islam, while Western Europe was in the darkness of ignorance.

Point No.1 at the right is the beginning of the agrarian revolution some three centuries ago, driven very much by notions of ‘improvement’ in agriculture, land management and animal husbandry as age-old practices were superseded by a modern, rational approach born of the Enlightenment.

Point No. 2, some two centuries ago, is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which transformed society, starting in Britain and Western Europe, and spreading worldwide.

Point No.3 is simply the start of the twentieth century, which has eclipsed all others in terms of technical progress and has largely shaped what we consider the modern world. The gradient here should undoubtedly be much steeper: a century that started without heavier-than-air flight, with much sea-cargo still carried by sail, with few motor cars and newspapers the medium of mass communication, cinema and telephone communication in their infancy and gaslighting the norm, has transformed into the extraordinary world of space travel, nuclear power, the world-wide web, social media, mobile phones and all the rest.

Only the right-hand end of my diagram sounds an ominous note, one touched on in the previous article on the Anthropocene, namely the fear that we may be headed for disaster, a precipitous fall as human impact on the environment – particularly biodiversity and climate change – threatens not only our way of life, but all life on the planet.

This is where the limitations of diagrams like the one above become evident: what is the alternative to continued upward progress? The problem is that even to slacken the rate of ascent looks like abandoning the course that has taken us so far so rapidly; to flatten out looks like stagnation, and anything else is pessimistic decline.

Perhaps the time has come to try another map. I would suggest this one:


Version 2

The first thing to note is that the scale here is very different: the span from left to right is 60,000 years. The second thing is that this is not a contour profile, but an aerial plan, much like a conventional map. The blue line is human progress; the green line running parallel to it is the generality of life on earth.

Point B, some 10,000 years ago, is the beginning of a significant divergence between the two lines: it marks the point where we began to live in a new way, in fixed settlements supported by agriculture, instead of the nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life we had followed since the dawn of humanity. This is the beginning of civilisation, and has been suggested as a suitable start for the Anthropocene, the Epoch of Human influence, that was the subject of the previous article. Yet it is worth recalling that we are still in prehistoric times and indeed the Stone Age – we have to get to point C, which also appears on the first diagram, to arrive at the invention of writing – and so the beginning of history – and the discovery of metallurgy, between five and six thousand years ago.

Point D also appears on the first diagram: it marks the start of the classical period in Greece, the point in time when the invention of writing really began to have an impact on human expression. For the first few millennia it has been a useful method of storage, akin to the dehydration of food: it allows unmemorable but useful information to be preserved. Its role in the transmission of culture – all the things people regard as sufficiently important to pass on to succeeding generations – is minimal. It takes about a thousand years from its first invention for anyone to use writing for something that we might call literature.

This tardiness in realising its potential in this respect can best be understood with reference to the point marked A, some 40,000 years ago. This is the date of some cave-paintings, sculpture and musical instruments that we have discovered. It does not, of course, mark a beginning, but rather a continuity – we have every reason to suppose that the aesthetic impulse, the human urge to give external expression to our feelings, dates much further back than that – singing, dancing, storytelling leave no lasting mark on the environment, but we know that, even today, they are human activities strongly associated with gathering round a fire – and current estimates suggest that the controlled use of fire by humankind dates back at least 400,000 years.

The implication of this is that we had evolved distinctive means of transmitting our culture effectively, that did not involve writing but did involve aesthetic expression,  by 40,000 years ago and quite probably ten times longer ago than that. The continuance of our race in itself attests that humans were able to transmit their culture effectively for tens and indeed hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of writing; and the practice of cave-painting seems to have died out about 10,000 years ago, though it survived later in some places. In other words, we were cave painters for two or even three times as long as we consider ourselves to have been civilised. And of course all these means – art, music, poetry, storytelling, dance, theatre – still play a central role in transmitting culture even today – they have never died out, though the conditions under which they operate have altered drastically.

Where that alteration begins is shown on the second diagram at D, which marks the point where we began thinking and looking at the world in a different way. That is why I have shown it as a right-angle digression from the course which we had followed from time immemorial, a course that till the advent of civilisation some ten thousand years ago, ran in parallel and in harmony with the rest of life on Earth. That is a supposition, but an entirely reasonable one: we are one among many forms of life on earth, and for most of our time here, we have lived interdependently with nature, relying on its bounty for survival, but also conforming our way of life to its demands, just as every other form of life on Earth has had to do.

I would argue that, rather than adopting the idea of the Anthropocene discussed in the previous article – which finds evidence of human influence in the environment – we should look instead at the points where we ourselves changed our relationship, our attitude, to the environment. While the first of these is arguably our adoption of agriculture, of far greater significance is the change that began some two and a half thousand years ago in Classical Greece. I would say that is the beginning of the Age of Language, which I would contrast with the preceding Age of Expression, which stretches back to the beginning of humanity.

I maintain that Language as we know it, and the way of thinking it makes possible, is of relatively recent origin, the accidental result of the invention of writing and its impact on human expression generally and on speech in particular. That impact could be described as the disintegration of expression and the isolation and elevation of speech to an eminence it had not previously enjoyed.

Prior to the invention of writing, I would argue that human expression was broader in range and integral in character – speech was one mode among many, not the most important, and it was not regarded as distinct from facial expression, gesture, and bodily posture as immediate physical modes of expression, nor were these distinguished from more developed modes of expression such as song, dance, music, painting, sculpture, storytelling, poetry or ritual behaviour combining all or any of these. Where the Age of Language – our current age – is characterised by the intellectual apprehension of the world through the medium of language, specifically words, and could be described as rational, objective and detached; in the former Age, of Expression, people responded to the world made known by the senses through their feelings, which found expression in the range of modes noted above; it could be described as intuitive, subjective and emotionally engaged.

One way to put this is to say that Writing pulls down the edifice of Expression that has stood since time immemorial, but drags Speech out of the wreckage, and the two set up in a new (but unequal) relation (a notion examined here in fable form: Plucked from the Chorus line).

I will lay out the detail of how this revolution was effected in a third article, and will also discuss the different principles or mechanisms by which thought operated in the Age of Expression and our current Age of Language. For the present, I would like to conclude by explaining how I can presume to make claims about how people thought in a different age of the world. My case rests wholly on what is demonstrated by point A on the diagram above, namely the great age of the aesthetic impulse, which is not merely ancient, but primal – and still very much survives.

A key aspect of my theory is that although Language and the characteristic way of thought that goes with it dominate our Age, they do so much as a conquering power rules a country it has colonised: though the old regime is overthrown, and the new one brings in new laws and customs, the old way of doing things does not disappear, but persists in new guises, often in the face of official disapproval, and subject to official control and authority. Everything that we now term Art, in its broadest sense – not simply painting and sculpture, but music, dance, theatre, poetry, storytelling – is a survival of the Age of Expression and works on the same intuitive, subjective and feelings-based principles. These two elements are in tension because one (Language, Reason) claims the whole territory of thought and judgement for itself, yet the other – Art – seems better able to express what people feel is most important to them.

(it might be thought that I am here rehashing CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument, but although there are superficial similarities, the differences are profound and fundamental. Snow’s argument is essentially one about the content of English education – put crudely, that it gives too much weight to the Humanities, in particular, the Classics, over the Sciences; he cites other systems (e.g. the German) that have a better balance. The argument that I am putting forward here is not about the content but the basis of Education (by which I mean all ‘Western’ Education) – namely that it is, fundamentally, Platonic – by which I mean that it disparages the senses, devalues feelings and vaunts the intellect and language as affording the only ‘correct’ perspective of the world – in effect, substituting an intellectual construct for the Reality that we all experience)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An Age without a Name, 1: adopting the Anthropocene

‘Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
throughout the sensual world proclaim
one crowded hour of glorious life
is worth an age without a name’

You may have your doubts about the sentiment – a bit juvenile for my taste, but then I am no longer young – but the curious fact is that we currently live in an Age without a name.


The previous Age, the Late Pleistocene, lasted some 120,000 years – give or take a few thousand – and its end, some 11,700 years ago, also marked the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted some 2.5 million years.

In Geochronology, an Age is the smallest unit; next comes the Epoch, then Period, Era, and ultimately Eon. Their length is not precisely defined: Ages can span millions of years, Epochs tens of millions, Periods up to a hundred million, Eras several hundred million, Eons half a billion years or more (I presume the short scale billion 10⁹ is meant, rather than the long scale 10¹²) – so the present Epoch, the Holocene, at a mere 11,700 years, is barely under way, so perhaps it is no surprise that its first Age has not been named yet.

Stripped of their Greek, the impressive-sounding names are rather dull. (As a child, coloured depictions of layers of rock coupled with the name led me to confuse ‘Pleistocene’ and ‘Plasticene’). Holocene – ‘wholly new’ – effectively means ‘recent’; Pleistocene (a touch confusingly) is ‘most new’ or ‘newest’ and succeeded the Pl(e)iocene, the ‘newer’ – from which I gather that they started naming from the oldest first, then had to squeeze in various distinctions as they reached more recent geological times.

For all its short existence, there is a body of thought that suggests that the Holocene should be superseded by a new Epoch, the Anthropocene, defined as the period when human activities started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

(The etymology requires some explanation – the ‘-cene’ ending is common to all the Epochs that make up the Cenozoic Era and means ‘New’. Cenozoic means ‘New Life’ and marks the period, beginning some 66 million years ago, when mammals superseded reptiles as the dominant form of life on Earth. The ‘Anthropocene’, then, is the ‘New Human’ Epoch – suggesting dominance not by a class of animals, but a single species – our own)

Where the Anthropocene should start is a matter for illuminating discussion. Some, following the standard geological model of an impact left on the rocks of the Earth itself, would start as recently as seventy odd years ago, when the first use of nuclear weapons left a signature that will remain legible for as long as the Earth lasts. Others, taking their cue from human impact on ecosystems, point to the Industrial Revolution, begun between two and three hundred years ago, or perhaps the Agrarian revolution that immediately preceded it and made it possible; while others trace a line all the way back to the beginnings of civilisation, around ten thousand years ago, when our species made the fundamental shift from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities supported by agriculture, which left its mark on the Earth not only in the form of our fields and settlements, but also in a rapid expansion of the human population.

While that last start point would effectively rub out the Holocene altogether – or reduce it to a mere 1700 years, the span from the end of the last Ice Age to the beginning of ‘civilisation’ – even the most recent option, dating it from the first nuclear explosions, would still leave it as little more than a blip on the Geological time scale.

The argument for the Anthropocene is interesting and shows a significant shift in thought. Had the Victorians – who are largely responsible for the geochronology we use today – chosen to call the latest Epoch after our own species, it would be seen as an expression of Human triumphalism; this was, after all, the time when the advent of steam power and industry had seen a small nation on the fringes of Europe establish an Empire which by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population and one quarter of its territory.

Now, however, the urge to characterise the latest Epoch as one shaped by the human race is a warning rather than a boast: it is driven by concerns over the negative impact of our activity on biodiversity and climate change. And this is a significant shift in attitude. The motto of the Victorian geologists was ‘the present is the key to the past’, which contradicted the prevailing catastrophist view that Earth’s geology had been shaped, in a relatively short span of time, by a series of violent, widespread events, such as floods. The uniformitarian or gradualist school argued that far slower-acting processes, still in operation today – such as erosion – were the main shaping influences, so that the age of the earth must be far greater than had been previously calculated.

(I think it important to add here that no-one ever believed that the world was other than very ancient; what they had not done was quantify what being very ancient amounted to. The 5,646 years proposed by Archbishop Ussher in 1642 as the span from the moment of Creation to the present would have seemed as unimaginably distant in his day as the 4.53 billion years currently estimated to be the age of our planet does to us; it is only comparison that makes one seem absurdly short. And it is probably true to say that we have very little sense of time, for all our skill in measuring it – what, for instance, does half an hour feel like? Does it always feel the same?)

The Victorians felt secure in their position as detached observers, reading the Great Book of Nature with rational objectivity, a tradition inherited from the Greeks and reflected in their choice of Greek nomenclature for naming the Ages, Epochs, Periods, Eras and Eons of the Earth; but what has now been brought home to us is the realisation that the observers are themselves the key agents of change in what they observe, and the question that now exercises our minds is not how far back the process began, but where and how it might end; and bound up with that is another, which is ‘how should we act?’

Adopting the Anthropocene as a label for our age is a signal that detached observation is no longer a tenable position: we cannot be content to stand by and watch. The time is ripe, I think, to consider a fresh way of looking at ourselves in relation to the world; I will consider what that might be in a separate article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Seeing Better

‘See better, Lear!’ is the admonition Kent gives his King after he has petulantly banished his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she ‘lacks that glib and oily art’ to flatter him as her false sisters have done. Sight and blindness is a central theme in King Lear, as is its corollary, deception, both of others and oneself.

Kent’s words came to me when I was ruminating on my latest occupation, drawing shiny things

One of the things that drawing teaches is seeing better, and that indeed is a large part of my reason for pursuing it recently, as a kind of philosophical experiment (since February I have been drawing a monkey a day, in response to a challenge by a friend)Muriquin

The status of colour crops up in philosophical discussions at various periods – it is Locke, I think, who argues that colours are not ‘primary qualities’ (such as shape, extension and solidity) but only ‘secondary’ in that they involve an interaction between eye and object and cannot be said to inhere in the object itself as the primary qualities are supposed to do – but it is really a subset of a larger argument that takes us back (as always) to Plato.

Plato, it will be recalled, dismisses the world brought to us via the senses as deceptive Appearance, maintaining that the true nature of the world – Reality – can only be apprehended by the intellect: it is the world of Forms or Ideas. As I have argued elsewhere (‘In the beginning was the Word’) what Plato has really discovered is the power of general terms – the Platonic Idea or Form ‘table’ is not something that lies beyond the word ‘table’, to which it points, it is in fact the word ‘table’ itself – which can be used in thought to stand for any table, because – unlike a picture – it does not resemble any particular table.

This introduces a whole new way of thinking about the world, where it is no longer seen directly, through the despised senses, but apprehended by the intellect through the medium of language. And there is no better way of appreciating this than to try and draw something shiny.


What colour is the car? Why, black, of course – with some shiny bits. That is how it was described on the official documentation – Daimler DR450, Black. But what about all those other colours, then? Ah, now, that’s just reflections of one thing and another – you can ignore them; the car’s real colour is black (and its radiator grille etc aren’t coloured at all, they’re shiny chrome plate).

What trying to draw it teaches you is not only that you can’t ignore the many other colours that are there (if you want your picture to be any good at all) but it also brings home to you that your regular habit (or at least mine) is to dismiss a great deal of what your eyes tell you and pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t count: ‘that is just light reflected off a polished surface; that is just a reflection; that’s just a shadow.’

And that is Platonism in action: the intellect overrides the senses, reserves judgement to itself – and it does it through words: ‘light’ conveniently labels – and so keeps you from looking at – something that is very difficult to render faithfully in a drawing. You find that reflective surfaces, far from being bright, are often dark and dull; a tiny patch left uncoloured on a white page becomes a gleam of light when surrounded by greys and blues, even black. And your mind, on seeing the drawing, converts it back to an image of a plated surface – perhaps the most interesting part of the process.

It is as if we erect a glass screen between ourselves and the world, and on the screen we write the words that correspond to the things beyond – ‘mountains, trees, clouds, house, road, cars, people’ – and most of the time what we see is not what is in front of us, but only the words on the screen that give us the simplified general picture, at once a tool of immense power (enabling rapid thought unencumbered by distracting detail) and a great impoverishment of our experience – it inserts a carapace between us and the world.

See better. Draw. Then go out and look.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, philosophy

10 (on the Beaufort Scale)/The Storm

I was reminded of this story by a conversation with Cecilia Hewett (of Cecilia’s Hand-spun Yarn) and Matthew Abercrombie in which the Beaufort Scale came up. I originally wrote it for a man who was compiling an anthology of 1000 word tales, but he seemed to think the honour of being published by him was sufficient recompense for giving him exclusive rights in perpetuity; so now, like the man Belloc encountered who gave his wine away for nothing because he could not get the price he wanted at the market, I offer it to any who want to read. The first version is an expanded one written for a BBC competition; the second is the original, which I think I prefer for its spareness, though I also like the chance to quote each point of the Beaufort Scale that the longer version offers.

10 (on the Beaufort Scale)

The Beaufort Scale: it’s like poetry.

People talk about the Shipping Forecast, but give me the Beaufort Scale any day – the regular stepping-up of tension, the gradual ascent from calm to storm.

zero – calm. Smoke rises vertically.

I sit at my desk, waiting. Pretending, as always, that I’m not. That I’m just about to start work. That I’m not waiting for him to call.

one – light air – Smoke drift indicates wind direction. Leaves and wind vanes are stationary.

We met at a party last night; exchanged telephone numbers – but don’t misunderstand me. I pitched him my big idea. He’s a publisher. I’m a biographer. Or at least I mean to be. I have done since I was eight years old.

two – light breeze – Wind felt on exposed skin. Leaves rustle. Wind vanes begin to move.

The phone rings.

False alarm! It’s Great Uncle Peter. He has a proposition that he knows will interest me, but there are conditions attached.

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that? I ask.
– What cannot be said can be shown, he says. Wittgenstein, he adds, in case I didn’t know.

I did know – in fact, I’m nearly sure it’s a misquotation – but I say nothing. Great Uncle Peter probably met Wittgenstein. It’s the sort of thing he’d do. A quick mental calculation tells me it’s possible – he must be over eighty now, though my mother (whose uncle he is) likes to say he’s younger than most men half his age – and completely crazy.

Still, I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the publishers’ dos I have to attend, to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a proper man looks like: tall, spare, elegant – always beautifully dressed, and with the most astonishingly blue eyes. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

three – gentle breeze – Leaves and small twigs constantly moving, light flags extended.

– Come on, Cordelia, I know you’re dying to – besides, I need someone to drive the car. You can drive, can’t you?

Cordelia. Only he calls me that. Because, as a child, my voice was far from sweet, gentle and low. ‘You’ll never be a lady if you bawl like that,’ he would chide. ‘Don’t want to be a lady!’ I would bawl, though secretly I did – but not just any lady.

And here we come to the thing that has obsessed me since I was eight years old, and has me sitting here, waiting for a publisher to call: my big idea. Sherlock Holmes had ‘The Woman’; for Allan Quatermain, it was ‘She’; but in our family, for as long as I can remember, it was always just ‘Her’.

‘Who are we talking about?’ some late-comer to the conversation might ask. ‘Her’ was all the answer that was needed.

So of course I agree to come and promise not to ask any questions.

– Good. One more thing – bring some wet-weather gear. Don’t forget!

And with that, he hangs up.

four – moderate breeze – Dust and loose paper raised. Small branches begin to move.

Great Uncle Peter had been Her lover and Her husband, though when he was Her husband, someone else was Her lover – which made up for the fact that when he was Her lover, someone else was Her husband. Great Uncle Peter was neither the first nor the last, but does have the distinction of being the third and the fifth, having been married to her twice.

She, of course, was always and invariably the first, in any company.

five – fresh breeze – Branches of a moderate size move. Small trees in leaf begin to sway.

Or would, if it wasn’t December. The trees are bare. I meet Great Uncle Peter outside his mews flat, draped in a stylish trench coat, waiting by his car.

Great Uncle Peter’s car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let anyone drive it, least of all me. It’s an R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, a slipper-back supercar from the nineteen-fifties. It’s a delicate and unexpected shade of blue, like his eyes, which makes me wonder if it was a present from Her – but I’m not allowed to ask.

– Since you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

six – strong breeze – Large branches in motion. Whistling heard in overhead wires. Umbrella use becomes difficult. Empty plastic bins tip over.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of storm-force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to make landfall, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) Her foot never so much as touched Welsh soil, let alone the particular place we’re headed for, which as far as I can see, is some way to the back of beyond – so that can’t be the connection.

I can only suppose the date is significant: why otherwise would Great Uncle Peter insist that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years? Yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, all seven of her surviving husbands (six, really, as Great Uncle Peter counts as two) plus two or three long-term lovers, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since Her death, but the dates vary.

Great Uncle Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure railway station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see he is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do manage to ask why his friend has chosen such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up from.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced that my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity is accurate.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it. Great Uncle Peter seems to relish it.

seven – high wind, near-gale – Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but like Peter he has that certain something – it’s his eyes, mainly, which are dark and ardent – I know that if he asked me, I wouldn’t say no.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. I don’t need reminding: broken twigs whirl past and the whole car is buffeted by the wind. He has a map out. After a few moments’ study he announces that we should take the next left. It’s a single-track road across bleak moorland.

– It’ll be quieter that way – don’t want any busy-body policeman turning us back: no trees to come down, either.

I nose the Bentley cautiously ahead. Its curvaceous wings fill the narrow way ahead. I add the spotlights to the glare of the main beam.

eight – fresh gale – Some twigs broken from trees. Cars veer on road. Progress on foot is seriously impeded.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters an array of expensive motor cars that would be more at home outside the Ritz or at a Bonham’s auction.

It takes all my strength to open the door on my side; when I fight my way round to the other to let my passengers out, I have to stand behind the wide door with my feet braced to stop it blowing back on its hinges. In the short walk to the inn, we are staggered by the blast. The rain is horizontal.

nine – strong gale – Some branches break off trees, and some small trees blow over. Construction/temporary signs and barricades blow over.

When we are inside, I close the door against the roar with a sigh of relief. I start to take off my jacket and pause in astonishment. In the dim light of the lobby, the two old men have their travelling bags open and – far from divesting themselves of any outer garment – are in the process of donning substantial wet-weather gear. Great Uncle Peter looks at me reprovingly as I stand gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff? I told you not forget!

I nod, unable to speak.

– Well what are you waiting for, then? Put it on!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket. Peter and Victor, well wrapped up, disappear through a swing door. I follow them into an obscure lounge to be confronted by a scene of surreal absurdity. Amid the dark oak panelling with gleaming horsebrasses and the green leather settles, eight or nine old men are grouped like some bizarre octogenarian Everest expedition: all of them are swathed in high-class foul-weather gear. One of them is in a wheelchair.

Even in the dim light and their outlandish garb, the faces are familiar: fifty years ago, this would have been the party to be at. I try to calculate what this small assembly equates to, in terms of champagne drunk, column-miles of gossip written, quantities of hell raised.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Your timing was always impeccable, says another.
– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go?

Turning to me, he says,

– You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night.

ten – storm, whole gale -Trees are broken off or uprooted, structural damage likely.
(Very high waves with overhanging crests. Large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact. Large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility.)

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. I have never felt so terrified nor so exhilarated. Great Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… living with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility, the raging storm. Ten on the Beaufort scale.

– This, he says. This is how it was.



The Storm

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that?
– What cannot be said can be shown, as a wise man once said.

So now he’s (mis)quoting Wittgenstein at me, confirming that he is as crazy as my mother says. So of course I agree to go.

Peter – my Great Uncle – is still a striking figure, though he must be near eighty now. I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the parties I have to go to, just to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a real man looks like. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

His car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let me drive it: a sea-blue R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, from the fifties. I guess it was a present from Her but I’m not allowed to ask.

– If you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of hurricane force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to strike, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) She never so much as set foot in Wales, let alone the particular place we’re headed for – so that can’t be the connection.

I suppose the date must be significant, otherwise Peter would not be so insistent that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years – yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since She died, but the dates vary.

Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see Great Uncle Peter is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do ask why his friend chose such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced of the accuracy of my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. Whole trees in motion – point 7 on the Beaufort scale: high wind, near gale. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but if he asked me I think I probably would – it’s something in his eyes, which are an astonishing blue.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. Outside, I am aware of broken twigs whirling past: fresh gale, according to Beaufort.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters a number of expensive cars. The rain is horizontal. Even in the short distance to the door, progress on foot is seriously impeded.

In the lobby, they open their bags and begin to don their wet-weather gear. Peter sees me gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff?

I nod, unable to speak.

– Put it on, then!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket and follow the two old men into the lounge where a number of others are waiting, already dressed for the weather. One of them is in a wheelchair. I recognise some of the faces: forty years ago, this would have been a pretty exclusive party. The volume of vintage champagne they must have consumed in their life times would float a battleship.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go? You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night. If there were any trees, I am sure they would be broken off or uprooted; likewise, if the inn were not so solidly built, there would be structural damage likely.

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility.

– This, he says.

(If you are familiar with a fine short story by Octavio Paz, My Life with the Wave, you will see where the idea came from. His tale is very much better, though)

Leave a comment

Filed under works

Should we talk about Art?

(my thanks to Wayne redhart, whose comments on But is it REAL? Is  Art a Joke? Five Funny Things stimulated this response)

Let us suppose two people – for ease of storytelling, we’ll make them a man and a woman, though that is not significant. They have become acquainted in the virtual world of social media and found a considerable commonality of feeling and outlook. Now they are meeting for the first time in the flesh, in an art gallery on the man’s home turf.

As they go round, we can observe a growing apprehension in the man, which he does his best to conceal, though it is evident in the tensing of his fingers and the covert looks he casts at the woman as she looks at the pictures. As they enter a particular room, his apprehension peaks. There is a painting there, and while the woman looks at it, the man looks at her, anxiously. The woman takes time to study the painting, then all at once, her face lights up, and she turns to the man with an expression of delight. His anxiety vanishes. He smiles and nods in affirmation, his expression a reflection of hers. The two return their attention to the painting, rapt. No words are spoken.

The painting, of course, is an old favourite of the man’s, that he sets great store by, and he is worried that the woman will not ‘get it’ – but she does.

The original theme of this piece was to have been whether we should judge a work of art on its own merits – on what is contained within the frame, so to speak – or with reference to something outside itself (and I should make clear that I use ‘art’ in an inclusive sense here – not just paintings and sculpture, but music, poetry, stories, dance and so on) but on reflection I realised that this was bound up with another matter, namely how we talk about art and what we can say about it.

The key thing about the man and the woman in the gallery is that no words are exchanged, yet they come to an understanding – each knows what the other is thinking; you could say that they are of one mind – each recognises that the other ‘gets it’.

But in that curious expression – which I think we perfectly understand, though might struggle to explain – what is ‘it’ and how is it ‘got’? If you asked a group of people to mime ‘getting it’ and ‘not getting it’ I imagine there would be a considerable consistency of response: faces lighting up, smiles and affirmative gestures – nodding, for instance – on one hand; on the other, puzzled looks, head shaking, throwing up of hands, shrugging. An interesting variant might be where one party gets it and the other doesn’t.

The image of whether we should stay within the frame or stray outside it is a useful one – a significant boundary we should think carefully about crossing. Within it, we can only look, and look again (if it is a painting or anything visual) or read and reread, or listen and listen again – the only thing we can vary is how often we go back, and what we do in between, which may be very important – an obvious example is something that we could make neither head nor tail of in our youth – we just didn’t get it then – but which we come back to in later years and find that we do, now.

If we cross the boundary, step outside the frame, our tongues are loosened. This is a natural enough reaction, and in some respects the question I have used as a title is a fatuous one – should we talk about art? Try stopping us! try stopping yourself! If we see or hear or read something that impresses us profoundly the natural response is to tell someone – your friends or indeed complete strangers – such is the pressure that you feel the need to express.

And it is here that complications arise, and I trace them back to my pet theme of Language*, and how it has come to dominate our thinking and all other forms of expression. Those of us who have had children or remember what it is like to be one will recognise the behaviour that comes in the wake of some great experience – the urge to give an account of it in every detail, generally at high speed, the words tumbling over one another into incoherence; the struggle to find words that are adequate to the huge wonder and marvel of it all, so that there is a succession of attempts that break off as a new and possibly better one occurs, only to be discarded in its turn; sometimes, indeed, the right words just cannot be found, and the child is, or becomes, speechless, and just grins and runs around.

All that strikes me as the right and proper human response to anything that impresses us in this way – a sort of incoherent joy which nevertheless sends a very clear message, sometimes summed up in the parent’s laconic response, ‘well, that was good, wasn’t it?’
In other words, all that we are seeing here is an extension of the wordless expressions of delight in the art gallery described above. The words are attempts to convey the magnitude of that delight which succeed, paradoxically, by their failure to express it adequately (and of course that is a formula we use when we are deeply moved, whether to joy or grief or gratitude – ‘there are no words to express how I feel’).

The problem is that while we allow children to run around babbling incoherently, we are less indulgent to adults. When the concert hall audience debouches into the foyer and there is great buzz of people all talking at once – ‘amazing passion!’ ‘superb orchestral technique!’ ‘I loved that passage with the horns’ ‘it’s such a vivid piece, you can see it like a picture in your head’ ‘I adore Sibelius!’ ‘it’s so strenuous – in a good way, I mean’ – it is important to see that they are all really saying the same thing: ‘well, that was good, wasn’t it?’ and that their babble of talk is just an extension of the applause they gave the orchestra, continued by other means; the actual words do not matter.

But we have been brought up in the strong belief that language should be articulate, that it should express meaning coherently and precisely, that it should be something better than an incoherent exclamation of delight (that is part of the problem – we rather look down on incoherent exclamations of delight and reserve them for watching football and the like). So we try to find ‘an adequate form of words’ – and some people become rather good at it, and end up as critics in newspapers and magazines. And these articulate accounts create a false relation with the works of art they relate to: they come to be seen as a necessary adjunct to them, a learned explanation, to which ordinary people should have recourse if they wish to understand the work. To some extent, they become a substitute for  the work itself, and the critic replaces the artist as an authority – he is the one who decides what is good and what is not, what is admissible (to the salon, the gallery, the concert hall, the theatre, the syllabus) and what should be excluded.

Being able to speak (and write) about Art in a particular way becomes the mark of authority that others seek to imitate and go to university (NB not Art College) to learn (I speak as a veteran of Aesthetics and General Philosophy 1 & 2 at Edinburgh University). Unfortunately, this way of speaking is often associated with ‘cleverness’ (a greatly overrated trait) and can easily become a means of making people who have not learned it feel stupid and inadequate, afraid to open their mouths for fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or embarrassed when their initial splurge of joy expresses itself in naive terms which some ‘clever’ person makes mock of (and the classic victim here is the person who tries but fails to imitate what they think is the right sort of thing to say, rather than the one who says ‘ken whit? that wis pure fuckin brilliant!’ or simply gives an inarticulate roar of joy).

Now I do not mean to condemn criticism out of hand: it can be informative, entertaining and educational. It can be (though it is not always) a delight to be with someone who can place a work of art in a tradition and make connections with other works and help you see or hear or read it better, get more out of it; but there is a real danger here, and it is deep-rooted.

I would put it like this: Language* is by its nature antithetic, indeed inimical, to art. It is like a foreign conqueror who bans the native tongue and insists that his own be adopted for all official and public use; if the native tongue is used at all, it must invariably be accompanied by a translation into the state language.

To understand why, we need to go back to the fifth paragraph:
‘The key thing about the man and the woman in the gallery is that no words are exchanged, yet they come to an understanding – each knows what the other is thinking; you could say that they are of one mind – each recognises that the other ‘gets it’.’

This is the point where a lot of philosophers will walk away, shaking their heads; I fancy that I might have, in my youth. ‘How can he know what she is thinking?’ they will protest. ‘Well, by the way she reacts – the look on her face. It is the same way that he reacts.’ This will not satisfy them. ‘But how can he be so sure that her look has the same cause as his? she might be thinking something completely different.’

The temptation here can be to insist – with a hint of asperity – ‘well, he just does.‘ ‘O, by intuition I suppose,’ sneers the other, ‘sort of like telepathy, you mean?’

At which point you either have recourse to violence, and ‘cause him to be knocked down with blows,’ as Rabelais would put it, or else retreat, as Myles na gCopaleen would say, in that lofty vehicle, High Dudgeon.

But there is a better answer, though you might be as well to pin the philosopher against the wall, to ensure that he hears you out. So, seize him by the shoulders of his ill-fitting jacket, hoist him off his feet, press him against the wall and say,

‘Because they are human.’ (At this point you should probably lower him to the floor again, otherwise your arms will tire).

‘He is human and so is she. In the presence of the picture he experiences a particular feeling of delight, an emotional uplift, similar in kind to others he has felt, in the presence of Nature, or listening to music. He recognises that in some way the picture is the external corollary of this inner sensation and through it he feels connected not only with the artist but with everyone else who has looked at the picture and recognised the same thing – which includes the woman beside him’.

Now that the threat of immediate danger has receded, the philosopher is emboldened.

‘Ah, I see – now you are talking about feelings, but to start with you said that he knew what she was thinking. But you still haven’t convinced me that he knows that she feels the same – it’s a guess at best. He can’t be certain till she verifies it.’

‘And how do you suggest that he does that?’

‘Why, he should ask her.’

‘And what should she do?’

‘Give him an account of her feelings, of course. Though perhaps he should write an account of his own first, without showing it to her, so that they can make a genuine comparison.’

At this point, you should probably let him go, though you might just want to ask him if, when someone kisses him passionately, he asks ‘what did you mean by that?’

Wittgenstein asks somewhere the interesting question, how we know when we are imitating someone, e.g making our face wear the same expression; we don’t do it by looking in a mirror. I would say we do it because, as far as our fellow humans are concerned, we can infer the inside from the outside, and vice versa.

I’m not sure how well I have made my point, but I do notice that I have had to resort to telling a story latterly – a sort of non-Platonic dialogue – and I think that is part of what I am trying to say about the terms in which it is possible to explain something – the woman in our art gallery story might respond to the man’s painting by sending him a particular poem, to which he might reply with a passage of music, then she with a short story – and this might be a deeply enjoyable and intimate conversation between them, without any words of explanation from either side.

Like General MacArthur, I will return – but for now, enough.

*Language here means the literate form that is the basis of our thought and discourse. It is characterised by having a written form which dominates its spoken form.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stone-sucking, or what matters

2016-05-09 13.48.09

If you read this page aloud it will strike you that there is nothing in your speech corresponding to the white spaces on the page that separate the words. Word separation is not a feature of every script – some Asiatic ones do not use it even now – and it has been accomplished in different ways at different times; the Romans used dots or points (puncta – the origin of ‘punctuation’) the Greeks I think used none originally, and even at one time wrote boustrophedon (literally ‘ox-turning’, or in the manner of ploughing a field) – i.e. the lines run alternately from left to right then from right to left, perfectly logical in terms of eye movement:

2016-05-09 13.13.19


Word division, then, is plainly an aid to reading, an adjunct of the written form, with no counterpart in speech; and this raises interesting questions about words themselves. We might incline to think that we need no word division in speech because we ‘already know’ how to distinguish words, because, well, we know the individual words, which are stored in our vocabulary (or word-hoard, as the Anglo-Saxons called it) like so many building blocks or components ready for use whenever we wish to construct a sentence.

There may now be an element of truth in that, because two and a half millennia of literacy (interrupted by the Dark Ages in Western Europe, but continuous further East) has schooled us – literally – in the ways of educated speech, which is heavily influenced and indeed dominated by the written form. We are used (or at least my generation was) to learning other languages in a way that brings out their rule-governed nature – we have verbs laid out in tables that show the variations from first to third persons, and from singular to plural; we analyse individual words into roots that remain the same and endings and beginnings – prefixes and suffixes, or inflections – which vary according to case and so on; we learn rules for the order of pronouns (me te se before le la les  before lui leur before  y before en before the verb, if I recall). And of course we accumulate lists of vocabulary, learning individual words and their particular meanings.

All of this encourages us to think of language as a system of building blocks or individual components – words – which can be assembled in a variety of ways according to certain rules – grammar. Yet a little reflection will tell us that this analysis only became possible – or indeed necessary – with the development of the written form.

When speech was – as I have suggested before [Plucked from the Chorus Line, The Disintegration of Expression] – only one mode of expression among many (and quite likely not the most important) – then we had neither the means nor the need to analyse it in the way we take for granted now. We did not have the means because there was no method of giving speech objective form so that it could be studied and analysed; that only comes as a by-product of the invention of writing [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment]. A by-product, because we must remember that writing was not primarily devised as a means of transcribing speech, a need which our ancestors would not have felt – after all, we had been transmitting our culture orally (and by other means of expression) since the dawn of time, for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

The accidental nature of the whole concept of a written language and all that it entails – literacy, books, systematic text-based education, the whole basis of our modern way of life – is worth emphasising, to remind us that we managed for a long time without these things and did not feel in the least deprived or impoverished: it is perhaps the most significant example of what I have called an ‘elective indispensable’ something we have managed very well without, then reoriented our way of life to make living without it inconceivable.

Before we were able to analyse language by studying its written form, we may have followed rules, but we did so unconsciously, by instinct, much as (say) indigenous Amazonian tribes will appear to observers to engage in rule-governed speech but would not (I guess) be able to say much about the rules they were following, or offer a grammatical analysis of their own tongue in the way that the observers (trained to look at things that way) could.

‘Trained to look at things that way’ is a key expression there. Do the observers see something that the native speakers overlook? That is a complex question, worthy of close attention. To walk with a trained geologist through a landscape is to see it with fresh eyes, and to learn a new and different way of looking at it; and to walk with an indigenous Australian through the landscape where he is at home would be similar, though the two would see quite different things. One way of putting it would be that they would see themselves as in two different stories about how they related to and understood the landscape; what strikes one as significant might be quite different from what strikes the other, so who is overlooking what?

What that comparison brings out is the extent that we bring things to our analyses, rather than finding them there. An analogy might be to going out equipped with a box divided into compartments of different shapes and sizes – the things you find to put in the different compartments are ‘already there’ but you have brought your system of categorisation with you; your principles of selection are decided beforehand. If you came instead with a number of equal-sized boxes but each lined with a different colour sample which you sought to match, you would end up with a wholly different selection and arrangement of things ‘already there’.

The underlying question is whether your system of categorisation corresponds to something objective, something we might be inclined to call ‘reality’. This seems to me a – or possibly the – fundamental philosophical question, and it reminds me of something that might at first seem wholly unconnected. I wonder if you will follow my leap?

What my mind leaps to – or leaps to my mind – is a passage from Samuel Beckett, in Molloy. I must thank my friend Stephanie Peppard (her blog, The Woman on a Yellow Bicycle, is worth a visit) for drawing it to my attention. I strongly commend reading it in full –

or indeed you can hear it here (in a slightly varied text):

The gist of it is that Molloy, on visiting the seaside, lays in a store of pebbles, which he calls ‘sucking stones’. He likes to suck each stone in turn and is considerably exercised by how best he should arrange them about his person in order to facilitate this. Having four pockets and sixteen stones, he first considers an equitable distribution of four in each, so that when he draws from his ‘supply’ pocket (which we can call the first) for a stone to suck, he transfers a stone from the next, second, pocket to make up the deficiency, and so on, with the sucked stone eventually taking its place to make up the depleted numbers in the fourth pocket.

However, he soon hits a snag:
‘But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.’

In order to guarantee his principle of sucking each stone in turn, he tries various permutations, only to find that he has to sacrifice another cherished principle, that of having the stones in balance across his pockets:

‘Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But
deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and forewards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be without. But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any. And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed …’

This passage strikes me as a profound – and profoundly funny – insight into human behaviour: it captures the absurd rigour with which we observe self-imposed conventions, while all the time being aware ‘deep down’ that none of it matters, or rather only matters because we choose to make it matter. That last distinction is important: to read this as a commentary on the pointlessness of human behaviour is, I think, too bleak; it is more that what we do is self-validating – it matters because we make it matter. The underlying message is not that nothing matters, but rather that something does – though what that is, exactly, we are not sure; which is why we go on searching – or just go on.

1 Comment

Filed under language-related, philosophy