In my absolute favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year, the mysterious Señor C has no doubts about calling his collection of fragments an thoughts Strong Opinions. “The book itself is the brainchild of a publisher in Germany,” he explains to Anya, his soon-to-be-typist. “Its title will be Strong Opinions. The plan is for six contributors from various countries to say their say on any subjects they choose, the more contentious the better. Six eminent writers pronounce what is wrong with today’s world.”

But as the book progresses, Señor C finds his hard and firmly-fixed opinions wavering slightly (is it the influence of Anya? A softening ‘woman’s touch’? Does he really believe what he says, does he really have the right to ‘pronounce’ on anything?), and even the editor himself vacillates about the title — “He is still wavering between calling these little excursions Meinungen or AnsichtenMeinungen are opinions, he says, but opinions subject to fluctuations of mood. The Meinungen I held yesterday are not necessarily the Meinungen I hold today. Ansichten, by contrast, are firmer, more thought out. In our last communication he was tending to prefer Meinungen. Six different writers, six different personalities, he says: how can we be sure how firmly wedded each writer is to his opinions? Best to leave the question open.”

Words like Meinungen and Ansichten that trickle down to us English-speakers from other tongues are wonderful, because they’re layered with shades of meaning in a single compressed word — whereas English often tends to need two, three, four words to express the same thing. Strong opinions; soft opinions — in the final analysis, the book does not offer a judgement on which might be preferable from an ethical standpoint. (After all, when did Coetzee’s books ever offer an answer? But there’s a clue in that itself; their very refusal to decide one way or the other seems to me a way of saying that soft opinions are better in a world where nobody can really speak with authority.)

What Coetzee has never shied from saying unequivocally, however, is that strong or soft or hard or weak, opinions have a right to be held and freely expressed. In 1996 a selection of essays and interviews was published called Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, in which Coetzee examined the nature of censorship, the ethics of ‘giving offense’, the effect of censorship on art and writing, and so on and so forth. Growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa meant knowing all too well what it means to live under apparatuses that stifle expression and regulate thought. In the very first essay of the book (‘Taking Offense’), Coetzee romps through the various forms censorship can take (regulation for moral, religious, or political reasons; internalized censorship, institutionalized censorship) and the psychology behind ‘offending’ and ‘censoring’ respectively. Taking offense always has powerlessness at the heart of the matter, because censorship – not believing in the inherent power of certain representations to win out over others – springs out of the need to limit what is represented — and therein is its de facto admission of doubt. But there is one particularly interesting point at which Coetzee looks at Mill – and draws an important distinction:

To Mill, freedom of speech includes immunity from censorship, specifically from prepublication censorship, but also freedom from societal pressures, “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Mill conflates censorship with social pressures (sometimes called censure) in ways I am reluctant to follow. Censure, as Frederick Schauer points out, is not strictly speaking a free-speech issue. Social intolerance is different in kind from official sanctions back by the force of law: people have a choice not to follow orthodoxy. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J. M. Coetzee

He does not pursue this line of examination further in his essay; but I think I will, here, because it’s important right now more than ever in the wake of what happened in Paris last week, and in light of the way the world has reacted.

The shootings were rightly met with unequivocal condemnation and horror: to be gunned down like that because you took up a pen, a pencil, to draw some pictures — well, if it was not true and horrible, then it would have been unthinkable and ludicrous. That it was an attempt to silence and censor taken to its very fanatical extreme is also undeniable, and the event has rightly become a reiterated defence of an intrinsic and basic freedom that I believe in, the freedom of speech. I say all this now because words (like any representation) are vulnerable things, perpetually exposed to the possibility of misunderstandings, misreadings, misinterpretations, and can cause a great deal of anger in their own way; it’s important to be absolutely clear that the shootings were terrible, that the shooters were terrible, and that the deaths of 17 people is incredibly tragic (any death is and it’s no different in this case).

But a rejection of censorship does not constitute an inability to censure and question and doubt (I prefer soft opinions myself, both to hold and in others), and this is what interests me now; a society that defends so loudly the right for anybody to hold and express any opinion, any thing, should be the very last to stop thinking about what the opinions themselves really mean.

To me, Coetzee’s words above on the distinction between ‘censor’ and ‘censure’ echo those of Teju Cole published in the New Yorker just last week, in what I thought was one of the best pieces on the whole Charlie Hebdo situation ever written; Cole writes about ‘Unmournable Bodies‘ in the context of very mournable ones, and in the aftermath of a veritable media frenzy over the attacks; he says,

But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.

On the one hand, I see the media frenzy as understandable — I can even empathize with it. In an age where the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” has been repeatedly disproven and holds not much currency, the events in Paris came as a stark reminder that pens and pencils – though not, ultimately, any defence against guns – have not lost all their potency. There is a perverse kind of reaffirmation for those who write, draw, create and comment in all this – our words do matter; they do have power; and ideally, let’s use that power to do good and make the world a better place. (Generally this has always been the idea; no writer or artist has ever sat down with pen in hand to consciously try and make the world a worse place, regardless of how divorced the effects may be from the intent.) A slew of cartoons came out after the incident depicting pens and pencils doing all sorts of glorious things — from resisting to tyranny to creating harmony; terrorists cower in fear at the sight of a small pencil. Of course they are meant to highlight the ridiculousness of what happened, and of those who held the guns — how can you possibly kill for something like this? — but at the same time there’s no looking at any of these without remembering the above-mentioned idiom.

Title page of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'

Title page of Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’

But on the other hand, Cole’s piece was a refreshing and welcome reminder that rejecting censorship and defending free speech does not mean we have to celebrate all that is said and done in the name of free speech. Papers such as the New York Times and the Guardian have taken a beating over the past week for refusing to publish some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves — they have been called ‘cowardly’ and accused of failing to safeguard free speech. But such accusations are mistaken, and stem from that confused idea that we have to echo the views of others in order to defend their right to hold them; this is not true. The NY Times and the Guardian can very well defend the right to free speech while disclaiming their willingness to depict some of the things Charlie Hebdo did. In doing so they’re simply reiterating that they do not hold such views; not that others should not. This is a point everyone should be questioning: of course anybody can hold and express whatever they want, but can’t we query and critique those views too?

Although Charlie Hebdo calls itself a ‘satirical’ magazine, I saw some of the ‘contentious’ cartoons they had published and saw nothing satirical about them; they are acts of defiance plain and simple – we will draw this in defiance of your injunction not to draw this. That is worthy of defending in itself, of course, in the name of free speech; but it is not tantamount to constituting a constructive social critique of anything. If reading piles of 18th century satirical fiction and treatises on the nature and purpose of satire has taught me anything, then that is what satire does — and the 18th century is not a bad place to look to if we want to remind ourselves of satire’s function in society and the media; Swift and Pope are not bad masters to learn from. “Satire is a sort of glass…” Swift began once — and it is crucial to remember this. Satire deals with the real and the current; it magnifies real absurdities and so of course there is mockery — but there is also an urging towards some sort of political or social change. Without this key ingredient, what intends to be ‘satire’ becomes simply mockery, and while we can defend anyone’s right to mock in a free society, I would value the two things somewhat different. It is important to remember the distinction between the two (satire and mockery) for this reason alone.

Am I Charlie? No — for one, the battle for free speech – though it seems axiomatic in most developed Western societies — is actually very far from won, either in those places very explicit about their control of the press and media or not (and this is true even of the ‘developed Western societies’; I can say there might certainly be degrees of freedom around speech, but is it absolute anywhere? I’m not sure!). For another, I don’t know if I’d particularly like to be — satire I can get behind; but mockery? It’s not for me. It can be for others; mockery is certainly not to be censored (as nothing should be), but it’s not beyond censure in its own way.

"You mean y'all STILL confused about what gender is????"

“You mean y’all STILL confused about what gender is????”

One of my favourite books of all time is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In my opinion, it doesn’t really get half the attention or nearly as many accolades as it deserves – people seem to prefer The Waves, which came out soon after, for some reason. Maybe this is partly because Woolf herself didn’t take the book too seriously at first (she describes it in her diary as “an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered. I want to kick up my heels & be off.” – The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol. III, p. 131). It is, by and large, a light-hearted novel – fantastical, fanciful, and blithe almost. But it is still profound, I think, in what it has to say about gender and society. And what it said then – in 1928 – is still (sadly!) so relevant to us today. Since today is Valentine’s Day, and also the day of the big One Billion Rising event, I thought it would be a nice time to write about Orlando – a tribute and a delineation, if you will, of a brilliant book.

When the novel begins Orlando is a young nobleman, and lives the grand and exciting life that only rich young man could. So far so good. Orlando is sent to Constantinople as an ambassador for King Charles II, and it is here – after a riotous party of some sort – that Orlando falls asleep, and when he wakes up… “he was a woman”. Simply put: no explanations needed or given, no attempt at justification. One day Orlando was a man, and the next day he was a woman (I love the syntactic awkwardness between pronoun & noun in this sentence…). The scene of Orlando’s transformation is bizarre in itself – three figures enter the room of the sleeping (still male) Orlando, the Lady of Modesty, the Lady of Chastity, and the Lady of Purity. Three things that still bedevil women everywhere (see E. J. Graff’s excellent post-Delhi piece on ‘Purity Culture‘).

But Woolf’s real brilliance in this book, I always feel, comes from her simplicity of expression – she says it, and she says it pithily, quickly, precisely. What does it mean for Orlando to wake up a woman one day?

Orlando had become a woman there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.

Pause: analysis. The narrative device of having a man transform (bodily) into a woman is clever – it drives a rift between the self and the body. The body is sexed (as male or female, man or woman), but the self – “identity” – is not. This pretty much the mantra, after all, of feminists and gender equality activists everywhere today: gender is a social construct; our identities/selves have little, if anything, to do with our bodies (this is the great evil of ‘Essentialism’, though this lexicon was not available to Woolf in the 1920s). But Woolf’s Orlando exists, after all, in society – so never mind that Orlando’s ‘self’ remains fundamentally unchanged by this change of sex — (now) her future is irrevocably altered. For women and men cannot follow the same paths through life, not because they are ‘different’ in any identity-based sense, but simply because. Because society; because the world. The social critique is so quick, so parenthetical, that it’s almost easy to miss – but it’s there. And it’s brilliant.

My absolute favourite bit in Orlando comes, however, when after living outside Western civilisation on the hillsides of Turkey with some gipsies for a while, Orlando decides to return to England.  In narrative terms, Orlando moves from being outside society to society, and socialization. Until this moment, “it is a strange fact, but…she had scarcely given her sex a thought.” – again, again, subtly – Woolf suggests that gendered identity, even consciousness of one’s sex, is something foregrounded and enforced only by society, socialization, social mores… what you will. (‘Society’ here obviously refers to the Western one Orlando is returning to; my belief is that the interlude with the Turkish gipsies is meant to serve as a taste of what it would mean to exist outside of ‘society’, as it were.) Orlando dresses in women’s clothing (obviously), and boards a ship bound for England (the “Enamoured Lady” – already the construction of gender has begun!).

And because the few pages that follow are so wonderful, so breathtaking in their precision about what it means to be ‘gendered’ in and by society, I must reproduce them in full, with due apologies to Woolf, copyrights (if any), readers who don’t like long posts, etc.

…At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck, that she realized with a start the penalties and the privileges of her position.

But that start was not of the kind that might have been expected. It was not caused, that is to say, simply and solely by the thought of her chastity and how she could preserve it. In normal circumstances a lovely young woman alone would have thought of nothing else; the whole edifice of female government is based on that foundation stone; chastity is their jewel, their centrepiece, which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of. But if one has been a man for thirty years or so, and an Ambassador into the bargain, if one has held a Queen in one’s arms and one or two other ladies, if report be true, of less exalted rank, if one has married a Rosina Pepita, and so on, one does not perhaps give such a very great start about that. Orlando’s start was of a very complicated kind, and not to be summed up in a trice. …

(For Orlando’s experience of womanhood now is underlined and informed by his/her experience, previously, of manhood: s/he remembers the social freedoms (?), privileges etc. of being a man with those of being a woman now. Only, s/he soon realizes, that the demands made of women under the rubric of socially-appropriate ‘femininity’… are actually quite difficult, because women aren’t naturally like that at all. Orlando knows, because Orlando ‘inside’ is still the same Orlando who was a man. But I’ll let Woolf do the talking….)

‘But what used we young fellows in the cockpit of the “Marie Rose” to say about a woman who threw herself overboard for the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket?’ she said. ‘We had a word for them. Ah! I have it…’ (But we must omit that word; it was disrespectful in the extreme and passing strange on a lady’s lips.) ‘Lord! Lord! she cried again at the conclusion of her thoughts, ‘must I then begin to respect the opinion of the other sex, however monstrous I think it? If I wear skirts, if I can’t swim, if I have to be rescued by a blue-jacket, by God!’ she cried, ‘I must!’ Upon which a gloom fell over her. Candid by nature, and averse to all kinds of equivocation, to tell lies bored her. It seemed to her a roundabout way of going to work. Yet, she reflected, the flowered paduasoy–the pleasure of being rescued by a blue-jacket–if these were only to be obtained by roundabout ways, roundabout one must go, she supposed. She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing,’ she thought, ‘that alone will take an hour of my morning, there’s looking in the looking-glass, another hour; there’s staying and lacing; there’s washing and powdering; there’s changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there’s being chaste year in year out…’ Here she tossed her foot impatiently, and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. ‘If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were among her chiefest beauties. And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realizing for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood.

I love, love, love this section in Orlando. So much of it still needs to be reiterated, time and again, today: “women are not…obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature” – indeed, women are not anything by ‘nature’. There is only society, its demands, and “tedious discipline”. Having seen both sides of the coin, Orlando realises this now.

And further – the scene with the accidental display of ankles and skin! I could wax lyrical on this for the rest of my life. The past few months have shown us precisely what kind of views are held – all over the world, but my specific example is going to be India – by men and women alike on the matter of displaying skin. “…[T]he sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who, no doubt, has a wife and family to support [so] I must, in all humanity, keep them covered.” In another world and time and place, this same statement or injunction takes on a different form – “I must keep my legs covered” or “I must keep my arms covered, because to do otherwise would mean imprisonment or death for an honest fellow (no doubt, also with a wife and family to support), lest I tempt him into violent actions towards me.” Sacrificially, Orlando takes the responsibility for the sailor’s fall onto herself (today we call it, pithily, “victim-blaming”); sacrificially, today, women are being demanded to take the responsibility for violence towards them onto themselves. Woolf is satirizing, of course; pointing out how stupid it is that “humanity” is demanded of Orlando for the sailor’s stupidity. A lot of people realise how stupid it is that this sort of “humanity” is demanded of women today on the behalf of rapists, sexual abusers and assaulters. But thus it was – and thus it is, still, unfortunately all too often. 

And mincing out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong–‘To fall from a mast-head’, she thought, ‘because you see a woman’s ankles; to dress up like a Guy Fawkes and parade the streets, so that women may praise you; to deny a woman teaching lest she may laugh at you; to be the slave of the frailest chit in petticoats. and yet to go about as if you were the Lords of creation.–Heavens!’ she thought, ‘what fools they make of us–what fools we are!’ And here it would seem from some ambiguity in her terms that she was censuring both sexes equally, as if she belonged to neither; and indeed, for the time being, she seemed to vacillate; she was man; she was woman; she knew the secrets, shared the weaknesses of each. It was a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in. The comforts of ignorance seemed utterly denied her.

It’s been about 85 years since Orlando was published; possibly a few more since Woolf began to write it. But it strikes me that we can still wring our hands with poor confused Orlando, empathize with him/her, and take Woolf’s story – and Orlando’s feelings – to heart. There is an important lesson here, but it remains (by and large) to be learned.

Phewf. That’s a loadful to be thinking about, but I am, and they’re all tenuously connected, so I thought hey why not dump them all in the same blog-post. I know: very risqué (but I’m radical like that). Also the word ‘feminati’, though a neologism, sounds amazingly cool and sinister and suggests a Dan Brown-novelesque feminist conspiracy, so I have to use it ASAP. The feminati are out there. Amongst us. Watching us. Deconstructing the interpellated patriarchal subject…..

So a friend thought fit to send me a link to this article yesterday (probably it does nothing more than take a jibe at the ‘liberal-arts hippy type’ he thinks I am): it’s called ‘Generation Whine’, and it’s about ‘Self-pitying twentysomethings and the Boomers who made them’. Its author, a woman called Laura Bennett, doesn’t like the fact that there are so many blogs and Tumblrs and websites generally proclaiming that it sucks to leave university and enter a world in which jobs either provide no satisfaction, stifle artistic ambitions, or simply don’t exist. As one of these ‘narcissistic’, ‘angsty’, ‘self-obsessed’ people who is ‘oblivious to privilege’ and existing wastefully in a ‘self-absorbed twentysomethingdom’, angry at the world for forcing me to give up my liberal artistic pretensions in the name of actual work, naturally my first response is to take to my blog and whine about this woman. Like no seriously. How dare she. Doesn’t she know how hard it is not having a job and knowing that like damned capitalism is at the root of all this evil (PS Occupy Wall Street now plzkthx).

But no: sarcasm aside, the article says nothing to me about anything. Bennett’s disdain for a very specific ‘hipster’ type is so palpable I could choke on it – she sneers at some book or another for its interviewed 20somethings being a “broke, aimless vegan baker”… “a 29-year-old yoga instructor”… etc etc. But she does a mass disservice to 20somethings when she herself takes these people as representative of the demographic; we are not all, like Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s TV series Girls, desperate to be artists in a Parisian garrett like Flaubert (I can’t fault the fact that Bennett’s article begins with a denunciation of Girls’ preposterousness at times; and you see – the connections become evident).

I don’t know anybody who dreams thus, to exist peacefully in society with a comfortably-monied career as an artist, and the impossibility of doing so is certainly not unique to 2012. Art unfortunately grows (and sometimes exists) in the fringes of life/society, and I wouldn’t dispute this. (I do resent the rhetoric of ‘use’ which claims that studying the Arts or Humanities is ‘less useful’ than other stuff, because as the esteemed Dr. Johnson from whom this blog steals its name once said — a quote I found in my dad’s book of aphorisms yesterday! — “all knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not”). What I do know (and this is not meant to be representative either, but it is out there) are graduates who are walking dogs to earn cash. Which does suck, whatever Bennett may say about it: that’s not what one gets £10K into debt for (in student loans) and a small part of me believes that everybody deserves more. A lot aren’t getting it right now, for reasons complex and multifarious. (It’s also a small minority, and it’s probably only temporary – but still!). Bennett not only doesn’t really offer anything fruitful or productive besides the criticism of ‘self-absorption’ (which is a shame, because no doubt self-absorption and some very simplified ‘BLAME THE CAPITALISTS’ sentiments do abound), but she also samples a very select, primarily Brooklyn-based/New-Yorker/American few, and uses it to roundly denounce 20something attitudes everywhere. No thanks. Go away. Just another article from Generation Whine these kids don’t know how easy they have it now stop complaining-type thing?

(Or maybe – and I fully allow for this possibility – I’m just piqued because I seem to belong to the ‘whiny’ demographic she denounces. Darn you! I’ma take you down on my blog!)

* * *

 But Girls. GOSH. I’ve been meaning to blog about this one for an age but somehow time hath been scarce. Well. I first encountered Lena Dunham in the pages of the New Yorker; she’d written a ‘personal story’ piece about…well, an ex-boyfriend. They were dating and then they weren’t, or so the story goes. Nothing extraordinary. But then suddenly her name started coming up everywhere, in relation to this TV series that’s apparently awesome and like representative of a generation (ours/mine, I do believe the consensus is) and so feministic (!? another neologism?); and finally last week the news about her hit a right frenzy, when it emerged that she’d signed a book deal with Random House worth more than $3.5 million. That is really wow, since she is no Susan Sontag yet, and so I thought OK since Boardwalk Empire only comes out once a week let me check out Girls!

I can definitely see why people are raving about it, & in this I completely concur with Bennett above – it provides an image of ‘the youth’ (!?!?! awful phrase) as the media proliferates/constructs it, as the media/world wants it, almost. Artistic 20somethings who are awfully stifled by the recession and the capitalist world in which you either go corporate or go home (or go barista; the friendly alternative alternative). Dunham toes the line in this respect. I found myself sneakily identifying with it at first too – I mean, how can I resist when Hannah (the main character played by Dunham, who is herself a superwoman of sorts, writing, directing, producing, and acting all in this one show!) depresses over the fact that nobody wants to hire a “literature major”? Or her utter astonishment at the fact that her parents want to stop supporting her in “this economic climate?” (This question is rendered slightly more preposterous, though, by the fact that her parents have apparently supported her for two years already.)

But there unfortunately my empathy with, interest in, and enjoyment of this series stops. I’m not sure why it’s so popular. I don’t really get the humour (this is probably just me); I don’t particularly like any of the characters; and Dunham’s storyline seems to compress a plethora of repetitive New Yorker short stories (sex = art = freedom = female liberation) into each episode. (Should have guessed, remembering where I encountered her first!) This is just something I personally don’t agree with/find interesting, and again – it’s probably just me, but there you are. I have to confess; I’ve only watched up to Ep. 4 so far, so this is a flawed judgement arising from partial knowledge probably, but – I also don’t really get the ‘feminist’ hype about the show. Is it because girls actually dare utter the word ‘vagina’ on prime-time TV — multiple times? (I do get and admire the abortion thing which, given GOP stances, is highly relevant to America right now, although I thought – as far as TV & storyline goes – it was just a bit bland, cursory, not an event in its own right so much as something that just happens for the sake of the statement.) I don’t get or like the hype/horror expressed at being a ‘virgin’ (maybe I misunderstand what was being expressed in this instance, but – surely liberation means people can make whatever sexual choice they want, with none of it needing to be stigmatized?) I dunno. I just can’t help comparing this to the amazingness which is Boardwalk Empire, which makes such beautiful viewing, has such an interesting plot/storylines, and is actually quite feministic, albeit in a historical sense (which might be easier to do, suffrage and all that). I don’t think aesthetic merit needs to be sacrificed in favour of ideological/political proclamations. I think often (not just in Girls) – it is. [Belated edit: I have to clarify that when I say ‘aesthetic merit’ here, I don’t mean the ‘girls’ themselves – having read around the show a bit more, I see that it’s being hailed as ‘feminist’ because of thwarting conventional female-body stereotypes & stuff, which it does and which is great. I meant rather its artistic integrity in the sense of being a good story/plot/show with well-developed characters who are not perpetually pouting and scowling at the awfulness of their sex lives, because quite frankly that’s 90% of what I saw and I can’t help thinking there has to be something more.]

What is interesting about all the feminist hype behind Dunham’s show, though, is this very weird and odd debate I stumbled upon on Twitter and then on blogs/The Guardian/Tumblr/other. Apparently Dunham’s been criticized for not having any racial diversity in her show. Apparently someone tweeted at famed comedienne-feminist Caitlin Moran about whether she asked Dunham about this when interviewing her. Apparently she tweeted back saying, “Nope. I literally couldn’t give a shit aboutit [sic]”. Apparently the online feminati fell into disorder and chaos, falling upon one other like angry savages and thereby failing to adhere to the actually important task at hand — which is of course undermining patriarchy and not each other. To be divided is to be conquered, after all; and feminist v. feminist over the issue of feminist #3 just leaves the door wide open for patriarchy to come in and WIN — oh… but wait… you mean feminism has room, time, space, energy enough to concentrate on all issues, both ‘noble’ and ‘lesser’, as it were, and even concentrate on its own possible monolithic nature and rectify its own flaws? Surely not.

I don’t agree with criticisms about Girls needing more racial diversity. It is simply not something to be forced: diversity in media representations should be honest and of its own accord; otherwise it’s just condescension, ‘tokenism’, a bone thrown to a dog-type thing. Sometimes it’s just not relevant to the show, or it’s inappropriate to the setting. I do agree with observations that point out the lack of racial diversity in not only Girls, but many, many, many other TV shows besides, because this is something which deserves noting and future correction, if not endless criticism/rampant condemnation. Obviously you can’t homogenize about TV shows; the author of this excellent piece on the whole Caitlin Moran, self-proclaimed Feminist, doesn’t give a shit ‘aboutit’?!?!?!‘ debacle points out, after all, that Brooklyn (where the girls of Girls reside) is a very ethnically mixed part of NY so why should it lack in diversity? She’s got a point. Well but – others are equally quick to point out, and they’ve all got points too – it’s based on Lena Dunham’s life, right? So she can only write about what she knows and about her experiences, and you can’t expect her experiences to necessarily include racial diversity in all its multiplicity. CORRECT. You can’t. All you can do is lament the fact that there isn’t more intermingling in the world (something that’s very, very, very weird to me, as I’ve always had friends from just about every place and corner of the world! – one of the benefits of education in an international school, I think), and extrapolate what a noticeable lack or other tells you about Dunham’s life (perhaps) or about the artsy-hipster 20somethings she’s writing about (perhaps). I don’t really know if I’m expressing myself on this issue coherently enough, but this person certainly does so I am going to steal her wonderful words & paste them here:

For me, Girls is not necessarily racist, even if Dunham’s image of Brooklyn (which had a 65 percent non-white population at the time of the 2010 census, btw) is entirely Caucasian. This is because the racial landscape becomes a tacit comment on the characters – i.e. that these are girls who live abnormally sheltered lives.

I don’t think this is a question (“is Girls racist?”) that ought even be posed, let alone debated. It simply isn’t. A lack of racial diversity in one’s show can suggest a narrow and somewhat uniform set of acquaintances, a privileged/racially-sheltered sort of life, a WASPy sort of upbringing etc (any host of things): but it does not, in Girls or anywhere else, ever become ‘racism’.

(Do I think Caitlin Moran was dumb to say what she did? Yes, absolutely. It’s fine if she considers the question a non-issue in Dunham’s case – I do too – but to be so rude and so completely dismissive about it when you know yourself – nay, consider yourself – to be a publicly feminist voice speaking ‘for’, ‘to’, ‘about’ women and sexuality, is just dumb. It may not be an issue here, but it can be and is an issue in many other respects. You’re not a non-entity on some obscure corner of the web, you’re a renowned and highly respected celebritytypething, so saying stuff like that is just…well, dumb. And unnecessarily mean.)

I am going to shut up now, and say – well, the couple of pieces I linked regarding the whole Moran/Dunham/Girls debate were primarily the point of this ramble. (I know: why didn’t I just link the damn things, right?) They were intelligent, informative, and they got me thinking about things I have never really thought about before. I recommend them to everybody :) I am sorry to have word-vomited. I should also put – as a fearful disclaimer – that I don’t like blogging about feministic issues that polarize so very much, because they usually demand a more nuanced and subtle stance that I usually take, and also because the more I read and learn, the faster I modify my owns views. It’s a fear of committal, because it is so likely that I will return to things I say in a few months and disagree with/condemn myself for saying it. But never mind. Bear with me, and I am always interested in hearing thoughts concurring/disagreeing/modifying/correcting (though not hateful or bilious). SO: thoughts?

Well, the pressure is on – after getting Freshly Pressed last week, I realised I could no longer blog about how boring it was to be unemployed, and how I filled up my time playing computer games (or wellI could, but it would be a bit of a come-down).

Clever allusive titles – gotta love ’em.

But luckily, I had a few weeks ago embarked on what can only be described as a literary journey, and a long one at that: I began reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, hailed (in that adulatory section before the story begins) as “[showing] signs, in fact, of being a genuine work of genius” (Esquire, US) and as “fascinating, ridiculous and excruciating, and a stimulating injection into contemporary American culture” (Independent on Sunday). This is all high praise indeed, and since I’m not the greatest with contemporary fiction (I only read Philip Roth for the first time a few months ago…), I thought I’d do well to read this mammoth work and see for myself. Well, so far it is all that and more – it is brilliant; it’s amazing and it’s difficult, but it’s also worth it.

What first drew my attention to David Foster Wallace was an article about his life and suicide; it was something I stumbled across, somehow, when I was idly reading articles on the net a year or so ago to kill some time between something and something else. Thus begins the article (an old one, and oddly enough, in the New Yorker now that I’ve looked it up – I hadn’t been reading this publication then!):

The writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide on September 12th of last year. His wife, Karen Green, came home to find that he had hanged himself on the patio of their house, in Claremont, California. For many months, Wallace had been in a deep depression.

I know it’s cheesy, if not downright weird and uncomfortable, to be intrigued by an author because they were depressed and then committed suicide. For this fact says nothing about the merit of their work, fundamentally. But I was curious for this very reason. David Foster Wallace’s story was tragic and somewhat Keatsian – he was 46, and many people say that he died before he had done his work the way he wanted to, or written as much as he should (could? is should too imperative?) have. Also, the tortured artist is not a prevalent figure in society these days. The Virginia Woolfs, Charles Bukowskis, and Vincent Van Goghs of yore have left us with an enduring idea: that of the genius-artist who is so brilliant that they are driven mad, made depressed, rendered alcoholics, driven to suicide, etc. The list is endless. Until David Foster Wallace, I couldn’t really think of many contemporary/recent artists who actually adhere to this characterization, however. (There is one other – the playwright Sarah Kane, who wrote an insane play called Psychosis 4.48, and then committed suicide.) Before continuing on with D. F. Wallace, I have to digress on how unusual and uncommon the figure of the ‘tortured artist’ has become in our day and age.

I was translating a poem by Rimbaud the other day (in an attempt to keep up with/improve my French – I find translating is a good, engaging way to learn a language, and infinitely more interesting than memorizing endless reams of grammar notes alone), and got stuck at how to render the words, “la magique étude du bonheur” (the magical study of happiness). In trying to read around what it might mean, I came across a book by Giorgio Agamben (one of my favourite contemporary theorists, who I used extensively in my Master’s dissertation and who has many, many interesting things to say about the post-9/11 experience etc., for those who are interested in all that), called The Man Without Content. He begins by describing the Kantian characterization of aesthetic experience, which stresses impersonality and disinterestedness (i.e., there is no personal investment in the aesthetic object). He then describes (and agrees with) Nietzsche’s critique of this view, which states that ‘disinterest’ is only the fortunate possession of the spectator, and not the artist/creator, who must always necessarily invest – be interested – in what he creates; Nietzsche writes (as quoted by Agamben),

This is not the place to question whether this [Kant’s view] was essentially a mistake; all I wish to underline is that Kant, like all philosophers, instead of envisaging the aesthetic problem from the point of view of the artist (the creator), considered art and the beautiful purely from that of the ‘spectator’, and unconsciously introduced the ‘spectator’ into the concept ‘beautiful’.


“That is beautiful,” said Kant, “which gives us pleasure without interest.” Without interest! Compare with this definition one framed by a genuine ‘spectator’ and artist — Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse du bonheur [a promise of happiness]. At any rate, he rejected and repudiated the one point about the aesthetic condition which Kant had stressed: le désinteressement. Who is right, Kant or Stendhal?

(As a side note – the link with Rimbaud becomes obvious after reading Stendhal’s statement, because both artists see art as related to the ‘promise of happiness’, somehow – perhaps art is the space of Rimbaud’s search for happiness, the thing which promises it him.) The rest of Agamben’s chapter devotes time to exploring this divide, between the artist’s experience of art (heavily invested, interested), and the spectator’s experience of art (disinterested, in the Kantian sense). He quotes Baudelaire, who says the artist’s act of creation is “où l’artiste crie de frayeur avant d’être vaincu” (“where the artist cries out in fright before being defeated”); he quotes ‘the note found in Van Gogh’s pocket on the day of his death’, which reads, “Well, as for my own work, I risk my life in it and my sanity has already half melted away in it.” (I do not think D. F. Wallace would disagree with this sentiment!); and he refers to Rilke, who writes that “works of art are always the product of a risk one has run, of an experience taken to its extreme limit, to the point where man can no longer go on”.

But who says such things about, or even invests such emotions in, art these days? These words make a strange contrast to the capitalist rhetoric of ‘use’ that is currently seeing humanities funding being cut everywhere, arts industries suffering financially, art being classified as a ‘luxury’ that we ‘can’t afford’ in times of economic trouble. There are undoubtedly people who do see their art as such a madness, as such a ‘risk’ – what else can possibly be said about Rushdie’s stance in the face of a (recently-reiterated) bounty on his head (indeed, the price has gone up by US$500,000!)? Or Coetzee writing first in the midst, and later in the aftermath, of apartheid and extreme censorship, and despite it? Of course the writers (and other artists) of our age invest something in their art, if not (à la Van Gogh) half their sanity, something beyond the norm, and I am not trying to say they don’t. But David Foster Wallace towers above everybody I can think of and love (Rushdie, Roth, Coetzee, Kundera etc.) as the ‘tortured artist’ of our times; articles about his death and writing always stress how difficult writing became for him before he committed suicide, and perhaps his investment in his work was less socio-political than it was personal, more an investment of the psyche and soul.

Having rambled (ho ho!) at length about the man, I guess I must needs now talk about the book. I am nowhere near finishing: it’s a whopping 1079 pages, in small print, and it’s not written in a form that allows for streamlined, straightforwardly linear reading. One of Wallace’s most distinctive traits, which I love, is his use of endnotes (I really love using footnotes in my own stories, and while I do like footnotes better than endnotes, because they’re right there at the bottom of the page and don’t necessitate turning right to the end of a very-long-book, the same principle applies!); in a much more eloquent way than I ever could, he describes his need for endnotes thus (from the above-linked New Yorker article):

He explained that endnotes “allow . . . me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns . . . 5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.”

What I really like about them stylistically is that they allow the author to do what Virginia Woolf writes about in one of her many diaries (August, 1923, though she isn’t writing about footnotes): “dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each come to daylight at the present moment” – in Wallace’s work, they come out in the endnotes. The endnotes make me a much slower reader of this already-difficult book than I otherwise would be, but — that’s all part of the plan, I guess!

Infinite Jest is, as New Woman aptly identifies in an adulatory quote, “an insight into modern addictions and spiritual frustrations”: it’s about drugs drugs drugs – the psyche which needs drugs, the psyche after drugs, the psyche without drugs, you name it. It’s a darkly satirical world sometimes, and in this I can see something distinctly American (I’m not sure what, but it is American). The sort of dark hilarity that comes out in Wallace’s work sometimes (e.g., when he’s describing the effect of a certain drug as “pulmonary sloth” – people becoming too lazy to even breathe, and dying as a result) is highly reminiscent of the sort of thing I associate with John Irving’s The World According to Garp and even Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, books that make you laugh and cry in fits and turns and sometimes simultaneously.

And perhaps this prevalence of drug addiction is, as New Woman seems to suggest, very much linked to the spiritual frustrations of a highly-capitalist world (Infinite Jest’s dystopic setting is a future where even the years are named after corporate things; corporations ‘subsidize’ time by buying rights to name the year or something, hence ‘Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar’ — damn you, Dove!). Sometimes strangely enough, disparate things you’re reading unintentionally coalesce, and while I was reading (wait for it!….) the New Yorker (da dum!) last week, I came across a ‘personal history’ piece by Oliver Sacks (again! you come across someone once and take note, and then suddenly they’re everywhere!), on his drug-addled youth. The start of his article (called ‘Altered States’), explores answers to the question, why drugs? Why – because

To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves….

And drugs, he says, “offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand.” It’s a powerful answer and statement, one which I felt was intimately connected to Wallace’s world in IJ. In a world where God and religion are no longer means for such a transcendence, or out-of-self elevation/transportation, drugs are a quick and easy alternative; capitalist secularism’s version of transcendence and ecstasy (ho ho! pun intended), if you will. Some of the characters in the book have an almost ascetic, ritualistic relationship with drugs – they cut themselves off from ‘real life’ almost entirely, refuse to answer the telephone or go to work, lie in bed at home all day staring at the ceiling, etc etc. These things necessitate an elaborate ritual before and after, and weed-scented rooms become the refuge of these postmodern, somewhat fucked-up ascetics. Wikipedia on ‘asceticism’ and its earliest practitioners: “They practiced asceticism not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of salvation or liberation.” I think in Wallace’s world, ‘liberation’ (but from what? from life itself?) is key.

I haven’t read enough of the book to pursue this idea further, but it was an interesting connection between the timely Sacks article and the novel that occurred to me, and I thought it was worth noting down (nor is this relationship – between addiction and spiritual frustration – necessarily limited, after all, to Infinite Jest – it’s very much prevalent in our lives, in our world right now, and it bears thinking upon). After IJ, which may be a while, I hope to read a book recently nominated for the Man Booker prize 2012, Narcopolis by an Indian writer called Jeet Thayil; also about addiction and its place in the  modern world. There might be interesting thematic parallels.

I have been listening to Bach’s Ciaconna in D Minor, the infamous Chaconne, on loop recently. This piece comes like a punch to the face at the end of Bach’s Partita No. 2, the last and longest movement of five. I first learnt about it in this article, a famous one called ‘Pearls Before Breakfast‘ by Gene Weingarten (he won a Pulitzer for this article, and although many – fair – criticisms have been leveled at the experiment it carries out, I think it’s worthy of one nonetheless; very few articles in the world have the power to engage someone so entirely and make them think very hard about certain things, and this definitely does!). In the article, Joshua Bell is quoted as calling the Chaconne ‘one of the greatest pieces of music ever written’. I was curious to see what sort of piece could earn itself such an epithet, and I didn’t (still don’t) know much about classical music anyways, though I liked listening to it when studying (no lyrics to distract!), so I figured it would be as good a place to start as any. And boy, was it.

(In the experiment the article carries out, Joshua Bell starts off by playing this Chaconne – he’s pretending to be yet another busker in some metro station in DC, only he’s a world-renowned violinist who’ll be playing a Stradivarius or something. The experiment is to see how many people will notice ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’, if you will, and stop to pay attention even in the middle of rush hour. Very few people paid attention to the Chaconne, which amazes me – never mind getting to work on time; this is the Chaconne. I would run out of my college MCR every time a violinist on Turl Street started playing the Chaconne, which he often did in the evenings; he wasn’t even a Joshua Bell. Oxford is a lovely place to hear this played, especially when someone plays it on the streets in the evening. It melts into the dusk and into the buildings.)

I don’t think I could ever get bored of it: every hearing reveals new layers to the piece that I hadn’t noticed previously; it fits almost any mood (except the exercise-adrenalin mood, unfortunately – but Bach was not to know of treadmills way back then, so can’t blame him!). I sometimes think perhaps the whole of life and its emotions are encapsulated in this song; the exuberant moments, the calm ones, the sad ones; mornings with a pink and orange sunrise, and the slight rain that falls briefly before the big shower comes; the way crowds slowly increase in certain parts of town (any town) as the morning progresses, the tempo of life rising alongside increments in time; there are traffic jams and cars speeding on highways. I can hear necessary cups of coffee in it; heartbreak and reconciliation; determination, decision. It’s all in there. I could list a thousand more odds and ends that come to my mind as I listen to this song, but that would probably consume this post and a thousand more.

Brahms rightly identifies the most extraordinary quality about this piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann – how does anybody, any human being, feel enough to compose such a piece? Sometimes it is hard enough just listening to it. (Miles told me that while poor Schumann was being treated for syphillis with mercury, which is highly poisonous, his wife was having an affair with Brahms; I would have been wary if I were Brahms, but then again, perhaps Schumann was the philanderer…) Brahms writes to Clara,

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

This might be presumptuous, and I might have no right to – but I agree with him entirely. It’s an echo of a sentiment that Shakespeare himself expressed (albeit as Othello), of the soul – “if it were to die now, ’twere now to be most happy; for, I fear, my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this suceeds in unknown fate”. It’s almost as if there can be no better expression of feeling (unknown, undefined) and emotion (ditto) than this. These quantities have to be left vague and undefined, because I think they elude definition – to claim it is a dirge for his first wife is a bit too simplistic, and worse, it simplifies something extremely complex and profound.

There can be no easy attempt to ascribe meaning to the music, because I think that’s impossible – a Bach scholar called Helga Thoene suggests that the Chaconne is actually written in memoriam of Bach’s first wife, of whose death he had learnt shortly before composing the piece. But I’m not sure. It’s definitely sad at parts, but also peaceful if not exuberant in others. Miles and I have many violent (and nerdy) arguments about meaning in (instrumental) music; I hold staunchly (and perhaps without enough subtlety/philosophical delving into the issue) that music cannot formally present meaning, that it’s without a formal means of reference. Miles says I’m silly and that of course music is referential (but he is unsure about what referentiality is, as he hasn’t been forced to consume copious amounts of poststructuralist theory). A book I foraged from my father’s book cupboard yesterday, called Musicophilia by someone called Oliver Sacks, agrees with me (HA!); he writes,

But why this incessant search for meaning or interpretation? It is not clear that any art cries out for this and, of all the arts, music surely the least – for while it is the most closely tied to the emotions, music is wholly abstract; it has no formal power of representation whatsoever. We may go to a play to learn about jealousy, betrayal, vengeance, love – but music, instrumental music, can tell us nothing about these. Music can have wonderful, formal, quasi-mathematical perfection, and it can have heartbreaking tenderness, poignancy, and beauty (Bach, of course, was a master at combining these). But it does have to have any ‘meaning’ whatsoever. One may recall music, give it the life of imagination (or hallucination) simply because one likes it  – this is reason enough. Or perhaps there is no reason at all, as Rodolfo Llinás points out.” p. 37

Leaving aside the somewhat short shrift he gives to other art forms, I guess I agree almost completely with this characterization of (instrumental) music: it becomes almost a tabula rasa, to be inscribed upon at will. I cannot see that it even controls what themes or emotions one might choose to associate with it – what I hear as sadness might very well be someone else’s happiness. There is no necessary common denominator in these issues. Bach’s Chaconne is a rich tabula rasa indeed, because of its many variations and leaps and twirls – one can read almost anything (and everything) into it, which brings me back to what I said about the whole of life being encapsulated in this one piece. And it is an extraordinary quality. And technically – I know nothing about music, and maybe that’s why I find it so difficult to believe, even though I know now, that all these sounds (sometimes simultaneous) are coming from one instrument and one person. But they are!

The version of the Chaconne I have is by Yehudi Menuhin, though I had actually wanted a version by Itzhak Perlman (one of the few violinists I know). It sounded amazing though, so I couldn’t complain. Miles later corrected my ignorance about Menuhin, and that explains why it is so very good, too.

A clip for you all, of Menuhin playing the Chaconne (this is only Part 1, so 7 mins long):


It would be fitting to conclude this post with one of my favourite paeans to Bach, by my favourite author in my favourite book (a lot of likes in this sentence, eh!) – from Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year. (Some people say that this whole book is a paean to Bach, with its descent into a three-part structure.) I’ve never heard anything expressed so honestly as himself (and for once, I think I am right to see Coetzee, and not his character, saying this!); I didn’t think it would be possible to hear such unqualified, unquestioning praise from a man who questions everything. But here it is:

“The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of  Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free. How I would like to speak just once to that man, dead now these many years! “See how we in the twenty-first century still play your music, how we revere and love it, how we are absorbed andmoved and fortified and made joyful by it,” I would say. “In the name of all mankind, please accept these words of tribute, inadequate though they are, and let all you endured in those bitter last years of yours, including the cruel surgical operations on your eyes, be forgotten.” Diary of a Bad Year, J. M. Coetzee (‘On J. S. Bach’)

The New Yorker is my daily exercise reading these days, because there’s nothing quite like pretending to work out when you’re actually sitting down with a magazine and pedaling very, very slowly. It’s interesting, and it makes New York sound like even more of a dream than it already did (a good 5-6 pages of ‘What’s On’ before the articles start and I start swooning; are there really that many bands and theatre shows and amazing restaurants and artsy events there?!).

I was reading it today and came across this article, by one James Surowiecki, on immigration. Now of course he’s talking primarily about the States, but many of the things this article discusses are incredibly relevant (indeed, on a much wider and prominent scale) to the UK, and Europe as a whole. Now of course, I’m incredibly biased; I have an Indian passport but have never lived there; I live in Malaysia and have done for almost 17 years (18?). I yearn for adventure, dream of the exciting cosmopolis (which KL emphatically is not); I am too scared to venture India alone, because as much as I love the place, it is manic and it is simply not what I’m used to. But the world is effectively (o! very effectively!) closing its doors to me. The UK (for e.g.) has now closed 8 out of 13 of its previous Tier 1 work visa categories, which was by and large for highly skilled workers or graduates/people with university degrees (I think people who qualify as potentially skilled workers yet again?). The number of skilled workers (Tier 2 visas) has been capped.

This is to a large extent seems completely understandable. The world is going through a terrible economic time – the recession affects everybody, and even if it didn’t, Europe would still in the economic doldrums what with the EU and the PIGS etc. There are not many jobs. Especially in Europe. A look at job vacancies on can throw up something like 157 vacancies in the States, and 7 in the UK (I know: I’ve looked). The masses consequently employ their flawed economics to say, “Well, more workers from outside means less jobs for us,” or, “The job market is bad enough already without extra competitiveness!” (To some extent these ideas are wrong, wrong, wrong – I’m not an economist, but even I can see some glaring problems with statements like this; for one example, isn’t competitiveness largely what drives innovation, industry, and consequently, economic growth?)

There is no doubt (in my possibly ill-informed mind, anyways – but whatever: you are reading a laywoman’s blog!) that immigration has become something of a scapegoat in many political discussions. What makes James Surowiecki’s article so very interesting is the fact that he effectively knocks down so many of the usual ‘reasons’ (if you will) against immigrants (and note: I am talking about skilled workers when I use the term ‘immigrants’. I am talking about people who are academically qualified, who are capable of getting good jobs and consequently of contributing to the economy with their taxes and whatnot. This is precisely the category of workers that countries like the UK, for example, are trying to ‘cap’ and cut the numbers of; the other big  and ‘easy-target’ demographic seems to be foreign students, as evinced by the recent appalling events at London Met. University). He points out that immigration drives competitiveness and that this is a good thing for technology, industries, and general job-creating innovation (he uses start-ups in Silicon Valley as his example); and most importantly, he knocks down the idea that there is a ‘fixed number of jobs’ in countries and for people. There are not. It’s called the ‘lump of labour fallacy’, and these ideas are almost universally acknowledged to be — well, just that: a fallacy.

Economies are not static, with a limited set of resources to go around. As the work of the economist Paul Romer has shown, economies grow faster when there is more innovation, and having more smart people in the workforce is a key driver of economies.

Admittedly, the dismissal of ‘a limited set of resources to go around’ seems like less of a problem for the States, which after all, doesn’t have a welfare state support system, which subsidizes everything from education to healthcare. Er, right? But these support systems are so gravely under duress and threat in the UK, as the increase of fees last year or those ambiguous ‘NHS cuts’ that surface in the papers every now and then. Actually, immigrants who pay a lot of tax are probably exactly what the UK needs – they have no recourse to state benefits or public funds, as the UKBA website so clearly states, which means they don’t (as is commonly said) put a ‘strain’ on the NHS or on the wider welfare system. What you seem to have, in effect and a nutshell, is a demographic that pays fairly high taxes (on a globally-comparative scale) and gets none of what they’re paying towards (the welfare state). I just don’t get why anyone would be complaining about that. Equally needed are the international students who pay almost triple the amount in fees that UK/EU students do. This is how institutions make their money, and it’s odd that this very mode of income is coming under fire when it’s needed so badly. It’s really odd, because it’s just not — economics. It’s not even common sense, as far as I can see.  People might say, idealistically or otherwise, that such institutions ought not be profit-making or make such decisions based on money, but the fact of the matter is – the government has cut its funding. These institutions do exist in a wider context, right now of the global recession and Europe’s particularly dire economic situation. And logically it follows that they do need the money, from somewhere!

I like the metaphor Surowiecki uses in his article, expressing the idea that the “presence [of skilled immigrants] makes the pie bigger for everyone“. I don’t think it’s a question of somebody’s piece of the pie being eaten; I really do agree with this statement – it’s about expanding the pie, so that everyone can eat it, and more of it.

Edit: If there are any glaring flaws in my argument/reasonings, and I’m sure there will be since I am no specialist, nor do I know much about economics and even its base principles, please do let me know. I’m curious to hear, and I’d be equally interested to hear different perspectives on the issue (which seems to be quite a polarizing one).

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories on the web and elsewhere (print, can you believe it? Actual, real, solidtangibleholdablefoldable books!) recently. Partly because I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on longer books (post-degree laziness?) but also because I’ve been quite curious about this form for a while. I have read some of that ‘great’ stuff before, of course, like Joyce’s Dubliners and Chekhov’s short stories and Wilde’s, but it seems to me now that I didn’t really ‘get it’ (or anything, if you’d prefer for me to allow for the semantic plurality of all texts).

Ambitiously, I thought I’d start with someone who is often called ‘the master’ of the short story form; Jorges Luis Borges. Didn’t get it (or anything) in the first story I read (not even the title – ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘). I could sort of see the genius (philosophical and otherwise) behind it, and if I knew more about idealism etc I’d probably understand exactly how Borges’s story manifests his thematic explorations etc etc etc – but hey, let’s face it, I don’t. But it was the second story in the collection that really got me; it was called ‘The Garden of Forking Paths‘ and I’m not sure what it makes the most gripping thing ever, but something does. I am now hooked. I’m afraid I have nothing profounder to say about Borges, unfortunately, because it’s a whole lot beyond me, but I’m willing to accept his ‘genius’ without really understanding it. (Yay for lemming-ness!)

I’ve also been reading a lot of fiction in The New YorkerThe Paris Review, and some others (like Granta). I have to confess: I don’t really like most of it. The NYer and the PR both seem to have an awful penchant for stories which feature the following, sometimes in combination, and in varying degrees of frequency:

  • Doomed love affairs; with the specific sub-set, ‘doomed one-night stands’. Because yes you will have deep, dark, depressing needs that can only be fulfilled by having sex with some impromptu and ill-developed character, but unfortunately once that need is briefly and momentarily satiated, you will return to your dark loveless state.
  • Doomed marriages. This includes all from the very melodramatic – my wife is a really conservative Christian who was further incestuously raped by her uncle oh gooood incest!??!?!?! O – and then adultery! — to the slightly conventional ‘we grew old and fell out of love’ (sometimes with a spicy dash of SO WE COMMIT ADULTERY to follow).
  • Loss of virginity, bizarrely, seems to be cropping up quite often too. This is often followed by the abovementioned ‘doomed one-night stand’ ploy. (But guys – we got over the fact that one’s virginity can be basically meaningless years ago? We know it doesn’t matter if she done gone got deflowered!)
  • Meaningless sex. I cannot reiterate how important this narrative unit is to many of the short stories I have read; there must be sex, and it must necessarily be meaningless (….or is it? Is our protagonist not changèd, nay, affectèd de profundis even one tiny bit?). Ok, ok – let’s reform that ‘meaningless sex’ to, ‘Sex, sometimes exposed as meaningless and a hollow way of filling up the emptiness of one’s life; but at other times, and one might venture to say almost always, touched with a sad and grey pathos, betokening the profundity of physiological feeling and sensation’.

I guess I sound a bit mean – well, I am; sorry – and I also have to say that it’s not that I don’t like many of the stories I read, even when they use these selfsame narrative ploys almost unabashedly. Some of them do it really well. But I’m just slightly astonished at how little there seems to be that people can write about besides (often all of) the above. Can stories really only gain depth, profundity, and meaningfulness (and I’m fairly sure that most of the ones I read were aiming to achieve precisely these wonderful attributes) if they write, rather blandly, about the trials of sex?

The stories I really liked were —

Paul La Farge, Another Life (The New Yorker) – this one does use many of the abovementioned tropes, but the style is really interesting, it’s witty, and it’s interesting. I really did like it, and please please, dear authors, if you must write about doomed relationships and filling the void with stranger-sex, please do it like this!

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thank You For the Light (The New Yorker – this was originally rejected by them in 1936, and has been published posthumously) – this is amazing; it’s sweet, it’s beautifully crafted (though not so well as most of his works, it is still a great deal better than a lot of other things that are being published…). It’s incredible how well constructed the character – her voice and her quirks, her situation, the America she lives in – all are, and in such a small number of words! (Tessa Hadley, also in The New Yorker, can’t quite do it in 8 whopping pages of thick prose – as this website aptly summarizes all 8 pages, “A teenage girl in 1960s England loses her virginity.” Whoop de doo! Fitzgerald does it in less than two. Take notes.)

Justin Taylor, After Ellen (The New Yorker) – I probably liked this one the least, but I still liked it. It was engaging, I liked the way he worked so many of the technological things we accept tacitly these days (like Facebook and ‘defriendings’) are worked into the story without a fuss. I can imagine this is hard to do; I know for sure that if I were writing a story, I’d put it in in a rather painstaking, try-hard, and overly-obvious kind of way, so kudos to Taylor for that! He’s gotten a lot of flak, too, for his really dislikable protagonist – but I think it’s brave, and it works. My enjoyment of the story isn’t diminished by the fact that I don’t quite like Scott.

Jeanette Winterson, All I Know About Gertrude Stein (Granta) – Oh. My. Gad. I cannot recommend this story enough. If there’s one story out of the many I’ve been reading recently (online, I stress) that really stands out as beautiful, touching, and good, it’s this one. Not only does it, much to my prejudiced joy, dispose with the easy narrative stuff above, but its discussion about ‘love’ and how little it features in queries and questionings these days is actually a really interesting idea. Maybe not one to agree with, but interesting. And it is beautifully put. I just loved how fresh and how different this story was, how it played with form (now, what is the meaning of linking Gertrude Stein’s biography with an unknown first-person narrator’s monological musings? I don’t know – but it makes me curious, I want to delve further) and how it brought such an interesting and (sadly, going by so much out there) fresh perspective into play. (Are MFA classes being taught, wholesale, that only ‘sex sells’?)


Y’know what? Spilt ink is pretty. Nothing to cry about at all.

Am I being unduly horrible? Probably. I am sorry. Maybe I just had the misfortune to click on about five stories which all happened to be unfortunately too similar. Although I have a sneaking suspicion I have described a fair demographic up above.

Are there any really wonderful stories out there that I must read?!