A Bird’s Eye View On Destroying the World to Save It

My review of The End of the End of the Earth by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 8 December 2018, p. 28.

A Bird’s Eye View On Destroting the World to Save It

Jonathan Franzen’s description of himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man” sounds innocent enough. Endearing, even. It is rather more controversial, however, when construed as a rabbit-duck illusion. Is the “Great American Novelist” — to quote a famous Time cover headline — simply a passionate, albeit obsessive, ornithologist? Or does he actually prefer birds to fellow human beings? This question lies at the heart of The End of the End of the Earth, his third non-fiction collection, in which he sets out to use the essay as a vehicle for “honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”, then Franzen has passed with flying colours. Alongside longer birdwatching travelogues, there are pieces on photography, technology, short-termism, Manhattan in the early Eighties, and of course literature (his “Ten Rules for the Novelist” have already earned him a great deal of online ribbing).

Franzen is “miserably conflicted” about climate change. On the one hand, he is convinced that it is the greatest challenge facing humanity, but on the other, he feels “bullied by its dominance” in environmental circles, where it has become a dogma that precludes any nuanced discussion.

In particular, he takes the National Audubon Society to task for jumping on the bandwagon, by claiming that global warming today is the “number-one threat” to birds in North America. In fact, he explains, not a single bird death can be “definitively” ascribed to this phenomenon right now unlike, say, wind farms. This leads him to wonder if we are not “destroying the natural world in order to save it”. It also prompts a great deal of soul-searching, as he grapples with feelings of guilt over “caring more about birds in the present” than people in the future. This notion that he is somehow deficient in “brotherly love” recurs throughout the book, although it is amply disproved by the warmth and tenderness with which he evokes his friend, the writer Bill Vollmann, or his gregarious late uncle Walt.

The simplistic message of global warming can be conveniently conveyed “in fewer than a hundred and forty characters” as opposed to the more complex — “novelistic” — narrative of wildlife conservation favoured by the author. Climate change has the added advantage of being a problem “with a human face”, one that is everybody’s fault and therefore nobody’s, hence its appeal to our narcissism both as a species and as individuals. More crucially still, it provides us with a ready-made belief system, New England Puritanism 2.0: “Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth”. At the latest reckoning, we have ten years left before Judgement Day, but in a decade — when we fail to meet our latest carbon-emission targets — the goalposts will be moved again. The end is never nigh enough.

Eschewing eschatology, Franzen outlines an alternative approach to environmentalism based on “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us”. He calls it “Franciscan” — after Saint Fancis of Assisi, that other bird lover — but Emersonian would do just as well. Instead of focusing on a hypothetical future, he seeks to reconnect, here and now, with a past in which nature was still untainted by human intervention. Being the “most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived on it”, birds allow us to take flight momentarily from the Anthropocene. That house finch outside our window is, he reminds us, “a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur”. Birds’ flight paths “bind the planet together”, offering a tantalising glimpse of a totalising worldview. “If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world,” writes Franzen, fully aware that bird-watching (or “birding” in American parlance) is predicated on its own failure (which does not prevent him from being a compulsive “lister”).

The author’s avian passion remains unrequited, and this is as it should be. Birds’ indifference to us serves as “a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things”. Though they defecate on us from a great height, birds could not give a shit about human beings, and this is also how it should be. After all, it is “we, not they, who need life to have a meaning”.

The Cost of Living

This review of Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living appeared in the Irish Times on 7 April 2018, p. 34:

The Price a Woman Has to Pay For Unmaking a Home

The Cost of Living is the second instalment, and future centrepiece, in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy. Its pivotal nature becomes apparent when the narrator is loaned a shed of her own, where three books — “including the one you are reading now” — will be conceived. Such foregrounding of the work’s primal scene is no metafictional gimmick, however. It is consonant with Levy’s commitment to looking life in the eye, rather than reflected in the shield of allegory.

“It was there,” she explains, “I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”. Gazing back at her textual avatar – becoming the reader, as well as the author, of herself – Levy opens up this gap through which she journeys towards the “vague destination” of a “freer life”.

There is a deeply moving, albeit somewhat disquieting, passage, where the nine-year-old Deborah, fresh off the boat from her native South Africa, comes knocking on the door of her middle-aged self in London, and ends up watching Bake Off with the two daughters she will later give birth to. This is a variation on the “flashback in the present” technique that the author frequently deploys to great effect in her fiction, but spectacularly fails to get across to a boardroom full of film executives, in one of the book’s many comic scenes.

Describing this ongoing project as a “living biography” is particularly apposite, not only because the author is alive, kicking and evidently at the height of her creative powers, but also because she eschews nostalgia, firmly convinced that the past is never written in stone. Towards the end of the book, she speaks to her mother for the first time since her passing: “She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change”. She goes on to recount a heart-rending anecdote about a pair of earrings she almost buys her as a gift in a department store, before the unspeakable enormity of death suddenly sinks in at the till.

If Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013) was a response to Orwell’s Why I Write, the emphasis here is on how to write in the wake of two traumatic events which occurred within a year of each other: the break-up of the author’s marriage and her mother’s demise. In the Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home (2011), one of the characters claims to only enjoy biographies once the subjects have escaped “from their family and spend the rest of their life getting over them”. Finding herself in a similar situation, the author now seems to be putting into practice all the themes she has been rehearsing in her works since the 1980s, as though the fiction were a prelude to her vita nova.

As Levy downsizes, her life grows bigger and she feels emboldened and energised by the adventure she has embarked upon despite all the hardship. She has no regrets about swapping her book-lined study for a “starry winter night sky”, now that she writes on a tiny balcony, where she falls asleep fully dressed “like a cowgirl”, in her north London “apartment on the hill”. Other people – including the family from down the road that she borrows for Sunday lunches, the Turkish newsagents and the Welsh octogenarian firebrand who kindly lends her the shed – are a constant source of fascination, but so too are the bees, moths, squirrels and birds she shares the world with: “everything,” she observes, “is connected in the ecology of language and living”. She delights in the practicalities of daily life, even proving a dab hand with a Master Plunger, and when she zips along the road on her electric bicycle, her party dress “flying in the wind”, she finds it difficult not to whoop.

The Cost of Living refers to the price a woman has to pay for unmaking the home she no longer feels at home in. In Levy’s case, this radical act of erasure inaugurates a quest for a new life that is inseparable from the writing of a new narrative. No longer willing to take part in the masquerade of femininity – that “societal hallucination” – she fumbles for a different kind of role to play. At this juncture, all she knows is that it will be a “major [as yet] unwritten female character”. The process of transitioning “from one life to another” also prompts her to reinterpret some of her fondest memories and past attitudes: “Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then insult her for having no dreams?”

Deborah Levy describes women’s often thankless homemaking enterprise as “an act of immense generosity”. It is also a perfect description of this truly joyous book.


Punk’s Formative Prelapsarian Moment

Coulter, Colin. Review of Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, edited by Richard Cabut and Andrew Gallix. The Irish Times, 6 January 2018

[…] Among the books that have emerged to mark the moment is Punk is Dead: Modernity Killed Every Night, an anthology of no fewer than 28 essays and interviews collated by the author and musician Richard Cabut and the academic and founder of 3:AM Magazine Andrew Gallix. Despite its funereal title, the editors of the collection make it clear that they are here not to bury punk but rather to praise it. In their bifurcated introduction, Cabut and Gallix retrace their own steps to a time in which they evidently remain heavily invested personally. The specific purpose of the book is to celebrate that original evanescent wellspring of creativity when punk emerged as a “stylish boho response to the modern world of inertia and consumption” and retained the “innocence characteristic of childhood” of a movement yet to be frozen by being named or sullied by exposure to popular vitriol and acclaim alike.

In their framing of this uneven but valuable collection of paeans to punk’s formative prelapsarian moment, the editors claim that there exists at present a widespread prohibition against nostalgia. Cabut and Gallix cast their book as an attempt to break this embargo, specifically to make the case that “punk’s cultural importance should . . . be officially recognised in museums and galleries.” . . .

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

This appeared in the Irish Times on 30 December 2017, p. 24:

Portrait of Author Damon Young as a Reader

The vintage fingerprints and splashes of egg yolk adorning my Ladybird edition of The Three Little Pigs. The wild flowers pressed between the pages of a Danilo Kiš. We measure out our lives with books as well as coffee spoons. Those we have read, those we have not; above all, those that have read us. “To my right is a small stained pine bookcase,” writes Damon Young at the beginning of The Art of Reading. “It contains, among other things, my childhood.”

On the latter subject, and his subsequent development, he remains rather tight-lipped. Reading, we learn, was initially “a prop in [his] performance of superiority” and, crucially, a “liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence”. At the age of 11, he sought refuge from his father’s “morning screams” in ninja books and make-believe. As a teenager he was “Prufrock avoiding Prufrock”. Finally he alludes to his wife’s “grave illness” which rendered him incapable of finishing AS Byatt’s Still Life. There ends the confessional: this is a portrait of the author as a reader.

In the expository chapter Young navigates his way round the labyrinthine shelves of his own Library of Babel, travelling back and forth in time, both personal and historical. His early passion for Sherlock Holmes was shared by William Gibson, whose evocation leads — “[t]wo shelves under” him — to Orhan Pamuk’s reflections on childhood perusal and then on to Edith Wharton’s — “[t]wo rooms behind and one century before him” — and from thence to Rousseau, Sartre, de Beauvoir (close to the former “in [his] library as in life”) and so on. Taking in Batman as well as Heidegger, the breadth of reference is impressive, but never overbearing, thanks to the Australian philosopher’s lightness of touch, self-deprecating humour and endearing deployment of the word “bunkum”. Having traced a desire path through a lifetime of books, Young reflects upon six Aristotelian virtues (curiosity, patience, courage, pride, temperance and justice) that reading requires, exhibits or promotes.

The Art of Reading is not just another bibliomemoir; it is also a manifesto of sorts. The author shuns a utilitarian approach to his subject — regarded as “an end in itself” — summarily listing its ancillary benefits with a commendable degree of scepticism. After all, “bastards enjoy fiction too” and, as he cheekily points out, some of them are authors. His ambitious goal is to re-enchant an activity which, “cosmically speaking”, is very much “against the odds”. Reading, he laments, is grossly undervalued, its wonders all too soon forgotten.

It tends to be thought of as a rudimentary skill, acquired in early childhood, rather than a lifelong project to be honed from Miffy to Proust. It has the added disadvantage of being a largely invisible pursuit, incapable of competing with the social cachet conferred by authorship, or rather the “fantasy of publication”. A text, however, is “only ever half finished by the writer”; it is the reader who brings it to life. Should the human race be wiped out, books would be “lived in, eaten, buried, climbed upon, oxidised, but not read”.

Young contends that the reader’s demiurgic power is not only forgotten, but also repressed, because of the anxiety it generates in highlighting the contingency of our books and lives: “Giddiness arises as I become aware of my responsibility for affirming one world and not another, and the fragility of whatever is chosen. Every string of letters can be an existential challenge”. What Michel Foucault called the “author function” is thus “a way of making reading safe”. Words become “someone else’s job”: the book “just means this, end of story”.

If Young explores how Rousseau or Sartre became fully aware of their existence through reading, he also considers how fiction may provide an escape from the confines of the self — Dickens’s “hope of something beyond that place and time” — and the increasing encroachment of the actual upon the possible.

In order to truly appreciate a text we must also “overcome our egocentrism”, which Virginia Woolf signally failed to do vis-à-vis Joyce, whom she initially read through the prism of class snobbery and rivalry. The philosopher concedes, however, that Iris Murdoch’s notion of “unselfing” has its limits. We are “partial beings” whose “incompleteness varies” with age, so that some novels — Henry James’s in the case of Evelyn Waugh — need to be grown into.

Most importantly, perhaps, literature enables us “to stifle the little oligarch” within. Villains — in fiction as well as fact — “see all things as a means to an end”, which is always “some vision of perfection”. Reading teaches us to accept that things simply are, and that they may end without concluding: “Only the Library of Babel continues. It makes sense to restlessly move between artworks, never believing that any one is perfect.”

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

This appeared in the Irish Times, 16 September 2017, p. 10:

Wicked Wordplay and Home Truths

Joanna Walsh is Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s sister. Not literally, of course, but in Worlds From the Word’s End — the story that lends its name to her new collection — she channels Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), giving it a fierce feminist twist. A woman comes to realise that she and her partner have always been “words apart”. Given that he is “only interested in the sound of [his] own voice” and prefers his “women quiet”, she makes a virtue of necessity by spearheading a mute mutiny that reverberates throughout society. Female hipsters — “seeking something retro as usual” — start modelling themselves on the “silent women in cardigans” of yore. The “new silence” goes mainstream. Newspapers become blank. Talk shows ditch the talk. Social media users post “photos of silent activities”. Signage is removed and libraries burned down as couples everywhere tire of “explaining things they’d already said to one another, exhausted by the process of excavating words with words”. In her struggle against mansplaining, Eve rolls back Adam’s enterprise of linguistic imperialism, returning all things to their (nameless) sui generis nature.

“I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more” — this paradoxical mission statement delineates the liminal space Walsh explores, charting a middle course between inscription and erasure.

The Story of Our Nation lies at one end of the spectrum. With great fanfare, we are informed that the eponymous story will differ from all past chronicles, criticised for being “parallel but not the real thing”. “What was missing,” the character explains, “was bare fact.” The national epic she is working on will log everything, from “gaps between doors and doorsills” to the “light that arcs night ceilings through the slits between curtains”. It brings to mind the legend (found in Lewis Carroll and Borges) of a map on the exact same scale as the territory it charts. This gesamtkunstwerk should likewise coincide with its object: “once we input all the figures you will be able to see everything in a flash.” The snag is that it can only be achieved by freezing the nation in its current state, lest the quest become “uncompletable”. The “real thing” is turned into a dead thing.

This is also the case in Two, which revolves around a pair of statuettes petrified in their verisimilitude: “So poised to move, yet so immobile, so lifelike and at the same time something that only looks like life.” Their owner fears the fixity of writing as well as that of art; the death of the author, whereby a text escapes its progenitor: “I must be careful describing the seasons as they may also be mistaken for metaphor, and I would not like to lay down some kind of mood setting I didn’t at all mean”.

Everything else is in a state of flux, and it it is this indeterminacy Walsh’s fragmentary prose taps into. Domestic settings grow uncanny: in one case, everyday objects migrate around the house as a daily routine goes awry. The characters are almost all anonymous or identified by a letter à la Kafka (this is even turned into a deftly executed extended joke in Reading Habits). More often than not, their gender remains unspecified. Femme Maison is one of several stories told in the second person singular, where you is I and I is another: “You wanted to be someone else, someone neither of you knew”. Hauptbahnhof is a monologue in disguise, the narrator addressing herself to the absent man who stood her up at Berlin Central Station, where she now resides: “Sometimes a demonstrator [in a shop] makes me over to look like someone new.” The longed-for metamorphosis fails spectacularly to materialise in Simple Hans, where a woman’s head is cut off at her behest: “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life. She was meant to change into something else.”

The author’s fourth collection is made up of skittish vignettes and longer, more surreal pieces. There is a great deal of wordplay, but it is never gratuitous. “I’m not aloud”, for instance, speaks volumes about the silencing of women. Puns burrow rabbit-holes into the unconscious of language, where the text seems to become self-generative.

In Bookselves, Walsh conjures up a creature who emerges from someone’s bookshelf, having devoured all their unread books: “It will be the opposite of you, your inverse.” Her prose orbits a black hole whose presence it reveals but cannot express. Postcards from Two Hotels ends on a characteristically ambiguous note: “Tomorrow I return to the first hotel. It is in the second hotel that I did all my writing.” Walsh’s style finds its perfect expression in the troubled housewife who, having cut but not pasted, realises that her words “hover in vacant space”.

Retrotopia

This appeared in The Irish Times on 13 May 2017:

A Heavyweight’s Flawed but Important Last Work

Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January at the age of 91, was one of the last intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. He belonged to a generation that derived its aura and wisdom from the second World War, even winning a medal for gallantry in combat. He was a Polish Jew, and so his life and work were shaped by both Nazi and communist persecution, the latter forcing him to relinquish his citizenship as a prerequisite for exile.

Although he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 — residing in England, with his family, for the rest of his life — he always retained a strong accent, not dissimilar to a comedy impression of Sigmund Freud. You can hear it in his numerous books, ostensibly written in English but frequently reading like literal translations from sundry continental tongues. This deterritorialised voice, poised somewhere between Yorkshire and Mitteleuropa, never tries to conceal its cosmopolitan origins. It speaks the language of liquid modernity, the era-defining concept that will doubtless serve as his epitaph.

Composed in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, Retrotopia — Bauman’s last, posthumously published work — revisits this rapidly evolving phenomenon. The sociologist had long argued that a loss of faith in society’s perfectibility was one of the main distinctions between the “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity, a theme that he reprises and expands on here.

His argument hinges on the “emancipation of power from territory”, as a result of which nation states, with increasingly “porous” borders, are no longer able to fulfil their traditional functions. This political impotence, compounded by the stupefying pace of change, has redirected the utopian impulse towards the “space of collective memory”. We take refuge in the past because it can be “remodelled at will”, thus providing the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.

The future is now associated not with progress but with stasis or regression. At best it seems to offer more of the same; at worst it holds out the prospect of “social degradation” and “impending catastrophe”. Hence the privatisation of happiness, sought no longer through collective endeavours but through self-improvement and personal “wellness”.

Today’s dominant “managerial philosophy” appeals to our contradictory aspirations to autonomy and belonging. Idiosyncrasies, which would once have been ironed out on the Fordist conveyor belt, are now encouraged in the name of ever more diversity. In exchange, however, corporations feel free to exploit the “sum total” of their employees’ “personality assets” while guaranteeing them little or no loyalty.

Social in name only, our online networks offer another ersatz brand of communality, acting as they do as filter bubbles, providing insulation from any views likely to challenge our easily bruised egos. Such comfort zones are “as close to the nirvana of the womb” as we can get. Indeed, a return to the safety of the womb is the logical conclusion of a series of reactionary trends taking us back to a world of “weakening human bonds”, tribalism and growing inequalities — a Hobbesian “war of all against all”.

Despite the bleakness of the picture he paints, Bauman elicits none of the pessimism he has sometimes been accused of. He suggests that retrotopianism is largely due to our failure to develop a cosmopolitan consciousness, despite living in a cosmopolitan world. Human groups continue, as they have always done, to define themselves by exclusion. The challenge of our times, he asserts, with an enthusiasm that almost makes it sound feasible, is to achieve “integration without separation”.

Crudely reductive
Retrotopia is an important work but one that is deeply flawed. The sociologist’s rationale, for instance, can be crudely reductive: he too seems holed up in his comfort zone, from whence all ills are ultimately ascribed to globalisation. He appears surprisingly naive at times, presenting some of the pontiff’s pious platitudes as a blueprint for the future of mankind, or universal basic income as a foolproof panacea for inequality.

Bauman’s methodology is equally questionable. Sweeping statements (“today’s growth of violence”) alternate with detailed references to studies whose validity is premised exclusively on their authors’ academic credentials. The recourse to Homeric epithets — “the remarkable Belgian psychoanalyst”, “the great Norwegian anthropologist”, “the formidable Estonian student of culture”, “the foremost researcher” — is unlikely to hold sway in the current populist climate and may even prove counterproductive.

Another weakness is the author’s failure to engage with popular culture, which theorists such as Mark Fisher (who took his life four days after Bauman’s death) and Simon Reynolds have identified as the locus where the major symptoms of our nostalgic times may be observed.

Overlooking a few recurring linguistic mistakes and the odd cliche masquerading as reference, Bauman has a propensity to repeat himself twice, or even thrice, like a one-man Thomson and Thompson, which should have been reined in: “correctness and veracity”, “porosity and permeability”, “trenchant and incisive”, “budding, aspiring and up-and-coming”, “insecurity, uncertainty and un-safety”, “cautious, circumspect and prudent”. The cumulative effect is ludicrous, laughable and risible.

The keen interest this nonagenarian showed in the world and its future is a source of hope and even joy. His enduring intellectual vigour should come as no great surprise, considering that he published most of his works after retiring. Some of the references here are so up to the minute that reading Retrotopia is like stumbling across the number of a recently departed loved one on your mobile.

In those moments it is difficult not to give in to feelings of nostalgia.

A Deterritorialised Voice

My review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia appears in today’s Irish Times. Here is an extract:

Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January at the age of 91, was one of the last intellectual heavyweights of the 20th century. He belonged to a generation that derived its aura and wisdom from the second World War, even winning a medal for gallantry in combat. He was a Polish Jew, and so his life and work were shaped by both Nazi and communist persecution, the latter forcing him to relinquish his citizenship as a prerequisite for exile.

Although he became professor of sociology at the University of Leeds in 1971 – residing in England, with his family, for the rest of his life – he always retained a strong accent, not dissimilar to a comedy impression of Sigmund Freud. You can hear it in his numerous books, ostensibly written in English but frequently reading like literal translations from sundry continental tongues. This deterritorialised voice, poised somewhere between Yorkshire and Mitteleuropa, never tries to conceal its cosmopolitan origins. It speaks the language of liquid modernity, the era-defining concept that will doubtless serve as his epitaph.

Composed in the shadow of Brexit and Trump, Retrotopia — Bauman’s last, posthumously published work — revisits this rapidly evolving phenomenon. The sociologist had long argued that a loss of faith in society’s perfectibility was one of the main distinctions between the “solid” and “liquid” phases of modernity, a theme that he reprises and expands on here.

His argument hinges on the “emancipation of power from territory”, as a result of which nation states, with increasingly “porous” borders, are no longer able to fulfil their traditional functions. This political impotence, compounded by the stupefying pace of change, has redirected the utopian impulse towards the “space of collective memory”. We take refuge in the past because it can be “remodelled at will”, thus providing the “blissful omnipotence lost in the present”.

The future is now associated not with progress but with stasis or regression. At best it seems to offer more of the same; at worst it holds out the prospect of “social degradation” and “impending catastrophe”. Hence the privatisation of happiness, sought no longer through collective endeavours but through self-improvement and personal “wellness”….