Monday, 12 October 2009

An Afternoon at the Tate

It was in the post-war section of the gallery that you could really sense the nihilism beginning to creep into Western Culture. A series of hastily drawn sketches from the 1920s depicted several naked men, all of whom appeared to have severed their penis in a fit of existential anguish. ‘What the hell is it for?’ they seemed to be saying as their severed member sat forlornly on the couch beside them. I had enjoyed Claude Monet’s ‘Waterlillies’ in the previous room, but for me this rather spoiled my visit to the Tate Modern. St Augustine writing in the 5th century had said that his own genitalia were ‘shameful parts’ that had to be covered ‘because they excite themselves just as they like, in opposition to the mind which is their master’; but even he never went so far as to cut them off.

Deciding to remove myself from this sorry scene, I saw that other patrons were meandering through a separate doorway towards another exhibit. Having followed them I peered through the darkness within and started in horror. The room was pitch black save for a series of white screens. Upon these were projected the moving image of a man who was predictably naked, save for an animal mask. Having dressed in this peculiar manner he appeared to be leaping into the air at regular intervals while fondling himself with a paint brush. Perhaps feeling that this wasn’t disturbing enough, he had decided to augment his performance with wild cries and animal grunts.

I looked down in curiosity down to see what this ‘piece’ was titled. The sign simply read ‘room with projectors’. It seemed a bit of an understatement; a bit like describing Ingres’s ‘Turkish Bath’ – a seething mass of voluptuous naked women - as ‘Room with enormous red carpet’.

Worse was to follow. The sole exhibit in the enormous downstairs area was a bizarre scene in which a giant spider had evidently chained a selection of second hand books to metal bunk beds. No explanation was given for why the arachnid had chosen to do this. Had he felt peckish and concocted an elaborate scheme to tempt bookish types into his lair?. Had he simply felt lonely and decided to throw a literary slumber party for all who would accept the invitation?. Why was the spider watching footage of yet another naked man scrambling frantically over a rocky landscape?. No answers seemed forthcoming. Perhaps this was meant to solicit an ‘individual response’ from the spectators but the best I could summon were four letter words.

It was here that I began to long for the delights of a bucolic classical landscape. No doubt these things find themselves out of favour these days because they are not ‘avant guarde’ or ‘autobiographical’ enough. Perhaps the sight of a band of rosy cheeked cherubs playfully attempting to steal wolf cubs from their mother will tell you less about the human condition than a scene of genital hari kiri, but at least I could go to see them in an Art Gallery without feeling mentally disturbed.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Prospect of Castration

As I sat back contentedly in my armchair, sipping a cup of herbal tea and gazing lethargically over at the bookshelf, I began to ponder how best to engineer the deaths of thirty million of my fellow citizens. This train of thought was prompted by a recent article in the Times by Jonathon Porritt of ‘The Optimum Population Trust’, which argues that the UK population must be drastically cut from 60 million to 30 million in order to save the planet. The minor detail of how to actually halve our population, he appears to have left up for discussion. These kind of scurrilous suggestions appear to be all the rage these days.

It appears to be in the nature of the intelligencia to demand the suspension of reproductive freedom. Back in the early decades of the twentieth century at the dawn of the Eugenics movement, we were told by doctors, psychiatrists, scientists and pundits that society was undergoing a biological disintegration. The ‘weak’, ‘the unfit’ - ’idiots’, ‘degenerates’ and ‘cretins’ – would all have to be ruthlessly sterilised in order to usher in a bright and prosperous tomorrow. Now we are told, by the usual line up of environmentalists, scientists and pundits, that humanity is mother earth’s equivalent of herpes and we must endeavour not to reproduce in order to save the planet. Now instead of the ‘weak’ and the ‘degenerate’, it is the ‘polluters’, ‘the carbon producers’ and the ‘environmentally illiterate’ which must be expunged from the gene pool. This seems a little naive. As I recall from Patricia Churchland, the priorities of human beings consist of ‘the four f’s’; feeding, fighting, fleeing and heading upstairs for a bit of ‘how’s your father?’. The last of these pre-occupations inevitably results in production of offspring. A straightforward prohibition on breeding will skew the evolutionary balance in favour of those too stupid to use contraceptives; even more than it already is. This being the case, I fear the worst for our sex organs in the coming century. In fact it may be that new labour will go so far down the Green route that they pass legislation to turn us all into eunuchs. I doubt this will achieve anything; although at least we will be able to usher in the coming apocalypse with a rather charming soprano accompaniment.

A more equitable alternative method of halving the population, I feel, would be to do the following. A ministry for population reduction would be assigned to divide up the country into pairs. This would be arranged by things like age, personal income and athletic ability. At the appointed time, letters would be sent to each pair telling them to hunt down and kill each other within a certain period, perhaps including some handy information like a polaroid photo, their address, personal weaknesses and favourite pub. The member of the pair that kills the other one first wins and thus, 60 million becomes 30 million with a minimum of administration cost. This doesn’t seem to me like too bad an idea; in fact for all I know the eco lobby in the government has enacted it already. Perhaps the letter was slipped in with my Council tax bill?.

The end of the world is beginning to sound more and more like the first draft of ‘The Book of Revelation’; the one that John of Patmos decided to tear up because it ‘sounded a bit over the top’. ‘Look at this’ exclaimed my CEO as he proudly presented me with a colour coded map of the coming disaster. The once mighty east coast of the United States was reduced to a smear of purple death. The white cliffs of Dover, a mere bump at the bottom of the expanded English channel. ‘This is great!, I’m going to buy land in Canada’ my boss exclaimed, before disappearing into his office to examine a satellite view of the Yukon; presently a rather monotonous stretch of tunda but soon to be a pastoral Eden. I began to contemplate my options and eventually decided to ‘think strategically’ and buy a plot on the moon. Future generations of ‘moonlings’ will hopefully praise me for my foresight, gaze in reverence at my lunar constitution and sing my hastily composed anthem. Either that or I just paid good money for a phoney deed and a rather silly T-shirt.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Civil Liberties and Moral Turpitude

'Give me Liberty, or give me Death!' roared the Virginian politician Patrick Henry on the eve of the American Revolution, conveniently forgetting for a moment the slaves he had chained up at home. In more recent times there has been much talk aboard about what many consider to be the imminent loss of our civil liberties. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion I don’t deserve any civil liberties. A single example will serve to illustrate. On a recent excursion to Sainsbury’s I arrived at the till and paid for a stack of groceries. Before doing this I was informed by the checkout girl that I had points on my supermarket loyalty card and ‘would be able to get money off’ if I cashed them in. It was with horror I realised that all the while I had not even suspected that this plastic card gave me any benefits whatsoever; I had simply been swiping it, drone-like, day in day out thinking it was ‘just what I was supposed to do’, thereby allowing the nefarious Sainsbury’s corporate machine to track my every movement and pass a record of my purchases back to their database for sinister purposes. By mere power of suggestion they had been able to manipulate me and secure my unquestioning loyalty.

This is the way liberty dies, step by feeble step; Tesco’s club card to ID cards, TV licensing to CCTV. When ‘Google Street View’ do their next sweep, I may as well invite them in to photograph all the rooms in my flat, steal all my personal data and ransack my hard drive for pornography.

The advantage of Google Street View is that it’s blurriness obscures a lot of the more unpleasant details. Should you load up this particular program in your web browser and want to get the authentic north London experience I would suggest doing the following. First, navigate your way on the map across to Edgware high street, then load up street view. Next sprinkle the floor around your computer with a half dozen cigarette butts, a selection of dirt encrusted phone card offers, a selection of dried chewing gum and, as the piece de resistance, one used Condom.

When George Orwell wanted to depict a dystopian world the first detail he provided was a clock striking 13. For me the ultimate symbol of a dystopian society has to be the sight of a crusty prophylactic dumped in the middle of the road for all to see; a symptom of decadence, moral turpitude and decay. I should like it if people made an effort to take care of their surroundings, but sadly that’s about as likely as Joseph Fritzel winning a prize for interior design. If you really want to go the whole hog with the street experience, get your partner or flatmate to dress up in a t-shirt jeans and a clipboard and leap out at you unexpectedly in an attempt to ‘charity mug’ you for your credit card details.

Following my last post, the objection was raised in some quarters that line-dancing is not a suitable hobby for a strapping young chap like myself and that I should engage myself in more manly activities. Upon reflection I have concluded that this is a scurrilous suggestion. Besides, there are worse hobbies. The favorite pastime of the Emperor Tiberius, we are told by Suetonius, was to encourage small boys to fellate him in the bathtub, James 1st’s way of passing the time was to walk around the palace nervously fiddling with his cod-piece. Compared to that, gyrating to country music with an assortment of geriatric Londoners seems far more acceptable.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Evolutionary Angst

As I chewed frenziedly at the edge of my pencil in a science lab at my elitist public school, I felt all my youthful energy and enthusiasm ebbing away. At the time I could scarcely conceive of a more boring subject than Biology. The Uppingham science block did nothing to fire the imagination and everything to convince you that architects in the 50s and 60s were Stalinist maniacs on hallucinogenic drugs. It used to be so different. An old engraving I have of the Renaissance astronomer Tycho Brahe shows the great man at work in his laboratory. As he reclines back in his chair beside his mural quadrant, surrounded by arcane looking pieces of equipment and dusty old tomes, he raises his hand raised towards the heavens and contemplates the wonders of the natural world around him. By contrast the science facilities at my school were a labyrinthian maze of uninspiring laboratories populated by rank after rank of the eponymous Bunsen burner and always smelling faintly of gas and teenage body odour. The only hypothesis I ever tested was whether it was possible to lose consciousness from sheer boredom.

As I recall, my GCSE exam paper consisted of a short essay extolling the virtues of fish farming and a diagram demonstrating an ecological food chain; the process whereby the inter-related inhabitants of the natural world contrive to cannibalise one other. As one gets older and escape the stifling clutches of the national curriculum one realises that a study of nature might enlighten our understanding of human nature. One book which aims to do this is ‘The Selfish Gene’ a book written in the seventies by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to the author the purpose of this popular work was to convey ‘a truth which still fills me with astonishment’. I eagerly thumbed through the pages to find out what it was. The ‘truth’ is, as it happens, that we are all ‘lumbering’ sex robots, ‘blindly programmed’ to ‘preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Of course one natural inclination is to reject this interpretation, dependent as it is on the open question of whether the universe has any overarching purpose. The mind wanders to incredulity; is everything reducible to gene survival?; did P.G Wodehouse write his Castle Blandings series in a subtle attempt to smuggle his genes into the next generation?; when John Constable painted ‘The Hay Wain’ in 1821, was he merely expressing his gene’s deep seated desire for a suitable environment in which they could flourish and propagate?.

And yet, as anyone who has been to a British high street on a Saturday night can testify, there is a great degree of plausibility to Dawkins’s thesis. There we see the inhabitants of merry England, un-inhibited by societal pretences and possessed by the kind of demonic lust which would have made St Augustine retire solemnly to his study to write his confessions. Kicking out time at the UK pub is where we see the kind of behaviour that socio-biologists love; the human animal unmasked, a slave to its underlying programming.

‘But that can’t be what its really all about can it?’, I wondered to myself as I settled down to read an improving book. As I flicked through it pages in search of enlightenment I stopped in horror at one particular passage, a quote by the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker. It read:

‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options is I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father and took his position and married my mother?’.

Great. So Hamlet is nothing more than a survival guide. The Sharpe novel I finished a couple of days ago is presumably nothing more than a strategy manual for the unlikely scenario of being somehow transported back in time to the Napoleonic Wars. If this were to happen by the way I would be well prepared. In a fit of evolutionary angst I searched in vain for a hobby which no socio-biologist would be able to link to genetic survival. I turned to scribbling landscapes in a pad, only to find that Denis Dutton has written in ‘The Art Instinct’ that:

'The universal preference for a particular type of landscape painting taps into universal innate inclinations formed during the Pleistocene period, ‘the 1.6million years during which modern human beings evolved’. Featuring, amongst other things, water, open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of trees, evidence of animal or bird life, and an opening up to an unimpeded view of the horizon, this predilection for a particular landscape testifies to a primordial memory of the African Savanna'

At last I hit upon line dancing and have begun a class on Monday evenings. The rationale for this decision was my belief that even the most ingenious feat of pseudo - scientific trickery would not be able to link my synchronised dancing to country music to any attempt by my crafty genes to squirm their way into the narrative. And yet, as I struggled to match my movements to those of the elderly Londoners around me amidst the beats of ‘County Line’, a surge of unease came over me. It was as if I heard the voice of Stephen Pinker in my head saying:

Line dancing supplies us with an opportunity to rehearse formations which will prove useful in hunting strategies. By practicing our body movements, attuning them to those of others and following a rhythm, humans are fostering the techniques which would enhance survival. It is as if we are channelling the memory of the African Savannah upon which we evolved.

Could it be that this dance hall, this line dance, even this country music record are all the product of the selfish replicators struggle for existence?. After weighing this up for a moment I decided to reflect on something else. As Dawkins says ‘DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ Sometimes the music just happens to be Country and Western.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Ozymandias

As I squeezed through the door of my local Woolworths, its dilapidated interior chocked with lunchtime shoppers anxious to carry off a last scrap from the dying carcass, I was reminded of a sonnet by Shelley. It’s verses tell of a traveller wandering through the desert who comes across a shattered statue of an ancient pharaoh. The inscription reads ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’, Now his grandiose monument and the civilisation he had ruled lay in ruins, a monument to the transitory nature of humanity and all it works. In my youth the Woolies sign with its gleaming red and white lettering had seemed to bestow a sense of grandeur and permanence. The store had once been the queen of the high street, it’s pix-a-mix section and bargain video box had tempted me in on many occasions, my fingers had pawed through the aisles in search of bargains. Now, in the chaotic violence of the closing down sale, those same pix-a-mix baskets were being ruthlessly pillaged. The DVD section had been ransacked down to the last copy of ‘I Robot’; its shelves would never be filled again in anger. Nothing remained of the CD aisle besides a few shattered fragments of a Leona Lewis single. As I pondered this scene of desolation I felt the sudden pang of sadness one feels when witnessing the passing of an era; then I remembered Woolworths was always a bit shit, the security guard was rude and the floor was always suspiciously sticky. On reflection, good riddance.

Before this economic turmoil erupted there was much talk abroad that many of the more traditional humanities were outdated and superfluous. The young men and women of the information age, it was felt, should not be wasting their lives in a futile grapple with the niceties of History, Latin and Philosophy. Instead they should be doing ‘proper’ subjects such as Accounting, Management, Law and Business studies; In contrast to the narrow-minded bookish student of yesteryear, these bright eyed graduates would march forth into the workplace and go on to become future captains of industry. Of course the much maligned history student, casting a cynical eye back into the past, can easily identify this as mere hubristic hogwash. In much the same way, as the venerable Bede sat working at his desk on his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ in the 8th century AD, he was waylaid by his more short sighted contemporises. “Bede”, they would say, “why are you wasting your time on all this science, history and theology?”. “Don’t you realise it’s the dark ages!”. “The ‘it’ subjects now are raping, pillaging, serf management and putting people’s heads on spikes; that is where the growth industries are right now”. “Just this year for example, by headhunting some Saxon mercenaries and launching a few armed expeditions I have managed to increase my fiefdom’s turnover dramatically, this ‘classical learning’ of yours will never take off”. Stuck in the past he might have been, but this state of affairs isn’t necessarily a disadvantage; in fact you can generally see which mistakes are likely to be committed again. Today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s squalid failure.

Before the economy began its meteoric slide into depression, Lloyds bank was in the habit of giving me a hard time for my rather modest overdraft. A wise man once said ‘why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but pay no attention to the log in your own eye?’, or in this case why do you persecute your customers for minor indiscretions but take no heed of the 10 billion debt you just incurred with your reckless and morally insane corporate dealings?. Pardon me if I decline to accept your offer to have me visit your branch for a personal finance review; particularly when your sordid institution has demonstrated the kind of financial incompetence not seen since the Scots managed to bankrupt their entire country by starting a colony in the middle of a malaria ridden swamp; at least they demonstrated ‘out the box’ thinking.