Archive for the 'Thought/Philosophy' Category

beautiful brechts

August 22, 2006

On Friday night last, MLW and I went to see a play at the National Theatre called The Life of Galileo. Written by Bertolt Brecht, about Galileo Galilei, directed by David Hare, and starring Simon Russell Beale (last seen by us in the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers).

The play has three acts, beginning with Galileo‘s ‘invention’ of the telescope and his discovery that Jupiter’s moons orbit it and are not merely suspended in the heavens. This leads him into conflict with the Catholic church authorities and eventually he is subjected to inquisition. In act three, Galileo recants his findings.

The play was excellent in a number of ways. The acting was clear and engaging, and Beale was a very meaty Galileo. Brecht’s Galileo is a man of the flesh, who thinks best on a full stomach, and Beale has the right profile for this part. But Galileo is also a genius and a revolutionary: passionate, intelligent, and quick to anger.

In my ignorance, I’d expected Brecht to be a sort of German Ibsen, producing similarly grey theatrical goo. But, Brecht is beautiful! Humourous, accessible and entertaining. There was even a song at the beginning of act two.

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Full marks go to the director and designer and stage crew (and whoever else was involved), as the stage craft was of the highest order. There was a circular, revolving stage that enabled them to easily switch between indoor and outdoor scenes. Likewise, rooms could be configured differently by arranging four pieces of wall on wheels. What I liked most is that the stage craft was used to enhance what the actors were saying and doing. For example, when Galileo looks through his telescope and watches Jupiter, and enormous image of the stormy planet was projected on the back wall of the theatre, helping us to imagine the impact for Galileo of seeing the planet closer up than ever before. Likewise, when Galileo is first under attack from the church, he sits against a wall (arranged across the diameter of the stage), and a young monk arrives to confront him. The monk begins to argue that it is evil, in affirming Copernicus’s heliocentric cosmology, to disrupt the assumptions of the common man who only understands what the church tells him. Galileo counters that the common man is comforted when what he is told is the truth corresponds to what he can prove for himself, in this case by looking through a telescope. They argue, and as they do, Galileo doesn’t move but the young monk advances along the wall with each shift in his argument, physically moving closer to G. as he comes to understand his thinking. As if G. is the sun, and the monk a body in his orbit. There are more examples of this sort of intelligent direction, and I would recommend you see the play just for this aspect of its success. But the acting and story are great too.

Coincidentally, G. is pitching up in my train book, Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, by Nicholas Crane. This book is a bit of a hybrid: part history of the development of cartography and part biography of the man, Gerard Mercator. There’s been more history than biography by page 84, which is not what I expected, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. Things are hotting up in Holland, cartographically speaking, because a bloke called Gemma has solved the longitude problem (i.e. take a clock with you) but people have not really noticed that yet, and he’s invented triangulation. Turns out that Holland was the ideal place to invent traingulation because the flat land enabled the genius cartographer to more easily relate what he was seeing to how he was representing it on paper. Also, triangulation requires a reliable baseline, and the roads in Holland were dead straight because when you set out from your home town you could already see your destination.

Seeing maps as a tracing of reality was one of the perceptive warps that would help Gemma’s generation of earth-modellers to break free from the imaginary worlds of the Middle Ages. (p64)

Crane explains how university students were made to learn the imaginings of the ancients by rote, and to question them was to break the law of the university and the church. In The Life of Galileo there is a brilliant scene where G. challenges his fellow scientists to look through his telescope but they won’t, and instead they ramble about Ptolemy’s mathematics and Aristotle’s imaginings of celestial spheres and crystal orbs. The markings on the stage – circles within circles and multi-coloured dots – I took to be clever decoration, echoing the themes of the play, like the projection of planets on wall. They have drawn a celestial map on the floor of Galileo’s world, I thought. During the first interval, MLW explained that these are stage markings so that the scene changers know where to put things for the next scene!


And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

June 11, 2006

Yes, I have been reading Of Man by Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (as the cover of the abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition give the author’s name – this is volume 31 of the Great Ideas series). It has been a most enjoyable read, and the condensed version is about all I can cope with between work, the train and trying to stay alive – Hobbes’s life of man QED!

Here are some choice tidbits, that struck a chord with me. First – Hobbes gives a definition or description (depending on how serious you are) of philosophy:

By Philosophy, is understood the Knowledge acquired by Reasoning, from the Manner of the Generation of any thing, to the Properties; or from the Properties, to some possible Way of Generation of the same; to the end to bee able to produce, as far as matter, and humane force permit, such Effects, as humane life requireth.

As Hobbes gives us a run down of philosophy as it has been practised, he sees fit to warn:

…there is nothing so absurd, that the old Philosophers (as Cicero saith, who was one of them) have not some of them maintained.

I was particularly struck by Hobbes’s description of a free man:

A Free-Man, is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.

Hobbes develops the idea of how a free man operates:

But when the words Free, and Liberty, are applyed to any thing but Bodies, they are abused; for that which is not subject to Motion, is not subject to Impediment: And therefore, when ’tis said (for example) The way is free, no liberty of the way is signified, but of those that walk in it without stop.

Hence the implication for free speech:

So when we speak freely, it is not liberty of voice, or pronunciation, but of the man, whom no law hath obliged to speak otherwise than he did.

Hobbes goes on to describe free will in the same sense, and then shows how liberty and ‘feare’ are consistent, as are liberty and necessity. These properties come together in a certain way to form a commonwealth:

But as men, for the atteyning of peace, and conservation of themselves thereby, have made an Artificiall Man, which we call a Common-Wealth; so also have they made Artificiall Chains, called Civill Lawes, which they themselves, by mutual covenants, have fastned at one end, to the lips of that Man, or Assembly, to whom they have given the Soveraigne Power; and at the other end to their own Ears. These Bonds in their own nature but weak, may neverthelesse be made to hold, by the danger, though not by the difficulty of breaking them.

I find this a compelling predicament – that we are bound by a weak thing, made strong by the danger, not the difficulty, of breaking it.

Hobbes also lays into old philosophy and Roman Catholic doctrine. He criticises some of these for having:

…a quality, not onely to hide Truth, but also to make men think they have it, and desist from further search.

To stop questioning is as bad as to be wrong.


May 24, 2006

In the last couple of months I’ve been mixing up my intellectual pursuits (such as they are) with some pleasantly pulpy indulgence in Star Trek stories and Robotech TV Manga. What this really amounts to is plain and simple nostalgia: I loved both shows as a child.

I’ve been reading a chunk of the original Star Trek episodes, adapted as short stories by James Blish (a Golden Age sci-fi author for whom I have the same sort of affection as I do for those seasoned actors who walk the line between A- and B-grade movie careers – e.g. Jurgen Prochnow). Blish is a good writer, I think, because he mixes into readable stories the detailed drudgery of choreographed fight scenes, details of uniform design etc. and the abstract and utopian idea that arch over each episode like a flimsy but glittering rainbow.

The Macross Saga is the first series of Robotech, which ran to two more increasingly abstract and bizarre series (as Manga does), and the only series that I watched in its entirety as a child, and now I’ve watched it again, in much contracted form, as an adult. It’s definitely made for children, and I think mostly what I enjoyed about watching it as an adult was what it revealed about my childish self.

But that’s not what I wanted to post about – just setting the scene here.

What I’ve found most interesting of all has been the concurrence of what I perceive to be a shared subject, hiding behind the veils of scenery and action set pieces, of nuclear holocaust. And what’s most interesting to me is that the creators of the two series represent, in very very general terms, the two sides of the only nuclear holocaust our world has seen – America for Star Trek, and Japan for Robotech.

Now, before I go any further, I want to disclaim all responsibility for my own thinking here, and then I’ll be able to move on unhindered – meaning, I’m aware that there is a LOT more to this subject and these perspectives than the inkling I will derive from my two examples, and I don’t think I’m being particularly clever and I know this is all much bigger than me, but I wanted to share my thoughts nonetheless.

So. In an episode of The Macross Saga called Force of Arms, after years of war, the invading alien armada finally folds out of hyperspace and surrounds the earth with approximately five million (yup – count ’em) warships. Earth, to put it mildly, is buggered. The armada proceeds to bombard the surface of the entire earth with its staggering weapons. Life on earth is wiped out. The orange lines of the enemy lasers fire incessantly and before our eyes the cities of earth are devoured in fire. Then the fields and mountains and rivers are obliterated until only gray, cratered earth remains, looking much like the dead surface of the moon. The whole earth – all life, pretty much – gone.

I was struck as an adult, as I was not as a child, by the sheer horror of what was being depicted. And I thought, as earlier episodes had begun to lead me to suspect, that a people who had experienced having nuclear bloody bombs dropped on them somehow had the credentials to create this scene. And I also thought that perhaps it’s that experience, locked in their collective memory, that facilitated the depiction of a complete holocaust in what seemed (in the context of the series) such an off-hand manner. Throughout the series, there is untold death and destruction, but it is never addressed; which is not to say it goes unmentioned, but rather to say that the characters seems to expect and be largely unphased by large scale slaughter. In other words, that this episode of Robotech actually expressed something of the culture of those who have received a nuclear bomb.

Children’s TV, huh. Whatcha gonna do.

And then I read a Star Trek story called A Taste of Armageddon that seemed (most likely in the light of my feelings described above) to express something of the culture of those who have dropped a nuclear bomb.

Beaming to the surface [of Eminiar VII] with a landing party, Kirk and Spock are met by a young woman, Mea 3, who tells them that Eminiar VII has been at war with its neighboring planet, Vendikar, for over 500 years. Mea 3 takes them to the council chambers where they find banks of computers. Eminiar’s head council Anan 7 informs them that the two planets have learned to avoid the complete devastation of war because computers are used. When a “hit” is scored by one of the planets, the people declared “dead” willingly walk into antimatter chambers and are vaporized.

To preserve their respective cultures, argues Anan 7, the two planets must wage bloodless war. Kirk is alarmed to find that Mea 3 accepts the need for her and her people to step into the chamber and be vaporised; if the war agreement is violated, then real war would ensue, and their culture would be destroyed. So, to preserve the wonders of their world, they are willing to sacrifice themselves.

Kirk argues that real war – horrible and destructive – is the experience that is needed for peace to become your goal. Without war, there is no will to make peace. Kirk and Spock eventually save the day by destroying the computers and forcing the two planets’ people to either experience war in its full horror, or to make peace to avoid this horror.

To my mind, for all its melodrama, this episode is expressing powerful cultural emotions. These people have engineered this situation to preserve the beauty of their world, enable progress to continue uninterrupted, and to repress the physical pain of war. An illusion of Arcadia. Keeping the monsters well fed but docile. And along comes Kirk with his dose of reality that is driven by an urge for peace.

I feel I’m not explaining this very well but I’m not sure how to elicit what I mean. If you think of Star Trek as American and closer to WWII than we are now, and you therefore think of this story as having the mind set of people recovering from dropping the bomb, you can perhaps discern that an urgent desire to preserve and to make peace that must be sustained or provoked by destruction and death is a sort of hymn to the predicament of having dropped the bomb.

Do you see? This, I think, is what make Star Trek so interesting – the way it taps into an subliminal sea of thought and emotion and grandeur and human squalor. Showing us our dreams and our nightmares in a digestible format.


May 15, 2006

I lie on my bed at night and on weekend mornings, reading. I read on the train, standing pressed up against bodies I do not know, on the way to work, and again on the train on the way home. I walk, in the evenings, from the station to my front door with a book in my hands, my head occasionally lifting to be sure that I am walking straight, or not about to collide with somebody, another unknown body. My reading habits seem to draw me to other bodies, by some sort of gravitational pull. I read and read and read. I read so much that I am unable to find the time or the will to write. Each new book teaches me something new about writing, something I know I need to learn in my reading and thinking and imagining before I can ever learn it in my writing. This is a cruel impasse, that the love and practice of reading should both inspire and inhibit the desire to write. And now, even my writing is about reading.

forgotten gestures

May 3, 2006

My train book at the moment is Staying On by Paul Scott. In true Douglas Adams style, this, it transpires, is the fifth book in the Raj quartet. It also won the Booker prize in 1977.

One of the protagonists is Mrs Lucy Smalley, wife of Colonel ‘Tusker’ Smalley, and employer of Ibrahim. Here are two short excerpts from a scene where she and Ibrahim negotiate the hiring of a new gardener or mali.

She was playing with the beads, telling them off, calculating by means of a handy abacus slung around her withered old neck the cost of a new mali

We see this gesture through Ibrahim’s eyes and the analogy is appropriate because the key issue in hiring a new gardener, for both characters, is the cost; however, the gesture is not one of counting so much as that of distraction.

She chortled again. Ibrahim laughed. She had one hand near her throat, the other on her hip. Now she gave a full throated laugh, then tapped him on the arm.

Here it is the placement of the hands that interests me. The hands perform the primary gesture and the rest of the body adjusts into the secondary gesture, a certain stance.

Why I find both these descriptions interesting is because they remind me of my paternal grandmother – Granny Anne. She held her long string of pearls in that way, and struck that stance of hand to throat and other hand to hip.

And what struck me about this resonance is that these are gestures that belong to women of her generation and that, amongst women of my generation, they are essentially lost. I think my mother and my aunt – their generation – still perform an echo of these gestures, but they don’t own them in the same way. Perhaps the ownership is stronger when you also have a blue rinse hairdo.

write-eous roth

February 28, 2006

I recently wrote a post about Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas: what do you know about Archimedes? One of the examples of entries in the dictionary that I gave was: CHRISTIANITY. Freed the slaves.

That’s the accepted idea, and I think the trick of it is that it narrows your focus down to just that one slice of the idea.

My current train book is Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in it I read this passage, which debunks the accepted idea quite effectively:

…a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that… enslaved the Negro and emancipated the Negro and segregated the Negro…


February 8, 2006

I dreamt this:

A wire connected me to a computer. At my end of the wire was a long needle that pierced my hand and slid directly into a vein. Around the needle was a clear sheath, and I could see that the needle was spinning furiously along its length.

The needle was spinning to gather energy from my blood to keep the computer running. "Your lifeblood powers the computer," boomed a disembodied voice.

I realised that if I stopped typing and using my mouse – stopped working – then the needle would stop spinning. If the needle stopped, the computer would go dim and slow, and my blood would begin to fill the tube around the needle. I could see its dark redness through the sheath.

When I recommenced working, the needle would spin again and my blood was pushed back along the tube. And the computer lit up again.

But I wanted to stop my activity because the spinning of the needle hurt my hand: it made a hot point of pain in the fleshy heel of it. But I couldn't stop.

Earth meets sky

February 3, 2006

Visiting King’s College chapel in Cambridge the other day, I was struck by a note in the guide leaflet that reminded the reader that in the past, people regarded the designing and building of churches more reverently and mystically than we do today.

Increasingly, modern churches are practical buildings with built-in audio-visual systems, collapsible pews, cushioned seats, lecture theatre style seating arrangements etc. All valuable and useful evolutions of church design.

For the architects, builders and artisans who created it, the King’s College chapel was to be a place where the earth met the sky, where a quality of heaven could flow into a place within the world of men.

Standing within the chapel, you can connect with this belief. The light streams through stained glass windows on all sides and makes the walls seem more chiaroscuro than stone and mortar. The floor, which spreads so evenly and cleanly beneath your feet, seems to ride up the carved columns and spread out across the fanned vaults of the ceiling in a single visual movement that accelerates upwards. You have a sense of being contained in a vast box that somehow operates with different physics; there and not there.

It’s great! Especially if the choir is singing.

Reading an article in National Geographic magazine, about the excavation of a Mayan mural that depicts gods and kings, I was struck by the similarity of the idea of how men reach heaven held by medieval English Christians and ancient Mayan pagans.

“Five sacred trees helped connect earth and sky in the ancient Maya cosmos, with one tree in each of the cardinal directions and one at the center.”

The mural depicts how the kings on earth and the gods in heaven perform the same task of balance and order within their realms. The communication between earth and sky runs along the sacred trees. Much as in King’s College chapel the fanned vaults grow out of carved columns that plunge down the walls into the floor.