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A lot of nonsense is talked about “destiny.” I’m referring here to the idea that individuals or groups can be seen to have some kind of pre-existing or pre-ordained path to fulfillment that they may discover and embrace.

Certainly, given an individual, say, at a particular stage of life, there are choices he or she may make – relating to profession or love life, for example – which will have consequences for his or her future happiness. But to talk of destiny is to poeticize and possibly metaphysicalize matters. There’s no harm in this, some might say.

I’m not so sure about this, being of the view that we make better life decisions if we try to free ourselves from certain kinds of quasi-religious and Romantic myth, which still maintain a grip on mainstream Western culture. My point applies not just to personal matters and individual “destinies” but also to the political realm – to notions of ethnic or national identity.

The idea of destiny goes back to the classical world, of course, where it was tied to religious and metaphysical ideas regarding fate (or Fate). But it was picked up and developed during the Renaissance and especially during the Romantic period, when it was repackaged in more modern form and applied in a wholesale way to nations and ethnic groups. National groups came to be seen as the bearers of some kind of group soul or “genius” and so to be subject to destiny in the same way as individuals are sometimes seen to be.

As this process occurred, local patriotisms gradually gave way (or at least ceded ground) to more active and activist forms of patriotism and nationalism. The much-anthologized sonnet “Heureux qui comme Ulysse…” by the 16th-century humanist Joachim du Bellay typifies the former approach and gives expression to the author’s deep emotional attachment to his native Anjou. A hymn to the French language and local culture, it is essentially untranslatable. But it typifies the sort of natural attachment that people often feel to their childhood haunts and the culture and traditions associated with their early years...

[See the link for the rest of the article, and the comment thread in which Daniel Kaufman, misrepresenting (as I see it) what I am saying, gives his take on Zionism. I respond to Dan's criticisms and Dwayne Holmes comes in in my defense. Fascinating discussion.]

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[Extract from my latest EA piece...]

P.D.Q. Bach was the youngest and oddest of J.S. Bach’s many children. His best known work is probably the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the “O.K. Chorale.” Another of his works is the Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons. Peter Schickele, Professor of Musicology and Musical Pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, who rediscovered P.D.Q. Bach, also invented a range of unusual instruments to perform his works, like the “dill piccolo” for playing sour notes and the “tromboon” (“a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of both”). He also invented the proctophone, a latex glove attached to a mouthpiece (and “the less said about it, the better”). “The überklavier, or super piano – with a 15 octave keyboard ranging from sounds that only dogs can hear to sounds that only whales can make – was invented in 1797 by Klarck Känt, a Munich piano maker…” P.D.Q. Bach wrote a work for this instrument (The Trance and Dental Etudes).

Peter Schickele was one of a string of 20th-century musicians/composers/performers who made a living out of making (or trying to make) music funny. Maybe you really have to know the language to appreciate it, but I’ve never been attracted to musical parodies...

Musical jokes and novelties remind me of slapstick or physical comedy. It has its place; it can be done well. But it’s not really something I am drawn to...

Songs can be funny, yes. But it’s the words that are funny. Like many of Dave Frishberg’s lyrics... 'Peel me a grape' [for example]: “Pop me a cork, French me a fry, crack me a nut… keep standing by… Show me you love me, kid glove me… Never out-think me, just mink me; polar bear rug me, don’t bug me”, with the chorus, “I’m getting hungry, peel me a grape.” Dated and contentious in certain ways – and yet, I think this woman still exists. I know she does...

Many older songs were not political (or at least considered political) when they were written, but have become so. “Peel me a grape” may be descriptive of a certain continuing reality but will probably offend many feminists. It will also anger animal rights advocates due to the references to mink coats and polar bear rugs. Frishberg certainly didn’t do things by halves...

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"Even in moments of tranquility,” noted Clive James, “[motor racing commentator] Murray Walker sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire.” Quite so. He was all high-octane excitement and (in his later years at least) confusion. But it was glorious confusion.

“I’m in my usual state up here in the commentary box,” he once said. “High tension, heart beating like a trip hammer, whatever that is.”

Looking through various things, he is reputed to have said you can see a strange logic at work (or perhaps at play). I can’t resist citing a few of these examples with my own (minimal) commentary.

Some of the statements involve an unusually high level of semantic redundancy. For example: “That’s history. I say ‘history’ because it happened in the past.” Well, yes. At least that is clear. He will certainly not be misunderstood.

Or again (only slightly more informative): “With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go.”

Or: “And that just shows you how important the car is in Formula One racing.” Like the horses in horse racing, I guess.

Sometimes the redundancy has a certain Zen quality about it: “He can’t decide whether to leave his visor half open or half closed.”

Walker also seems to be struggling with deep issues relating to free will: “Schumacher wouldn’t have let him past voluntarily. Of course, he did it voluntarily, but he had to do it.”

The curiously fixed and yet seemingly relative nature of time fascinates him: “Even in five years time, he will still be four years younger than Damon Hill.”

Other remarks seem to affirm the basic principles of classical logic, in this case, the law of excluded middle: “Either the car is stationary, or it’s on the move.”

But often a first clause is seemingly undermined by a second: “The lead car is unique, except for the one behind it which is identical.” Sometimes this habit almost suggests a commitment to a form of dialetheism: “Well, now we have exactly the same situation as at the beginning of the race, only exactly opposite.”

He also seems to be working with a non-standard form of arithmetic: “There are seven winners of the Monaco Grand Prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.”

Sometimes his speculations seem to involve unconscious or mystical forms of knowing: “I’ve no idea what Eddie Irvine’s orders are, but he is following them superlatively well.”

There is a certain Gödelian quality to some of his musings: “I should imagine that conditions in the cockpit are totally unimaginable.”

Others are suggestive of the strange visual creations of M.C. Escher. Or rather, he speaks as an inhabitant of Escher-land might speak when viewing the banal realities of the real world, as if they were something new and strange: “The circuit is interesting because it has inclines and declines. Not just up, but down as well.”

He was relentlessly optimistic. For example: “There’s nothing wrong with the car, except that it’s on fire.”

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My latest Electric Agora piece, a personal (and not altogether positive!) take on rock music and the wider culture of rock and roll, prompted some entertaining discussion (see link). Here's an extract from the article...

The general process of the individual’s early exposure to music works not unlike early exposure to particular foods (which is said to powerfully influence food preferences for life). It reminds me also of the way goslings fixate on and follow whatever moving thing they first see upon hatching. The ethologist and writer Konrad Lorenz was mother goose to a batch of them: they used to follow him around. In somewhat similar fashion, the music we hear at vital stages imprints indelibly on our brains and is granted privileged access to our emotional centers.

The point is, this says very little about the music itself but a lot about our early environment. People often don’t get this simple truth: that what they grew up listening to and liking will likely sound very ho-hum (or worse) to anyone whose musical background was different.

An interesting twist on this relates to the conscious use of music as a repellent. I’ve heard of various cases but only witnessed one myself. The city in which I live has a very large number of people camping on the sidewalks and sleeping in doorways, etc. One popular night-time sitting and sleeping location was at the entrance of the central city branch of a major bank, close to the ATMs. Not good for business. So they piped Italian opera through their speakers. It had the desired effect.

Clearly, many of the factors that lead us to be attracted – or not – to certain musical forms are quite extrinsic to the music itself: sociological rather than musical. It depends on one’s upbringing whether certain music is, say, cool and sexy – or repulsive. (Opera is sexy for some.)

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I recently set out my views on logic and truth, drawing in particular on something Karl Popper wrote on the subject. It's a bit dry and boring – unless perhaps you have a particular interest in questions like: What is logic? Where does it come from? What 'authority' (if any) does it have? Can knowledge be objective?

I am opposed (as Popper was) to the view that everything is relative. I think that perhaps human values are relative, but knowledge of the world can be seen to be objectively based.

I was particularly pleased that the essay prompted a good discussion. (Daniel Kaufman, by the way, is a Missouri-based academic who co-founded The Electric Agora. He and I disagree on a few things, as you'll see from the discussion.)

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The girl on the phone on the floor (it's Catherine Deneuve in the film Repulsion if you're wondering) features in an illuminated hoarding promoting a program of old Roman Polanski films at a local cinema. The image is certainly striking. The big, old-fashioned phone gives this still a weirdness it would not originally have had, but does not make it quaint. There is a wildness in the pose and a confronting directness in the stare.

The accompanying quote (from Polanski) runs: "Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre."

Well, yes... Polanski made some great films but this famous remark of his is not a particularly penetrating one. It goes without saying, I would have thought.

I had a look at a list of Polanski quotes and he certainly wasn't averse, it seems, to stating the obvious – e.g. "Films are films, life is life." But then all of us say things like this. The problem for celebrities is that offhand remarks get written down and presented as some kind of wisdom.

The best comments in the collection I looked at were about the crucial importance of attention to detail, and about honesty in dealing with violence.

He also had some interesting things to say about neuroticism. He values certain forms of neuroticism in actors, and seems himself to exhibit neurotic tendencies.

Here he is sounding a bit like Woody Allen:

"Whenever I get happy, I always have a terrible feeling."

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Dan Kaufman recently got a bit of flak (even from his wife apparently) for his energetic critique of the new – or continuing – 'cult of the self'.

"... [T]he old Cult of the Self [the reference here is to the 1970s and '80s and such movements as Werner Erhard's 'est' program] actually may have been slightly less loathsome than its newer, smarmier versions, insofar as it was at least honest, albeit in a brutal, tone-deaf sort of way."

He is saying that the older movements did not really disguise their egoistic nature whereas more recent iterations – while still basically egoistic – present themselves as being driven by humane motives.

"... [T]oday’s Cult of the Self represents itself as being socially oriented, and with social media having trained us to accept the thinnest, most indirect, heavily mediated interactions as constituting real relationships, it’s easy to convince ourselves that seeing others entirely through the lens of our own well-being and virtue constitutes genuine connection and concern, rather than self-absorption masquerading as such. Gone is the idea that our deepest relationships with and obligations to others are properly self-effacing, and in its place is the notion that the main thing to think about, with respect to other people and what they deserve, is how the way I treat them reflects upon me."


I commented (in part) as follows:

"My default position is that something like that "brutal" position is probably 'true' in the sense that it correlates well with reality. But this could be seen as a dangerous idea. It seems to me there is a key divide here on how people see the world (and themselves). I don't know, however, that I would want to push this idea too much: social consequences may not be good. There is no reason to think that just because something is true, it is something one should talk about. I've never liked the 'noble lie' idea, but reticence is slightly different from this. Reticence – like lying, actually – is ... something I am not particularly good at, however."

I also suggested in the comment that Max Stirner's radical egoism – which Leszek Kolakowski saw as prefiguring fascism – was an important precursor to the movements Dan Kaufman was attacking.

In due course I will try to expand on these somewhat cryptic remarks. It could form the basis for a new Electric Agora article (or articles). But let me here and now try to put the core idea more directly.

I am suggesting that the standard way of seeing things involves a lot of self-deception and (to use a loaded term which may or may not be appropriate here) hypocrisy.

Fundamentally the social world works just like the natural world described by biologists. Evolutionary processes are not pretty. Having language and culture adds complexity and richness and gives us freedoms and possibilities which other animals do not have. But it does not allow us to escape this world of deception, manipulation and struggle. A basic kind of ethics and very basic notions of rights and responsibilities make sense: as individuals we survive longer and prosper when we cooperate. But a Christian or socialist-style ethic – based on a kind of generalized altruism (or generosity) mixed with self-denial and deemed to be in some sense obligatory – is problematic, both in terms of its consequences for those individuals (very few, it must be said) who sincerely and seriously try to implement such an ethic in their lives, and in terms of rational motivation.

Still a bit cryptic perhaps. But it is an attempt at least to clarify (in my own mind as well as in a more public sense) the supposedly "dangerous" idea I was talking about not talking about!

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Meaning is to be found mainly in the small, inconsequential elements of life. Other posts of mine have been focused on this point. (See, for example, a recent post in this collection which cites John le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.)

Elsewhere I have mentioned the views of Jonathan Miller who trained as a doctor but pursued a career in entertainment and the arts. What follows are the final paragraphs of a post to my more politically-oriented collection, The Decline of the West, which appeared couple of months ago and in which very similar points are made. (See link for full post.)

[...] In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions – what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayn's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who – though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour – was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn's translation, Firs's final words read...

"My life's gone by, and it's just as if I'd never lived at all. I'll lie down for a bit, then... No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing... Oh you... sillybilly..."

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My latest piece at The Electric Agora looks at some common forms of irrational and magical thinking. Here are the last two paragraphs...

In the classic English film Whistle Down the Wind, set in mid-20th-century Lancashire, some children discover a fugitive sleeping in a barn whom they take to be Jesus and to whom they attribute magical powers. At one point one of the children, a stubborn little boy, voices the children’s growing doubts: “He’s just a fella.”

There’s something poignant about this moment because it represents the sort of realization that all of us – those of us at any rate who share the common tendency to look for heroes and guides – have had from time to time. Such realizations are a part of growing up. Our parents are not all-knowing. Our much-loved teachers are flawed and fallible. Our political heroes turn out not to be quite as heroic or altruistic as advertised, our spiritual guides not quite as special as we thought.

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At one point in John le Carré's early classic, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas, a British secret service agent, is staying on the Dutch coast, waiting for an important and fateful meeting. His thoughts turn to a woman who had looked after him when he had became ill in a rented room in London. Liz had been a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause.

"... At about eleven o'clock the next morning he decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

"There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ..."

Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is very tempting to go along with this line of thinking.
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