Friday, August 18, 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Me and Dracula

Here's a picture of me at my horror club, where we were discussing the first four chapters of Dracula. Notice the Dracula movie poster in the background.

Here's a couple of other guys at the same meeting discussing the book. Notice another Dracula poster in the background!


Thoughts on Borstal Boy

I've been reading Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, an account of his time in prison and (later) borstal-- what Americans would call juvie. He was a member of the IRA and convicted in London for possessing explosives, aged sixteen. He was held in prison before his trial and sentencing, but then sent to borstal, which was a new and more humane institution for juvenile offenders.

I enjoyed it well enough, but it became repetitive and I stopped reading it about three-quarters of the way through.

The book is more or less a work of reportage, and its virtues are those of good reportage. Behan doesn't dwell too much on his own thoughts and emotions, but concentrates upon what happened. Most of us will never be incarcerated, and nobody will ever again experience the particular regimes described in the book. Therefore the memoir is valuable as a record, a glimpse into a reality that once existed.

None of us want to go to prison, but we are all fascinated by prison stories-- in fact, we are fascinated by any confined situation. How many stories, from Robinson Crusoe to The Breakfast Club onwards, reflect this fascination? Indeed, we become nostalgic over situations of confinement and being subjected to strict rules, such as school days.

This is one of those matters where I find myself wondering how much my reactions have to do with my own psychology-- my own neuroses, perhaps-- and how much they have to do with social reality in general. For the truth is, I like limited, confined situations (and the limits can be physical or non-physical). So I could say: "Well, this is just a case of my own hang-ups, and of no general interest". But I'm not so sure about that, because most people betray a fascination or nostalgia with such situations. There seems to be a regular dialectic in human life whereby people seek the maximum amount of freedom (and convenience, choice, etc.) and then feel alienated by the very freedom (convenience, choice) they've achieved. We are seeing it today with mobile phones and the internet-- why have "digital detoxes" become so popular, and what are these but a self-imposed curb on personal freedom?

Borstal Boy is interesting to me on account of Behan's attitude towards religion and nationalism. The detainees in both institutions looked forward to religious services, as a break from routine, and something to do. Everybody is classed by religion-- Roman Catholics are referred to as "RC"s. In an early scene, the Catholic chaplain in prison urges Brendan Behan to renounce his republican views, and insists that he shares the excommunication of other militant republicans when he refuses to do so. Behan is particularly grieved when he's debarred from taking part in a benediction service at Christmas.

It's hard to get a handle on Behan's religious views. In the book, he presents himself as a tolerant sceptic, somebody who appreciates the aesthetic side of Catholicism, and feel a certain tribal allegiance to it, but who doesn't really take it seriously. "I had nearly lost interest in Sacraments and whether I was deprived of them or not. Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it. My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back. If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen...Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love."

Reading his life story, it seems that Catholicism became more important to him as he deteriorated into alcoholism and bad health, and that he disliked  excessive criticism of the Church. On the other hand, Anthony Cronin in his excellent book The Life of Riley describes Behan, before his success, having a strong animus against Catholicism.

Despite being in the IRA, Behan seems to extend this rather detached attitude towards his nationalism, too. When he is tried for his crime, he delivers a speech full of Irish republican rhetoric, but only to irritate the judge. As he explains to the reader: "I have a sense of humour that would nearly cause me to burst out laughing at a funeral, providing it was not my own, and solemn speeches are not easily made by me. I can't keep it up." 

This attitude of flippancy pervades the entire book. Behan is willing to mock, not only religion, but his own nationalist beliefs. He shows disdain for solemnity here, as elsewhere: "Nor was I one of your wrap-the-green-flag-round-me junior Civil Servants that came into the IRA from the Gaelic League, and well ready to die for their country any day of the week, purity in their hearts, truth on their lips, for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. No, be Jesus, I was from Russell Street, North Circular Road, Dublin, from the Northside..."

Indeed, throughout the book, Behan represents himself as sharing the coarse humour and language of the other prisoners. A fellow Irish republican prisoner (who is also excommunicated, but remains pious nonetheless) expresses his disdain for such behaviour to Behan, at one point: "The prisoners, though, though they're all right in their own way, they have as much respect for themselves, or for on another, as animals. They talk about things, aye, and do things that the lowest ruffian in Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, wouldn't put his tongue to the mention of, things that you could be born, grow up, and die an old man in our country without ever even hearing the mention of."

(There is some internal evidence in the book to suggest this is true-- Behan, despite his rumbustious working class background, admits that he didn't know what Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for, and his mother avoided telling him when he asked.)

There was indeed a strong tradition of puritanism in Irish cultural nationalism, and it's one which I admire. Even before I was a Catholic or a conservative, and though I've been a lifelong admirer of Yeats, I felt more sympathy with the Irish theatre audiences who protested Playboy of the Western World on account of its raciness, than I did with Yeats and the other intellectuals who lambasted them. I felt that the audiences were trying to maintain a standard, while the intelligentsia were trying to dispense with a standard, and that the former effort was intrinsically more noble. I realize that the intelligentsia would claim they were holding to a standard-- freedom of expression-- but that doesn't rally wash with me. Puritanism is harder than liberalism, and more easily lost.

Here is a post I wrote about "priggishness", which is the single post which means the most to me out of the hundreds I've written on this blog. This essay-poem on solemnity is also relevant to this subject.

I'm generally favourable towards rules and standards, when they are not actually oppressive, and even if their justification is debatable. This often gives me a different attitude to some of my colleagues in the library. I've had lots of arguments with library liberals who think everything should be allowed and every rule should be waived where possible. I'm of the opinion that, within reason, an institution is not under an onus to justify its regulations, but that the onus should be on the visitor to respect the institution. I was arguing this with a Spanish colleague who has something of the anarchist about her. I said: "If I went to somebody's house and they asked me to take my shoes off before I walked on the carpet, I might think that was a stupid rule, but I wouldn't argue. I'd just do it, out of respect." She said: "Well, I ask visitors to my house to take their shoes off". Of course, she claimed she had a good reason...

Even rules that seem arbitrary have this benefit; that they create an atmosphere of respect. They make the situation special, distinctive, creating a mental boundary between one place and another, or one time and another. I greatly approve of the bookshop in Dublin which asks customers to switch off their mobile phones.

However, I've drifted from my subject somewhat. I was writing about Brendan Behan's attitude to religion and nationalism.

I hardly need to critique his religious attitudes here. Religion without dogma is a bad joke.I suppose, if it comes to a choice between outright irreligion, and a vague, tribalistic, sentimental religion, the latter is better-- if only because it might blossom into something more, and it will prevent its bearer from becoming an out-and-out enemy of the religion.

I think a similar point applies to Behan's attitude towards nationalism. The Behan attitude towards Irish nationalism seems to have become popular, especially via its influence on Shane MaGowan of the Pogues. That is, Irish nationalism allied with a kind of anarchism; rules and conventions are to be despised, irreverence is the order of the day, and nothing should be taken too seriously.

My problem with this attitude is that it's taking a free ride on the reverence, seriousness, and effort of other people-- it's squandering the funds they worked up. Behan inherited a tradition of Irish cultural nationalism because other people, who came before him, took it seriously. You only have to look at a character such as Miss Ivors in "The Dead" by James Joyce to see a portrait, presumably recognisable, of an earlier Irish cultural nationalist. She is somewhat narrow-minded, chauvinistic, intense-- the characteristic vices (if they are vices) of pioneers. Movements only get off the ground because people are willing to take them seriously. Decadence has set in when a mellow, easy-going, self-mocking attitude takes over. As Nietzsche put it: "All creators are hard". All preservers, too.

And the reason I think this is particularly lamentable in Behan is because Irishness was his gimmick. He drew constantly on Irish ballads, sayings, history, and culture in order to give his works a distinctive flavour. But he seems ultimately to have been a proponent of the same limp liberalism and cosmopolitanism favoured by most literary people of his time, and of our own. This is reflected in his writing, as well as his life. Literary modernism, pop culture, gutter speak-- all of it got thrown into the pot along with the Irish ballads and folklore. How can anything fine or distinctive survive that kind of free-for-all?

I've mentioned Behan's use of folk ballads in the book. It's well known that he grew up in a home (working class intelligentsia like my own) where folk ballads were common currency. His brother became a well-known writer of folk songs, one of which he quotes in the book. Reading Borstal Boy, I felt an all-too-familiar shame and envy that I know so few folk ballads, that I'm so deficient in oral culture. I'm working to fix this, though.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I Want It to be a Surprise

As I've mentioned before, I really love the website TV Tropes. I've spent a huge amount of time browsing it, and I don't regret it.

I like these pages especially:

I think the link between all these is that they are surprising, unexpected, more than they seemed to be at first. I like the world to be surprising. I like twists. I like something that's not obvious, that's counter-intuitive. I like irregularity. I like depths, especially hidden depths.

One of the reasons I dread a liberal, progressive, over-tolerant society is because it's so dull, flat and rational. Sometimes I think the tendency of political correctness towards absurdity and contradiction is actually its saving grace.

In other news, I have a letter in today's Irish Times taking issue with Una Mulally, the Queen of Irish political correctness.

Funnily enough, Mullally says something in the article to which I'm responding with which I can sympathise, given the feelings I've just expressed:

Irish media is obsessed with contrarianism and loudmouths. It is obsessed even more with the contrarian voices who are generally merely out to seek attention (the gay man opposed to marriage equality, the woman who thinks contemporary feminism is damaging, the “right on” person who wants to police the tone of rights campaigners, the “liberal” guy who thinks there’s a conspiracy of “groupthink” or “consensus”). It’s all so basic. It’s all so intellectually underdeveloped, populated by people who don’t realise that these arguments have been hashed out so many times before, and have the arrogance or just self-propelling cynicism to think that their hot take is unique. We’ve heard it all before.

Can such contrarianism possibly be as "basic" as the arguments of the progressive left, or even the progressive right? Or the societies based on such arguments? I like traditionalist conservatism the best because its arguments are the least obvious. I also think they show the most insight into reality. The human soul is not boring and society is not boring unless we artificially flatten out all its irregularities and quirks.

In other news, I've become quite depressed about ad hominem attacks. Not attacks aimed at me particularly, but at people who hold this or that of my opinions. I am the specialest snowflake of them all, so I am easily pained by such things. I don't mind being branded a reactionary, fascist, bigot, etc. etc. but I do bruise when someone suggests: "People like you have these beliefs because you are inadequate in this or that way." For example: you are a nostalgist because you can't deal with anything new. (That's just an example.) I got a lot of this on Facebook, and it really gets to me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Richard Tropp's Last Letter

I wonder how many thoughts flit through our heads in a single day? Tonight, I found myself thinking about a document which has haunted me ever since I read it, a few years ago.

It's this document-- a statement (or letter) written by somebody who participated in the mass-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, as it was happening.

The writer of the document is unknown. The website (which is an archive of material related to Jonestown) attributes it, tentatively, to Richard Tropp, a teacher who was quite prominent in the commune. (It was more a commune than a cult.) Like most of the members, he was highly idealistic. (But it may have been written by someone else.)

I became fascinated by Jonestown a few years ago, and spent a week or two (or maybe more) compulsively reading this archive. (And listening to it, too-- many audio recordings survive of the commune, including a recording of the mass suicide.) I became a bit obsessed with it. It seemed to me a unique moment in human history, to give a unique insight into how people behaved under certain extreme conditions. And what that revealed about human nature greatly disturbed me.

Another thing that fascinates me about Jonestown is its evidence that normality is a social construct. You only have to  listen to the "death tape" to realize that many of the commune members were enthusiastically in favour of the suicide. Indeed, it could hardly have happened otherwise. The question that suggests to me is: how far does this principle extend? My fascination with political correctness has a lot to do with this question-- the observable fact that a particular standard can be normalized, a taboo or a belief can be imposed, and can quickly come to seem natural to thousands, millions, tens of millions. (Or, at least, they are willing to go along with it.)

Several things fascinate me about the letter itself. One is that the writer, in between the beginning of the letter and the end (and it's fairly short), moves from urging the reader to investigate the Jonestown story, to finally declaring that it doesn't matter if nobody ever understands. That contrast has come into my head over and over again, on many different occasions. I very often wonder what matters in the end-- however you construe "the end". The things I hold onto so passionately-- will they matter when I am facing my own death? Will the things one generation so carefully transmits to the next matter a few generations down the line?
I am haunted by its last words: "Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth".

The fascination of the past in general is that it can never be replayed, never be reconstructed. This is true of all history, but it's especially true of one-off and unique events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the last stand in the GPO during the 1916 Rising, or the last night in Jonestown.

The period in which Jonestown lived and died is also fascinated to me. I don't know why, but the seventies as a whole, and the last few years of the seventies in particular, cast a kind of spell over me. It seems both ephemeral and timeless at once-- there's a sort of vertigo to it. it's the vertigo I experience whenever I find myself facing, in a particularly heightened way, the brick wall of the contingent-- and realizing that I can't even understand the contingent without the concept of the eternal. I can't explain it any better than that.

On Boundaries

This is a picture of a small shopping mall off Dublin's Moore Street. Even in my own childhood, Dublin's Moore Street was famous for its collection of traditional Dublin hawkers, and their street cries: "Get yezzer apples and oranges!". Now it's full of "ethnic" shops. Nevertheless, the traditional Dublin hawkers are still there, and the "ethnic" aspect is quite pleasant.

Anyway, I'm not writing about ethnicity today. I felt moved to write about the scene pictured above. Every time I pass this doorway, I feel a powerful frisson of pleasure.

You can't really see it, but the doorway opens onto a tiny shopping mall. And shopping malls like this have always delighted me. To some extent, all indoor shopping malls delight me. It's the strange paradox that they are both indoors and outdoors; a shop within in the shopping mall is doubly indoors.

And this rather perplexes me, because (like Chesterton) I'm a big fan of boundaries and distinctions. Readers of this blog will know that. I like the boundaries between nation and nation, between man and woman, between the seasons, and so forth. And one of the many reasons I like Catholicism is because of its dogma. (So there are psychological as well as logical reasons why I react with horror to the casuistry of Cardinal Kasper and his cronies.)

Furthermore, ambiguity really bothers me in social interaction. For the longest part of my life, I didn't give tips (i.e., gratiuities) because the ambiguity over how much you should tip embarrassed me too much. (Eventually, I got over that, but I still feel awkward about it.) Also, I absolutely hate any social occasion, like a coffee morning or a reception, where people will be "circulating" and drifting here and there. As far as I'm able, I'll only go to a social occasion where there's some kind of stability, where people are sitting down.

So why should ambiguity delight me sometimes? Why do I feel a wild, entirely disproportionate joy in indoor shopping centres and shopping malls-- in the ambiguity between what is "inside" and what is "outside"? Why do I love movies (such as Inception or Last Action Hero) where the boundaries between what is real and what is a dream, what is real and what is fiction, is permeable?

And why does much of my love of poetry stem from its complete lack of a thematic discipline-- since, in poetry, all the boundaries and barriers have fallen? For the poet, everything is in play; past, present, and future; dream and reality; legend and history; self and other; and every other category you can think of. Indeed, one reason I am such a relatively severe formalist when it comes to poetry, is because I believe the discipline of form is necessary to complement and liberate the freedom of theme, the freedom of content.

My own answer to these questions is quite straightforward. I  think there is a place for boundaries and a place for the disregard of boundaries. Catholic theology and doctrine should be a place for boundaries. So should maps. Poetry and fiction is where we can let it all hang. Also, life is all about balance and we live in a time when universality has run riot and particularism is under threat, so very often the principle of boundaries needs to be defended, while the principle of boundlessness needs to be pushed back.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Discussion with a Colleague

I had an interesting discussion with one of my co-workers yesterday. It started off with him telling me that it was International Doughnut Day (or some such thing-- I can't remember what exactly, and I can't find out on the internet, but it was one of these silly made-up occasions-- not that I have anything against them.) 

That got us to talking about holidays and remembrances, and (predictably enough for any of my readers!),  I started talking about memorials which were being forgotten, and how sad this made me. I told him about Oak Apple Day, and also mentioned the increasingly neglected Guy Fawkes Day. 

"Doesn't it make you sad that such things are neglected?", I said. (Obviously this dialogue is not verbatim.)

"Not one little bit", he admitted.

"But a connection with the past is lost", I said. (Or something.)

"The past is whatever we need to take from it", he said. "We use whatever is useful from it. We let it go when we don't need it anymore."

"I'm not saying we should hold onto everything from the past", I said. "That's impossible. But it's a shame to lose things that have become traditions. They've survived a long time already, why give up on them?"

"Because the reason they were given up was because they're no longer meaningful. It would be completely perverse to hold onto them when they're no longer meaningful."

This stumped me for a while, and my reply was something like this: "But that's part of the reason they're so great. They become an encounter with something alien, something outside our current preoccupations. They become an encounter with the sublime."

Or something like that. I've always noticed that peoples' accounts of their discussions, arguments and debates with other people tend to put them in the role of Socrates. Well, I am never Socrates. I usually come away from debates and discussions feeling I've not acquitted myself particularly well. But this exchange seemed of great significance to me.

Looking back, I should have said something like this: The very fact that we thought they were important for a long time, and cease to consider them important, makes them valuable, because it's a part of our history or memory or identity which is going into eclipse. It makes it all the more valuable to remind ourselves of it, once in a while. Not for any utilitarian reason, necessarily. Simply for the experience itself.

Of course, another reason to hold onto them is because, even if they are no longer meaningful to us, they might well be meaningful to our descendants-- or to ourselves in future years. But I didn't think of that.