The Unbearable Lightness of Being

An alternative title for this blog post is “Taste of Food and Drink in Hemingway.” However, the title of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel captures the essence much better.

Both writers’ works are characterised by lively accounts of sensory experiences  –  the taste of wine and good food, the experience of a sunset across a city, an encounter with a lover.

Hemingway cover pic

Hemingway, in his  book A Moveable Feast, shares a meal:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

This literary technique brings their stories alive for the reader, painting taste and touch pictures with mere words.

In doing so, they articulate the ‘existentialist’ ethos of the 20th century. Against a backdrop of war, political regimes, and rapid social changes, the writers contrast simple sensory experiences to meditate on the mystery of being.

Unbearable Lightness of Being

Kundera writes:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can only focus on the present…. he is caught in a fragment of time, cut off from both the past and the future…. he has no fear because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

Existentialism posits that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives. Those who do are termed “authentic”, showing courage to reject the meaning imposed upon them by tradition, religion or political regimes. Those who do not impose meaning into their lives, can easily drift into nihilism.

Both writers seek to ground their lives in the beauty of freedom, and sensual experiences.

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Set in Prague Spring of the 60s, Kundera’s novel explores the question of  whether any meaning or weight can be attributed to life, since humanity only has the opportunity to live once, a fleeting ephemeral existence.

The novel follows the life and loves of Tomas, a talented surgeon and an avowed philanderer, who though married to Tereza, cannot give up his mistresses. The novel explores his relationship to the various women in his life, and to his definition of love and meaning.

The novel intertwines their story with Sabrina, a talented painter and Franz, her lover all set against the backdrop of the invasion of Prague by the Russians.

Ultimately, Kundera argues, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.

Hemingway Quotes

Similarly, Hemingway, writing in the 1920s, was part of the “Annes Folles” or “the Crazy Years” so called because of the fertile social, artistic, and cultural collaborations of the period after the First World War.

His generation was also nicknamed “the lost generation”, so named because their youth was grounded in the optimism of the late 19th century and their prime punctuated by World Wars, The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Both writers turn their art to ‘meaning creation’, capturing the sweetness of life, through taste and touch, no matter how fleeting nor how uncertain.

Each writer, a poet to life, meditates on the lostness, the lightness, of being.

A Brave New World

Brave New World [1932], by Aldous Huxley is a dystopian novel set in futuristic London. On our calendar it would be AD 2540.

The story opens in the year 632 A.F.—”Anno Ford” or rather 632 years since the year of the first Model T production. This future world is founded entirely on “Fordian” methods of mass production and consumption.

The events transpire in The World State, a benevolent dictatorship headed by ten World Controllers over a stable global society.

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It is to all appearances a successful world in which everyone appears to be content and satisfied. It is a world of advanced technology and science, peaceful and stable. However, upon closer inspection, this stability is only achieved by sacrificing freedom in its true sense. Progressive efforts to eliminate any sorrow or disharmony have also eradicated any individual identity or responsibility.

We are introduced to Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, members of the Alpha caste. They both work within the Hatcheries where human embryos are raised artificially. Bernard oversees the hypnopaedic process, a system of subconscious messaging to form growing children’s self-image.

Children are bred to fit into ranked castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest) each with different economic roles. The lower castes are bred for low intelligence and conditioned not to think but the more intelligent upper castes are socially conditioned by taboos.

Art and culture has ceased to exist, literature is banned as subversive, as is scientific thinking and experimentation.

Shallow and hedonistic lifestyles are promoted; recreational sex rather than emotional ties are celebrated. Any pain is reduced by the freely accessible hallucinogenic drug soma. Moreover, to maintain the World State’s economy, citizens are conditioned to promote consumption and hence production, reciting platitudes such as “spending is better than mending

 

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Bernard disapproves of society and is vocal about his differences and he is threatened with exile because of his nonconformity. On an outing to a Savage reservation outside of civilisation, he encounters Linda, a woman who has a biological son John. She had become pregnant by the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, a societal taboo which leads her to hide away with shame.

Linda has taught John to read, although from only two books: a scientific manual from her job in the hatchery, and a Collected Works of Shakespeare. John, naive to the world, can only expound his feelings in terms of Shakespearean drama.

book cover

It is John’s desire to see the “brave new world” which inspires Bernard to take them to the Director of Hatcheries. Presenting him with his unknown son and past lover, Bernard humiliates the Director who resigns in shame.

Bernard and John are then brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident “World Controller for Western Europe”. They are told they are to be punished for antisocial activity.

Mond outlines to them the events that led to the present society and his arguments for a caste system and social control. While Mond’s words are designed to convince,  John rejects them and Mond sums up the dilemma by stating that in demanding freedom, John demands “the right to be unhappy“.

John concurs.

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Huxley said that Brave New World was inspired in reaction to the utopian novels of H. G. Wells, especially, A Modern Utopia (1905).  He rejected the enlightenment view that science and technology would progress society only onward and upward. Having lived through the First World War and observing concerning trends in his own industrial and modernist society, he posits a futuristic society grounded in these elements.

The prognosis is grim.

Huxley uses the irony in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, to make his point. He cites the passage in which Miranda exclaims:

O wonder!
How many godly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I, ll. 203–206

 

The excerpt is drawn from when Miranda, like John raised in isolation, sees other people for the first time, is overcome with excitement and utters the famous line above. However, what she is actually observing is representatives of the worst of humanity, traitors and manipulators.

Like other dystopian novels such as “The Giver” or “1984,” Huxley’s novel explores the relationship between advances in technology and the [in]credibility of creating a utopian society. He highlights concerns for the direction of his own society and hypothesises about the the controls necessary to manufacture a world without pain and suffering.

Freedom, individuality, relational ties, the arts, the ability to question. All of these are linked to feeling pain and suffering. Perhaps the “right to be unhappy” as John, steeped in Shakespeare, realises,  is the greatest freedom we humans have?

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There are two worlds, a perfect one:
No pain, sorrow, death or suffering.
Close to the source, life flows,
But here, no freedom.
In perfection, self denied.

There are two worlds, a free one:
Choice, agency, autonomy and change.
Separation from the source, life ebbs,
And here, chaos.
In freedom, self dies.

There are two worlds, two collide:
The source attends in lover’s guise.
The source absorbs the chaos,
And here, free and perfect,
In lovers embrace, self is prized.

The Giver

The Giver [1993] is a Newbery Medal winning novel by Lois Lowry set in a utopian society in which all pain and uncertainty have been removed. The novel follows a boy named Jonas from the age of 11 to 12, the year of his coming of age.

In Jonas’ world, society has eliminated pain and strife by removing personal choice and unpredictability. The Community is structured around routines; work detail and family units are delegated rather than chosen. Normal human desires and impulses are repressed to maintain social harmony. Children are conceived artificially and given to family units in an ordered manner. Firm rules of etiquette control daily life.

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As the story progresses , the society is revealed to be far less ideal than first implied. Jonas’ world lacks any color, the people have no memory or history, they experience a controlled climate and known nothing beyond the limits of their own community with its ordered terrain. While the community has created structure, order, and a true sense of equality beyond personal individuality, in the process, they also have eradicated all emotional depth from their lives.

The year all the children are given their work delegation,  Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the Community history. He is the one the Community must draw upon to access the wisdom of history to aid the Community’s decision making.

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Jonas struggles with all the new memories and emotions introduced to him, from snowflakes to sunsets, to war, suffering and pain. For the first time he is exposed to questions of good, evil, in-between, and whether it is even possible to have one without the other.

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Like other great utopian/ dystopian novels such as 1984 and Hunger Games, The Giver explores the boundaries of human freedom, the necessity of pain and emotion to the human experience and the insidious claims of government which would claim to be acting in the best interest of the people while limiting their freedoms.

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Many of the things we wished we didn’t have to deal with in fact define and refine our lives. Maybe a utopia without chaos or pain is not what we want or need.

Unpredictability, our passions, our memories. They all give us the greatest of pains and the greatest of joys but they also bestow us with the wisdom and memories, to truly live.

the-giver

Dystopia and the Power of Words

As the Hunger Games finale, “Mockingjay” is released to cinemas worldwide, we are reminded of the power of words and of the relationship of words to freedom.

It is President’s Snow’s rhetorical power and control of the media which holds him in place over Panem, and it is Katniss’ power to defy his propaganda and declare the truth that gains her momentum as rebel leader.

mockingjay

Much of the Hunger Games’ world pays homage to George Orwell’s dystopian 1984.

Published soon after World War II, Orwell imagines a future run by a totalitarian state in which independence of thought and individualism were criminialised.

Thought-crime, as it was called,  was punished by the superstate, represented by Big Brother the ever watching eye. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Truth, Minitrue, responsible for propaganda.

newspeak

The Party controls everything in Oceania, even the people’s history and language. The Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Winston spends much of his daily work eliminating words from the dictionary and altering historical records to fit the needs of the Party.

Newspeak root words serve as both nouns and verbs reducing the total number of words; for example, “think” is both a noun and verb, so the word thought is not required and can be abolished. In addition, words with negative meanings are removed as redundant, so “bad” becomes “ungood”. Words with comparative and superlative meanings are also simplified, so “better” becomes “gooder”, and “best” becomes “goodest”.

 

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This ambiguity between comparative/superlative forms would, of course, not prevent heretical statements such as “Big Brother is ungood,” but not only would this statement sound absurd to the ears of the loyal masses, it would also be impossible to elaborate on or to specify exactly what the statement meant because all other concepts and words used to argue against Big Brother such as liberty, rights, freedom, etc. would be eradicated from the language.

The statement would thus be meaningless.

The party also intends that Newspeak be spoken in staccato rhythms to make speech more automatic and unconscious and to reduce the likelihood of thought.

1984

As Orwell further states (through the character of Syme, who is discussing his work on the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary),

By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they will only exist in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

What 1984  articulates so well [and Hunger Games in a somewhat inferior manner] is to emphasise the power of language, the power of free thought and free feeling and to equate freedom of speech to freedom of body, mind and spirit.

May we ever continue to express in language rich and true.

Poetry that frees the soul.

Cristina Domenech gave this amazing TED talk in October 2014. She teaches writing at an Argentinian prison, and tells the moving story of helping incarcerated people express themselves and understand themselves through poetry.

“It’s said that to be a poet, you have to go to hell and back.”

Cristina’s moving tale is about finding freedeom whatever our circumstances.

“All of us in our hell burn with happiness when we light the wick of the word”.

Paolo Freire and “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”

Any living or breathing creature cares about the plight and welfare of others, especially the equality [or inequality] of wealth, resources and services such as health care, education, freedom of speech, etc.  How to achieve equality of resources though is a much debated issue, especially around election times.

Do we budget tightly and stimulate business at any cost [capitalists views], or do we tax the wealthy to redistribute wealth to the disadvantaged, in an effort to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor [socialist views]?

Articles such as this, from the Quora digest this week, address the problem of the distribution of wealth:

So “redistribution of wealth” is a tricky thing.  Money isn’t wealth, and if you redistribute it, it doesn’t really change anything.  You need to redistribute (or even out via other means) ownership of the means of value-creation, which is a far more complicated thing to do – you can’t easily tax a rich guy a portion of his factory (not as easily as you can tax liquid profits in the form of money). Thus, the real problem you’re looking to solve is “how can I make it so that the poor control a larger proportion of value-creating power?”

http://www.quora.com/Distribution-of-Wealth/Why-cant-the-poor-be-handed-out-lots-of-money-to-make-them-rich

The term “value creating power” is an interesting point to dwell on. If not simply referring to production power [factories] alone, could it mean value in the form of information power, wealth of mind, of heart, of connections, of knowing and of being?

How then does a society create equality of consciousness among people?

paulo freire

Paulo Freire [1921-1997] was an Brazilian educator and philosopher who believed in the power of education to allow the oppressed to regain their sense of humanity. His seminal work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” [1968] questioned traditional education methods, which might simply replicate prevailing power structures. He labelled this a “banking model” of education in which the student is treated as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge. Instead, he advocated for a “co-creation” model of education. This model, particularly used in literacy projects amongst adults, enabled the learner to question social domination of race and class that is woven into traditional education systems.

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Having grown up in colonial Brazil and experienced poverty himself first hand, he acknowledged that the powerless in society can be frightened of freedom. He writes,

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion”.

So the redistribution of power and wealth comes through struggle on behalf of the socially disadvantaged themselves, a struggle first for belief in their own spiritual and moral freedom to be agents of change. Interesting.

In 1961, Freire was appointed director of the Department of Cultural Extension of Recife University and in 1962 he applied his theories to literacy programs, when he taught 300 sugarcane workers to read and write in just 45 days. His successes were both supported and and at points censored by various governments.

Freire believed that,

“education makes sense because women and men learn that through learning they can make and remake themselves, because women and men are able to take responsibility for themselves as beings capable of knowing—of knowing that they know and knowing that they don’t.”

Freire’s work explains how and why the mere re-distribution of wealth away from ther rich to the poor is not sufficent to create equality. Equality exists as much in the struggle of the mind and heart. Once adults can not only read and write, but have the power and strength to accept their own freedom, then they can question power structures of race and class and reclaim not only “means of value creation” such as businesses and factories but also, books, films, stories. They can bring others of the “oppressed” with them and fight for the equality that every human desires.

paulo-freire

 

 

Library for All

Facebook and Twitter boast particpiation in political uprisings in Egypt and Iran, and share realtime footage of disasters unfolding in Paris and Sydney. Free university courses, YouTube tutorials on just about every subject abound, while blogs and other sharing platforms put learning and sharing into the hands of the user. Yet still information access in inequitable and one charity is seeking to address that.

This charity seeks to bring low cost technology into marginalised and developing areas, and fill it with free digital resources, to create a “Library for All”.

We believe that all children should have the chance to learn. This is why we built Library For All, a digital library for the developing world. By increasing access to books and knowledge, children will have a much better chance of learning the basics. Our goal is to increase literacy and support education in all subject areas by providing access to books through our digital library.

– https://www.libraryforall.org/

 

If words are thought, and freedom of thought and freedom of speech a human right, then as much as food and water and healthcare, human beings need access to words, ideas, stories and information to flourish.

 

 

Sophie’s World and the power of Questions

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

The novel “Sophie’s World” follows the events around Norwegian school girl,  Sophie Amundsen’s 15th birthday. She mysteriously receives letters addressed to a girl called Hilde Moller Knag and typed pages containing a short course in western philosophy.  When Sophie befriends an elderly professor Alberto Knox she learns that it is he who is instructing her in the course on philsophy. Their journey takes stranger turns however, as they both seek to identify the elusive Hilde Moller Knag and the author of the post cards, Albert Knag.

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Alberto delivers to Sophie, a course in  western philosophy spanning from pre-socratic philosophy, to modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. She journeys with Alberto through Hellenistic philsophy, Christian thought, the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, enlightenment and romantic periods of western thinking. The Norwegian author Gaarder, addresses an important lack in modern western education- instruction on thought. Sophie’s journey to learn “wisdom” [sophism] becomes our journey.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

When Sophie has dreams which are fulfilled, she and Alberto begin to suspect some greater mischief is afoot. Gradually they begin to learn that they are part of a story themselves, written by Albert Knag to his daugher Hilde for her 15th birthday. Confused and perplexed at this thought, that the world they inhabit is but the imagining of a superior author, they seek to rebel and run away from he story itself.  Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being and even then, despite the knowledge that they she is imaginary, Sophie and Alberto deterime to find a way to escape.

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“A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.…We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a book within a book. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder’s imaginary characters but for US. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points.  Gaarder presents Philosophy as an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers …………………………

“… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Of Human Bondage

The semi-autobiographical novel “Of Human Bondage” by Somerset Maugham, tells the story of Phillip Carey, an orphan raised by his conservative aunt and uncle, who escapes to Europe, trains as an artist before returning to London to qualify as a doctor. In his journeys, he explores the continent, art, life, love and freedom. And he finds it a bondage.

Particularly Phillip’s love for waitress Mildred is a poignant illustration of the bondage of this freedom. She does not reciprocate his feelings, leaving him several times for other lovers. Maugham’s title  ‘human bondage’, is borrowed from the title of Spinoza’s Part IV of Ethics, “Of Human Bondage” or the Strength of the Emotions. Spinoza lists peoples inability to control their emotions as a bondage.

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For Phillip Carey, peace is found when he settles down as a respectable Doctor to marry the daughter of a shopkeeper friend. He learns that “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect.” His submission to normalcy, or the conventional ‘bondage’ of society is in fact the freedom he seeks from the tyranny of his own emotions.

This notion reminds me of Soren Kierkegaard’s 1844 treatise, The Fear of Dread, or the Fear of Anxiety. Here Kierkegaard explores the dual fear of vertigo and desire to jump; anxiety and dread arises from the freedom to choose. The terrifying possibilities create “dizziness of freedom.”

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Maugham exposes the catch-22 of the modern dilemma of freedom – all the time one is truly free, there exist a multitude of choices assaulting us, engaging our emotions. For Phillip Carey, peace is found by removing himself from this anxiety of freedom by surrender to the confines of a domestic existence, a profession, a wife and family. Here he cannot be kept in bondage by his feelings of love, loss, the anxiety of choosing.  It’s a modern dilemma but also a timeless dilemma played out in literature from the tragedy of Adam and Eve, through to contemporary poets and philosophers. Can we be truly free?