A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Truths and fictions

And Chesterton, in his book about Browning, writes about other great poets; he says that Homer might have thought, for example, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell them the truth based on the fall of a great city, on the defense of that city,” and he made the Iliad. And then another poet, whose name has been forgotten, says: “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it based on what a just man suffered, his friends’ reproaches, the voice of God who descends in a swirl,” and he wrote the Book of Job. And another poet could say, “I will tell them the truth about the world, and I will tell it by describing an imaginary or visionary journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise,” and that poet is Dante. And Shakespeare could have thought, “I will tell them the truth about the world by telling stories about a son who learned, from a ghost’s revelations, that his mother had been an adulteress and a murderer,” and he wrote Hamlet. But what Browning did was stranger. He said, “I have found this story of a criminal trial, a sordid story of adultery, the story of a murder, the story of lies and deceptions. And based on that story, which all of Italy talked about, and which all of Italy has forgotten, I will reveal to them the truth about the world,” and he wrote The Ring and the Book.

[Arias & Hadis (eds) (2013) Professor Borges: A course on English Literature. New Directions: New York]

Fictional stories have the power to tell great truths about the real world; nonfictional stories tend to be more focused in the scope of truths they tell, but this passage, from a lovely book that has certainly done a lot to educate me about the history of my own language’s literature, reminds me that nonfiction can also harness this power to be bold, to speak to the universal as well as to the specifics of the science (or whatever facts are at play).

Utopian thinking

A map of Utopia

A map of Utopia

While talking about the political presumptions inherent in the academic field of bioethics, Professor Richard Ashcroft asked if it was possible to imagine a non-liberal approach to the subject. In light of the title of his talk at King’s College London last week, “Bioethics as a style of utopian thought”, I was more tempted to ask if it was possible to imagine a non-utopian approach to bioethics.

I didn’t quite dare ask, however, as I was again interloping at an academic seminar, bringing only a very specific and naive perspective with me. The title had intrigued me, sparking off my continuing interest in concepts of Utopia, and I was hunkered down at the side of the room, at a table across which bars of light were falling from the window in a peculiarly attractive manner. Bioethics is not a field I am so familiar with but by the end of Ashcroft’s talk, I was wondering how anyone could doubt that it is a utopian endeavour: the demarcation of what is good or bad in biological research and medicine or, failing that, the identification of good or bad ways to identify what’s good and bad in biomedicine. I’ve probably misunderstood the entire field, whose practitioners apparently consider it to be resolutely non-utopian, but how can you consider good/bad or right/wrong dichotomies (or even spectrums) without having a view as to what would be ‘best’, and what is the world where everything is at its best but Utopia?

Now I should admit that my only real model for thinking about Utopia is the original story by Thomas More. I feel as though his work should have some elevated status if only because its title was yet another word that he coined for the English language. But perhaps the original has been superseded and redefined by all of its successors. There is a conference on Utopian studies in Canada in October (which I learned about from a tweet from Ashcroft later in the week): perhaps that would be a good place to find out how Utopia stands amid its later imitators and rivals? Now if there was only some way I could persuade work to send me….

Anyway, I don’t think More’s Utopia is the ideal of perfection that the current understanding of ‘utopia’ would suggest. Obviously it is hard (for me) to translate and comprehend the contextual culture of 1516, but even so, More’s Utopia has some downright illiberal features including, but not limited to, the use of slavery as a penalty for ‘un-Utopian’ behaviour. It is, perhaps, a mistake to read it as a vision of a perfect society. Of course, it is no dystopia either. To use today’s parlance, maybe the original Utopia is a heterotopia, a place of good and bad, written to pass comment on contemporary English society rather than to offer a vision of something ‘better’, or even ‘best’. I suspect that More’s temperament was not so far from Ashcroft’s, with a deprecating sense of humour born of a tendency to grouchiness that may seem cynical but probably hides a great big heap of idealism. Or maybe I am projecting on to both men what I would like the truth of my own temperament to be. Are utopias visions of (imperfect) happiness from generally unhappy people?

Relating this tentatively back to bioethics for a moment, I liked a quote that Ashcroft used in his talk: “If you don’t like the Utopia you’re being sold, build another one.” It reminded me of a talk last year, in which Ernst Bloch was cited as saying something along the lines of, “Life has been put into our hands…. If there is something missing, make it – now!” Bioethics may be riddled with solutionism (seeing medical technology as a body of (potential) solutions to social and political problems), but if you don’t like that, you could build your own version instead. But be in no doubt that in considering the best way for human societies to incorporate medical advances, you are at some level envisaging an ideal, utopian society, with the ever-present caveat that utopias can only really ever be signposts, not destinations.

In the Q&A afterwards, someone referred to a description of bioethics as a jardin des plantes, or zoological garden, which Ashcroft interpreted as, among other things, a place to breed familiarity with the strange. I liked that idea very much.

Purim poem

One of the benefits of living in Stamford Hill, amid one of the largest orthodox Jewish communities in the world, is that, once a year, we get to enjoy the spectacle of Purim. While the men are under orders to get stinking drunk over the course of the day, the children have to dress up in proper, full-on fancy dress, either hired from a specialist or home-made but to such a degree of creativity and professionalism that if we ever need fancy-dress costumes for the girls, we won’t have to look very far. So here’s my rundown of costumes spotted this year….

First, Napoleon at number 59,
Then clowns, kings, bakers and coppers;
Cowboys,
Cats and bears and maybe a wolf
in thick woollen head-to-toe costumes.

Lions, and a big-headed dalmatian swapping hats with a musketeer;
A butcher with a string of pork sausages; an African prince with ill-judged black-face and a yellow and brown striped gown; a trio of sultans in powder-blue turbans and elaborate felt-tip mustaches.
A grey-haired ‘old woman’ in tartan, and a young man with his belongings tied up in a kerchief on the end of a stick on his shoulder, seeking his fortune.

More clowns, several pirates, girls in ‘English’ school uniforms;
boys with drawn-on glasses.
A ladybird toddler; a red-faced tomato in a pram;
Two ice cream cones and a choc-ice.
A Sainsbury’s shelf-stacker, a boy with a trilby and an inky five o’clock shadow, Royal Mail delivery personnel.

Princesses – less Disney, more Anne of Hanover – and queens and soldiers and paramedics and chefs;
A penguin, two Hello Kittys, and a panda toting his brother’s replica semi-automatic rifle;
A gaggle of 1950s midwives (or possibly Salvation Army troops).
Four gift-wrapped presents and a girl dressed as a packet of sweets.

Naked launch

mosaic-alz

Mosaic, the new publication at work, finally launched this week. I’d missed a lot of the build-up, as I was in India researching a story for a week beforehand, and also because I am not really an integral part of the project team, though I will be writing more for Mosaic than most. So launch day was a bit anticlimactic for me: it was my first day back in the office after India, and although I had a piece in the first batch ever to be published on Mosaic, it wasn’t getting as much attention as some of the other four pieces.

I had a blog post drafted here all about how I had always struggled to convince my Dad that I was grateful for the Christmas presents he bought me. It detailed how I usually was grateful (our family circulated lists of desired gifts well in advance, so it was rarely a surprise but usually wanted and appreciated), but my innately low-beat expressions of gratitude failed to persuade him of my sincerity, so I had to exaggerate, to display or perform gratitude, which stank even more of insincerity, thus leading to rows and ill-feeling on all sides.

This tension between sincerity and the display of sincerity remains. It was particularly challenging this Christmas because my Dad bought me presents from my Amazon wish list – except that he managed to find a different Michael Regnier on Amazon and bought me books about intellectual progress in 19th century Hapsburg Vienna. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised when I say that I could not have been happier to receive books about the history of Austrian philosophy, but how could I persuade my Dad of that? I must be getting better at it, because I think he was reasonably convinced this time round….

But why did I want to talk about sincerity on the occasion of the publication of my first piece on Mosaic? Because I still worry that my sincerity gets lost among a certain degree of intellectual posturing in my writing (such as making the links between Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges a fundamental motif in my explanation of the science of Alzheimer’s disease). Speaking sincerely, of course, this is utterly sincere: I believed this approach would genuinely facilitate an appreciation of the difficulty of doing medical research in this disease area and in all diseases, actually. And it is important to me that a feature of this length (5000 words and up) does more than just describe events or understandings at a particular point in time. I think we authors need to tell our stories in order to create something over and above that, to construct a deeper argument, to layer meanings and interpretations so that the scientific content becomes one element of a broader, more ambitious tale.

Mosaic offers us the chance to construct that kind of story, but I was worried that the emphasis was on more of a science journalism approach, which, though no less valid, assumes an existing degree of engagement from the reader, I think. Mosaic is intended, as far as I can make out, to appeal to a wider readership than that which already consumes science journalism, and I think there is an opportunity here to try different styles of science writing and see what else is possible.

My piece, then, is not just an attempt to explain Alzheimer’s disease; it is also an attempt at a different approach to science writing. I know that this particular piece is imperfect – it is my first go, after all – but it was important to me that Mosaic should be seen to be capable of innovating in terms of content as well as in terms of how that content is distributed. And my approach seems to have won some admirers: it was picked up by Pacific Standard magazine, and has garnered some positive comments on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s more than I’d hoped for on launch day, and I hope it means I get to do more in the same vein in the future.

Silence

Photo by Mr. Kris on Flickr

Photo by Mr. Kris on Flickr

I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat invisible; now I might add silent to that – albeit in a more positive way.

At a conference about silences today, I tried very hard to maintain my own silence, but was ultimately unsuccessful, engaging in two or three interesting conversations and even asking a question in a session. I know, right?

Essentially, however, I am a relatively silent person: I don’t thrive on small talk, I keep my own counsel (unless I feel very comfortable with you, usually after several years’ acquaintance), and I would rather store up my thoughts and ideas and present them in as polished a form as possible (if ever) rather than blurt them out at the earliest opportunity. Hence preferring to write than to talk.

I do thrive on listening, however. Interviewing a researcher for work recently, he remarked that it was very therapeutic being interviewed by me. Tending towards silence probably helps with the whole listening schtick. I also like listening to full days of conference talks – ideas are seeded and grow, develop off-shoots or die, become inspiration for my writing, whether for work or for the myriad unspoken projects I have ‘in progress’.

For example, among the silences discussed today were secrets. I have been working on a story (it was originally an idea for a play; it’s currently taking shape as a novellettina; who knows whether it will ever see the light of day) about a secret. In developing this many years ago, I decided that a secret is only a secret if, in addition to the two people who share the secret information, there is a third person who is excluded from the information. Seems obvious, but hey. But today, a speaker suggested that a secret is only really a secret when it is divulged – that is to say, the act of not sharing some information is merely not communicating it; to become a secret, the information must be shared, but only to a certain group of people. It is the sharing of privileged information that makes the secret, not the withholding of it from everyone.

I like that kind of thing, and it’s why I find it so invigorating to every so often spend an entire day at a conference only tangentially related to what I do – it seems to be a more fruitful way of sparking inspiration than looking for it in your everyday experience.

Medium is the Mooc

SML

Image by tantek on Flickr

The Mooc continues. This is an eight week course, each week entailing a series of short videos from the course tutor, imparting information and, perhaps, inspiring further exploration. The first week was basic concepts in storytelling – the structural components you’d expect any storytelling course to cover. I thought this was ok, as we had seven more weeks to delve further into these concepts and unearth some new ones, perhaps. Instead, week two was a look at how TV series get made, and week three the same for web dramas. Now, this is fine, and these media do impose some limitations on the stories they can tell, and there’s no harm in identifying those. However, the focus seems to be more on the way stories are presented rather than the effect (if any) on their internal story mechanics.

The key phrase with a Mooc – as with any educational device (including a university degree) – is: You get out of it what you’re prepared to put in. By which I mean it is always important to know why you are doing the course, what your goal is – this will help you recognise what is important to you (as opposed to what is important to your tutors and peers). Another interpretation of the phrase, of course, is that you have to be proactive in your learning. For me, these two interpretations exist in a rather antagonistic relationship – I am all too quick to dismiss elements of the course as irrelevant to my purposes, whereas if I were a bit more motivated to use them as jumping off points, perhaps I would land somewhere relevant and interesting. Read the rest of this entry »

Mooc week one

I am doing a Mooc (massive open online course) called the Future of Storytelling. Each week some ideas and concepts discussed in videos made by the course tutors, additional reading, and a creative task. Not quite sure what form the tasks will take but the chances are I will put my responses up here – the first one is to retell a memorable story and explain why it has stayed with me.

Programme image for my production of Invitation to a Beheading (2002)

Programme image for my production of Invitation to a Beheading (2002)

One of my favourite books is Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I liked so much I decided to use it as the inspiration for a theatre piece in 2002. I don’t think I have read it since (my copy has disappeared from my bookshelf – if you have it, please return it!), so what of the story remains in my memory? It is about a man called Cincinnatus C., who has been condemned for the crime of being opaque, not fitting in. He is in prison, overseen by a gaoler and the director of the prison, neither of whom has much competence. There is a lawyer, also not blessed with competence. Cincinnatus receives visits from his wife and the rest of his family, who come not to sympathise or campaign for his release but perhaps to witness and display their tacit (or not) approval of his imprisonment and impending execution. The prison director’s young daughter lives in the prison too, and Cincinnatus sees her toy ball rolling past his cell door. Cincinnatus also has a pencil, with which he measures his remaining time on the earth.

At some point, he discovers a fellow prisoner, M’sieur Pierre, but M’sieur Pierre turns out actually to be his executioner who has introduced himself as a fellow prisoner only to put Cincinnatus at ease and prevent him forming a bad initial opinion of his executioner. He coaches Cincinnatus through the protocol for execution. But as the deadline date approaches, the prison disintegrates – the director and gaoler become harder to tell apart, characters degrade, events become ever more surreal. Cincinnatus is taken to the execution place as crowds of townsfolk cheer but as he looks at their faces, they become just painted hoardings that themselves fall away.

I can’t remember if that is how it ends. Read the rest of this entry »

Being | Human

The Prometheus Experiment

A flyer for ‘The Prometheus Experiment’ (London, 2005)

I saw two events in this series at King’s College London. Both had some stimulating elements though both were also flawed – but I like flawed work: it is interesting. These are my notes made either during or shortly after each event. The first I went to see because I have a long-standing interest in the myth of Prometheus (I wrote a play called The Prometheus Experiment in 2005 – it is my last play to date); the second because I have a long-standing interest in Utopia, by Thomas More, and would like to produce something to mark its 500th anniversary in 2016.

prometheus-empedocles fragments

Martin, a convivial host, honest about the running time (shorter than billed), inviting us to inspect the elements of the show (the ‘props’), explaining the provenance of the technologies on show – a 1960s slide projector, a cathode ray TV set, an iSurface. All from home, his home, his family’s home (his wife and son were assisting; the latter in school uniform) – a flat in the Barbican.

A performance in two parts – 7 minutes plus 23 minutes.

7min film: a nice idea. A blob of red. Some viscous clear liquid dribbled on top, pushing the red beyond its edge, spreading it out until this film caught up with the adjacent film of this same admixture being stirred with a paintbrush. That is all.

23min films: three screens now. Excerpts from a performance of Empedocles. Martin’s 1991 performance, I assume. Then a shifting pattern of white and black seeming dots but strangely organic like a fingertip maze. The second screen: seven lines appearing and disappearing, a domestic symbol, from Prometheus. The third screen – the only non-dom technology, a projector, showed titles, texts and finally a hearth fire. Read the rest of this entry »

French tries

I have very little confidence in my capabilities but one of the benefits of having children is that you reassess what’s important. If I took how impressed Edie is by what I can do as a benchmark, my most highly prized skill would be putting the milk back in the fridge and closing the door without looking, closely followed by speaking rudimentary French. Why Edie should be impressed by my GCSE-level French when she speaks English and Swedish fluently (and has just started learning Spanish at school to boot) is beyond me but there we are.

I read French much better than I speak it. I have a number of French novels on my bookshelves and I have tried translating a few things: some 15th/16th century farces, a play by Marguerite Duras, the odd poem, and a phenomenology of fire by Gaston Bachelard. Contemporary French writing is harder to keep up with but there are a couple of people I follow on Twitter who seem to be carrying on the good work, or at least the spirit, of the Oulipo. On such a person’s site a couple of weeks ago, I came across a really lovely piece of writing, which I translated one lunchtime. The translation is nothing special, I’m sure. In fact, I know it because I ran it through Google Translate as a check and much of the text came out the same as mine, apart from those little things that the computerised translator is apt to miss or misinterpret.

It was a bit of dilemma whether to ‘publish’ my translation here. As I say, it is nothing special and my French is not good enough that I trust it to not be a travesty. But in the end, I thought it worth sharing and so there it is below, with a link to the original, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Complex ideas in small packages

I read Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery recently. It’s an account of a man whose life becomes the centre of a shadowy, incoherent campaign to slander the entire Jewish people in the 19th century. As his writings cast slur upon slur on the Jews, his own sense of identity becomes broken. The story is told within the broad sweep of European history, but the story is written as the memoirs of this man, who may not be a reliable witness to events either historical or personal. The hardback edition of the novel that I have is 400-odd pages.

I mention the length because at work we are embarking (still embarking, I would say, after several months of embarkment) on a new venture to produce in-depth/long-form* explanatory/exploratory* stories/feature articles* about science and medicine. Inevitably, when thinking about how to tell such stories, we encounter a tension between explaining some quite niche area of science and keeping the narrative flowing. My initial reaction tends to be to push at the limits of our allotted word-counts but I’ve started thinking that there may be a better way.

Eco is a writer I like, although I have probably read fewer of his books than I think I have. But he is the type of writer I like, and that’s often good enough. Another writer that I have long known I like – despite not having read much of his work either – is Jorge Luis Borges. And recently, I have been reading his fictions: short stories that usually centre around a labyrinth of some description (if centring around a labyrinth is morphologically possible).

So here’s the thing: I think Borges could have written in 8 pages a story that had the same narrative, concepts, characters and plot as Eco’s 400-page novel. And I think Borges’s story would have had all the complexity of Eco’s work. Borges had the skill to present you with a character and a situation in a few words; then he would have been able to sum up Eco’s character’s life with a couple of paragraphs. The overall impression would probably not have been so different to the effect of reading Eco’s novel, but it would have happened in a fraction of my time. Read the rest of this entry »

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