Marvellous-ish years, seething energies, and the trick of blogging upright

There is an elephant in the room – this computer,
an evolutionary change happening in our lifetime,
reducing our customs to fossils and converting
our children to new formats. As the Digital Age
powers on, I look wistfully at my books,
pen and notepad, and see that language is mutating.
Now the Web is a field of seething energies,
ready to extend and pool consciousness, is this
the transformation of the world to a unified virtual mind
or merely another noisy playground and marketplace?…

That is Roger Horrocks on the effect of the digital world on books, writing, literature, culture – and, ultimately, identity. The full piece is here and it’s well worth a read.

He doesn’t come to any conclusions – sensibly, I think. We’re in the middle of a revolution right now – and for once the word ‘revolution’ is not hyperbole – and it isn’t at all clear what the outcome will be.

Horrocks isn’t sure whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. Personally, I’m tentatively optimistic.

New Zealand has always had a very “thin” cultural scene – it is a function of our small size and distance from everywhere else. The internet has broken that down and will no doubt break it down further.

My optimism lies in Horrocks comments about the ‘field of seething energies, ready to extend and pool consciousness.’

It is in the process of wrenching our notoriously parochial cultural scene out of its small-town-ness: it is also breaking down hierarchies and – dare one say it? – the ivory towers of universities.

Technology is breaking down both distance and walls and this has only just begun, I believe. It makes our small size less telling, provides easy access to a more global perspective and ideas and, obviously, helps ideas get around.

History is also deepening. The passage of time itself is helping, of course. But there is, I’ve noticed, a real hunger to talk, argue and occasionally throw things about New Zealand’s history, amongst the generation coming through.

As for the choice Horrocks outlines in the last line quoted above: I don’t think its a choice. It’s both.

The trick is going to be making sure the extension and pooling of consciousness happens along with the noise.

To Blog or not to blog

I started blogging back in the middle of the last decade when my Better Half was quite unwell and it became a surrogate social life.
Its become somewhat moribund the last couple of years as other things have taken over, but it is 10 years old this month and a decade is kind of a put up or shut up point.

Having pondered the matter for a while, I’m doing the WordPress migration. So here it is.

Do not expect frequent posts. I usually do something on the weekend, but not every weekend.

It’s a hobby. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking of it as anything much more than that, even though it is, obviously, a hobby which dovetails very closely with other interests and with work.

For those who read it all eight of you – you may have noticed I tend to do less politics these days.

Partly –  a very big part, in fact –  it is too much like the day job. When the blog started, I was still doing mostly weekly print work. The work work which was online tended to be business, finance, superannuation and insurance stories. Since around 2008 the online political work has taken off.

But theres a bigger, more important reason.
Blogging in the New Zealand context has come to be associated almost exclusively with politics. 

For a whole lot of reasons Ive never liked that and, more recently, its come to bug the hell out of me.

It annoyed me a lot, last year, when there were a few feature articles about the New Zealand blogosphere and it focused almost totally on the political ones. 

This was well before what people had been writing on blogs became – for the media around and about two thirds of the political class anyway – the story of the election campaign.

There are plenty of other things to write about, argue about, even get quite angry or excited about. And to me the most interesting stuff going on in the blogosphere wasn’t – and still isn’t – the particularly inane high school gang/sporting team level of “debate” (and here I use the word “debate” ironically if not totally and utterly wrongly) which goes on.

There are many different types of bores in the world but one of the worst type is those who think their political views are the most interesting thing about themselves instead of – usually – one of the least interesting.
Which does not mean one cannot have an intelligent,interesting debate about politics on the blogs.
My word, one certainly can. And the blogs I have always enjoyed often have a political aspect, and are frequently written by people with strong political views.

But they keep politics in its place. Where it should be. 

There are a number of specialist blogs adding much to the country’s conversation – on books and on economics, to take two examples not totally at random. 

I’ll write more on this, somewhere else, some other time. 


Walking- ‘that suspensive freedom’


img_3984
Yours truly, above Lake Wanaka, last week. 
 
 
 
A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros (Verso 2014)
 
 
Discovered this wonderful little book over the summer and finally finished reading it: apt, as it turned out.  I’ve not done enough tramping over the past few years, mostly for boring middle aged reasons. It’s high time I got back into it.
 

Must confess I thought, when I saw the title in good ol’ Unity Books, that only a French bloke would find the need to come up with a philosophy of walking.

Shades of Sartre in the scroggin;  Pascal in the polypropylene; Derrida in the long-drop.

 
In fact it’s not like that at all: it is uncommonly direct and clear, if a bit disconcerting at times.
 

 ‘We must really manage one day to do without “news”,’ Gros begins one chapter – one which seems to me to be the core of the book, headed ‘Eternities’.

This may sound strange for a journalist, but I know what he means. One of my favourite political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was dismayed to be told, by a star pupil, of an intention to go into journalism, telling the lad, after a long silence, that ‘I think the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder’.  

 
I doubt Gros has read any Oakeshott: too English, too empiricist, to sceptical for yer average continental philosopher. 

But they might have quite a bit in common: Gros writes that 
 

‘…walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompense, interpret. Walking shuts down the sporadic soliloquy to whose surface our rancour, imbecile satisfactions and imaginary vengeances rise sluggishly in turn….You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of the long grass and the freshness of the wind….’


‘Chatter’ is the big no-no for Gros. For those of us who need a bit of solitude in our lives, it is more of a problem than ever: the ubiquitous smartphone, the addictive aspects of social media, are forever bleeping at us, trying to tug annoyingly at the metaphorical elbows of our consciousness.


Longer walks, of several days, bring perspective: away from the ‘chatter’, both interior and exterior. A walk, a hike – in New Zealand parlance, a tramp – allows one to do what Gros calls rejoice:

“rejoicing in that suspensive freedom, happy to set off, one is also happy to return. It’s a blessing in parentheses, freedom in an escapade., lasting a couple of days or less.’

‘Suspensive freedom’. I love that.

The freedom in walking lies, he says, ‘in not being anyone, for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’


He is very good on what it’s like: he slows down and notices the process of walking.


There is the  ‘strange impression’ made by the first steps each day: you’ve made all the preparations, navigation, food, gear, timings, weather etc, and then

‘you head off, pick up the rhythm. You lift your head, you’re on your way, but really just to be walking, to be out of doors That’s it, that’s all, and you’re there.’

There is a need to walk slowly – well, some of us don’t really have the option – and to not be overcome by goals, by turning the walk/tramp into another thing to tick off your list.
 
‘Knocking the bastard off’, to borrow Sir Edmund’s famous phrase about Everest, certainly has its place.
 
But for most of us, walking should be the goal itself.
‘…the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness….a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed’
And:
‘Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints…When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer. 
‘Slowness means living perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone. 
‘This stretching of time deepens space. It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them clearer, like the regular encounters that deepen friendship. Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.’

This is all gorgeous stuff. 

There is, if you want it, a bit of Yer Ack-Shul Phillosophee: there are chapters on those famous, and not so famous, philosophers who have liked walking, and the book starts with a quote from Nietzsche


‘We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.’

 
Which certainly knocks some of the the more grandiose or gloomy prognostications of Nietzsche into the proverbial over-brimmed millinery.

It is also something I’ve noticed about myself: the better ideas often come while out walking. This is not to denigrate being, in Nietzsche words, ‘stimulated by books’.


The old mental appetite is certainly stimulated – and fed – by books, as well as by conversations, chats over coffee, and shouting matches over the Shiraz, gesticulating over the Glenmorangie.


But it is digested by walking.  This is about balance, and the interaction between walking, thinking and feeling.


‘The climbing body demands effort; it is under continuous tension…It’s important not to weaken, but to mobilise energy to advance, to place the foot firmly and hoist body slowly, then restore balance.  

So with thought: an idea to rise to something even more astonishing, unheard of, new.
and then again: it is a matter of gaining altitude,

There are thoughts that can only occur at 6000 feet above the plains and mournful shores.’

Italics added.

Every page has a lovely little line like this. If you like walking, thinking, and just slowing down and noticing, you won’t regret getting ahold of this work.


Not the worst advertisements

Discovered, online, a deeply fascinating piece of correspondence between two great writers of the homicidal, genocidal Midnight of the 20th Century – Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. Waugh wrote to praise ‘1984’ but also to raise a few objections:

Winston’s rebellion was false. His ‘Brotherhood’ (whether real or imaginary) was simply another gang like the Party. And it was false, to me, that the form of his revolt should simply be fucking in the style of Lady Chatterley – finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act….The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces.

And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

 The two writers had much which divided them, but more in common than was perhaps obvious. Both magnificent stylists with the English language, both more than a little at odds with the age in which they found themselves living.

Both, in their different ways, affronted idealists.

And both with a definite, conscious, contrivance about their public personae: Malcolm Muggeridge (another magnificent stylist with more than a touch of sham about him) once wrote of Waugh visiting Orwell as Orwell was dying and commented about “the bogus country gentleman gossiping with the equally bogus proletarian”.

Waugh – the social climbing middle class boy who half aped, half sent-up  (hmm…..perhaps three quarters aped, a quarter sent up) the upper English classes, was heading in a different direction to Orwell, who under his real name of Eric Blair attended Eton and was more of a social submariner.

It seems odd to find the two corresponded at all. But, apart from being superb writers, they were both men who recoiled from the ghastliness of their age

They recoiled, though, in different directions.

Waugh took refuge in a kind of obscurantist, throwback Toryism (he didn’t vote because he said he would not presume to advise his sovereign on her choice of advisers) and became a Catholic, it seems, mostly as a bid to seek a world not just outside the 20th Century but before the Reformation. 

We’ve all heard of the phrase ‘more Catholic than the Pope’  – Waugh was more Catholic than the previous 20 popes.

Orwell, whose  discovery of a cynically murderous power urge behind the idealistic platitudes of his ideological comrades when fighting in the Spanish Civil War, led to his rejection of his earlier communism. He was not, though,  going to head off into the kind of imaginary world Waugh inhabited. He was too much of a realist for that, and in any case, unlike Waugh, he was a journalist rather than a novelist. 

But he ended up in a kind of no-man’s-land, of the kind which, usually, can only see a rescue from either religion, drink, or the madhouse. It is intriguing to ponder where Orwell would have ended up if tuberculosis had not taken him aged only 46.