Absurdism, Books

Soviet Deadpan

Here is an tale, written in 1936, by the Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

An old woman fell out of a window because she was too curious. She fell and broke into pieces.
Another old woman leaned out of the window and looked at the one that had broken into pieces, but because she was too curious, she also fell out of the window – fell and broke into pieces.
Then a third woman fell out of the window, then a fourth, and then a fifth.
When the sixth old woman fell out of the window, I became fed up with watching them and went to the Maltsevsky Market, where they said a blind man had been presented with a knit scarf. Continue reading

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Absurdism, Books, Rhetoric

A fellow of infinite jest

Recently I summarised, dissected, reviewed and analysed Cervantes’s masterwork Don Quixote. It elicited a request for further classic works, more revered than read, to be so treated. Here, in a continuation of that public service, therefore, is my rumination on an English comic novel: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne, first published in York in 1759.

The Monty Python team once held an All-England Summarise Proust Competition in which the finalists were required to summarise A la recherche du Temps Perdu, once in swimsuit and once in evening dress. Continue reading

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Absurdism, Books

Rise of the deplorable

What is to be done?

Here is a story of hope.

Human beings are innately good and amendable to reason. As soon as, by enlightenment and emancipation, humans have overcome unreason and superstition and religion, a scientific-based humanism can be established with a chance of happiness for all. A predictive model of human behaviour can then advantageously guide economic and political relations. By this rational and scientific thinking, and a compassionate regard for all humanity, the human world can be rebuilt on secular lines. Humans, freed from archaism, will see that what is in their interest is also in society’s interest and act together in harmony upon it. Irrationality and hatred and violence, over time, can therefore be made unnecessary. What is needed is education and scientifically sound laws that promote this harmonious regulated life. This materialist philosophy of rational self-interest and progressiveness will promote happiness for all.

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Books, Law

Fallaciousness

How is one to give evidence of literary merit in a court of law?” asks Sybille Bedford in her short account of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial (re-published this month by Daunt Books).

The story of the trial is well known. Penguin Books, the publishers of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, were charged with publishing an obscene book under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and tried at the Old Bailey in November 1960. Despite the condescending patrician grandstanding of the prosecutor Mr Mervyn Griffith-Jones “is this a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read”, “members of the jury for those of you who have forgotten your Greek, ‘phallus’ means the image of a man’s penis” and the moralising judge Mr Justice Byrne (and his scowling wife sitting daily with him on the bench) the jury acquitted.

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Absurdism, Books

Windmills of the mind, Part 2

Don Quixote’s madness stems from his literal reading of books of chivalric romance and his deluded belief that he actually is a knight errant. He rides out into the realist world of Cervantes’ novel with a lofty dedication, inflicting his good intentions on others, and time and again is buffeted by stubborn reality. Quixote is generous, brave, courteous, resilient, knowledgeable, eloquent, and a complete idiot. I wrote about Part 1 of the novel last month. He rides out again, in Part 2, with his trusty squire Sancho Panza, having been revived after a month’s rest and the consumption of six hundred eggs.

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Art, Books

Windmills of the mind

Don Quixote goes mad in the second paragraph of his own story. This madness, diagnosed by Cervantes, flows from the belief that everything he has read in books of chivalric romance is literally true. He fails to distinguish fiction from reality. His madness is therefore not chemical, nor genetic, nor the result of abusive nurture, but stems from too much reading and, more precisely, too little ability to read what he is reading. His is a literary ailment. In a book of chivalric romance this knight-errant would be quite normal. In a realist novel he is mad; a character who falls frequent prey to his delusions. Continue reading

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Art, Film

Barry Lyndon*

What is luck? The dictionary definition is “success brought about by chance rather than by ones own actions”. To the religious mind nothing can be occasioned by luck because all is within the compass of a providential God. In Christianity what others call ‘luck’ is instead called ‘grace’. The Greeks believed in the randomness and pointlessness of luck, but they ascribed it to the capricious will of the Goddess Fortuna. Fortune was experienced as capriciousness but lay ultimately in the lap of the gods. To the secular mind the possibility of chance is an affront. To surrender to the idea that life is underscored by meaningless, pointless contingency is, for some, too brutal to be contemplated. Therefore instead, for the secular mind, providence is smuggled back in and called behavioural determinism or karma or destiny or fate or some such retrospective self-deceiving comfort. Let us steel ourselves and remain with the definition of luck as nothing more than pure mundane chance. Continue reading

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Miscellaneous

Olympic spirit

And so the Rio Olympics comes to an close. The English tabloids are lobbying for the more photogenic gold-medalists to be knighted. Members of the Great Britain team are returning to London on a specially chartered plane with a golden nose. The green diving pool has been returned to blue. An IOC member has been arrested for corruption. The Brazilians can sleep peacefully now the US frat-boy swimmers crime wave is over. The favelas have been forcibly cleared. My favourite irony was the Russian minister for sport complaining that the crowd’s booing of Russian drugged up competitors was “not sporting.Continue reading

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Art, Books

Don’t judge a book by its cover

A recent book celebrating the artistic spirit of resistance by the Syrian people has made the news. Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline is a collection, translated into English, by over fifty artists and authors who confront violence in their country with poems, songs, satirical cartoons and political posters. It gives voice to the silent and tells an unheard story. It was described in a review by A. L. Kennedy as a “wise, courageous, imaginative and beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.” The book was a winner of the English PEN award, and its publication supported by the British Council and the Arts Council. It celebrates openness, tolerance, creativity and freedom. Continue reading

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