The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been thinking about and reading a lot about ‘minimalism’ recently, the idea of minimising your possessions and living more intentionally. I watched a documentary about the movement a while ago, right at the beginning of my reading fewer books challenge, and it appealed to me then but I’d half-forgotten about it until recently. It’s a concept that interests me, one that sits quite neatly with the ideals of the Tao, and I’ve been reading around a bit and a came across a reference to this book – Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project – and I’m not sure exactly why but I decided to pick it up. This in itself is an act of extreme strangeness on my part. For one, I am buying very few books (I’ve had a bit of a splurge recently, which is bad, but nothing compared to my splurges last year), book acquisition is quite anti-minimalist (though I will be passing it on to a friend shortly, so I’m not ‘hoarding’ it), but the most strikingly odd issue is this, and I can hardly believe I’m admitting it: The Happiness Project is basically a self-help book. Self-help books are the kind of books I avoid at all costs, I am and have always been snarkily derisory of them – you’re never going to fix your life with a pithy little book telling you how to live. Now I love philosophy, I love reading about culture and ideas and things like Walden which involve changing your life and connecting with nature. But this book is a best-seller firmly in the self-help genre – pretty much the antithesis of everything I value – and I seriously considered not reviewing it, but here I am in full confession. Yes: I read a self-help book. I may actually have finally gone insane.

As it happens The Happiness Project doesn’t have a great deal in common with the ideals of minimalism, though there are some interesting parallels. Irrespective I read it and I read it all the way to the end. Perhaps I read it so you don’t have to, but nothing in life is ever quite that simple and I don’t want to jump to the end of my review right in the beginning so let’s swing back to a more traditional approach. So what is The Happiness Project all about? The clue is definitely in the name. Gretchen Rubin decided to bring more happiness into her life, and she approached this by creating a happiness project. Starting in January she started to try to make changes which would make her life happier. This involved an incredible amount of reading, a large degree of thinking, many epiphanies and lots and lots of wall chart. In outlining her plan she identified a number of distinct areas she wanted to work on: boosting her energy levels, focusing on her marriage, pushing herself in her work, focusing on her parenting skills, playing and being joyful, being a great friend, buying happiness (honestly I kind of skipped this chapter because it was in degrees hopelessly naïve and in other respects so close to a truth it was painful to see it so determinedly missed), thinking about transcendence or eternity(almost skipped this one too, for the same reasons), being more present or mindful, pursuing passions and having a better attitude. She chunked these up into monthly goals and set about building a wall chart – her ‘resolutions chart’ – by means of which she made her commitments and measured her performance. After each month she would add a new set of resolutions and she would strive to achieve those too.

It was a good job she put ‘boosting energy’ at the start of her project because it must have taken a considerable amount of energy to keep it all up. As the tasks increased, the scope of her explorations developed, I found myself growing exhausted just reading about them. In the first month she committed to getting more sleep, exercising more, getting more organised – specifically decluttering which is, perhaps, where the connection to minimalism arises – tackling a nagging task and acting more energetic. Next month she added quitting nagging, not expecting praise or appreciation, fighting right (with humour, not rancour), not dumping insecurities or anger on her partner and giving proofs of love. This involved an incredible amount of work, selflessness and, somehow, organising parties. You can see how exhausting this must be. As Gretchen describes her journey, she also includes some interesting quotes from writers she admires or who have something interesting to say on the subject (Samuel Johnson appears frequently), psychological research which supports or challenges her ideas, as well as extracts of responses she’d received on her blog (there is a happiness project blog, from which this book was born) to questions she’d asked her readers about the subject.

As she goes along her journey, Gretchen shares her ‘commandments’ – the moments of epiphany in which she could distil something she’d learned into a little phrase which summarised a key learning. This is one of a number of things I found irritating about this book. The First Commandment was “Be Gretchen”, a reminder to always be consistent with herself and her values and not to try to be something different to who she is. So, for example, whilst she might like to read Aristotle what she loves to read is children’s literature so perhaps prioritising children’s literature is what would make her life happier. As she went through her experience she added to her commandments. Often commandments, along with other natty bits of information in the book, required italics. I also found this irritating, perhaps because I recognise my own propensity for highlighting words with italics as though using italics somehow make an observation more important.

The sheer level of control and activity and wall-chartery required in this happiness project was another source of extreme discomfort on my part. It is an issue that Gretchen herself acknowledges when at one point her husband questions whether the whole project isn’t just an exercise in extreme control. The fact that the end of the year is designated ‘Boot camp perfect’ month only adds to that impression. I’m not sure whether the project could actually make someone happy or just so busy they didn’t have time to notice they weren’t happy [stop me now]. And there’s a perkiness to the writing which I found wearing, though Gretchen is keen to point out her flaws – her nagging and argumentative nature, her quickness to anger and tendency to be a bit of a buzz-kill [yet these are all traits I recognise in myself when I’m in my most self-critical hyper-perfectionist mode and I began to wonder if Gretchen was, in fact, all of these things or just a perfectionist with a penchant for organisational stationery. Another trait I might, slightly, recognise] – and there came a point just past half-way through the book when I was reading and I was thinking to myself ‘who does she remind me of?’ and I realised, with shock and awe, that it was, in fact, the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame.

And I realised something else at that point: I like Kimmy Schmidt, and perhaps, deep down, my discomfort was partly driven by the fact that I also like Gretchen. Sure there are flaws in her system, and if you’re not the kind of person who can throw all your boundless energy into everything – creating writing and reading groups, volunteering at scout troupes, going to weird classes (laughing yoga?!? Even Gretchen wasn’t keen on that) being relentlessly forgiving and kind, doing your sister’s holiday shopping, etc etc – it’s all a little bit exhausting but Gretchen is at pains, in the entirety of the book, to point out that this was both an experiment and a journey that worked for her and her key advice was that First Commandment “Be [insert own name]”: find a happiness project that works for you. And I couldn’t help admiring that, just as I admire Kimmy Schmidt with her unflagging positivity and relentless desire to love and experience life.

Gretchen’s project isn’t for me, though I did learn something from her book and how to bring more happiness into my life. Some of her points are obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs some driving home for you to pay attention to it: be yourself, follow your own desires, love what you love, prioritise what matters, if you commit to be happy you will probably become happier. The how you do it is more down to you. And that, in itself, was revealing. It made me think about all the things that have been absorbing my mind recently, the ideas and philosophies which have most struck a chord with me – minimalism and Taoism – and why that is and how those things might lead to a happier life.

In a strange coincidence when I finished reading The Happiness Project I picked up The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, which I’ve borrowed recently from the library, and in the preface Merton expresses more succinctly and neatly than I have here my reservations about Gretchen’s methods. When Gretchen strives relentlessly to fulfil her resolutions, Taoism sees the acquisition of happiness very differently; it advocates not-striving, the principle of wu wei is that we are most in tune with the world, with ourselves, when we do nothing, that it is an approach of non-action rather than action that puts us in touch with the mysterious Tao. I read the following as an ancient critique of Gretchen’s methods, sent down through the ages, and it was, perhaps, an example of wu wei in action: I felt discomfort with what I had read, I was not seeking the wisdom to explain that discomfort and so the Tao delivered it anyway. But I’ll let Merton express it in his much more capable way:

“He sees “happiness” and “the good” as “something to be attained,” and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing, he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have what he desires…”

“The more one seeks “the good” outside oneself as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analysing the nature of the good. The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opinions. The more “the good” is analysed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes[…] And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means become so demanding that all ones efforts must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.” 

Yet whilst it is true to say it’s a critique there’s another school of thought which is that it is simply a different way of trying to achieve the same thing: to be in harmony with oneself and the world. Gretchen does it one way (not a Taoist way) and the Tao sets out another way. My way and Gretchen’s have parted, but not before I’ve learned some interesting things, been entertained and admitted my foray into self-help hasn’t been quite as painful as I’ve pretended it to be [italics included].

Posted in non-fiction, self-help | 4 Comments

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

“Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories.”

Image result for a tale for the time being

I may have mentioned that it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, nothing major just a bit of personal disappointment which has caused me to rethink what I’m doing with my life, and against this backdrop of disappointment I’ve struggled to really settle on something to read. I realised I needed comfort reading: a book which could not fail to cheer me up whilst addressing some of the issues I was absorbed with, and whilst I was thinking about it I thought “I could really use the advice of old Jiko right about now,” and of course that meant I had to read A Tale for the Time Being again. Actually I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while, and events simply turned me to it sooner than I had expected. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve read this book, but it has never yet failed to soothe and console me and it hasn’t failed me this time either.

I suspect it’ll be an unusual reader of this blog who hasn’t read or heard about A Tale for the Time Being before. The book is the story of Naoko (Nao) Yasutani, a Japanese girl who grew up in the US forced to return to Tokyo when her Dad lost his job in Silicon Valley after the dotcom bubble burst. The family lost everything in the financial downturn. Consequently she moved from a comfortable, secure life to one of difficulties and relative poverty. Her Dad makes multiple suicide attempts and her life at her new Japanese school is excruciatingly bad – she suffers from intense bullying, even from her teachers, and fails to make any connections or friends. When the story begins we find Nao has dropped out of school; she’s spending her days in a French style café writing a diary and avoiding ‘dates’ (e.g prostitution), contemplating suicide herself. She’s also trying to write the story of her great-grandmother – Jiko – who is 104 years old, a Buddhist nun and a radical, liberal feminist whose son, Haruki #1, was killed as a kamikaze pilot during the WWII. Haruki #1 is a hero of Nao’s, as is Jiko (who is a hero of mine too, obviously!).

On another thread, we have Ruth (miraculously similar to the Ruth writing this book) who finds Nao’s diary, with some letters, a watch and another diary written in French, one day whilst walking on the beach on the remote Canadian island where she lives with her husband Oliver (perhaps, too, remarkably similar to the Oliver who is the spouse of Ruth Ozeki). Ruth is struggling with her writing, struggling with her memory and struggling with life on a tiny island with a tiny, and quite nosy community in which secrets are all but impossible. Ruth gets drawn into Nao’s world through reading the diary; she increasingly suffers from difficulties in separating the present time from Nao-time, the time Nao was writing and the things she was writing about. So we are all drawn into the story which sits against a backdrop of terrible events: 9/11, the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, war, the slow death of Ruth’s mother by Alzheimer’s. Through the smallness of Nao’s troubled world, the troubles of the wider world are revealed as are Ruth’s own troubles. Everything is strangely connected.

A Take for the Time Being is a complex story, and I’m not going to do justice to it here. It is a book with which I feel a deep connection, I feel it because I think it is full of truth wrapped in a story because life is only stories as Jiko so succinctly puts it, but through stories we can learn about ourselves, about others, about what it means to be human, about how to be a human in the world. Everyone in A Tale for the Time Being is suffering. Nao is suffering the loss of the life she knew and its replacement which is full of sadness and loss, anger and cruelty. Her Dad is suffering because his choices led his family to their demise and he felt powerless to do anything about it, feeling that suicide is the ‘honourable’ way out, unable to talk about what he had done or why. Ruth is suffering because she is lost, because she lost her mother, because island life doesn’t suit her yet the world around her is so strange and cruel and misguided, and whilst all these things are going on she feels that she is losing her mind, that she is sliding into Alzheimer’s like her mother did before her. The world is suffering from war, from climate change, from pollution – particularly plastics in the ocean and radioactive fallout – from terrorism. Everywhere you look there is terrible cruelty. Haruki #1 suffered bullying and the imminence of his death being drafted to a suicide squadron when all he wanted was to study philosophy and French and be a decent person in the world. Even old Jiko, 104 years old, suffered the loss of her beloved son, and then her daughters and the sadness and dejection of her grandson and great-granddaughter. How amongst all this suffering do we live at all? It is a question I’ve found myself reflecting on, though my suffering has been small and insignificant but the wider suffering of the world is ever-pressing and there is so little, if not quite nothing, one person can do about it.

Yet this book, largely though the beautiful musings of Jiko and her family, offers a way. The world, it turns out, is a strange and beautiful and complex place and we can choose how we interact with it. Because we are time beings. As Haruki #1 explains:

“Dogen also wrote that a single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. I never understood this before, because my understanding of time was murky and imprecise, but now that my death is imminent, I can appreciate his meaning. Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”

Our time here is comprised of instants and in each instant we can choose how we respond. This is an important aspect of Dogen’s Buddhist philosophy, as Ozeki describes in one of the appendices to the book in an examination of ‘zen moments’ (of which there are, according to Dogen, 6,400,099,980 in a day):

“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.

She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.

That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.

And just like that, you die.”

Yet it is not just an idea that exists in ancient Buddhist philosophy, it’s also a key principle of quantum physics. Quantum physics posits a strange, incomprehensible universe in which cats can be simultaneously alive and dead, in which there are many worlds – a branching, endlessly complex universe in which every decision, every action, creates a branching storyline – a new universe – in which the story unfolds the same or differently. It’s an interesting concept, but the important point for me was that being reminded that we are time beings is a reminder to wake up and to truly live our lives not in a constant state of input and response – instinct – but in an intentioned and deliberate way. We do not have to react, we do not have to allow events to shape us. We can choose to shape ourselves, our every moment. At any point we can snap our fingers and make a choice, change direction, do things differently. And this applies to everything. We do not need to be angry or hostile, defensive or aggressive. We can choose to love, to forgive, to accept and to learn. And we know, deep down, without the framework of a religion that this is the better way to be. We don’t really need an old Jiko of our own (though I wish, I wish) just a little voice in the back of our heads that points us in the right direction when we feel sad or pressured or even disappointed, so that we do the right thing not just the reactive thing. A Tale for the Time Being was the right direction for me, and thankfully it is both an instructive, fascinating and beautiful read. I am so grateful that it exists. Thank you, Ruth Ozeki.

Posted in fiction, Japanese, re-read | 4 Comments

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

“This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse.”

Image result for findings kathleen jamieWhen I read that line I realised that Jamie had latched on, somehow, to my very thoughts, and I realised that most of my reading this year, my most rewarding reading experiences, has been aimed towards this particular goal. Reading, for me, for everyone possibly, is a way of learning, it is a way of learning how to be in the world because we read how people behave and decide how we want to behave and we learn how to be those things through books. Jamie is an excellent example of someone who has learned how to notice, but not to analyse. It is, perhaps, the ultimate way of being in the moment, of observing something and enjoying it for what it is – seeing the bird looping in the wild air and not wanting to capture it by naming or description but simply observing the way it whoops and whirls. It is a state I have been struggling to overcome, it is not my nature to just watch and accept I am always trying to capture and own. I saw two birds walking along a wall at the side of the railway line last week, two black and white birds with long orange beaks, and they were walking single file and they looked beautiful and strangely hilarious and my first thought was ‘wow’ and my second was ‘what are those’ and the answer is oystercatchers, but I would rather the second part had remained somewhat unknown.

 Findings is a series of essays by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. There’s no particular theme beyond Jamie’s desire to see, to observe and be present in the world. It begins with Jamie’s foray into light and darkness, her questioning of the ways in which we perceive darkness as something negative, an absence, a place of death:

“I imagned travelling into the dark. Northward –  so it got darker as I went. I’d a notion to sail by night, to enter into the dark for the love of its textures and wild intimacy. I had been asking around among literary people, readers of books, for instances of dark as natural phenomenon, rather than as a cover for all that’s wicked, but could find few. It seems to me that our cherished metaphor of darkness is wearing out The darkness through which might shine the Beacon of Hope. Isaiah’s dark: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’

Pity the dark: we’re so concerned to overcome and banish it, it’s crammed full of all that’s devilish like some grim cupboard under the stair. But dark is good. We are conceived and carried in the darkness are we not? When my son was born, a midwinter child, he cried pitifully at the ward’s lights, and only settled to sleep when he was laid in a big pram with a black hood under a black umbrella. Our vocabulary ebbs with the daylight, closed down with the cones of our retinas. I mean, I looked up ‘darkness’ on the Web – and was offered Christian ministries offering to lead me to salvation. And there is always death. We say death is darkness; and darkness death.”

She travels to the Orknay Islands to Maes Howe, a Viking tomb which captures the midwinter sun yet the trip doesn’t quite work out as she’d hoped. In other essays she watches peregrine falcons and ospreys,  she hunts the  elusive corncrake (which many will remember from Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun), she watches salmon attempting to leap, unsuccessfully, up a burn, she visits an abandoned island where she finds the decaying body of a whale and hacks the head off a dead gannet with her Swiss Army knife. She visits the Surgeons’ Hall and observes the many body parts which are collected there, the misshapen and tumorous, and leaves in tears. Here, where her husband is extremely sick with a fever, she observes the cobwebs gathered under the gutter of her house:

“Under the gutter of our house are many cobwebs, each attached at a slightly different angle to the wall. It’s an east-facing wall, so on sunny mornings the cobwebs are alight.

The cobwebs make me think of ears, or those satellite dishes attuned to every different nuance of the distant universe. One cobweb after another – a whole quarter of cobwebs, like an Eastern bazaar with all the cobblers, all the spice-sellers, all the drapers together in their own alleys. He biggest web measured about a hand-span and a half, a pianist’s hand-span. I wondered if all the spiders were related, a family group.”

The essays are at once detached and highly empathetic. Jamie has a beautiful way of writing, whether she is writing of tumbledown old shielings or the Edinburgh skyline, she has a fresh gaze and an eye for the unusual and whilst some of her subject matter can seem harsh or lurid – as when she hacks off the head of the gannet – there is an underlying reverence which elevates the experience to something more than mere violence. Jamie is one of those writers who can capture the magnificence and extraordinary beauty of the natural world and bring it dispassionately, or passionately, to life, a secular Annie Dillard or Mary Oliver. I remember being entranced the first time I read this book and that entrancing withstands, or in fact benefits from, re-reading. It is a gorgeous book, sparse and wonderfully written and it was exactly what I needed this week (it’s been a rubbish week) to remind me of what’s important and what the world offers us when we step outside the everyday.

Posted in nature, non-fiction, re-read | 7 Comments

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)

“Human life is comprised of situations.”

Flights is one of those books which is hard to describe. It is hard to describe and it is even harder to review because reviewing requires some description and the nebulousness of this book makes description impossible. In fact not just impossible but actually counter to the philosophy of the book itself which posits description, in one posting anyway, as an act of destruction in itself:

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours. Even I, in my youthful naivete, once took a shot at the description of places. But when I would go back to those descriptions later, when I’d try to take a deep breath and allow their intense presence to choke me up all over again, when I’d try to listen in on their murmurings, I was always in for a shock. The truth is terrible: describing is destroying.”

So let me attempt a little act of destructive description here. Flights is a book about travel, it is about maps. It is about different kinds of maps: maps of places – which themselves figure in the book – maps of the body, in particular the work of the anatomists who Image result for flights by olga tokarczukhave both described and destroyed the body, captured and mapped it and shared it like those multi-language guide books do; maps of the mind, of consciousness, of the art of travelling and the question of motion. It’s about ‘kairos’ – the Greek God of moments, time captured in a bubble, the opportune or momentous time. It is about plastination, the art of preserving the body in a form which allows it to be both captured and revealed. All these ideas, these concepts, mingle together to make a complex, yet strangely cohesive whole. It is all interlinked, and through clever placement and clever repetition, Tokarczuk reveals this interconnection in surprising and, often, entertaining ways.

“The more experienced a biologist you become, the longer and harder you look at the complex structures and connections in the biosystem, the stronger your hunch that all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them. If rivalry exists, it is a localised phenomenon, an upsetting of the balance. It is true that tree branches jostle one another out of the way to reach the light, their roots collide in the race to a water source, animals eat each other, but there is in all this a kind of accord, it’s just an accord that men find frightening. It might appear that we are actors in a great bodily theatre, as though those wars we wage were merely civil wars. This – what other word to use? – lives, has a million traits and qualities, so that everything is contained within it, and there is nothing that might lie outside of it, all death is part of life, and in some sense there is no death. There are no errors. There are no guilty parties and no innocents, either, no merits, no sins, no good or evil; whoever thought up those notions led humankind astray.”

The structure of the book is equally unusual, or rather it is a kind of usual that is unusually deployed. The book comprises a collection of short pieces, many of which are less than a page long, some as short as a line or a single paragraph. Each piece contains an observation, or a story. Those stories are factual and fictional, they blend the idea of fiction and non-fiction in a way which is unusual to the Western ear (in many cultures there is no separation of fiction and non-fiction, there are stories and there are text books and books like memoirs are considered just another kind of story). Interspersed between the shorter pieces are a handful of longer sections, one of which is a continuous story of a man called Kunicki who lost his wife and son on the island of Vis, and the way this loss affected him. The quality of the writing is quite extraordinary; it is at once clear and enticing, it is reflective and clever and very compelling. Tokarczuk weaves her tales so convincingly that when the purely fictional stories come, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

“’In reality, movement doesn’t exist. Like the turtle in Zeno’s paradox, we’re heading nowhere, if anything we’re simply wandering into the interior of a moment, and there is no end, nor any destination. And the same might apply to space – since we are all identically removed from infinity, there can also be no somewhere – nothing is truly anchored on any day, nor in any place.”

Flights is a difficult book to grasp whilst being extremely easy to read. It reminded me of a kind of mash up between Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson, not as philosophical as Nelson but rippled through with philosophy yet not as person-centric as Adler but with a very personable, and character driven tone. Style-wise the book is similar to these two as well, but somehow there is less formality and more playfulness and in this respect it also reminded me of Calvino in some of his more esoteric writings like Mr. Palomar or Invisible Cities. There’s a playfulness there, an experimentality, you get the impression that Tokarczuk is writing what she feels and seeing where it goes, yet the construction, the style and the skill of her pieces belies that level of spontaneity. No, Tokarczuk is a writer of power exercising her power in a fascinating and entertaining way. It’s like finding yourself in a museum in which each exhibit is both different and connected and as you walk along you find yourself being more and more drawn into it, its dizzying array of styles and perspectives, forms and presentations, and you emerge from it blinking and slightly unsettled, unsure of what you’ve just seen but yet dazzled by it. It has cemented my (not inconsiderable) respect for Fitzcarraldo Editions as a publishing house with spark and an eye for innovative writing and it has made me desire a subscription even more (if that was possible), a desire I’m going to have to work hard to quash after this.

Posted in fiction | 10 Comments

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Freedom is never very safe.”

Every now and again I remember that I enjoy science fiction immensely. It is a genre which is as full as rubbish as any other, sometimes descending into space opera, misogyny and trashy space erotica, but the same can be said for every literary genre. Crime is not populated purely by the Christies and Frenchs, general literature has its beach novels and its formulaic action heroes. At its best science fiction challenges both how we live and how we interact with both others and technology. It reflects our biases and our prejudices back at us in a form which is difficult to reject. It changes the world from Asimov’s three laws of robotics to Arthur C. Clark’s geosynchronous orbit, William Gibson’s coining of cyberspace to Ballard’s uncanny prescience on climate change and our relationship with advertising, science fiction both invades and defines our daily lives. It subverts language and space and time, our perception and understanding of it. The challenge, as with all genres, is separating the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately there are plenty of great names to work with that for the occasional reader it’s pretty easy to avoid the trash.

Ursula Le Guin is not just a great science fiction writer, she’s a great writer. Last year while I was away I read Lathe of Heaven, my first Le Guin, and it was interesting, challenging, but it ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way and for some reason I didn’t review it, I’m not sure why now. The Dispossessed is one of her better known science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness perhaps the most famous, and one I have not yet read), it won a Nebula Award, a Hugo Award and the Locus Award, quite a set of achievements. It is, I discovered, part of the ‘Hainish’ series, the Hainish being a species which are referred to briefly in The Dispossessed, which has further piqued my interest. Science fiction has a way of world building which, if done well, can be utterly convincing and compelling. It can be fun to disappear into an unusual world with strange echoes of our own.

The DisImage result for the dispossessedpossessed tells the story of Shevek. Shevek is a physicist living on te moon Anarres which orbits the planet Urras. Shevek’s home is an arid, difficult and rocky environment on which the inhabitants eke out a living. His race are descended from anarchists who separated from Urras, desiring to live as a community without government or governance, no leadership. What we would term communism, but communism properly realised, without the ‘leadership’ which exists in those parts of the world designated communist here. A system devoid of personal and structural power, in which people do not exercise authority over each other. The Anarres live according to the tenets of Odo, an Urras woman who seeded the anarchist movement, who was imprisoned many times for her beliefs and who herself never left Urras. The people of Anarres live behind a wall, they trade with Urras but on strict terms: no one from Urras can enter Anarres (kind of like Dejima in Nagasaki), fearing what they term are the ‘profiteers’, a culture which exists on the backs of the poor and the disenfranchised. Citizens of Anarres are deterred from ‘egoizing’, which might be described as forceful individualism, there are no prisons and no laws beyond the tenets of Odo (and these, too, are loosely interpreted) and no punishment, there is a created language which avoids possessive terminology – for example, Shevek’s daughter offers him the use of the ‘handkerchief I use’, as opposed to her handkerchief, a denial of possession – people work on what they want to but collective labour is encouraged for the benefit of society first and people are given work assignments, when requested, by a centralised system called ‘Divlab’. No one has any possessions, everything is shared and not owned. The needs of society come before the needs of the individual.

Shevek is working on a unified Theory of Temporality, a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionise communication between worlds. At the opening of the book we see Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, by this time Shevek is widely considered to be a ‘traitor’ (an interesting concept for a planet without structured law), being the first resident of Anarres to leave his planet. Shevek is concerned with bringing down walls, the first of which is the restrictions which keep Urras out and Anarres in. Yet his society see this as a risky prospect, opening them up to the profiteers who will use Shevek’s ideas to subjugate their world. Yet Shevek still goes. The book then proceeds with alternating chapters – one telling of Shevek’s new life and experiences on Urras, a world which he finds strangely beautiful and compelling, contrasted against his old life on Anarres. Thus we discover Shevek’s back story whilst discovering, with Shevek, how different the ‘old’ world is to the society which has been built on Anarres. At times Shevek is overcome by the beauty, the plenty and the abundance of life on Urras, as he describes here:

“It was the most beautiful view Shevek had ever seen. The tenderness and vitality of the colours, the mixture of rectilinear human design and powerful, proliferate natural contours, the variety and harmony of the elements, gace the impression of a complex wholeness such as he had never seen except, perhaps, foreshadowed on a small scale in certain serene and thoughtful human faces.

Compared to this, every scene Anarres could offer, even the Plain of Abbenay and the gorges of Ne Theras, was meagre: barren, arid, inchoate. The deserts of the South-west had a vast beauty, but it was hostile and timeless. Even where men farmed Anarres most closely their landscape was like a crude sketch in yellow chalk, compared to this fulfilled magnificence of life, rich in the sense of history and of seasons to come, inexhaustible.

This is what a world is supposed to look like, Shevek thought.”

However, Shevek soon comes to realise that he has made a terrible bargain. Though Urras is beautiful on the surface, it hides an ugliness at the heart of its culture. Inequality, authoritarianism and subordination dominate its society. There are wars and violent suppression of demonstrations. Shevek, initially, is shielded from this. His ‘hosts’ (read: jailors) on Urras show him only the surface, their achievements and accomplishments. They seduce him with an array of foods and comforts, the likes of which would never be seen on Anarres. Yet Shevek is not fooled. He knows he cannot trust his hosts, though this is an impossible situation for someone who has been brought up to be open and trusting. He is unused to scheming and the idea of having been ‘bought’ because currency and trade do not exist in his society. Yet the inequality inherent in the society is unavoidable, as Shevek learns early on:

“Shevek turned the conversation, but he went on thinking about it. This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life. If to respect himself Kimoe had to consider half the human race as inferior to him, how then did women manage to respect themselves – did they consider men inferior? And how did all that affect their sex-lives? He knew from Odo’s writings that, two hundred years ago, the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode. Odo had condemned them both; and yet Odo had been ‘married’; and anyhow the institutions might have changed greatly in two hundred years. If he was going to live on Urras and with the Urrasti, he had better find out.”

Through the chapters on Anarres, we learn that the society is not much better there. Whilst the ideology is such that power is not exercised, Shevek finds to his disappointment that his attempts to expand his theory are blocked by vested-interests in his field and restrictions on the ability to publish. He is forced, though force is said not to exist, to share credit for his theories just to enable them to be published and whilst he has been indoctrinated not to ‘egoize’ the dissonance between how his society is supposed to work and how it does work grinds Shevek down. He partners with a woman called Takver and both she and his group of close friends find themselves being persecuted, treated with dismissal or hatred, because of their ideas. They are anarchists on a world said to be built on anarchy, yet Shevek comes to learn that any centralisation becomes prone to abuse, to the seduction of power. As Shevek realises through his experiences on both planets, ‘freedom is never very safe,’ one has to fight for it, risk for it, and demand it at all turns. It is a powerful message, made more powerful by the intricate structure of the book and the idealism of the character of Shevek, a man who finds himself an outsider wherever he turns.

The Dispossessed is a very clever book, beautifully written and absorbing. Le Guin has the ability to combine examination of complex ideas with an entertaining story so that you find yourself swept up in it whilst never failing to recognise the concepts she’s exploring. By contrasting the cultures of Urras and Anarres as she does, she reveals the positives and the failings of both systems, she manages to remain entirely non-partisan all the way through because it is in Shevek, the man who combines the best of both of these worlds, that the ideal exists. She does not set one society above the other, she simply explores the ways in which each society results in hardship and for some whilst enabling others. Whilst the setting is alien, the concepts are not and it is easy to see Urras as the decadent West and Anarres as communist Russia or China, though the communist systems as we’ve lived them have never been a true leaderless society (as, arguable, Anarres is not either). Le Guin plays with the way language can be used to shape and control behaviour, and she explores cultural assumptions which we live with today with a clinical and unfiltered eye, such that it leads you to question the validity of some of our cultural practices, the way we justify them and the mechanisms that are used to enforce them. It is a book which asks what it means to be free, how we secure individual and collective freedoms without compromising the freedoms of others. It is as timely a book now as when it was written in the ‘70s, perhaps more so given the rise of populism which is, to a degree, controlled and directed by a small number of vested interests. It has reinforced my love of science fiction, my respect for Le Guin, and the importance of literature in general. All whilst being very entertaining and enjoyable to read.

Posted in equality, fiction, gender, science fiction | 4 Comments

[Interlude] Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.”

This is not a regular review, more of a reflection. Outside of my ordinary reading I have been dipping into poetry and other such things and somehow I came across the Tao, I can’t really remember how it happened. I think I must have read something else which made reference to it and out of the thinnest thread of curiosity I decided to borrow it from the library. I have, for a long time, been interested in buddhism, not to the extent that I could become a ‘follower’ but rather because there are ideas in buddhism which intrigue me, and the Tao has similar appeal but I was not quite ready for how wholly it would entrance me. The Tao is like a logical puzzle, yet it is neither logical nor a puzzle. It is a strange philosophy and yet it seems to encapsulate much of what I have been thinking and feeling over the past several months since I decided I needed to slow down, to restrict my reading and take more time over things. As with my interest in buddhism I am not about to become a follower, but the ideas, the ways of being advocated by the Tao, hold great interest for me and in many ways it is closer to both how I feel and how I would like to be than any other philosophy I have encountered.

The Tao Te Ching consists of 81 passages, presented like poems. There are a number of translations. I do not know which is the most faithful, but the one I enjoy the most is the translation by Stephen Mitchell. There is something clean about it, modern perhaps, it reveals complexity of thought through simple language. Like here, in his translation of one of the more famed passages, passage 33:

“Knowing others is intelligence;

Knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength;

Mastering yourself is true power.


If you realise that you have enough,

You are truly rich.

If you stay in the centre

And embrace death with your whole heart,

You will endure forever.”

It is not, of course, the veracity of the translation which interests me here, but rather the ideas contained within the words. It is an idea which has directed my thoughts and my actions for the past several months. I am trying to divest myself of the confusions created by desire, often desires which are fleeting and immaterial (or material in nature: the ownership, possession of books and things; the ideologies which are spread by the news, by politicians) and which do not bring either comfort or meaning or joy to my life. The Tao is a wonderful resource for reminding oneself of the necessity for silence and emptiness in a world which tells us that our life is worth nothing if we are not full, if we do not fill ourselves with food and experience, stuff our homes full of objects to display. As passage 9 states:

“Fill your bowl to the brim

And it will spill.

Keep sharpening your knife

And it will blunt.

Chase after money and security

And your heart will never unclench.

Care about people’s approval

And you will be their prisoner.


Do your work, then step back.

The only path to serenity.”


The Tao presents an idea of a life lived without the need for self-presentation, for praise or recognition. It is a philosophy which eschews the idea of image and exteriority. Since I have pulled back from doing things which are driven by fleeting and ephemeral desires I have noticed this more pressingly. Everything we see in the Western world is directing us towards the external presentation of the self, telling us that if we only look this way, sound this way, if only we have eaten these foods or seen these plays or TV shows, then we will be valuable and accepted in our society, that we will be admired. But admiration is like empty air, you suck it up and it is gone, it demands constant attention and it can direct us away from the things which matter most to us: love, connection, trust, intimacy. These things are not formed from external things, nor from a perfect image or from the things we have consumed. They are formed by outreaching, by being vulnerable and being willing to accept the vulnerability of others. The Tao advises us to be gentle and flexible, to be content with things as they are and not expend our energy on trying to force things to be what we want them to be. It asks us to let go of our need for control and step back, observe the world as it is and love it for what it is:

“If you realise that all things change,

There is nothing you will try to hold on to.

If you aren’t afraid of dying,

There is nothing you can’t achieve.


Trying to control the future

Is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.

When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,

Chances are that you’ll cut your hand.”


The Tao also has some comforting thoughts on matters of good governance, something which appears to be in short supply these days when ‘leadership’ seems to be reverting to a cult of personality and politics to mere gossip and squabbling. I wish our leaders would spend a little time reading and reflecting on the Tao, and perhaps they might learn this:

“If a country is governed with tolerance,

The people are comfortable and honest.

If a country is governed with repression,

The people are depressed and crafty.


When the will to power is in charge,

The higher the ideals, the lower the results.

Try to make people happy,

And you lay the groundwork for misery.

Try to make people moral,

And you lay the groundwork for vice.


Thus the Master is content

To serve as an example

And not to impose her will.

She is pointed but doesn’t pierce.

Straightforward, but supple.

Radiant, but easy on the eyes.”


I have found the Tao to be a source of great comfort, but also challenge; a way of challenging my mindset, my desires, my way of thinking and behaving. It has made me think about who and what I want to be, how I want to behave towards others and the value, the relief, of letting go.

Posted in philosophy, religion | 4 Comments

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

“6. This half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.”

When I read Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts last year it completely blew me away; it is a short but unusual book, raw and vibrant, unguarded (or seemingly so), beautiful and honest and smart. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before, unforgettable, and it cemented Maggie Nelson, even if only for that one book, as one of my favourite writers. Since I’ve been reading fewer books, I’ve had my eye on Bluets, in fact I’ve been struggling not to just go out and buy it, but thankfully the wonder that is Lancashire library service saved both my purse and my good intentions again. Thank you, Lancashire libraries.

“171. When one begins to gather “fragments of blue dense,” one might think one is paying tribute to the blue wholes from which they came. But a blue bouquet is no homage to the bush. Over the years I have amassed countless blue stones, blue shards of glass, blue marbles, trampled blue photographs peeled of sidewalks, pieces of blue rubble from broken buildings, and though I can’t remember where most of them came from, I love them nonetheless.”

Bluets is another unusual book, a book comprising 240 prose poems centred around the colour blue, Nelson’s love for the colour blue and the obsessions involved in thinking and writing about it. It is also about sadness, loss, about pain, about ‘blue’ as in an emotion, feeling blue, being blue. Nelson weaves the end of a relationship into her musings about blue, as well as a friend who was involved in an accident which left her quadri-paralytic, an accident which left her ‘like a pebble in water’. Like The Argonauts, Bluets is a complex piece of writing which warrants some time and attention to unpick. And yet even with time and attention it is unpickable, it is beautiful and sad, it is like reading poetry mixed with philosophy. It defies analysis.

“79. For just because one loves blue does not mean that one wants to spend one’s life in a world made of it. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-coloured lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus,” wrote Emerson. To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.”

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Nelson’s inspiration, her source materials beyond the colour blue, were Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Goethe, amongst others. The style I think is drawn directly from Wittgenstein, in particular his Remarks on Colour which was written at a time of sadness, during which Wittgenstein was dying, which was similarly written in short bursts of text, dense and difficult to comprehend. I haven’t read Wittgenstein; after reading Bluets once and then twice I went to Waterstones and took a brief read of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his one firmly philosophical book, and I began to understand both why Nelson admired him and the difficulty involved in emulating his style. But Bluets is not mere emulation, it is not pure homage, it is a thing in itself: tense, passionate, engaging.

“13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the colour blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.”

In writing Bluets Nelson covers a great deal of ground. She writes not just of colour but of passion, obsession, love. She writes of loss and pain, of sadness and vulnerability. As a piece of writing it is extraordinary, and yet I found myself a little disappointed because whilst it is a stirring piece it did not stir me as effectively as The Argonauts did, and I wished that somehow I had encountered Bluets first because I think The Argonauts may have spoiled it for me, being such a powerful piece of writing. Yet Bluets remains a worthy companion-piece. In the end I read it three times, and I think I could easily read it three times more and not have appreciated it in its entirety. Even if it lacks the power of The Argonauts it is a book well worth reading and coming back to.

“183. Goethe also worries over the destructive effects of writing. In particular, he worries over how to “keep the essential quality [of the thing] still living before us, and not to kill it with the word,” I must admit, I no longer worry about such things. For better or worse, I do not think writing changes things very much, if at all. For the most part, I think it leaves everything as it is. What does your poetry do? – I guess it gives a kind of blue rinse to the language (John Ashbery).”

Posted in non-fiction, poetry | 10 Comments