Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fall - Albert Camus


The Fall - Albert Camus' famous monologue; thoughtful, contemplative and... unsettling, I guess. Multi-layered so as to be read as though the fictional narrator by the name of Jean-Baptiste Clamence is addressing a stranger encountered in an Amsterdam bar or as Camus himself addressing the reader directly. Whatever, it's a very effective style of writing that slowly but surely pulls you in until you realise you're trapped in the folds of Camus' world and there's no easy way out.

The Fall was Camus' last book he wrote before he died in a car crash at the age of 46 and is considered to be his most misunderstood if not most difficult work. If you read through his books from The Stranger, to The Myth Of Sisyphus, to The Plague, to The Rebel, you can see a progression in his thought and a development in his skill as a writer. Ever deeper he was digging into the question of suicide and the Absurd and though The Fall isn't the complete flowering of his ideas, it's probably as close as he ever got.
I do wonder, even though The Fall is a classic, does anyone actually know what the story is about before they start reading it? I very much doubt it. A reader might have an idea of what the book is concerned with but it's only after finishing it that you realise it's like a Trojan horse and its real meaning is in its depths, which is almost being smuggled into you. Essentially, The Fall is a mirror held up to the reader and what the reader chooses to do with that reflection is entirely up to them.

Jean-Baptiste Clamence describes himself to the person he's talking to (the reader?) as a 'judge-penitent' and it's only when you finish reading the book that you come to understand what is meant by this. Clamence explains how he was once a very successful, benevolent Parisian lawyer who was near-perfect in every way a man could wish: rich, cultured, noble of mind, dignified, courteous, popular, generous, good-looking, athletic, etc, etc. A man at the height of his powers.
In these exalted heights he revelled, in plain view of all other people so they might see what a wonderful person he was. His existential crisis begins, however, when walking home one night over a bridge in Paris where he sees a young woman peering over the railings into the river below. After passing her, he hears from behind him the sound of a body striking the water and then several cries drifting away downstream before falling silent. He remains there rooted to the spot in shock but rather than turning around or running for help he slowly gathers himself and starts to walk away in the rain, never mentioning the incident to anyone.

From there on he begins to have moments of clarity, realisation and insight into his true character. When he hears laughter it for some reason unsettles him, as if the laughter was aimed at him. He catches himself doffing his hat to a blind man whom he's escorted across a road and realises it's not for the blind man's benefit that he doffs his hat - he's blind, so he wouldn't know - but to people looking on so they might see what a kindly man he is. After playing a part, he was taking a bow. He's involved in an altercation with a motorcyclist and ends up being publicly humiliated, then bitterly resents how he didn't simply give his adversary a good thrashing and then walk away with head held high. His whole life, it dawns upon him, is hypocritical so he starts to wilfully damage his own reputation and destroy his perceived good character, setting himself on a path to social suicide.

To escape himself and to be free of the judgement by others he enters realms of debauchery, taking up with prostitutes and drinking for nights on end; and for a time this succeeds in erasing the laughter though at the cost of damaging him physically. Finally, he closes his law office, leaves France and travels; ending up in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, a city below sea level where poor and rich men alike from all the corners of the world wash through like so much dirty water down a drain.
And there now Clamence waits for them in a bar. Making their acquaintance and relaying his story; changing or highlighting aspects of it according to whom he's talking to on any given evening.
Through the acceptance of his hypocrisy and the absurdity of his existence, and by falling as far as he can, he has found a freedom he wishes to tell others of. There is no turning back and no second chances for anyone, hence the no escaping from his walking away from the event on the bridge in Paris or the public humiliation suffered during the altercation with the motorcyclist. There is no escape from the absurdity. There is no grander height to scale than the very bottom. Those men who are above others in whatever way (such as the Pope - the name of which Clamence was given whilst being held in a prisoner of war camp) need the most forgiving because they are the least innocent, they are the most hypocritical, and they are the most absurd.

The brilliance of The Fall is that it is as I said like a mirror being held up to the reader. What the reader sees in that mirror and how it's interpreted is down to them. The very title 'The Fall', for example, could be read as referring to the woman on the bridge and the incident that instigated Clamence's existential crisis or to Clamence's self-inflicted fall from supposed grace as a lawyer in Paris to a dispossessed judge-penitent in Amsterdam. Or if you're American it could be taken as another name for 'Autumn'. Or it could even just be read as the name taken for one of the most interesting and uniquely individual bands in British music of the last few decades, fronted by a curmudgeonly Mancunian by the name of Mark E Smith...

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."

John Serpico

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 12)


There is something perfectly relaxing about sitting and watching the boats roll back up the Exe at the end of a day, homeward bound to the quay. As the sun begins to set and the colours in the sky start to flare and dissolve, a languid weariness descends from above like a beautifully soft eiderdown being thrown over the world as slowly but surely everything feels right. 
The sea heaves and shifts its mighty weight and the beach is deserted to fall prey to the gulls and the crows seeking scraps and detritus left behind by the tourists.
The boats sound their horns.  The sound of children's laughter fades. The waves lap upon the shore. 
And life becomes dream....

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Street Art Exmouth Style (Part 7)


In a shop doorway on Rolle Street in Exmouth is a beautiful picture of the sun composed of tiles on a wall. And I've seen that as people walk by going about their daily business they pay this picture not a blind bit of notice. Either they're oblivious to it, they're otherwise engaged, or they're simply not interested. Whatever the reason, it seems to go unnoticed. And there's a kind of sadness about this because it begs the question 'what else goes unnoticed?' Do people not see any of the other works of art around them? Do they not see all the other faces around them? Do they not notice the real sun in the sky? Or the clouds, or the moon, or the stars? Do they not notice the world? Do they not love the world? Do they not love the clouds, the moon, or the stars? Do they not love the sun?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Anthem - Ayn Rand


Well, at least Ayn Rand is interesting, which is a lot more than can be said about a good many writers. She's interesting because she's thought-provoking which in any day and age can only be a good thing. She's also - or has been - a massively influential writer, more so perhaps than what most people might even realise.
Rand set down through her books an idea, a philosophy she called 'Objectivism' which when looked back on in hindsight was obviously picked up on by a large number of people who subsequently went on into influential political and economic positions, particularly in the USA.
Objectivism is essentially all to do with self-interest. It's a cocktail of atheism, existentialism, laissez-faire capitalism, narcissism, Nietzscheism and selfishness; eliminating all notions of altruism. Aspects of her philosophy are actually very good in many ways but it's the selfishness that underpins it all that's the major problem because basically - it's against nature. Co-operation, mutual-aid and altruism is what practically all species on earth practice and ultimately it's the only way that anything can survive, evolve and move forward. Selfishness is a dead-end in more ways than one.
Ayn Rand is most famous for two of her novels - The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged - both of which give full vent to her ideas but before these she'd already written two other books, Anthem being one of them.

Anthem is a future-shock sci-fi novella depicting the world in an unspecified future time where all concept of individualism has been outlawed and eliminated. It's written in the first-person but because all sense of individuality has been eliminated, the narrator refers to himself as 'we' rather than 'I', as do all other characters.
At birth, children are separated from their mothers and housed in special units where they are raised and schooled before being assigned life roles. The narrator, going by the name of Equality 7-2521 is assigned the role of 'Street Sweeper' and re-housed into another unit for those in a similar vocation. The world is a bleak, sterile, totally regulated place where every thought and every action is for the benefit of the whole rather than the individual: "What is not thought by all men cannot be true. What is not done collectively cannot be good."
Equality 7-2521, however, is curious of mind and on discovering an old abandoned tunnel full of relics from the past, allows his curiosity to run riot and through experimenting with copper wires and 'globes of glass containing metal thinner than a spider's web', discovers and harnesses the power of the sky. It turns out that what he's discovered is an old subway tunnel, the globes of glass are light bulbs, and the power of the sky is electricity.

He takes his discovery to the World Council of Scholars believing himself to be the bearer of a great gift for mankind but the Council denounce him and his discovery as a threat to all that is held dear: "This would wreck the Plans of the World Council, and without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot rise. And if this should lighten the toil of men then it is a great evil, for men have no cause to exist save in toiling for others. It must be destroyed!" And so too must Equality 7-2521 so he flees for his life and ends up living in an old house deep inside an uncharted forest where he comes to understand the meaning of freedom and individualism. The narrator's voice changes from 'we' to 'I' and his vision for life is laid out in a final hymn to self.

Rand didn't write Anthem for it to be The Great Novel or to show the world her talent for writing, she wrote it to communicate an idea and this she does reasonably well. So with this in mind, it's helpful to read the book as simply a vehicle for that idea as anything more will probably just lead the reader to being disappointed.
Whenever Rand is criticised, her supporters more often than not jump up and accuse the critic of being either weak-minded or a socialist. Or they say Rand is being misinterpreted or misunderstood. Well, I've no intention of criticising Rand at all because as I said, I actually find her interesting. And I'm neither weak-minded nor a socialist. What I will criticise, however, are her supporters because Rand is dead and they are the living, and it is they who are the interpreters of her ideas and philosophy into the world as it is today.

For some reason, all her supporters just happen to be right-wing conservatives and neoliberals - now why might this be? - who tend to use Rand as their own private backbone of morality to their selfishness and greed. But then how else could they sleep at night? How else could they live with themselves without some sort of moral justification for their world-view? Misanthrope propels them to distance themselves from life, nature and human emotion as they embrace certain aspects of Rand's philosophy and reject others. For them, laissez-faire capitalism and self-interest is all fine and dandy but atheism is contentious so they overly embrace religion almost as a cloak to cover their actual spiritual emptiness. Splendid isolation is justified as being God’s divine will when in actual fact it's existentialist and God is dead. So the aspects of Rand's philosophy that are beneficial to their greed are promoted whilst the aspects that gain them nothing are set carefully to one side and not spoken of.

Rand warns against the world turning into some kind of ultra-communist, sub-Korean super-State where subservience to collectivism morphs into a hell on earth. And she's not wrong. A world of such extremes would indeed be a living nightmare. What she and her supporters promote to counter this, however, is equally as hellish: A world in which self-interest is the guiding star, where capitalism is given free reign and profit for the individual is the be all and end all. Where nature and the environment is incidental or just something else to be exploited, where the world is ruled for the benefit of an elite 1% and the other 99% can go hang, or go beg, or go starve, or as writer Whittaker Chambers once put it: "To a gas chamber - go!"

I wonder: Does this world sound familiar to anyone in any way at all?

Over 29 million copies of Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged have been sold to date and at one point just back in the Nineties it was cited in a poll to be the most influential book upon those taking part in the poll second only to the bible. Anthem has sold nowhere near those amounts and is lesser known than Rand's other books but as an insight into what Rand's about, it's a good place to start.

Narcissist babe extraordinaire
John Serpico

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 11)


Well, that's it for another year then.... Gunpowder, treason and plot.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Behold The Man - Michael Moorcock


I must confess, I've always been a bit of a fan of Hawkwind but then who in their right mind wouldn't be? I've heard and owned a reasonable amount of their recorded output over the years and seen them perform live a number of times, starting out from experiencing them at the Stonehenge Free Festival many moons ago when I was but knee-high to a grasshopper. I must also confess, however, that as inexplicable as it might be to some, until now I've never read anything at all by Michael Moorcock.
Moorcock, of course, was once inextricably linked with Hawkwind and used to perform live with them. I guess my only excuse is that there always seemed to have been other books to read instead?
So, with that confession out of the way I'm basically declaring that I'm no expert on Michael Moorcock at all so I don't actually know whether Behold The Man is typical of his work, or one of his best or perhaps not one of his best? This, then, is a layman's review.

First published in novel-form in 1969, a shorter version of Behold The Man originally appeared in a magazine called New Worlds and won the Nebula Award for the best novella in 1967. It's the story of a bookshop owner called Karl Glogauer who volunteers to be the first person to travel in a time machine that's been invented by an old eccentric physicist; Glogauer's only proviso being that he chooses the time and the place to travel back to. The time machine can only travel backwards in time, not forward; and as it's only the untested prototype there's the danger the machine may not be able to return successfully.
Glogauer isn't a very likeable character it must be said, in fact he's quite pitiful due to having just a few too many issues. He's self-pitying, humourless, sexually-repressed, has suicidal tendencies, he's a victim of predators in all shapes and forms, and has an unhealthy (or perhaps healthy?) interest in Jung. His chosen destination to travel to is Nazareth, in the Middle East and his chosen period to travel back in time to is AD28, approximately one year before the crucifixion of Christ.
For Glogauer, discovering the truth about Jesus and whether or not He actually existed will give meaning to his life and settle the discontent he's always carried with him. The book begins with the time machine crash-landing and Glogauer crawling from the wreckage.

He's rescued from the desert wilderness into which he's crashed by tribesmen who take him to their village, whereupon he's questioned by a giant of a man as to who he is and where he's from. The giant's name is John The Baptist. Glogauer is accepted by the tribe and takes a place amongst them whilst recovering from injuries sustained from the crash. His strange arrival in a chariot of fire from the heavens is seen as being a sign from their god and he's taken to be a magus. Glogauer has suddenly landed centre-stage in events that are about to change the course of the world.
John The Baptist asks that Glogauer baptise him and announce to the tribesmen that the time is ready for the kingdom of heaven to be established on earth. Glogauer agrees, seeing it as merely helping to prepare the way for the arrival of Christ but when it comes to the moment of baptising John, Glogauer is unable to go through with it and flees into the desert where for forty days and forty nights he roams.

Glogauer is next found stumbling into a town; emaciated, half naked and talking in tongues. He's in search of a carpenter by the name of Joseph who with his wife Mary are the parents of a child called Jesus. He's finally led to them only to find Joseph a sour man who never laughs, Mary a sex-craved bully and their son Jesus a dribbling, giggling, hunchbacked imbecile.
He's offered refuge by the rabbis at a local synagogue where he spends his time whilst recovering from his ordeal in the desert trying to understand what has gone wrong. There is, however, no answer to be found. The Testaments and scrolls he reads are simply false and confusing. In the meantime, the rabbis and the townfolk are becoming ever more curious about this stranger in their midst.
Glogauer takes to roaming the streets and talking to people, who, viewing him as some strange prophet start seeking his advice on all manner of things. He obliges them and his reputation quickly spreads, enhanced by him pitying the poor and the sick and curing some of easily remediable psychosomatic conditions. He develops a following and word spreads of the miracles he performs. Glogauer is only too aware that what he's doing is turning the myth of Jesus into reality.

He gathers around him twelve particular disciples and after further sermons and performing of 'miracles' he prepares for his ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, though not before ordering one of the disciples - by the name of Judas Iscariot - to inform the governor Pilate of the prophet's revolutionary intentions. Judas does as he is bid and the prophet is duly arrested and as punishment is sentenced to death by crucifixion.
The book ends with Glogauer in agony on the cross, pleading to be let down. Finally crying out until his last breath: "It's a lie - it's a lie - it's a lie..."

For a book dealing in such heavyweight themes as Jungism and the imitation of Christ, Behold The Man is actually a very light read which is obviously evidence of Moorcock being a very good writer. In the past, Moorcock has declared himself to be an Anarchist and this makes sense as it would require someone to have that kind of sensibility to be able to write a book such as this. 
Behold The Man trashes the mythology of Christ though it should be stressed it doesn't actually trash His teachings. Moorcock's Glogauer character may well have a messiah complex but by taking on the role of Christ and knowing he will die in agony, he's making sure lessons such as brotherly love and the non-acquisition of personal wealth are cast in stone and continue down through the ages. The problem with this, however, is that when Glogauer enters Jerusalem on his donkey the crowds aren't seeking lessons in brotherly love and so on, they're looking to be led into armed revolt against the Romans. John The Baptist had been planning to rise against the Romans that Passover, and it was thought that the new prophet was taking John's place as a rebel leader. "Free us! Free us!" the crowds call but because the armed revolt the crowds want isn't in the story Glogauer's enacting, all that he can say is "No. I am the messiah. I cannot free you.

Is this a blasphemous book? Of course it is, though when read objectively it's actually doing Christianity a service by placing the accent on the message of Christ, not the messenger. And it's the message that's the most important thing, is it not? Which is something I suspect a few Christians could do with remembering because believe you me, I've met a few in my time who haven't an iota of love in their eyes, their words or their actions let alone their hearts.
To those who might judge a book by its cover, Behold The Man would appear to be a cheap, pulp sci-fi novel but it's actually an incredibly well researched and interesting book. Michael Moorcock is an important figure in English literature though I suspect he's dismissed by a lot of people and not given the respect he's due simply because of the field he works in, meaning the fantasy/sci-fi genre. I suspect a lot of people are losing out - and I would include myself among those who have lost out due to not picking up on him earlier. The same would also go for Hawkwind, as in a lot of people miss out on them due to preconceived ideas but at least I don't count myself as one of those. But yes, Michael Moorcock - I shall endeavour to read more of his books in the future. 
John Serpico

Monday, 3 November 2014

Under Exmouth Skies (Part 10)


Under the sky the sea, under the sea the beach, under the beach the pavement, under the pavement the beach, under the beach the sea, under the sea the sky.