Sunday, 26 April 2015

Stephen King rescued my reading

I've been a big reader for as long as I can remember. I was always reading in the back of my parents' car whenever I was being reluctantly ferried somewhere, my brother beside me feeling travel sick, while if it was night-time I would be waiting for the next street light to sweep by so I could read another eight or nine words before the darkness returned. (My parents used to tell me I'd damage my eyesight; I got my first pair of glasses when I was 10).

For my 8th birthday, which happened to fall when we were holidaying on the island of Menorca or Majorca, I forget which, my parents brought my presents with us so I could open them on the right day. The only one I remember was from my aunt: a hardback book containing the two Michael Crichton novels Jurassic Park and Congo, a doorstop of a thing with about 650 pages that must have been a bugger for my dad to lug around in his suitcase. I was in heaven.

But then when I was 15 something happened. Gradually, without my being aware of it being triggered by anything, I started fixating on pronouncing each word in my head as I read it, making sure each syllable was enunciated sufficiently thoroughly for me to be able to move on. Increasingly, this meant having to go back and re-read the same particular word or sequence of words again and again, sometimes a dozen times or more. It was like what I imagine having a stutter must be like, only I was stuttering not over a vocalisation but over a ... mental acceptance of a word as having been read satisfactorily, is the best way I can think to describe it.

Slowly it became crippling: whereas once I'd read almost the entire 650-odd page Alan Dean Foster novelisations of the first three Alien films in a single day, I spent the first 6 or so months of 2003 getting through less than half of a single book.

I knew it was a mental hangup, something I ought to be able to just not do, but the difference between knowing that and applying it was everything. Sometimes I'd get to the end of a sentence and then one word would be stuck in my head as something I hadn't read right, and back I would go. Again and again.

Months went by, and I wondered whether I would ever read normally again. I took some solace from the fact that I could glance at a road sign or similar short snatch of text and decode the meaning of the words before consciously feeling like I was actively "reading" them, thereby escaping the trap, and the problem was less severe with things like textbooks and less severe generally in the classroom environment, but by the time the summer of that year rolled around I'd gone from reading all the time to barely even daring to pick up a book, or picking one up and then dropping it again minutes later having been unable to get anywhere.

I didn't talk about it to anyone, but my friend even commented on it, noticing that I'd been reading the same book forever. I made excuses.

I was almost resigned to the situation of no longer being a reader when, fully expecting the same outcome as with all the other books I'd attempted to read that year, I picked up Stephen King's The Drawing of the Three, the second book in his Dark Tower series.

I remember starting to read in a state of, at the risk of being overly dramatic, near misery. But then something magical happened: the story locked horns with my fixation, and I realised with growing joy that the story was stronger.

It didn't happen all at once. I started out slowly, tripping up and getting stuck like I'd become used to. But little by little the traps became less sticky, to the point where soon I was starting to fixate but then moving on each time before it could take hold.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was all down to the pace and excitement of the plot. The Drawing of the Three is the point in the Dark Tower series where it all really takes off: badass hero Roland, gunslinger extraordinaire, is thrust into the grungy world of two-bit punk Eddie and the violent thugs he's got himself involved with, through a plot device I won't reveal but which, to my 15-year-old self, but probably to anyone at any age, was just so damn cool.

The sensation was like how I imagine it must feel for people with phantom limb pain who experience relief through VN Ramachandran's mirror box trick, whereby the agony of the sensation that a hand which is no longer a part of your body has been permanently clenched for weeks or months on end suddenly dissipates when, by viewing a reflection of the relaxation of one's remaining good hand, the brain is visually fooled into believing that the missing hand has unclenched.

For me it was more gradual, and the sensation was one of frustration and fixation rather than pain, but the metaphor of an unclenching feels right: it was like my brain, as each sentence and each paragraph and each page went by with less and less obstruction, was learning to release itself from its own grip.

I finished the book in a couple of days. Since then, I've experienced only the occasional blip, easily vanquished.

I don't know whether there's a name for what I experienced or how common it is. (Try Googling it, and see where that gets you.) I've never raised it with anyone, but once, only once, have I heard someone else talk about it or something very similar: a friend, without my prompting, told me she'd experienced something that sounded much like what I went through, although in her case there were contributing circumstances that weren't a factor for me.

Maybe it's something that would have gone away eventually regardless. Maybe it's something there are multiple causes of and multiple routes out of. All I know is, The Drawing of the Three is a book to which I will always remain uniquely attached.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Watching warfare

The 10 April BBC Radio 4 episode of the culture programme Front Row included a feature with the directors of two new films about drone warfare: the feature film Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), and the documentary Drone, directed by Tonje Hessen Schei. (Listen here, from 20.20.)

Here's Niccol from Front Row:

"It was interesting to see what this kind of warfare would do to someone's psyche. Because if you're a jet pilot, a fighter pilot, normally you would just drop your missile on your target and fly away. Now if you're a drone pilot what you do is you drop your missile and you watch, and you do damage assessment, which is counting the dead. And they can sit over that target and watch their destruction for 24 hours. So that must do something to a human being."

And here's Schei:

"The US Air Force actually has their own sort of video site where you can get access to drone footage. They have these media days where they do promotional videos of the drone programme. Most of our footage is actually from the US Air Force. You can actually also find what they call drone porn or pred porn, where you find all this drone footage that drone pilots themselves have been uploading, often set to music."

The Drone trailer opens with the line "We're the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate Peeping Toms." "There's always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment", it continues.

I don't know whether this is the site Schei was referring to, but this USAF webpage has a simulator that allows the interested visitor to have an ersatz experience of what it's like to fire a drone missile.

And it's not just the US that wants to give its public a taste of drone warfare: the UK's Ministry of Defence has a Youtube channel, to which it has uploaded what it says is RAF footage of a Reaper drone missile strike on an ISIL vehicle on 11 March 2015. Unlike the US webpage, which is accompanied by pumping music, this UK video is silent and matter-of-fact (warning: although you can't make out any people in the video, it does apparently show the moment at which people die):

Whether these websites and videos are intended to be informative, promotional or otherwise is not made explicit. What people actually take away from them, I don't know.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Quotes #1: Levi and Goethe

Primo Levi on writing:

"Paper is too tolerant a material. You can write any old absurdity on it and it never complains."

"One of the writer's great privileges is the possibility of remaining imprecise and vague."

Goethe on criticism, polemic and negativity:

"It is much easier to recognize error than to find truth: the former lies on the surface, this is quite manageable; the latter resides in depth, and this is not everyone's business."

"Error is continually repeated in action, and that is why we must not tire of repeating in words what is true."

"If I'm to listen to someone else's opinion, it must be put in a positive way; I have enough problematic speculations in my own head."

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Book Review: The German Genius, Peter Watson (2010)

Why do we read and write, you and I? Partly it's because we want to better ourselves. This is what people do - or what the kind of people you and I want to know do, anyway - we learn new instruments and languages, we travel, we try new things. (Or we like to think we do.)

But why do we do this? The answer may seem self-evident: who doesn't want to be "better", whatever that means? Who doesn't want to be more like the people they admire, and more liked by them? Or maybe you feel you have an inner drive: if you didn't try all these new things, you'd go crazy.

But have you ever stopped to think about the context for this behaviour? Whether people everywhere do it, and always have?

That is the concern of the first half of Peter Watson's The German Genius - or, as I like to think of it: After God, "Aargh, Modernity!". Or, even more facetiously: Why We Blog.

Watson tells us that the drive for self-improvement originated largely in pre-unified Germany, born out of the speculative philosophy of such titans as Kant and Hegel that arose to fill the growing hole left by declining Christianity and its message of "Do this, because I say so".

Why in Germany? Religion in Germany had been more inward anyway, as a result of Luther's protestantism returning religion to the people from the control of the church (see the novel Q, ostensibly but not really written by a former AC Milan footballer named Luther Blissett). Plus, it was the German Wilhelm von Humboldt who essentially invented the modern university, with the idea that scholars should conduct original research, and, owing to the support of Friedrich Wilhelm III, there were far more universities, and much more literacy, in Germany than places like France or Great Britain.

Kant, Hegel et al posited that in the absence of an afterlife or divinity, the purpose of life must be to better oneself, a concept that came to be known as bildung. Also, by bettering oneself, one also bettered those around oneself in one's community.

Thus, the next 100 years or so gave rise to such cultural colossi as Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner, whose music differed from that of Handel and Bach in expressing inner concepts related to the life of man, rather than religious ones, plus Goethe, creator of the Bildungsroman, in which improvement (in the eyes of God or of man) comes only through effort on the part of the individual.

Thanks, Germany!

But then come modernity and alienation, and the second half of Watson's book, which addresses the question of whether German idealism had to lead to authoritarianism.

As Watson makes clear (borrowing on the work of others, as he's quick to point out the whole book heavily does), the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin. Bildung is itself evolution applied to one's own character, for example. But Darwin accounted for evolution scientifically, realising it comes from overpopulation and struggle to survive and reproduce. Thus (broadly) was born the age of science.

Over the next generation or so, we have the dawn of organic chemistry and the age of cellular and molecular biology, so many of the discoveries coming from German universities and institutes. We mechanise and urbanise. We have mass-production.

Then comes the Franco-Prussian war and German unification.

Scientification continues. Education becomes less humanistic. Alongside this we have Nietzsche, telling us nothing matters anymore.

Then World War I, partly a war of now-struggling German kultur vs British mercantilism and mere civility. We have mechanised, indiscriminate killing on a scale never seen before. Germany and kultur are dealt a terrible blow, although nobody really wins.

Then Weimar and the rise of low-brow culture, followed by Einstein's relativity, Pauli's uncertainty, Godel's revelation that there are things that can never be known, atonalism in music, expressionism in art, cultural pessimism and economic plight.

Then National Socialists, with their incoherent but powerful message that everything had gone wrong and a return to classical culture was needed, and their racism, their belief that others were responsible for the way things were and that these were people who could never be truly cultured, as only true Germans could.

And what came next, which you already know.

And then the aftermath: a slow coming to terms, Heidegger and reassessment, Habermas and what now in the age of ongoing alienation and environmental profligacy.

I haven't done justice to The German Genius there, obviously. It's 365,000 words, and an awful lot of concepts that were entirely new to me. It's a lot to get your head around.

At times it reads like an encyclopaedia, and could perhaps have done with being a bit trimmer. But part of its point is that there is so much more to Germany that the Nazis, despite what British TV schedulers might think, hence there's a lot of chronicling of German achievement even when it's not essential to the narrative.

TGG is monumental in every sense, and probably the most informative and enlightening book I've ever read. I'd read it again, if only it wasn't so big. Bloody overachieving Germans, nicking all the sun-loungers...