Sunday, 25 May 2008

Reality as quirkier than fiction

Reality can be stranger than fiction. Yesterday morning, for example, I was washing the only dish in my North Beach apartment when spotting something curious in between the twenty-odd feet separating 'my' house from the one behind it. I did a quick double-take to confirm that my neighbour was crossing the lawn stark-naked except for a short blue tee-shirt. She was carrying an espresso maker. I knew North Beach to be Bohemian - which is partly why I chose to live here - but was taken by surprise nonetheless.

The night before had been no less surreal. Having moved into my new apartment late that afternoon, I returned from a shopping trip (armed with bed linens, toothpaste and a corkscrew) rather later than I had planned. Vallejo Street was shrouded in darkness. I walked up to the door of what I remembered to be my apartment, unlocked the door with my very own key and, armed with two paper shopping bags, proceeded up the carpeted stairs. There, in the darkness, I made out three rooms, each more copiously furnished than mine should be.

I won't repeat the obscenities that crossed my lips at discovering that what should have been number 442 Vallejo Street was, in actual fact, 446. Confusion morphed into anxiety when, in the street below, a car approached. As the engine was silenced, veins throbbed noisily in my head. My palms were sweaty. After all, if this were a lone woman, she'd be freaked out by visions of an adult male stood awkwardly in front of her bedroom. If a man (particularly a burly one), I'd have my bacon whipped before being given a chance to explain how much more innocent reality is from appearance.

As it happened, its occupants mounted a house opposite. I walked downstairs, locked the apartment with the very same key, and made my way to the next house over. (I never did figure out why my key opens both 442 and 446 Vallejo St)

These two events, in close succession, reminded me of the surprising nature of reality - of how real life can be quirkier even than fiction. Why is it, for instance, that we are so symmetrical in so many ways and yet so lop-sided in others? Why do we have two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, two arms, two legs but only one heart left off centre? (Why not in the middle?) Why do we cover up our private parts as "private" but not our eyes, as windows into our very souls? Why are apples sufficiently round to be called round and yet not really round at all? And why is self-fulfillment more easily attained by focusing less on one-self and more on the happiness of others?

There is a rather more serious side to all this. Much of our scholarly practice is focused on inducing generalities about social life. Despite the obvious merits of uncovering general principles (e.g. in sometimes allowing for prescription), there surely is an inherent risk in this too? What prevents us from falling into the same trap as Tolstoy's plasterers who, in the absence of the chief superintendent, with much zeal plastered over church windows, icons, woodwork, and still unbuttressed walls and are delighted that, from their point of view as plasterers, everything looked so smooth and regular?

Tolstoy was, of course, a fox in the way George W. is a hedgehog. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing", Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953. What Tolstoy's genius saw was not the one coherent and orderly world but always "with an ever-growing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all-penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many."

Berlin's distinction between the fox and hedgehog became one of his most characteristic contributions. Siding with foxes, he chided hedgehogs for their passionate adherence to three, largely untested, assumptions: (a) that to every genuine question there is one genuine answer; (b) that these answers can be discovered by the application of reason; and (c) that, together, these answers must form a coherent, internally consistent, logical whole. Reality is like a puzzle, fragments of which lie scattered around us. Ours is the task of completing the puzzle by ordering the various fragments into a (predestined) coherent and unchangeable image. And together they must fit.

These assumptions are not innocent. Their worst expression lies in fundamentalism: Christian, atheist, and otherwise, to Fascism, Nazism, genocide.

What if we were to relax these assumptions? What if there were no internally consistent, logical structure that underpins our social world? What if there were no utopian future for mankind? No ideal type into which we can be coerced for, if only we were more rational, this is what we would want for ourselves? What if, as Hedges suggests, the universal desire to be more than simply human lies at the core of the ideologies of atheists as well as the Christian Right? 

What if reality were quirkier than fiction?

(Relevant readings: I. Berlin (1953) The Hedgehog and the Fox; C. Hedges (2008) I Don't Believe in Atheists; Chesterton's Orthodoxy; M. de Rond (2002) Reviewer 198, the hedgehog and the fox) 


Sunday, 18 May 2008

Why Cambridge Won The Boat Race - And Why It Nearly Lost

Speed is a function of rhythm. And rhythm in a crew is surprisingly tangible. It is that easy, predictable, relentless, nothing-else-matters-no-matter-what feel of the boat - a separation of stroke and recovery, a flawless coordination of lungs and legs, of push and let go, of brace and release: a wedlock of oarsman and boat, of oarsman and coxswain, each stroke an investment with the certainty of a return.

This rhythm is designed to generate flow, that most enviable of experiences - one familiar to many yet extraordinarily difficult to call up at will. It captures that rare moment in time where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing. It's the experience of pure harmony, or that point at which mind and matter fuse effortlessly and you know that something special has just occurred.

Flow is said to lift experience from the ordinary to the optimal, to a Zen-like state, and it's in precisely those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing. For the oarsman, it's an experience in which the self merges with the act of rowing and becomes indistinguishable from it. Where anxiety, self-doubt, indeed self-consciousness itself has been cut out as if by a clever surgeon - a feeling John Steinbeck described as very near to a kind of unconsciousness - where time changes its manner and where minutes disappear into the cloud of time. A time where everything finally falls into place: a groovy sensation of weightlessness yet total control, being really and truly alive in the present and knowing that nothing else matters, at least not now. Even as crowds roar, cameras flash, helicopters swivel dizzily overhead ... yet none of it matters much. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is being right here right now - a rare glimpse of perfection.

The rhythm of a boat is like the beating of a heart: a platform upon which everything depends and all else becomes aligned. It is the condition on which flow depends - on which it feeds. And in a very real sense, it is the unremitting quest for rhythm and flow that helps explain the controversial choice to replace a brash but experienced American coxswain with one much less experienced, British and female. It explains why the five most experienced rowers questioned matters of selection, insisting that a Canadian oarsman be selected despite him being less competent than the Brit he would unseat.

It explains why Cambridge won the Boat Race, and why it nearly lost.

(The idea of "flow" was popularized by the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.)

Saturday, 10 May 2008

At what price free speech?

And what a week it was. Not 48 hours after Rushdie's appearance, Stanford's Students for an Open Society raise the stakes by welcoming Flemming Rose. Rose is cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and responsible for commissioning the controversial Muhammad cartoons, published on 30 September 2005. The ensuing controversy (including loss of life) is well documented.

A soft-spoken, even monotonous, Rose spoke for the good part of one hour, his pain and frustration palpable. He defended his decision to commission the drawings by offering a long list of incidents of self-censorship in Europe "caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam." Examples included the inability of a Danish children's book writer to find someone to illustrate a new book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. Another involved the request of European translators of a book critical of Islam not to have their names appear alongside that of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding. 

The idea of commissioning the drawings, he wrote in an Op-ed for the Washington Post (19 Feb 2006), and as he explained to us that evening, "wasn't to provoke gratuitously - and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter." 

So Rose, and his Jyllands-Posten, decided to adopt the journalistic principle of "Show, don't tell" and invited various illustrators to picture Muhammad "as you see him." In publishing the 12 cartoons, Rose wrote: "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule."

Unsurprisingly, Rose's presentation generated mixed reactions - and rather a lot too. The issues of right to free speech and self-censorship are complex and I have no particular expertise in this field. However, I do wonder to what extent we have "duties" as well as "rights" - in Rose's case a duty to protect those more vulnerable? 

To mind comes a short essay by Jonathan Sacks. In it he reflects on the nature of "rights" and "duty" based cultures. Rights-based cultures, he argues, reduce us to a state of dependency, where we make claims on others, assuming they have the power to meet our inalienable demands. Its origins are honorable, aimed at protecting ordinary individuals from the power of the state. A duty-based culture, on the other hand, asks us to give and to be sensitive to the needs of others - with the possibility of creating a healthier and happier society based on giving rather than demanding. 

So which has the higher priority? When, if ever, does duty trump right? Does our right to free speech entail the duty of others to respect whatever we choose to print? 

It's something I've often wondered about in writing The Last Amateurs. The book is brutally honest in many respects - not least where it concerns myself (and not always flattering). There have been occasions, however, where I felt that my duty to protect the athletes, coaches and club was more important than my right to free speech. Sometimes this meant removing sections that would have seriously compromised individuals. Where this self-censorship risked damaging the narrative (i.e. by narrowing the window on life inside the Cambridge University Boat Club), I compensated by writing myself into the story, for instance to highlight the sexually charged, masculine nature of the high performance sports. The alternative - an expose without limits - would not have added much in terms of substance, but would almost definitely have caused hurt or offense. (I am well aware of individuals that are still less than excited about the publication of this book, not least for its candour.)

Given the long series of questions, I didn't have a chance to ask Rose one of mine. I would have liked to have asked him if, given what he knows now, he would have done it again. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Salman Rushdie on Why We Write

I'm enjoying Stanford's hospitality as a Fulbright Scholar -- appreciative of the bright Californian sun, the time to write and read, and the opportunity to saunter around the campus in search of interesting lectures. People here seem to assume I'm a regular student - which suits me just fine. 

I wandered into Stanford's Kresge Auditorium on Monday night to hear Sir Salman Rushdie speak on the importance of literary engagement. His lecture was (unsurprisingly) superb (as is his Midnight's Children, which lies next to me on my desk) and contained all the right ingredients: humour, wit, sorrow, self-deprecation, and sense. Rushdie reflected on the role of fiction in fighting tyranny - religious, political or otherwise - his pen inflamed by some very real, and rather sobering, confrontations with tyranny (the most high-profile being the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1998 for his Satanic Verses). His battle, and that of novelists worldwide, would forever remain that of eradicating oppression, a fight for 'negative freedoms' (to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin): freedoms from interference, fostering a free market of ideas that (as J.S. Mill speculated) would give rise to originality, genius, moral courage.

Rushdie then pointed out that literature had blossomed greatly under such tyrannical regimes as Stalin's and Chowchesku's. In fact, he argued that literature had suffered enormously in Russia and Easter Europe upon the collapse of the "iron curtain" - or upon the end of oppression and beginning of freedom.

The irony of fighting an enemy that happens to also provide vital nourishment for one's artistic development clearly escaped him. Imagine one were given an opportunity to trade all the literature written in response to oppression for the freedom from the oppression that made this literature possible - what would one do? 

(I did ask him this question. He, facing the auditorium, pronounced the question dead - as nonsensical - as not worthy of a response.)

I am reminded of a recent documentary hosted by Stephen Fry on the relation between depression and artistic expression. Had anti-depressants been available to Vincent Van Gogh, would he have taken them? Would we have wanted him to? What would have been the consequences for the quality and poignancy of his art? 

As Fry admitted, he himself has long suffered from depression but realizes too that this disease has infused his work in powerful ways. In concluding his documentary, Fry asked himself whether he'd rather not be depressed - whether he'd take the pill - even if it came at the expense of his qualities as a writer?

With a candour more refreshing than Rushdie's, Fry concluded he would not. That this would be too high a price to pay.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The boat race 2007

Here's a clip of Cambridge winning the 2007 Boat Race - the race that forms the finale of Mark de Rond's book:

The Last Amateurs by Mark de Rond

Brideshead Revisited meets Fight Club in this thrilling, first-hand account of a year in the life of Cambridge University’s Boat Race squad.

Founded in 1828, the Cambridge University Boat Club has one objective: to beat Oxford in the Boat Race. This annual affair is one of sharp contrasts: a private match between two of the world’s oldest universities, it is still followed by millions worldwide; an occasion marked by tribal rivalry, it also harbours deep mutual respect; quintessentially British, it is contested by amateurs who are nevertheless world-class sportsmen; it is all about taking part and yet the pain of losing is unimaginable.

A Cambridge don in his late thirties, Mark de Rond spent a year living the blood, sweat and tears of the 39 students risking all for a chance to race Oxford, seeing in them everything he is not. This intense and deeply personal account reinforces the great traditions of Oxbridge, yet gives them a human face. For despite their brilliance, these individuals are flawed too.

So what does it take to row in the coveted Blue Boat? De Rond delves into the depths of what it means to be a man and the primeval desire to compete. Told chronologically and driven by the pursuit of the final victory, the result is truly compelling – and a sports book like no other.

Mark de Rond described by the Financial Times as ‘Cambridge’s secret weapon for the Boat Race’, is an Oxford-educated Cambridge don. His work has also featured in Time, the Economist, The Times, The Week, and on BBC Radio 4.

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE is widely considered to be Britain’s greatest Olympian, having won a gold medal in rowing at five consecutive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000, as well as an additional bronze medal in 1988.