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“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…

Henri Calet and Paris

Henri Calet and Paris

In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.

A small photograph of Calet

Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact “Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess” (harder to spell, that’s for sure). After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.

At the puces de Vanves, a favourite haunt of Calet’s

But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, “well, it’s a book for Parisians”, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.

In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and ponies and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.

Lady with a beard, seen at the puces de Vanves. Yours for only 200 euros!

Calet’s father was a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or by provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:

Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.

And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.

Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:

« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »

or in my rough translation:

“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “

Calet’s popularity has risen here in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

A few thoughts on “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ” (Yuval Harari)

I recently discovered Yuval Harari’s book, “Sapiens”, which was first published in 2014. It is an ambitious book, attempting as it does to summarise the whole history of the human race in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious in this kind of enterprise there are going to be some oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations, and that’s certainly what happens. I also thought, starting the book, that his aim was simply to describe the history of the human animal, but his ambitions are much larger than that. His book is also a history of human society and civilisation. Harari has stated that he is strongly inspired by Jared Diamond, and Diamond’s influence is visible at least to the extent that both authors agree that no question, no matter how large, is not amenable to rational enquiry.

Harari attempts to explain how Homo Sapiens has become so successful and now completely dominates planet Earth. He mentions the “Dunbar number” which is the number of people a person can know and trust: it is around a hundred. Beyond that, there has to be some other way in which people can bind together into groups. Trust is a fundamental part of our societies (a point also made in Bruce Schnieder’s books). For Harari, this trust comes from a series of shared beliefs. His point is that they are just that, beliefs, with for the most part no basis in reality. For him, almost all of the constructs at the foundations of our society are shared beliefs. For Harari, liberal humanism is just as much as a religion as, say Christianity. He goes further. What drives us as a species? One answer is that we are driven by the shared belief systems of our society or simply the pursuit of happiness. Our consensual illusion. He suggests that a future study of history should examine in detail how happy people were in past times, but at the same time reminds that this is of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective measurement. He leans heavily on Buddhist philosophy as way out of this dead-end, in particular the notion that, well, you must become aware of your feelings in order to surpass them. Well.

Rationally, it is hard to disagree with this. However, the discussion does show the hole you can dig yourself into if you decide that Humans are intrinsically not very different from other species on the planet (apart from a few important cognitive innovations which Hariri explains very well) or that the search for knowledge or belief in “progress” are also partially delusional. It seems to me that this line of thinking has led to one of the predominant problems of our time: a lack of belief in human agency and the idea that there is nothing much worth saving in our culture. Until we can change that, I don’t see how we can decide where we, as a species, want to go.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Imagine future scholars attempting to reconstruct the history of the human race based only on the works of American writer T. Pynchon. OK, so we can travel in time, but only if we have enough electricity. And there really is spooky action at a distance, and it really is spooky. There are countless conspiracies, of course, otherwise nothing would ever get done, right? Moreover, in case you are wondering, the Earth is hollow, and if you live near Durham, England, you had better watch out for that big worm recently spotted in the neighbourhood. So I was very interested to read what Pynchon would have to say about the 11th of September, 2001, which is one of the subjects of his new book, Bleeding Edge.

Thomas Pynchon and the Lambton Worm

To go back: when I was at University in Manchester there was a tiny second-hand bookshop that I liked to go to. The owner was a friendly fellow, and I am sure I discovered Pynchon’s work browsing his shelves. After a while I asked him to look out for a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s most famous book, and indeed it eventually showed up. I was lucky enough to get the big first-edition UK paperback, with nice paper and pages sewn together. In the inside back cover there were handwritten addresses of two people in Quebec with the words “good luck” written in big block letters at the bottom. I never did write to them, but I did finish the book, so maybe it helped. A decade or so later, while I was living in Durham, Mason and Dixon came out and my friend Stephen B. and I were very excited— not only was the reclusive Mr. Pynchon still writing, but he was writing books about places we lived in, because Jeremiah Dixon was actually from Bishop Auckland, only a short distance from Durham. Perhaps, Stephen wondered, Pynchon had actually been to Durham to research his book? Maybe we had walked next to him in Durham’s narrow streets, but not actually recognised him because, well, nobody actually knows what Pynchon looks like. Reading the book in my little room at Hallgarth street I was astonished by the hyper-realistic obscure details he included, and how much it felt to me like Durham and the north-east of England. That kind of weird foggy unreal feeling provoked by a combination of not enough light and the presence of very large and very old buildings extremely nearby.

When I first read Pynchon he was writing about things that I had no personal experience of, except indirectly (I have never seen the Lambton Worm but I knew where it lives). But Bleeding Edge concerns events which occurred in my lifetime: the days and weeks before and after the 11th of September 2001. Of course if you are expecting drama and catastrophe that is not what is in the book: Pynchon’s characters experience the day’s terrible events from a distance, they see it for the most part on TV like the rest of us, downtown and uptown are are not so close after all. No, the drama of the thing is not what interests Pynchon, what interests him is of course the hidden connections, the conspiracies.

Bleeding edges and shaggy dog stories

The principal character in his book is a semi-retired fraud investigator who gets called in to investigate the accounts of a Silicon Alley start-up which are showing more than one or two in logical inconsistencies. The trail of numbers leads to … what exactly? It’s never completely clear. Perhaps that money is being directed into financing some flying lessons for budding middle-eastern pilots who only want to take off and fly but never to land? Or buy some surface-to-air missiles? The most fascinating aspect of the book is Pynchon’s depiction of turn-of-the-last-century computer culture. Mostly in New York, so yes, big switch for Pynchon who has set most of his previous books in California. Here, he is fascinated by the “deep web”, that layer of the internet which is invisible either to search engines or to anyone with a “normal” web browser. This “deep web” functions as a kind of quantum-mechanical set of hidden variables which explain how everything links up with everything else, long-standing Pynchonian concerns. What’s also kind of weird and fascinating about it is how he makes the past sound like the future, because after all a decade-and-a-half is a very long time in information technology. In the meantime there have been quite a few exponential doublings in transistor densities.

Like his previous book Inherent Vice it is all a bit of a shaggy dog story, and, even better this time there is a real shaggy and dog story — a story about Shaggy and Scooby Doo, which ends in a terrible pun. The book is full of gags and songs, a lot of them demanding a quite profound knowledge of the subculture he’s parodying, and at the same time there is a non-negligible undercurrent of paranoia and fear. Period artefacts (computers and programming culture) are rendered accurately and in detail.

What’s new?

So, long-time Pynchon fans might ask, what’s new here? Well, not fundamentally a whole lot. What is wonderful about the book is its crazy picture of America at the start of the 21st century. Pynchon leans lightly on his subject material but there no doubt how serious the undercurrents are. Small invisible perturbations provoke world-changing events, and, what’s worse, often without any causal relationship. Subcultures hiding from the mainstream world will be suppressed by “state actors”, unless they can completely vanish. And a lot of takeaway food will be consumed.

At the end of the book, there is no resolution of all matters brought up in the previous pages, because, hey, this the real world, right?