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Philosophy and Literature

Land of the Blind

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

In the Land of the Blind the one-eyed man is king.

one-eyed man, land of the blind by H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells disagrees.

Was David Icke Right?

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

I don’t know. I’ve never read any of his books and not been told what it is that he may have been right about. However I have just finished watching about three quarters of a programme with that title. For those who may not know David Icke was a sports reporter with the BBC before he had a revelatory experience that some have said was a schizophrenic episode. I do not know the truth or otherwise of that claim. He is of course a charismatic and interesting man. In this programme he seemed to posit the idea of a global conspiracy that is genetic in origin. In other words a group, or groups, of people, that include the Royal Family (but not Harry – mmm) and the Bush dynasty in the States, control the world. These folk are called the Illuminati. They seek to create a global government, with a world army, and presumably bureaucracy and legal system. He doesn’t describe the jurisprudence of this legal system or the structure of the proposed bureaucracy. He believes that this will be precipitated by a way of a contrived war. This war will (and indeed does) include an Islamic uprising and China. The UN will be overwhelmed and chaos will ensue. He also predicts the hurricanes and so on. He is quite animated about “labeling”. He is alluding to semiotics of language here and the power of discourse. I’m not sure what he’s read but I have to say that lot of what he is saying has been written about before. I have been reading Derrida, Foucault, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and so on recently and these chaps do seem to have considered all of these possibilities in various ways. Of interest to me personally is the use of words, discourse and language to shape thought and thus behaviour. He calls people like doctors, lawyers, teachers and reporters “repeaters”. In other words they repeat what they have learnt to trick us all. He seems to have the idea that there is a great grand narrative that these people are reading from and “repeating” in order to con us all. He argues that there is the reality of existence and an alternative depiction of it in the media. The media is of course controlled by the Illuminati. I’m guessing language is as well. Lyotard and others have considered these ideas of course and called it “postmodernism”. This in turn has a strong grounding in the ideas of the post structuralists and the deconstructionist approach towards literature. Icke’s scepticism at the depiction of reality is nothing new here. Kurt Vonnegut and many others have written on the dubious (in their view) nature of history and historicism in the canon.

He seems to be of the view that he is some sort of prophet. He may well be. On the other hand he may be a classic example of the simulacra that Lyotard considers in “The Postmodern Condition”. He is in fact a creation of the very media that he now derides, indeed he worked within it for twenty years and because of that gained a platform. His ideas and what he considers to be original thought are in fact nothing new, but creations of the media and philosophers, they are pieces of “knowledge” that he has assimilated over the years. Subsequent to what he calls his “Turquoise Period”, and what some call schizophrenia, he has distilled this input and has himself been transformed into a “repeater” and is simply repeating what he has subconsciously assimilated.

Nonetheless he is an interesting man and a charismatic speaker. Much of what he says is reminiscent of L. Ron Hubbard’s ideas of aliens and so on. Indeed he has some theory about reptiles, I didn’t catch it all but am guessing it’s as interesting as Hubbard’s ideas on Thetans.

It was well worth watching and respect to him for preaching this view. I agree with his theory of the World Government. But this is simply a natural progression for humans. After all humans are social animals, they live in herds and have a herd mentality. As the world becomes smaller, whether this be as a result of an Illuminati plot, reptile invasion or Thetans et al, it will be natural for there to be bigger and bigger government. The EU is an example of this process.

In short I would say that he is not an original thinker, however the way in which he preaches his ideas is original. His books have merit because they will make some conspiracy theorists think they have a champion. Of course how are they and we to know that David Icke is not an Illuminati placed man and nothing more than a “repeater”.

Then again, what is knowledge? What is truth? What is justice? What is virtue? What is reality? What is good?

Didn’t Socrates start the whole sorry business a couple of thousand years ago?

Philosophy is where it’s at, and well worth “repeating”.

Short Stories, Franz Kafka, ‘In the Penal Settlement’, and ‘The Giant Mole’

Friday, February 15th, 2008

In the Penal Settlement is the first in the series of stories in this collection that considers more than one character in any depth. The explorer, the officer, the soldier and the condemned all undergo a transformation as the story unfolds; told in third person, limited to the explorer, the story evolves as the penal settlement is about to abandon use of “a remarkable piece of apparatus.” (p.169). The apparatus is used to kill the condemned: those who have been sentenced to death arbitrarily, without recourse to due process. The punishment of death suffered by those guilty of even the most minor of infractions.

The condemned and the officer swap places, bizarrely the officer dies on the apparatus, we are shown the grave of the old commandant, and witness the explorer fleeing the island in fear of his life, after having watched the officer kill himself on the apparatus. The explorer does however succeed in his mission of helping to repeal the death penalty. The parallels in this story with themes explored in The Burrow could be said to be the idea of confinement, living in the burrow in fear, and both the burrower and the condemned coping with death as an everyday occurrence.

In juxtaposition to the morose and lurid tone of In the Penal Settlement, The Giant Mole is a humorous tale concerning the alleged sighting of a giant mole, said to be three feet in length. A paper is written about the sighting by an old teacher. One of this teacher’s pupils, and the narrator of the story, produces a pamphlet concerning the same giant mole; this causes tension between the teacher and former pupil. In this story Kafka considers the binaries of the serious and the absurd, age against youth, and city against country in order to highlight the contrast between recorded history and parochial anecdotes.

The link between The Giant Mole and The Burrow is obvious, in that the unknown predator, like a giant mole, lives underground. However, the voice of The Giant Mole is both witty and, at times, sarcastic. The narrator’s observations and cool analysis of the elderly, as he sees them, is particularly cutting:

“Most old people have something deceitful, something perfidious, in their dealing with people younger than themselves; you live at peace with them, imagine you are on the best of terms with them, know their ruling prejudices receive continual assurances of amity, take the whole thing for granted; and when something decisive happens and those peaceful relations, so long nourished, should come into effective operation, suddenly these old people rise before you like strangers, show that they have deeper and stronger convictions, and now for the first time literally unfurl their banner, and with terror you read upon it the new decree. The reason for this terror lies chiefly in the fact that what the old say now is really far more just and sensible than what they said before; it is as if even the self-evident had degrees of validity, and their words now were more self-evident than ever. But the final deceit that lies in their words is this, that at bottom they have always said what they are saying now.” (p. 212)

This acidic observation, made from the perspective of the dismissive younger man, consists of just two sentences. This sentence length and the almost wordy descriptive detail is typical of the style of prose in this collection of stories. The ideas explored in The Giant Mole, concerning the reliability of memory and the recording of events, have a postmodern feel to them. The “unpardonable confusion of identity” (p. 210) is a precursor to the simulacrum considered in postmodern works by Auster, Swift, Morrison et al. There is a consideration of the reliability of written records and the way in which they can be manipulated by the withdrawal of competing ideas. The narrator, in his pamphlet,

“had expressly declared that the teacher must stand for all time as the discoverer of the mole – and he was not even that – and that only my sympathy with his unfortunate fate had spurred me on to write.” (p. 207 ).

Here we see ideas concerning the reliability and accuracy of history; postmodern ideas concerning the reliability of the grand narratives of history, like those considered many year later by Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse 5, for example, in the context of the fire-bombing of Dresden.

The style of Paul Auster in voice and narrative is reminiscent of Kafka. The absurdity of The Giant Mole is a device used by Auster in texts such as The Music of Chance (building a wall) and Mr. Vertigo (in which a boy can fly). The ideas explored by Heidegger, who likened human existence to “being found”, are also considered by Kafka, most obviously in Metamorphosis and Investigations of a Dog. Likewise Paul Auster in Tales from The Scriptorium uses the device of a man finding himself in an environment of which he has no immediate memory.

The common thread is that the reasons for the characters finding themselves in their current surroundings are unclear. Thereafter the affect that his has on the subjects is studied in minute detail. Both Kafka and Auster describe their characters’ motivations and observations in such fine detail as to cause the reader to empathise with how those characters must feel. Using this evocative technique Kafka is able to garner sympathy from the reader for a giant insect in Metamorphosis. Both styles involve a carefully crafted use of language; the sentences are long, involute but not tautologous. There is occasional reference back to what has been said; themes are revisited. Of course Auster is most concerned with the loss of identity suffered by the simulacrum that people his novels; Kafka is not concerned with identity in this collection so much as environment, isolation, and, to a lesser extent, the effect of cities and crowds on individuality. Of course Auster echoes these themes in works such as Moon Palace, in which the main character ends up sleeping rough in Central Park and losing his identity as well as his grasp of reality; similarly in City of Glass, in which the detective, Daniel Quinn (who may be the hero of Tales from the Scriptorium), ends up sleeping in an alley for months keeping watch on an empty apartment. During his self-imposed exile he is transformed completely, loses his home, his money, and his identity; eventually Quinn disappears into the city, merging with it.

In this collection Franz Kafka is exploring the binaries of mind and body and the relationships between the two. He also considers the nature of language in the labyrinth of The Burrow. He considers human relationships, and in particular isolation, rejection and loneliness. He also examines our attitudes towards suffering, illness, old age and death. The prose is precise yet verbose, finely chiselled each word is as if carved with precision and care. As if written from the viewpoint of a survivor who has been rescued; years later to tell his tale, embellished with minute detail and careful characterisation. Of all the stories, for me at least, The Giant Mole is the funniest; Investigations of a Dog the most challenging; Metamorphosis the most emotive.

Kafka, F (1961) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics: London

I think I’m thinking. Therefore, I think I’m here.

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

This idea finds its origin in the writing of Descartes. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method of Rightly conducting Reason and reaching the Truth in the Sciences is a Philosophical work that contains, in part four, his most famous statement, “I think therefore I am.”

 

Descartes is considered to be one of the main architects of the modern age.  He is remembered most for a comprehensive physico-mathematical reductionism: everything could be described by reference to size, shape and motion. Secondly for the idea that the mind lay outside the purview of physics and can only be understood from within, through introspective self-conscious reflection.

The Burrow and Investigations of a Dog, Short Stories by Franz Kafka

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Kafka continues the anthropomorphic metaphor to consider the life of a solitary mammalian predator; a predator that is large enough to consider a rat easy pray. The character begins to describe, from the first person point of view, his life. He paints a finely detailed picture of underground dwelling, the voice of the narrator is content and self congratulatory as we are given a guided tour of his fine burrow. He has so much food he needs to make additional room for it all.

Once the construction work is complete the burrower leaves the burrow. When preparing to return he considers the danger attendant upon entering his burrow alone. Eventually, after keeping the burrow under surveillance, and digging another entrance, he returns to the burrow. He seems contented.

The solitary nature of his existence may or may not be natural for the species under consideration, we are not told; neither are we told why, if it is not natural, he would choose isolation. Certainly there is no contact with any other members of his species in the text. The story is partly a detailed study of the affect isolation has upon the psyche of the first person narrator. As he becomes aware of “small fry” burrowing and making a noise near the “Castle Keep” he begins to exhibit signs of paranoia. His burrow becomes increasingly untidy as he digs experimental trenches as a means of finding the noisome intruders. This noise could, of course, be imagined by the narrator. The narrator himself concedes that the noise could be emanating from a water pipe. Later on he believes the noise has grown louder, he comes to believe that the creature or creatures making the noise must be powerful, and eventually thinks he may die fighting to protect his burrow. He even stops eating for a time.

In both this story and Investigations of a Dog Kafka ends the piece with a contemplative solitary animal considering their environment.

Dog says, in Investigations of a Dog, that he “…prize[s] freedom higher than anything else.” (Kafka, 1961, p. 126). In The Burrow what initially is shown to be a place of peace and sanctuary becomes a place of fear. A place that is watched and listened to by unknown intruders. In this place the main character becomes obsessed with noises that had not registered previously. In the same way that the dog is distorted physically by his desire to fast so too is the burrower. However it is his mind that is affected. We are not told the reason for the self imposed underground exile – and it it reasonable to believe that the main character can live outside at times because he does so on occasions in the text – but its consequence is to make him belive that he is being pursued by “a beast”. He continues to dig his trenches quietly, does not leave the burrow and listens for the beast. As the main character says in the last line of the text, “But all remains unchanged.” (Kafka, 1961, p. 166).

Both stories could be seen as studies of the extremes of individuality and the psychological and physiological consequences of isolation from the crowd. Both characters seek freedom. The dog seeks knowledge and understanding empirically, and consequently is continually disappointed; the burrower seeks perfect isolation, only to find a form of imprisonment and surveillance by an unknown beast.

Kafka, F (1961) Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Modern Classics: London