I am re-committing to memory my old piano repertoire which, 25 years ago, comprised somewhat over an hour of music.
Playing complex piano pieces from memory amazes me. Any form of memorised material is impressive, but piano seems weirdest because one doesn’t have to just memorise a melody, but all the chords and counterpointal parts as well. There are usually three to eight notes being played at once, so superficially it sounds as though one has to memorise three to eight separate parts and play them simultaneously. It’s not really that hard (unless it’s a five-part fugue by JS Bach, and I haven’t memorised any fugues yet) because while there may be three notes in an A major triad in second inversion, they are not just any old three notes. They are three notes that nearly always go together. So one can just remember that there’s a triad there, rather than remembering three separate notes.
But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff to remember. I think concert pianists and Shakespearean actors are the most impressive to me in terms of memory feats.
I find it astounding to what extent the fingers – after a fair bit of effort at memorising – just know which notes to play. If you asked me what the next chord was, I could play it, but I couldn’t tell you beforehand what it was. I might even need a run-up to play it, because it seems that playing the chords leading up to it set the context that enables my fingers to ‘know’ what comes next. I know this because if I get lost and have to get re-started, there are only certain points in the piece from which I can start cold.
I have read that it’s really the Cerebellum that ‘remembers’ what to play, not the fingers. But it feels like it’s the fingers.
One can commit a piece to memory either consciously, so that one can say out loud what comes next – what chord it is, which notes and perhaps which of passages A, B, C or D it is in a Rondo structure – or unconsciously, by just playing it over and over from sheet music until it gets programmed into one’s subconscious.
I think it is safest to learn both ways.
Committing the piece to conscious memory is a safeguard against a crisis of faith or a sudden disorientation. Playing unconsciously relies on context to know what comes next and it needs faith so that one trusts one’s fingers to do the right thing. As soon as one loses context or faith – easy to do when under pressure in a performance – one can lose the ability to let one’s fingers do the work.
It is like the art of flying in the fourth HitchHiker book (‘So long and thanks for all the fish‘) or a Roadrunner cartoon where Wile E Coyote accidentally runs over a cliff but only falls when he looks down and realises where he is. You only lose the ability to fly when you remember that it is impossible. Then you suddenly plummet.
There is a very long trill in a Chopin Nocturne that mixes me up because it covers three notes and is more complex than an ordinary trill. I can play it fine, and very fast, as long as I don’t think about it. But because it’s long, I usually end up inadvertently thinking about what my fingers are doing about halfway through and then getting muddled. The last few times I have succeeded in playing it right through without mistake by looking around the room as I play it, focusing on things I see – keeping my mind occupied by anything except what my fingers are doing.
My fingers playing music are like me doing maths. They are very good at it as long as nobody is watching. But as soon as somebody is watching it turns to mud. Young children enjoy tormenting me by sidling up to me and asking me something embarrassingly easy like ‘differentiate x squared!‘ and then staring at me intently so that my brain won’t work (like a watched pot).
But if one also knows consciously what comes next, one can silently tell oneself to play an E flat diminished chord in the second inversion, or to reprise theme B, one octave higher. One knows how to do that, so one does it – no faith required. The conscious brain acts as scab labour to supplant the striking union of the unconscious fingers.
Although both conscious and unconscious memory always have a role to play, I feel that this time I am learning a lot more unconsciously than I did 25 years ago. I can see how much conscious involvement there was in 1991 because some of the scores still have the pencilled notes I wrote on them to help me categorise and memorise the thematic and harmonic structure of each piece. It’s more enjoyable learning subconsciously. But it’s higher risk to do only that, if one has to perform.
I have been finding that, once one has committed a piece thoroughly to memory, it is quite peaceful and meditative to play without thinking about the notes one is playing. One thinks about the music, because one puts the feeling into the piece by variations in loudness and pace, but not about the microstructure of the notes. That is beyond one’s gaze, being taken care of by the fingers/cerebellum.
It is important to keep one’s mind on the music though, otherwise the relentless, angst-ridden chatter of the modern monkey mind comes in to disturb the peace. I can remember occasions of playing pieces in the past, whether from sheet music or from memory, with my mind completely oblivious to the music and instead working philistinically though every grievance, anxiety and obsession it could find, re-running past conversations and projecting future ones at a rate that would make a Boddhisattva wince and that could generate material for at least three psychology PhD theses.
I wonder what concert performers do – whether they do both, or just one and if so which one? Or does it vary between performers?
In case anyone is interested, here are the pieces from the 1991 repertoire, showing which ones have so far been re-learned:
- Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, all three movements (2nd and 3rd re-learned so far)
- Mozart C major sonata, all three movements
- Beethoven Moonlight Sonata First movement (the famous one)
- Beethoven Fur Elise (re-learned)
- Debussy First Arabesque (re-learned)
- Debussy Clair de Lune
- Chopin Nocturne in E flat major (re-learned)
Mr Beebe would say ‘Too much Beethoven‘.
But I will never be able to competently play the fiendishly difficult Opus 111 sonata whose crashing rendition by the troubled Miss Honeychurch prompted those immortal words.
I have vague aspirations to extend the list if I manage to re-learn all of it. I have in mind to do one of Faure’s three lovely impromptus. Given my comment above, I am tempted to also take up the challenge of attempting to memorise a Bach fugue. I probably shall. Sadly, nobody in my circle of friends and family seems to really like Bach fugues. Perhaps he really wrote them for the enjoyment of the performer rather than for the listener.
Bondi Junction, July 2016
Although this third movement is less “pathetic” than the preceding ones, the player alone will be to blame should the Pathetic Sonata end apathetically.
Thus writes the author of Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, at the foot of the first page of the score of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique (That’s ‘Pathetic’ as in pathos, ie emotionally moving, not as in contemptible, in case you were wondering). The bold font emphasis was added by me, by the way – it’s not in the original.
Many were the admonitions of this type that one used to encounter in learning, performing and reading about music. I don’t know if such admonitions still abound, but I used to take them very much to heart.
Here’s another gem from the last page of the same movement:
In proportion to the greater or lesser degree of passion put forth by the player before the calando, this latter is to be conceived as a diminuendo and ritardando. Excess in either direction is, of course, reprehensible.
A piano teacher once told me that, while Mozart piano sonatas seemed easy to play, especially the slow movements, they were actually especially difficult because their smooth lightness and sustained notes would ‘expose’ the inadequacy of any player whose touch upon the keys was not delicate and even. I interpreted this as meaning that only an impostor would attempt to play a Mozart Sonata without first obtaining the very highest degree of musical performance qualification possible. Their crime of trying to hide their lack of skill behind the apparent simplicity of the score would be exposed by the very first unplanned variation in pressure ( a ‘plonk’ in lay terms) leading to their justly deserved shame and humiliation and, it is to be hoped, excommunication from any future association with decent, honest, genuine music lovers.
Although I did take this sort of sermon to heart, I nevertheless dared to play sonatas by Mozart. I enjoyed it. But I just had to secretly hope that no true music connoisseurs would ever hear me, perhaps as they walked past the open window of the room in which I was playing, and be goaded into a rage by my lack of finesse – not to mention the unmitigated temerity of presuming to play Mozart. I imagined they would feel it were as though I had reanimated the corpse of Wolfgang Amadeus himself, just so I could slap him in the face and jeer at him.
I don’t think that any more. In fact, I may have swung so far to the opposite extreme that I have to remind myself not to be too intolerant of those poor souls that do happen to be internationally renowned piano virtuosi.
In short, I love amateur music. There is a point at which it may become difficult to listen to, as with a tone deaf singer or the tuneless screeching of a child unwillingly doing their ten minutes a day practice on the clarinet or violin. But short of that (and even that isn’t too bad, but that’s another essay) I find that musical flaws enhance rather than detract from the performance, as long as the player’s heart is in it. Sincerity and enthusiasm is all that’s needed to make a performance truly marvellous.
My youngest daughter will graduate this year from high school, after which I will no longer have a socially acceptable reason to attend performances of school musical ensembles, whose enthusiasm is often in inverse proportion to their skill. What a pity! Like a Persian carpet, where (it is said) the maker always includes a deliberate flaw because only Allah is allowed to be perfect, the flaws in an amateur musical performance are an essential ingredient, without which the performance would lack – I don’t know, maybe ‘soul’?
For ensembles of young children, the many mistakes, constantly varying level of pitch accuracy and plodding pace are, of course, adorable. But my liking for amateur music is not limited to a sentimental fondness for kitsch cuteness. I feel just as warmly about performances by tall, spotty adolescents in rock bands – as long as they have not been stage managed by Simon Cowell and do not have PR agents in tow. What is important is sincerity and enthusiasm. The occasional (or frequent) mistake emphasises the humanity of the performer.
And in any case, a liking of cuteness could not explain my recently acquired toleration of my own mistakes since, if I recall correctly, some biologist or other (was it Richard Dawkins? Or perhaps Francis Collins? I get them mixed up. Goodness knows they have so much in common) has proven conclusively that it is impossible for any individual member of any mammalian species to find itself cute. I’m not talking about pretending to be cute. All humans seem to do that at a certain age. But pretending to be cute is not the same as finding oneself cute. Indeed, it requires a healthy dose of cynicism to pretend to be naively clumsy and inarticulate just to manipulate the emotions of those around you. It must be done with a cold, clear, calculating mind and a total awareness of what one is doing, and leaves no possibility open for being taken in by one’s own deception. Or so I imagine. It is many years since I discarded any hope of garnering positive attention by feigning sweet ingenuity.
I digress. Refocussing: I think perhaps it is the humanity revealed through their imperfections that make amateur performances so valuable. We have had flawless performances available ever since the piano roll was invented. No doubt it is now possible for a computer to produce a virtuoso performance of a piece of music direct from the written score. I’m not knocking that. Even when that is done, we still have the human element provided by the composer. I doubt the day will ever come when a computer can write something like Beethoven’s fifth symphony. And if it does, I may find myself believing that the computer has attained consciousness.
But music is an activity for participation, not passive observation. Even apparently passive listening often involves participation of some sort. If one taps one’s foot, sways a little to the rhythm, or hums along, maybe out loud or maybe silently inside one’s head, one is participating. If that mild level of participation is enjoyable and life-affirming, how much more so when one is fully involved in producing the music? Churches seem to have understood this for a long time, with hymns that all the congregation participates in singing. I also think of the wonderful chants that some African villagers do, and of Australian Aboriginal corroborrees. As I understand it, these are social activities, in which all tribe members participate, rather than demonstrations of skill.
When one is learning to play an instrument or, having learned the instrument, trying to master a difficult new piece on the instrument, it can be disheartening to think that, however much effort one might put in, one will never be able to perform the piece as well as a computer program programmed by a mildly competent computer nerd, regardless of whether they have any musical ability. It is a little sad to think that the role of musical performance could be supplanted by instruments played by computers. My response to such negative thoughts is to remind myself that a critical part of any performance is the personal experience of the performer. It will be many centuries before they can program a computer to not only perform Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, but to enjoy playing it as well.
That experience of playing multiplies when one is part of an ensemble. It is especially so in a choir, when one can feel the harmonies with the other singers resonating throughout one’s body.
I think the knowledge that there is an important experience of the performer is part of the experience of the listener too. If we reflect on it, we can feel that the performer is feeling the music and, in a way, communicating to us through the music. It would be different, a less complete experience, if the music were being performed by a (non-sentient) computer and we knew that to be the case.
And that’s why I think international piano competitions are bad! Does that opinion follow smoothly enough from the previous paragraph? No? Well, never mind, that’s how I feel. Like many of my opinions, that particular one (which is only a minor aspect of my overall preference for amateur music) was planted in my head by another. It was a talk given by an Australian that was an internationally renowned concert pianist – I forget their name – about how damaging the world of international piano competitions is to musical appreciation, as well as to the lives that compete in them. Most of the contestants are virtuosos, whose difference in skill can only be discerned by the most experienced of connoisseurs. Yet one person will win and be declared ‘better’ than the others. What nonsense. Perhaps the problem is that there are too many virtuoso pianists and not enough paid jobs for them.
The Berlin Philharmonic is an amazing orchestra and tremendous to listen to. But I wonder whether my daughter’s high school orchestra sounds more like the orchestras that premiered works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn or Schubert, than the Berlin Phil. From what I have read, the musicians of late eighteenth century Vienna were poorly paid, possibly ill and malnourished and distracted by the worldly cares that beset the financially insecure. They frequently had insufficient opportunity to learn and practice a new piece – sometimes with score changes occurring mid-rehearsal – and the halls in which they performed were irregularly heated, which would have driven constant variations in tuning. My brother and sister-in-law married in a small, freezing stone church in the midst of a dark Oxford winter. I remember the sounds of the string quartet drifting in and out of tune as they played ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’. The pitch went up when an eddy blew warm air from the bar heater towards them, and down when the warmth moved away. When I think about it, I realise that that is probably the way the piece was meant to be played. From what we know of JS Bach, the Leipzig churches in which his pieces were performed were probably even colder and draftier than the one in Oxford. There were no electric bar heaters in 1725.
And yet, even though the premier performances of those works may have been riddled with faults, the audiences still responded with adulation and rapturous applause. They could see past the occasional wrong note, loss of synchronisation and variation in pitch, to the underlying genius and emotional power of the composition, and the sincerity of the performers.
I don’t want to sound critical of virtuoso performers and ensembles. They are valuable too and have a key role to play in the world of music. I have no reason to doubt their dedication and sincerity or their enjoyment of the music they play. It is marvellous to hear every now and then a highly skilled performance of some challenging orchestral work. There are some, like Mahler’s second symphony (‘Resurrection’), that are so gargantuan – in both length and number of musicians and different instruments required – that it’s just not feasible to perform it with anything other than a top-level, fully professional orchestra. But they are not what music is about, just as teams like the All Blacks or Manchester United are not what sport is about. Attending an FA Cup Final or a Super Bowl would be a great experience but, given a choice between never being able to watch professional sport again and never being able to watch my children play sport, or play sport myself, I would give up watching professional sport in an instant. And it’s the same with music.
Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.
There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.
They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.
Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.
There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.
What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.
I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.
A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.
I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).
Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.
I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?
Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.
But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.
Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.
I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?
Bondi Junction, March 2016
i And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.
ii Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!
Books are too long. People talk for too long. Academic papers are too long. Almost everything is too long.
Why? Partly, because to be concise is very difficult. Urban legend has it that Blaise Pascal once wrote at the end of a letter to a friend: ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to write a short one’.
I struggle with conciseness. Part of the problem is that, when I am trying to explain something, I worry about whether what I have said is clear enough, so I keep on saying it over, in a slightly different way each time, in the vague hope that one of the attempts will make the connection.
I think a better strategy might be to make one brief attempt at an explanation and then wait for a response. If more is needed, I imagine my interlocutor will tell me. If they do, the particular nature of their response will better enable me to tailor my next statement to fill in the information that was missing in my first.
But that requires discipline, and nerves of steel. It is like being silent in an interview after giving a short reply to a question – forcing the interviewer (or interrogator) to make the next move. Few people can carry that off, and I suspect I am not one of them.
Academic papers can be particularly irritating, droning on about all the references and who has written what, so that by the time one gets to the bit about what the authors have done that’s actually new, one is exhausted and wants to retire for a tea break. It’s not clear to me whether this is a stylistic practice, imposed by the producers and reviewers of journals, or whether it reflects insecurity on the part of the authors, who may feel that they need to mention some minimum number of other papers in order to be taken seriously.
Arthur Schopenhauer railed against this sort of writing in a series of essays collected under the title ‘The Art of Literature’. He opens with an unrestrained broadside ‘There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake.‘ Schopenhauer loved the first (and of course considered himself to be one of them) and loathed the second.
If someone really has something important to say, it usually doesn’t take very long. When Neville Chamberlain announced the grim news to the British people in 1939 that Britain had declared war on Germany, the message had been delivered by the end of the 67th word. I did a test reading just now and it took about 26 seconds, including pauses for effect.
Einstein’s legendary 1905 paper that presented his special theory of relativity to the world, ending decades of confusion amongst physicists, is only 24 pages, and the key part that resolves the paradoxes by which physics was previously beset is complete by the end of page 12! John Bell’s paper that turned the world of Quantum Mechanics upside down in 1964 is only six pages. Bell cited only five references. Einstein cited none.
In general communication, most people use too many words. I do too, but I am trying to correct that. I feel that, where possible, I would like to conduct a post-mortem on every sentence I utter and work out whether that sentence has added any new information. If it hasn’t, then it was probably a waste of everybody’s time.
Politicians exploit this deliberately. They are trained to, when asked a difficult question by a journalist, give a long-winded, emphatic speech about something only tangentially related, thereby avoiding the issue and (they hope) making the journalist despair of persisting with the question because of the pressure of time. Even better, if the politician sounds confident in their ‘answer’, the less analytic watchers will form the impression that the politician is competent and frank. The more analytic types just shrug their shoulders in disgust and turn the telly off.
A sentence can be very long and yet not reveal what information it contains until late in the sentence. Sometimes there is a key word that makes it all fall into place, The words before that one stack up like the numbers in a long calculation on a Reverse Polish calculator, impotent while they wait for release. Then the key word comes and it all falls into place. It attains a meaning. The wait for that word can sometimes be prolonged, like in this:
Though they all came from different social strata, sub-cultures and occupations, crammed together against their will in the prison cell from which they wondered if there would ever be any release, though none of them had known each other – or even known of each other – in their previous lives, though they squabbled and quarrelled over the tiniest of things, the one thing that bound them together despite the rivalries and petty jealousies, the perceived slights and reconciliations, the development, disintegration and reformation of cliques, was a single shared emotion, an emotion so powerful that they could feel it oozing out of one anothers’ pores, smell it on their breath and discern it in the tones of voice – the emotion of fear.
In some cases, the key word never comes. Perhaps the writer or speaker confuses themselves by their excessive verbiage and ends the sentence with an admission of defeat.
Books are too long as well! Novels are generally OK, as it takes time to get to know and care about the characters. But I have a strong sense that non-fiction books are often padded to reach whatever is considered a minimum page count for a book – usually at least 200. There isn’t really a strong market for writings that are halfway between essay and book length. In many cases a book really only has one idea, which could make a decent essay, but doesn’t justify a book. But essays don’t get to be put on a prominent shelf that catches your eye as you enter the bookshop, nor do they get listed on the New York Times best sellers’ list.
Nassim Taleb’s famous book ‘The Black Swan’ is like that. It really only contains one idea, which is that investors, bankers and other financiers have for decades been making crucial financial decisions based on theories in which they assume that the future will be like the past, and that all occurrences of randomness must follow the Normal Distribution (the nice friendly old ‘Bell Curve’). Decisions based on that erroneous, oversimplified assumption have repeatedly led to disasters, because events tend to be more extreme than is predicted by the Bell Curve. Taleb’s is a good insight, and definitely worth saying, but probably not worth stringing out to book length.
And then, if the book sells well, they write it again, ever so slightly differently, and pretend it’s a new book, with new ideas. Taleb did that. Self-help authors do it all the time – which raises the question ‘If your first book about how to live a better life was so incomplete that it needs to be supplemented by a second, why did I waste my time reading it?‘ I suspect Richard Dawkins may do it too. As far as I can tell he has written at least four popular explanations of evolution. I read The Blind Watchmaker and thought it was great (but too long, of course!). But I didn’t read The Selfish Gene, The Ancestors’ Tale or The Greatest Show on Earth because I couldn’t see any indicators that they would contain much substance that hadn’t already been covered in the one I had read. I imagine there is some new material in each of them, but I would guess it’s more likely to be a dozen pages’ worth rather than 200+.
Fiction authors and other creative artists do this too. Stravinsky acidly observed that Vivaldi wrote the same marvellous concerto five hundred times. Bach shamelessly reused his work (goodness knows he was paid little enough for it!) and Enid Blyton invented maybe a dozen adventure and fantasy stories, which she recycled into what seems like hundreds of similar tales (surely I’m not the only one that’s noticed the remarkable similarity between Dame Slap’s School for Bad Pixies and Mr Grim’s School for Mischievous Brownies?). And let’s not even mention Mills and Boon. But somehow I don’t mind that so much. We humans are story-telling animals, and telling the same story repeatedly, changing it just a little every time, is what we have always done. I find myself able to smile indulgently on the prolixity of Enid and Antonio and Mills (?), but alas not on that of Nassim or Richard, or Deepak Chopra.
I think I’ve ranted for long enough now about how We All (including me) need to work on being more concise with our communication. It’s time to relent a little.
Not all language is just about conveying information, so the efficiency with which the information is conveyed is not always the best test. In comforting a frightened child, information communication is not the purpose of our speech. I will restrain myself from objecting that the second half of the soothing phrase ‘There, there‘ is informationally redundant. In fact, I think I could even stretch to approving of its repetition, if its first invocation was insufficient to assuage the poor mite’s distress.
Declarations of love, expressions of support, telling jokes, goodbyes, hellos and well-wishes are all ‘speech acts’ that have important non-informational components. It seems appropriate to apply different expectations to those speech acts from those we apply to informational speech. Even there, there are limits though. Many’s the operatic love aria I’ve sat through where after a while I just feel like screaming ‘OK, you love him, we get it, can we move on with the plot now please?’ And waiting for Mimi to die in La Boheme (of consumption, what else?) in between faint protestations of her love for Rodolfo, can become a little trying on one’s patience after the first ten minutes of the death scene.
But communication of information is the purpose of much of the language we use, especially in our work lives. It is a pity that so much of it is ill-considered.
Hmmm. 1,742 words. I wonder if I could turn this into a book.
Bondi Junction, November 2015
I’ve just finished mowing the lawn – not my favourite activity! I don’t mind the bits in the middle, where one just ploughs gaily over level, open grass, flattening everything in one’s path. But I don’t enjoy the edges, with all that stopping and starting, heaving the behemoth around corners and so on. And there are always tall strands of grass next to walls and poles that the mower can’t get to. Yes, I could go back afterwards and trim them with shears, but mowing the lawn is bad enough without having to do that task as well.
What I dislike most about lawn-mowing is the sexual stereotype attached to it – that one is expected to mow the lawn because one is a man and, worse, that one is expected to enjoy it! It comes a close second to my most loathed sexual stereotype, which is that of being expected to stand around the barbecue with other men, and beer, when barbecue-related meals are being prepared. I have nothing against barbecues (I’m a vegetarian, but haloumi and vegetable shiskebabs are just fine on a barbie, and I’m not so purist that I’d refuse to cook sausages for others, as long as they’re free range). What I object to is the ‘menfolk’ being expected to want to stand around them, talking about footy, while the ‘womenfolk’ are expected to want to do other things like prepare salads and discuss children. We’ve discarded the after dinner ritual of women adjourning to the drawing room while men have port and cigars, so why can’t we get rid of the sexual stereotyping around barbecues and lawns?
A reasonable response to my lawn complaint is that lawn mowers are jolly heavy, and the average man is stronger than the average woman. It is reasonable to expect the stronger partner to do the heavy lifting, and that’s usually the male, as it is in my house. Fair enough, but why does that mean we have to be expected to enjoy it, as though it were some precious male ritual?
I think I could have tolerated the whole lawnmowing debacle without complaint, if it weren’t for a comment I heard Stephen Fry make, several years ago, on some television show or other. It was something to the effect of that he never mowed lawns and wouldn’t know how to start if he were asked to do it. That comment really stuck in my craw. A generous interpretation would be that he was being self-deprecating, meaning to imply ‘What an ineffectual, impractical klutz I am – don’t even know how to mow a lawn!‘ But that’s not how it came across. How I received it was ‘I am not like the hoi polloi, who obsess over the trimness of their lawns, regard the summer Sunday lawn-mowing as a male middle-class rite of passage, and have no interest in culture and the finer things of life‘. It’s a bit like claiming to know nothing about footy.
Now I don’t mean to say that Stephen Fry is an intellectual snob. He often pretends to be, but I usually get the sense that he’s not serious and that he is more mocking his own effeteness than the deficiencies of anyone else. But for some reason, on the occasion of this particular lawn-mowing comment, I thought I detected just the slightest hint of disdain for men that care about their lawns and like lawn-mowing. It would be very hard to be Stephen Fry and not occasionally feel disdain for others, given his planet-sized brain, seemingly endless store of knowledge, and razor wit. I love Stephen Fry and can forgive him the occasional glimmer of disdain.
But I just wish he wouldn’t lump me in with his imagined underclass of lawn-trimming morlocks. Yes, I mow lawns, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it, or regard it as anything other than an irritating chore!
Not that it matters if somebody does enjoy mowing lawns! There’s absolutely no good reason not to enjoy mowing lawns. After all, it’s good exercise and it’s constructive – creating a pleasant environment to which people can then go to enjoy the sunshine, lie on the grass and maybe even read Proust or some other author of whom Stephen Fry would approve. It becomes a problem only when one is expected to enjoy mowing lawns because one is a man. If I did enjoy mowing lawns (which I don’t, have we got that clear yet?), I would like to do so in spite of being a man, not because of it.
So I suggest to any men out there that actually do enjoy mowing lawns, Be Not Ashamed of your love, but fight against the sexual stereotyping that expects you to like it, solely on account of your gonads. Wear a skirt or a flowery hat as you mow, and give a little skip every few steps. Of course, skirts, flowery hats and skipping are as noxious a stereotype of women as barbies, beer, footy and lawnmowers are for men, but perhaps if we mix all the silly stereotypes together, the enemy (whoever they are – presumably the people that invented these stereotypes in the first place) will be confused, and will have to retreat.
And lastly (a pity to add this, because I thought that last sentence was a neat way to end. But it’s too late now), what about Zen monks eh Mister Fry? They don’t come much deeper than Zen Monks, yet they are famous for making a powerful spiritual practice out of the most banal activities – particularly making tea and raking pebbles. Now I have never seen a Zen monk mowing a lawn, and the self-help bestseller Zen and the Art of LawnMowing has yet to be written, but surely it’s only a matter of time, and then you’ll be feeling pretty foolish not knowing how to mow a lawn, won’t you?
Yes, I probably should have stopped at that earlier opportunity.
Sensei Rishi Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, October 2015
I am too soft-hearted, it’s getting worse, and it’s a nuisance.
I know what you’re thinking – Andrew’s been stopping to give money to every beggar he passes in the street, so he never has any money left to buy lunch, and he’s always late for work. Well, actually no. I would call that sort of behaviour Compassionate rather than soft-hearted. That’s an altogether more laudable quality and one on which I don’t measure up especially well, although I am working to try to improve it (I give large amounts to carefully selected charities, but not usually to beggars, for non-soft-hearted reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).
What’s the difference? Well to me, Compassion is the ability to discern the suffering of others and empathise, combined with a disposition to act towards alleviating the suffering. Soft-heartedness on the other hand is a tendency to get very upset about the distress of another, when one discerns it. I’m not very good at discerning the suffering of others, so unfortunately I’m more likely to perceive a beggar as an obstacle and a nuisance than as a suffering person in need of help.
The difference is particularly apparent in situations of conflict. People who are rude or inconsiderate often act thus because they are suffering in some way. Unlike a very compassionate person, I will often resist or even retaliate against unfriendly behaviour without stopping to think about how the antagonist might be feeling. But later, I might pause to wonder how they felt, and feel bad about the conflict – even if they started it. If I were more skilled at compassion, the conflict might never have happened. In such scenarios, the difference between compassion and soft-heartedness is timing, and regret.
My soft-heartedness manifests itself mostly when I am reading or watching fiction. I get very upset when something sad is happening. To see the sadness in fiction, there is no need for the discernment skills of a truly compassionate person, because the suffering is usually presented so starkly that only an emotionally tone-deaf person could miss it.
When I encounter such sad tales, I do the grown-up equivalent of a child hiding behind the sofa when the Daleks appear on Doctor Who shrieking ‘EXTERMINATE!’ I stop reading/watching.
Usually I will close the book, or stop the DVD, and go and do something else, because I just can’t stand wallowing in that misery any further. I might even pick up a different book or DVD and read/watch that for a while.
Often I stop reading before the bad thing even happens, if I know it is just about to happen.
I have found that, if I leave the book for a day or more, I can summon up the ‘courage’ to come back to it and read a little bit more. I can get through the arrest of Edmond Dantes in Le Comte de Monte Cristo if I start right at that point, without having just gone through the lead up of the joyful engagement celebration with his beloved Mercédès, from which he was untimely ripp’d by the officers of the Procureur du Roi.
I think the reason that works is that, by distancing myself from the book for a while, I loosen my emotional ties to Edmond and Mercédès, so I care somewhat less about what happens to them (they are, after all, only fictional!). I see them less as people, so I am more able to stand their misfortunes.
As an aside, this technique of using distance and de-personalisation to block empathy is employed very effectively by the current Australian government to support its program of treating refugees brutally in order to discourage subsequent refugees. It forbids the publication of any personal information about the refugees, including photos that show any faces, and it keeps the refugees in detention camps on distant islands, where hardly any voting Australians, or journalists, will get to see them. That way, voters are less likely to realise that the ‘illegal arrivals’ their government is brutalising in their name are humans, with feelings and parents and children. Thereby, the voters will be less likely to feel empathy, and consequent revulsion at what is being done in their name.
While I am (obviously) strongly opposed to the use of such techniques with real people, I can vouch for them as highly beneficial in the case of fictional ones. I got myself through Edmond’s fourteen years of solitary confinement in a dungeon under the gloomy island fortress the Chateau d’If by taking it a few pages at a time, interspersed with regular breaks in which I reminded myself that Edmond, Mercédès and Edmond’s lonely, destitute father (who died of starvation and a broken heart while Edmond was imprisoned) were not real.
There has to be something to make it worth the effort though. I will only persist with struggling through long, gloomy passages of a book if I think that they are essential to the art, and that there will be at least some redemption later on that makes it worth the pain. If those criteria appear unlikely to be met, I cast the book aside for good. I did that with Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. There was too much child abuse and misery, with no clear indicator as to why I should subject myself to reading about it. In Monte Cristo, it was worth suffering through though, for what came later. This filtering process rules out most movies with lots of violence, including those involving organised crime or serial killers (that’s about two-thirds of the best-seller shelf gone right there). Stories focusing on emotional cruelty in dysfunctional relationships are similarly excluded, unless the depiction of the cruelty can be justified by egregious artistic merit or the imparting of great wisdom. The TV news is also excluded – I can stay abreast of what I need to know as an engaged citizen by just scanning the headlines and reading important articles on a reputable news site like abc.net.au/news. I don’t need to know about grisly murders, abductions and far-away terrorist attacks. I know that violence and cruelty happen in the world. I will do what I can to prevent it. There is no need for me to submit to ghoulish blow-by-blow accounts of it in order to be persuaded to act where appropriate.
The intermittent approach to reading and watching has become very prevalent with me lately. I will have several movies on the go at once, in some cases watching only 5-10 minutes of each at a time, in order not to get too emotionally involved. I’m intermittently watching one at the moment called “À l’origine”, in which a con man tricks a whole load of construction contractors in an economically depressed town into working for him on the promise of deferred pay – while he demands cash bribes from them for ‘awarding’ them the contracts. I cringe at the thought of the devastation and despair that will ensue when the contractors are not paid, having borrowed heavily to hire machinery and staff. Currently I’m down to watching less than five minutes at a time. It’s touch and go whether I’ll make it through, notwithstanding the plaudits it received at Cannes (why are so many film festival films miserable?).
I think there is an overlap between soft-heartedness and the much-derided trait of Sentimentality, because they can both involve strong feelings of empathy. But they are not the same. Sentimentality is something like a wallowing in tender emotions, which includes sadness but also sweetness, admiration and nostalgia. The most potent criticism of the writing of Charles Dickens (whom I love) is that it is sometimes too sentimental. The worst bits seem ludicrously over-the-top to us, but that’s what Victorian-era Britons loved. Oscar Wilde summed it up so well when he said ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing‘. I didn’t laugh at Little Nell’s demise, but I did cringe. The presentation was too twee, too unrealistic, to invoke my sympathies. I could no more mourn her than I could mourn the coyote in Hanna Barbera’s Road Runner cartoons being blown up (yet again) by his own sticks of dynamite.
I think sentimentality is a particularly unhelpful emotion because it tends to generate sympathy only when the suffering heroine is very lovable. Yet the people most in need of empathy are generally not easy to love. If they were, they might have received more help, and not be in such a desperate situation. So some Victorian sentimentalists saw no contradiction between on the one hand weeping uncontrollably over saintly, pretty Little Nell and on the other going to watch the public execution of some filthy, ugly, foul-mouthed ne’er-do-well that had the misfortune of being born into a social stratum in which the only way to survive was to join a street gang and steal.
Soft-heartedness is not much better than Sentimentality, but maybe it’s one step further from inanity. It at least allows one to feel sympathy for – and hence maybe to help – ratbags, thiefs and murderers, if their suffering is sufficiently apparent.
Another manifestation of my soft-heartedness is a terrible dislike of disappointing people. In bygone days, when I managed a whole bunch of people at work, I hated when, after doing interviews for a new hire, I had to tell the unsuccessful applicants that they were unsuccessful. My imagination would picture them dissolving in tears of despair as soon as they put the phone down, all their hopes and dreams dashed, despair looming. I doubt that ever happened, but in my imagination it happened all the time. Soft!
That’s where being soft-hearted can be a socially unhelpful trait, rather than just a privately irritating one. I decided to no longer manage people at work, partly because I found having to be their boss, or potential boss (in the case of job applicants), too stressful. Based on the performance reviews I received, it seems I was a better than average boss, so by removing myself from the pool of managers I suppose I have slightly degraded the overall quality of the management in the organisations in which I work. A good manager will do the unpleasant managerial tasks, the tickings-off, the firings, the counselling of underperforming employees, the ‘no we don’t want you’ phone calls to job applicants, firmly but as kindly as possible, taking a ‘cruel to be kind’ approach when necessary. I did that, but disliked it because I was too soft-hearted about it, so now I don’t do it any more. It doesn’t really matter though in this particular case, because not doing management frees up my time to do more complicated technical work, where my comparative advantage, and hence my value to the organisation, is stronger than it is in people management.
The main book I’m reading at present is Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. The story is told in alternating sections by the misanthropic, impoverished yet highly literate concierge of a Parisian apartment building with wealthy occupants, and the precocious, nihilistic, world-weary, twelve-year old daughter of one family of occupants. There was no great tragedy happening, but it was all rather gloomy, seen through such misanthropic pairs of eyes, which made it hard going. I could only read a few pages at a time. But all of a sudden the mood brightened! In one short chapter the concierge reveals that she actually likes someone – a nineteen-year old daughter of a family in another of the apartments, who is determined to be a rural vet – against the wishes of her family, who don’t think the profession is classy enough. The girl regularly visits the concierge in her ‘lair’ to have long chats over tea about the health of Léon, the concierge’s cat, and the other animals in the building. It’s amazing what a difference a little ray of sunshine like that can make. All of a sudden, I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.
Bondi Junction, July 2015