Does anybody else out there talk to the telly while watching it?
Scully and Mulder are investigating a seemingly empty stronghold of the Secret US Government Conspiracy. They go through a door into a dark building, but leave it open behind them – as much as to say to the murderous paramilitaries that the government employs to protect these places – ‘We’re in here!’
So naturally I say ‘Close the door behind you Scully, or the goons with submachine guns will get you!’
And sure enough, in rush the gun-laden goons, shooting everywhere. But miraculously, again, they don’t manage to hit our two heros, who escape – again – but without any evidence of the murderous conspiracy – again.
Doctor Who is walking through a storeroom of mannequins and stops to examine something. Obviously, one of the mannequins is going to come to life and attack him, but he doesn’t think of that, so engrossed is he in what he is examining. So, as a mannequin comes to life and starts to sneak up on the Doctor, I helpfully call out:
‘Look behind you!’
Which he does, not soon enough to avoid being grabbed, but soon enough to wriggle out of the predator’s grasp and run away.
I can think of plenty of other examples, but not closing doors behind you and not putting your back to the wall when you’re in a dangerous place are the two ones that incite me the most.
Then there’s the one where key characters in a show, that are supposed to engage the watcher’s sympathies, make a trademark practice of buying coffee in single-use, non-recyclable cups, walk along with them chatting to each other but not drinking, and then throw the apparently full cup in a bin. Yes it might be worse if they threw it on the ground, but not by much! So I expostulate:
‘Buy a Keep-cup* Lorelei, ya environmental vandal!’
*Reusable coffee cup. Probably TM like hoovers and biros and band-aids and xeroxes.
And the one where somebody says something that they don’t realise is upsetting for another person. Like when person A says to person B, who had believed an as-yet unacknowledged romantic bond was beginning to develop between them, ‘I never thought I could have a best mate that was a girl’.
So I helpfully inform him ‘She doesn’t want to be that sort of a mate, you blind poltroon!’
Do you do that too? Perhaps only when there is nobody else around? Or do you do it regardless? Or are you one of those people that bottles up their fears, irritations and sympathies vis à vis the characters and keeps them inside?
I like talking to TV characters. It makes me feel like I have a relationship with them. A self-help guru might say I should concentrate on relationships with real people, but I think you can do both. And I don’t know any real people that are time lords or government conspiracy uncoverers. Sadly, I do know plenty of people that waste our resources and exacerbate the landfill problem by drinking coffee in non-reusable cups, but they seem immune to my hints that there is a better solution.
I have quite enjoyed watching telly recently. Perhaps it’s because the future of the world looks so black with the continuing rise of neo-fascism and the determination of governments of large, wealthy, ex-British colonies to do as little as possible to address the climate crisis (New Zealand being an honourable exception). There’s reading of course, but in my continuing attempts to get better at foreign languages, most of that is not in English, so it’s hard work. Which makes it so relaxing to just plonk on the couch for a while after work, in front of a silly, simple, comedy or drama that asks nothing of me but my attention (But NOT a reality TV show! My loathing of them is a whole ‘nother subject entirely!).
In days of yore, telly was seen by some as a brain-sapping, eye-damaging scourge. “it’ll give you square eyes!” was what my parents warned. Fortunately, I didn’t watch a great deal of telly when young, so my eyes are still approximately oval-shaped. My opthalmologist, with her specialised equipment, was able to advise me that there is a small amount of right-angling at the edges of two of my eyes, but it’s less than the average for people born in the TV era, so nothing to be concerned about.
These days it’s the internet, especially social media, that parents are worried about their children spending too much time on. Television is seen as relatively benign. Perhaps because it’s now old enough to be trusted. Or perhaps because watching telly, unlike staring at a computer screen, can be a social activity. Like in the old days of Victorian and Elizabethan theatre, we can hiss at the baddies and cheer (or warn) the goodies, lament the misfortunes, discuss what the real explanation of the mystery may be, or what the protagonist should have done when confronted with that Terrible Dilemma.
With the internet, everybody in a room can be sitting staring at their own little screen. They might as well be a million miles from the people around them. But with telly, the people in the room are watching it together, no matter how bad it is.
Is that a good thing?
Bondi Junction, October 2019
There are two lovely trees in my garden. It seems to be my life’s remaining mission to try to save these trees from the attempts of the local possums to kill them. They do this by climbing into the trees and systematically stripping off buds and young leaves, leaving branch after branch a grim, ravaged skeleton.
The war has been running for several years now. It is not always the same possum, but it is usually only one at a time. Possums are territorial and defend their territory against interloper possums with vigour. I don’t know what has led to the two or three changes of the possum guard we have had since the war began. Perhaps the incumbent died. Or perhaps they were ousted by a more powerful interloper. While the actors may change, the role – the archetype – remains constant. ‘The possum’ is the unitary force of darkness that seeks to turn my garden to a barren, Mordorish wasteland, regardless of which particular possum is playing the role in any given year.
There are now two trees that the possum does it best to kill, but at first it was only one tree – an Albizia or ‘Silk Tree’ – a deciduous tree with a spreading canopy of lovely, silky-soft fern-like fronds.
They remind me of the Truffula tufts in Dr Seuss’s story of The Lorax, who tried to save the Truffula trees from the greedy depredations of the Once-ler. The tree was planted about twelve years ago to replace a tree that died, grew quickly and flourished for several years, delighting us with its beauty and its cool shade in summer. But then the possum arrived!
But did the possum arrive, like the greedy, destructive Once-ler in Seuss’s book? Was it a possum explorer that ‘discovered’ this ‘uninhabited’ territory in the same way that the plaque below Captain Cook’s statue in Hyde Park claims that he “discovered” this territory of Australia. Did the possum claim the territory for his possum king, thereby instantly erasing the rights of any existing residents, just as Cook did? Or was the possum there all along, never bothering about the Albizia until one day it munched some as an experiment and discovered how delicious it was? Were we ever peaceful cohabitants? I don’t know. But whatever the genesis, the war started a few years back when I realised one day that it was December and the Albizia had no leaves. It had always been late waking from its winter slumber, so I had never been concerned when it lagged other deciduous plants. But December? I thought maybe it has some disease, and took some of the skeletal fronds – stripped of greenery – to a garden shop, where they told me it was either possums or rats. I did the experiment they suggested (leave cloths around base of tree overnight, then examine for droppings the next day) and confirmed that it was a possum – they have larger droppings than rats.
I was devastated. They say you don’t realise how much you love until the subject of your love is threatened. Well, I realised.
What followed was a series of all sorts of strategies to protect the tree. I won’t bore you with the details, but the list includes spraying repellant on the leaves, hanging camphor balls from branches, installing a motion-activated ultrasonic noise-maker, winding fairy lights over the branches, putting various types of plastic spikes on branches and the nearby fence, leaving a powerful, timer-activated floodlight pointed at the tree and even shrouding possum-accessible parts of the tree in clear, flexible perspex that a possum cannot grip. At times the tree has looked more like a missile bunker than a beautiful piece of nature.
The most successful strategies have been the floodlight and the perspex sheeting. But neither seems sustainable to me. Although it’s very energy-efficient LED, the floodlight uses 50 watts of energy for eight to ten hours a night, depending on the time of year – almost half a kilowatt hour per day. That may not sound like much to you but to a radical greenie like me that feels like treason to my most dearly-held principles. As for the perspex sheeting, the trouble is that it acts as a sail in the wind, putting enormous strains on the connection points and the branches when we get our ‘Southerly Busters’ that bring blasts of welcome cool air from the Southern Oceans at the end of some scorching summer days. After particularly windy days there is often repair work to be done, and I feel bad that the loud noise the sails make may disturb our neighbours.
Further, every now and then, even those Best Practice strategies fail. A new possum takes up residence that is less afraid of light, or the possum works out a sneaky way around the perspex barricades. I am always in search of a solution that doesn’t have such loopholes, or the high maintenance of the sails or the energy consumption of the light.
In war the most important weapon is information. My primary source of information is an infrared camera that I mount on a tripod and which wirelessly transmits to a base station that records video. When I suspect the possum is breaching the defences, I deploy the camera overnight and review the footage in the morning to see if it has broken through and if so how. I then use that information to work out how to plug the gap.
Reviewing the video in the morning is an angst-ridden experience. You watch hours of nothing happening, at 32 times fast-forward speed, then suddenly the possum creeps into view, its eyes glowing in the infrared like a demon. It contemplates the tree, tries this approach – blocked, then that – blocked again. On a good day it goes away defeated. But on a bad day it tries something new and by some unbelievable feat of gymnastic agility manages to get a claw hold on some part of the trees wood and wrestle its way up into the canopy. Once there it proceeds to massacre the tree at its leisure. It’s like watching CCTV of a bully beating up a dear friend, with no help in sight, and you, the viewer, helpless to intervene because it has all already happened. Words cannot do justice to the sick feeling I get in my stomach when that happens. But I have to force myself to watch the torture, second by miserable second, because only by doing so can I hope to learn how to prevent its recurrence.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay – obsession. My family and friends chuckle about me and my war. I can well understand that it appears as a monomaniacal obsession – the sort of thing that arty fiction is written about. But what sort of obsession is it? There are two great works of fiction that in my mind compete to represent my battle: Moby Dick and The Fourth Wish.
You probably know the story of Moby Dick, even if you haven’t read all of it (I never made it past about page 100). The story is of Captain Ahab who, having had his leg bitten off by a huge white sperm whale, spends the rest of his life pursuing the whale around the seas, obsessed with obtaining his revenge, and (spoiler alert!) eventually being killed by the whale in a final battle. Ahab’s obsession is beyond all reason. It consumes him, when he could have led a perfectly enjoyable and prosperous life as a ship’s captain. Is The Possum my Moby Dick?
The Fourth Wish is quite different. It is a three-part TV drama from 1974, remade as a movie in 1976, about a single father whose school-aged son is dying of leukaemia. The father asks his son to make three wishes, and then does all he can to make the wishes come true before the child dies. Fulfilling those wishes for his son is the father’s obsession (the father is played by the late John Meillon, who became much more famous subsequently for his role as Walter in the Crocodile Dundee movies). He is an inarticulate, emotionally repressed, not terribly capable person. But he rises to the occasion in his desperate quest to make his son’s limited remaining life memorable and fulfilling. It is the first television or movie drama I can ever remember having been moved by – I would have been eleven at the time. Meillon does a marvellous job of conveying the father’s tremendous sadness.
My story is of the tree and the possum and me. If we focus on the enmity with the possum, it parallels Moby Dick. In Moby Dick there is no counterpart to the tree – no character that needs protecting. On the other hand if we focus on the nurturing side, it is like The Fourth Wish. In that case there is no counterpart to the possum, unless we anthropomorphise the leukaemia and cast it in that enemy role.
Having written all that, and read it over, I think it is more Fourth Wish than Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession was founded in hatred and revenge. I don’t hate the possum, even though it is my enemy. I expect I would kill it if I could, but humanely, and as a regrettable necessity, certainly not as revenge. The creature is only trying to live. If it would agree to go easy on the Albizia I would readily forgive its past savageries. I’m sure we could become great friends. But alas, it will not. It is not the possum’s fault that it doesn’t have the foresight to spread its foraging between many different trees in order that all of them may flourish. I feel great sorrow when I see the tree’s ravaged limbs. I so want to do something to help it, yet I feel as though I am up against implacable odds.
The story of the second tree is similar to that of the first. A red gum, it was planted about three years ago as a mature sapling, and very soon grew and flourished. It has almost tripled in height. But a few months ago I noticed that its canopy of leaves – formerly rich and luxuriant, was looking thin and sickly. Going up closer to look, I saw that many branches had had most of their leaves bitten off – the tell-tale chewed stubs bearing testament to what had happened. Deploying the camera overnight, my fears were confirmed – it was the possum. From then on I knew that I had two patients to protect from the predator, when before there was only one.
There is another story that this saga reminds me of – Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In that novel, Lucy Westenra, a vivacious young friend of the narrator’s fiancee, is vulnerable to the hypnotic spell of Count Dracula, who is able to lure her in the middle of the night, in a sleepwalking trance, out of her heavily protected house to the wild lands that surround it, where he feasts on her blood. Each time that happens she loses masses of blood and gets weaker and her friends don’t know how to help her. They save Lucy’s life several times after she has suffered otherwise fatal blood loss, by giving her transfusions of their own blood. Each time they do this, they take further measures to try to keep Dracula away and Lucy safely in her room. But repeatedly, after Lucy has recovered for a few days and is starting to look healthy again, Dracula finds a new way to lure her out, and she is found near death’s door again. Finally, this happens one too many times, and she dies (sort of, but to say any more would be a spoiler).
It may seem a little melodramatic to cast the possum as Dracula, and my beloved trees as a Victorian heroine, but when I see those eyes suddenly appear out of the dark, glowing like demonic coals in the infra-red image of the CCTV, it doesn’t feel far-fetched at all. By trying every strategy I have, I manage to keep the demon at bay for a few days, so the tree can recover and grow a few new leaves (so it can breathe! – just like we need blood to carry our oxygen). Then, one night, the possum gets into the tree, savages it and I find it in the morning at death’s door again.
Here’s a picture of the possum, demonic coal-like eyes and all, posing grimly atop the almost-cadaver of its victim.
The war continues. I have bought another floodlight. Now I am using 90 Watts when both lights are on – one for each tree. I will have to buy carbon credits to offset the electricity. I have also devised new defences involving longer spikes arrayed along the top of the fence, in an attempt to deny the possum a launching pad. If they turn out to be effective, maybe I can turn the lights back off so that I won’t be single-handedly responsible for pushing global warming beyond the point of no return. Time will tell.
Bondi Junction, October 2017
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 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