There are no good girls gone wrong – just bad girls found out

I was recommended the work of Mario Vargas Llosa a few months ago by a good friend of mine.  Vargas Llosa’s work has not been widely translated into English yet but there are a few of his works that are available.  One of these handful is ‘The Bad Girl’ (Travesuras de la nina mala) which I have just finished.

A little digging found that not everyone seemed to relish this book as much as I did; the Guardian was somewhat underwhelmed and yet there is something simple and satisfying in this tale of love, desire and disappointment.

The protagonist undulates through that path of exaltation and depression that so often accompany unrequited love.  His object of desire is a hard-shelled woman determined to better the hand dealt to her using her teenage lover as a security and fall back when things turn bad with her other lovers/husbands/abusers.

There is something amazingly simple and yet beautifully crafted about this tale and the reader flows through this history of a 40 year tribulation easily and with interest; eager to find out if she can sink any lower and if he will take her back again.  There is an element of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in this story as it speeds through so many decades.  The author highlights key world events in history as if they were a flash in the pan and focusses instead on Ricardito’s life and intermittant love encounters – something refreshing for a historian!

Whilst perhaps not as absorbing and heart-rending as ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ this is certainly a tale to distract the reader through a tale of twists and bends.  Part of me wishes I could read the original iteration….time to learn Spanish?


Matter Ouevre Mind

Never let it be said that a hackneyed, millennia-old, done to death topic is something I will refuse to give my opinion on. Especially a topic that, despite being a venerable philosophical ‘problem’, is also one that nearly everyone has, at the very least, a tacit take on. My people call it the mind-body problem.

I am not going to bother with the classic arguments for or against the idea that mind is simply a function of body, primarily the brain. Mainly because the arguments against tend to betray more the lack of a certain virtue, or an ulterior belief set, than a coherent position on mind-body itself. Further, I don’t see why I should have to bother with the typical arguments for.

The brain, most agree, and would express it this way, is a wet meatball (or, given the sponginess, possibly a ball of fungus-derived meat-substitute). Our conceit, as humans, is to regard the functions of that meatball as miraculous, rather than merely astounding. Certainly a Black and Decker Workmate is more impressive than a chimp using a twig to ‘fish’ for ants, but to the extent that we need apotheose the meatball and demand our minds be recognised as something non(interpret as ‘supra’)-physical?

I know we all want to be special. I know that, despite being unable to count past ten without hideous dactyl mutations, or occasionally putting on jumpers and getting our head stuck in an arm section, we want to believe there is some genuine magic in us that isn’t in the chimp, or could even be possible in AI. But do we really, really, want to contend that this spongy meatball represents the absolute pinnacle of cognition now and possibly always? I, for one, am not defeatist enough to imagine there is anything non-physical. Especially. In. A. Meatball.

Letters from America

My Grandmother was a prolific and accomplished letter writer.  From the age of around 11 in the 1940s she wrote to a lady in theUSA, a relationship that continued through until her death 3 years ago.  This paper-based friendship was the most important of her life despite the 3000 mile distance between the two women.  What they wrote about was of neither worldly or of national import but to them, it was a comfort and an outlet for their emotions.  Even when email became the preferred tool of communication, these women continued to pen their thoughts to each other.  Whilst I embrace the changes to technology and correspondence, part of me misses that excitement of receiving a hand-written note through the letterbox, the anticipation of when the next letter will arrive and the feeling of accomplishment when you have completed a response.

Historians and other academics research correspondence a great deal to uncover information about the daily lives of our ancestors (as well as their dirty secrets).  Whilst I personally find the trivia of daily life more insightful than the letters of great men and their conquests, I have found an interesting correspondence that echoes sentiments of recent events inLondonand demonstrates how history indeed has the habit of repeating itself.

The following text appeared in the Bath Chronicle in 1791 written by Reverend Robert Wells demonstrating his concern for the patriotic rioting of the supporters of Tom Paine.

“From the dreadful disturbances that have happened in Birmingham and its neighbourhood, I cannot being led into reflections on the propriety and impropriety of Revolution Clubs….I would only wish them to consider the danger they are incurring, by poisoning the minds, and rousing the imaginations of common people….”

Conversely, on reflection, during the eighteenth century when letter writing was the norm of every literate citizen, perhaps it was viewed much as we view email today; without excitement or ceremony.  Perhaps now is the heyday of the letter sender and receiver as it is such a rarity that it can only auger joy on receipt.  The posted letter may be dwindling in popularity but when one does receive a handwritten address, a certain amount of magic remains.

Thus Spoke Androclast

In stark stylistic contrast to almost any work of philosophy you care to name ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ dances from the pages with a florid exuberance which can border on the embarrassing. Its scope, as well as its tone, is immense, with Nietzsche’s thoughts leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop, refusing to halt and be restrained by explanations. The final book, comprising of four parts written between 1883-1885, originally had just forty copies produced, such was the author’s belief (and probably desire) that so few would understand it.

It is not a work that follows the analytical tradition of drudging salva veritate pedantry. It is, at core, a joyous outburst of creation. Nietzsche until this point in his life was something of a microcosm of certain consequences of the Enlightenment, with the erosion of religious truths and traditions creating despondency and a fear that values like ‘truth’ and ‘good’ would lose meaning. In Zarathustra is seen a rejection of this Schopenhauerian worldview, and his earlier unsatisfactory attempts to surmount it, towards a genuine optimism that new values could be fashioned and couched in human terms, not mystical.

The central theme of the book for me, the ubermensch (the over- or superman), is key to this revaluation. As with much in the book, too-literal readings of what is often very figurative can lead to gross distortions, as occurred after Nietzsche’s death with selectively edited portions of various works. The ubermensch is a target, not a eugenics project: a goal potentially never to be reached, and in striving ever higher to leave behind so many of the negative encumbrances with which religion, primarily, or just blind, unquestioned human tradition weighs us down.

Not a particularly popular view a century ago, and not much more so now, despite so much current focus on ideological disputes. Certainly a shallow reading could inculcate the idea that this is some excuse simply to behave immorally within existing systems of morality. But what Zarathustra is truly striking us so forcefully with is that settling, for mediocrity, for poor pre-scientific traditions, for the laziness evinced in not advancing ourselves, is appalling. This creates a forever ongoing project of betterment, of struggle, of, in the author’s voice, war, that makes the book perennially relevant.

The secondary title of the book is ‘a book for everyone and no one’. That can be read in so many ways and beautifully encapsulates how openly the book can be interpreted. But if one can look past the skeletal plot, manic enthusiasm and casual misogyny, there is much to find in a work of such breadth and depth. It has affected me very personally, directed me into philosophy, and has given me the wry pleasure of attempting to promote a book written by a man who expressed a belief that universal literacy would ruin the value of writing itself.