What to do…?

There are so many things that i would like to do; and I would do them, I tell myself – if only i could find a way to do without sleep and/or win the National Lottery. It seems to me that with each year that goes by i have less free time, and often the free time i do have isn’t really free. It’s packed with ‘things that need doing’ and tinged with guilt because something somewhere is always waiting to be done or else someone somewhere is always waiting for me to get in touch with them. Now i know that there are many, many people in this world who are worse off than me but, nevertheless, this is frustrating.

Of course, work is the main culprit. I could write at tedious length about the way that work tends to eat more and more deeply into your life the longer you pursue a career, however i’ll spare you! I don’t think it’s just that in any case. Part of the problem, in my opinion, stems from an increasing realisation of your own limits. Early on in life it still seems entirely possible that you can learn each and every language that you might want to speak; visit each and every country in the world; read each and every book that interests you.

Gradually, that optimism fades. You become aware of time ticking away, notice the way that it seems to be forever speeding up, and begin to grasp that you do not in fact have an infinitude of possibilities. This process begins while you are still a child on the day that you comprehend that you won’t ever be an astronaut or a professional footballer. You surrender your impossible dreams but still, at this point, retain your great hopes.

Bit by bit the erosion of confidence proceeds. You discover the tyranny of money. Hopes follow dreams into the sea of limitations and constraints, careers and bills; and so it goes on. Look around you: how many people are there camped out on a last little island of ‘next year’s holiday’, ‘a new car’, ‘paying off the mortgage’ – or just ‘having enough for this week’s groceries’?

I daresay it’s my colleague’s recent death which has put me in this frame of mind but i’m very aware of how marginalised my inner life has become. Struggling, in a state of exhaustion, to read a book on the train home does not constitute having time to think. Similarly, my tired tramp along the road from the office to the railway station does not qualify as ‘a walk’.

What to do…? Some things seem obvious: time spent pursuing other people’s routes to happiness, when these are not also your own, is wasted. Yet, this is too pat. We have obligations to our friends and families. Our happiness, such as it is, stems at least partly from the time and effort those people have invested in us. We have obligations to the world as a whole for that matter. Likewise, it’s all well and good pontificating about not being in thrall to material things; but material things – books are also material things for instance – form an important part of what a truly happy life means to most of us.

I’m never going to be able to do without sleep and i’m never going to win the National Lottery. Really, what to do?


There’s an interesting post over at normblog* in which he comments on the apparent controversy over whether or not the US President was correct to bow when he met the Emperor of Japan. Those who are criticising Obama are accusing him of being subservient. The Washington Times for instance accuses him of selling out

what America… is about

which is that

all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.

This is apparently due to Obama being

sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

No matter that, according to one blog which commented on this editorial, the author is the son of a man who defended segregation – not the most obvious example of men being allowed to stand equal, although it was for a long time a big part of what America was about for some of its citizens. After all, What kind of person judges a person according to their parents?

What i am really interested in is the unease around respect, which when talked about in the abstract is usually considered to be a good thing. From childhood on, we are urged to respect others. In fact, we are commonly told that all human beings are worthy of respect. This being the case it could be argued that Obama’s mistake is not in bowing to an emperor, but in only bowing to an emperor. He should bow to everybody. Everybody should bow to everybody. In fact, I remember reading a book about Buddhism which contained a description of a monk even bowing to an insect (or some kind of small creature anyway) that he encountered as we walked along a path.

“Well… maybe,” you might say. “But that isn’t what i have a problem with. My problem is with the idea that any human being is ‘higher’ than another – and that is what bowing says to me.” Surely however that is exactly what respect means – to hold someone in a higher regard than yourself. For example, when we say we respect our elders, we imply that they are above us in some way: wisdom, experience, endurance of hardship; hence the fact that as synonyms dictionaries offer words like: veneration, admiration, reverence. The idea that we should respect all our fellow human beings actually rests on an assumption that we can find some aspect of any other human being in which they exceed us.

By way of objection, you might mention an artist, X, who says that he respects another artist, Y, who is quite obviously his inferior; but actually what does X respect? It could be that Y achieves so much despite the fact that he is less talented than X, that he works harder, that although his work isn’t overall of the same standard as X’s it nevertheless excels his in some areas: variety, quantity, commercial success. This list would be very long indeed if i were to try and identify everything it is possible to respect in another artist, but the point is this: for X to respect Y there must be some relevant area in which he feels that Y is his superior, or else X is lying.

One question raised by Obama bowing to the Emperor Akihito is whether or not he is indicating respect for – suggesting as ‘higher’ – a social hierarchy based on birth, rather than personal achievement. This reflects the fact that emperors, indeed like most of us, are both people in their own right and representatives of the ‘system’ or ‘organisation’ in which they have a role. As the Emperor of Japan, Akihito can be perceived as representing the a hierarchical social system; but equally he can be seen as representing the Japanese nation of which he is head of state and at a state occasion that would be the more obvious way to interpret behaviour towards him. Obama of course represents the American social system – in a number of interesting ways – as well as America as a country. Are there no ways in which Japan as a nation might be thought to be worthy of respect by America?

Still, you might protest: bowing isn’t our way. The problem with this objection is that bowing is the Japanese way and politeness, which is the way we show respect to people we do not know, is culture-specific. It is as meaningless to insist on showing people respect according to the rules of your own society as it is to insist on speaking to them in your own language. When Americans were looking European ‘kings’ in the eye it was as part of a shared and understood – even if contested – story in which the Europeans are the old colonial, dominant power overcome by the new freedom-loving American underdogs. That isn’t necessarily the case when Americans go into Asian or African countries – which reminds me: an Asian perspective on Obama’s bow can be found here.

Thinking about it, much of the anxiety around Obama betraying American ideals by bowing down in front of Akihito can be seen as fear of a foreign ‘language’ – of lacking mastery over the symbols of communication and, by extension, of the story being told. If we shake hands we feel we know what the gesture means; never mind that it might have a different conotation for the person we shake hands with. In the case of some bloggers, hidden behind rhetoric about equality, there is an even keener fear – one of not having mastery in the political domain. Japan’s come a long way since those days immediately after World War II when General McArthur could feel quite confident he had no need to bow.

* normblog has an even more relevant post here, but i hadn’t seen it when i wrote this.

Aethelred the Misled & Misleading

On this day in 1002 the English king Aethelred the Unready decreed that all Danish colonists in England should be put to death. I have this on the authority of Wikipedia.

The information has come as rather a shock to me, I have to admit. Like many people (those who’ve actually heard of him) I’ve always imagined King Aethelred as a sweetly ineffectual figure, the Prince Charles of his day. How could he be otherwise with an epithet like “the Unready”?

Alas, it turns out that “Unready” is a mistranslation of the Anglo-Saxon “Unræd”, which actually means something like “no counsel”. It refers to the notoriously poor quality of the advice (“ræd”) that Aethelred received from his Council, known as the Witan. This advice, it seems, was the root of his political problems, rather than any “unreadiness”; indeed he seems to have been all too ready to act if the decree mentioned above is any guide. The King’s name translates as “noble counsel” (“æþel”= noble) so the epithet was a pun: “noble counsel, no counsel”. Get it? Ah, those Anglo-Saxon jokes, they do it for me every time.

Why on earth was Aethelred trying to “ethnically cleanse” his realm of Danes of all people though? After all, nowadays we think of Scandinavia* as a beacon of progressive ideals, cheap furniture and (excellent) crime fiction; the least likely military aggressors in Europe? Yet then it seems it was a different story. The last two and a half centuries of Anglo-Saxon England were a constant (and bloody) struggle against Danish Viking encroachment.

Again, for many years, in my mind, the Vikings were Norwegian. Why? Well, they were also known as “Norsemen”, weren’t they? “Norse” and “Norwegian”: that the former was just an alternative (archaic) term for the latter seemed obvious. Another example of the way words mislead us.

* I have to admit, I have no associations specific to modern day Danes except maybe a vague image of farmers (bacon? blue cheese?). Apologies in advance to any Danish person who reads this!

You must remember this?

I was over in Germany visiting a relative last week and one of the things we did was go to see Casablanca at a local art house cinema. This was a strange experience for a number of reasons, the first of which was realising that i’d never actually seen the film before. I kept thinking that i must have seen it, everything was so familiar to me, but in fact i hadn’t – i’d just seen so many clips and so many references to it that it felt as if i’d seen it. On the other hand, i definitely have seen Woody Allen’s film Play It Again, Sam and images of Woody “doing” Bogart kept on rising up from my memory. This made some scenes unintentionally funny (especially the one at the airfield) although the melodrama and wonderfully ridiculous dialogue helped too: “The Germans were wearing grey, you were wearing blue”.

Stranger still was the fact that we were watching the film in Germany of all places. I found myself wondering what the Germans in the audience were feeling, especially during the scene in which the customers in the Café Americain drown out a German patriotic song with their rendition of the Marseillaise. My companions said they don’t think modern Germans feel any connection to the Germans of the 40s. It was a long time ago, they said. Seventy years is a long time i agree, but it’s hardly centuries. There are still people alive who fought in that war, even if they are elderly. My companions’ other comment rang true though: we always think if we’d been there we’d have behaved differently. We’d have been brave, we wouldn’t have been swept up in the madness. Sadly, unlikely to be true.

In any case, when it came to being stereotyped the Germans were hardly alone. Every character in the film is defined by their nationality – by its supposed characteristics or in terms of a general “European” stereotype (Interestingly, as far as i can remember, no-one is identified as Jewish). The Germans are merciless and boorish, the French are charming but unctuous and the Arabs, in so far as they come into the picture at all, are just unctuous. They’re also just blacked up white people, but hey this is the 1940s. As an American, Bogart’s character Rick stands apart from all of them (of course) in his refusal to be cowed or controlled. Then there’s the black pianist Sam: another American and another America.

Probably the thing that surprised me most was that i loved the film. Despite its corniness and its mass of clichés Casablanca is a great film. Much of that power comes from how tightly plotted it is: there’s never a moment when the story lags. It was odd then to read that the script was written on the hop by a constantly changing team of writers as the film was being made. Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Pia said in an interview that this may actually have given her mother’s performance an edge, as she never knew which man she was supposed to be in love with. It probably also helped that there was no on location filming so there is less time wasted with scene setting shots.

I think some of the film’s power may stem from the fact that so many of the actors and extras recruited for the movie had themselves fled the Nazis. I only discovered this when i started to look up the life stories of some of the main players in the film. Most poignant for me was finding that the actor who played Major Strasser (the main Nazi character) was a fervent anti-Nazi. Conrad Veidt fled Germany in the mid-30s after marrying a Jewish woman. He died of a heart attack just a year after making Casablanca, so never lived to see the War’s end and the Nazis’ defeat.

I suppose i ought not to overlook the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman, which is remarkable, yet to me this is a film of character actors. Despite Umberto Eco’s claim that “two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us”, i think those hundred clichés would have sunk the film if it hadn’t been for actors such as Claude Rains (Captain Rénault) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). I was startled to discover that the former had started life with a thick cockney accent and a speech impediment. His suave, unrufflable persona is what grounds the film and makes it believable. At the same time there is something rather feminine about him which highlights Bogart’s masculinity. The fact that he’s even shorter than Bogart helps too of course.

As for Peter Lorre, i was even more surprised to find out that he wasn’t German as i’d always thought, but from a part of central Europe that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born, later became part of Hungary and is now part of Slovakia. Even now, on the discussion page for his entry in Wikipedia, people are fighting over which country he belongs to, which felt rather ironic to me after seeing Casablanca.

In the end, what is the film about? Well, it’s about a war which is always threatening to arrive but never quite does, an escape route which is tantalisingly close at hand but almost impossible to gain access to and a dilemma that is irresolvable without the loss of something fundamental. It’s a film about the poison that is limbo, the possibility of redemption, the power of sacrifice and, most of all, the painful, painful truth that nothing – not even the most perfect love – can escape reality:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by