BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here

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The films of Peter Nestler

Last week, Close Up cinema in east London showed a retrospective of the German filmmaker Peter Nestler.

Nestler’s films are beyond documentaries. He is not engaging in mere journalism. Nor are these films essays, whereby Nestler expounds on working class life or the ravishing changes of industry.

Rather, Nestler is a kind of poet connecting the dots between environmental shifts and the resilience of human beings. Whether it is the innocence of schoolchildren, or the contemplative suffering of community elders, Nestler presents us with the enduring joy of the human heart.

Dike Sluice tells the story of a seaside village undergoing the changes brought by post war development, but from the point of the small river itself.

Through the slightly ironic monologue of the sluice, Nestler captures the fragility of man’s place in the wider ecology, and without preaching he emphasises the loss of that place through technological change. The film shows us what is being lost, without descending into polemic of Jeremiad.

In Up The Danube, we return to the subject of rivers. This time the beauty of the east European landscape is shown to us in grand, wide shots as a narrator tells the stories of uprisings, peasant revolts and battles that have shaped the personalities of culture.

Ordinary working people are seen going about their daily tasks, working the river as they have done for centuries. Children play on the banks. Castles and fortresses rise up from the lush greenery and pierce the grey, historic skies.

What results is a testament to the many thousands of years of suffering and bloodshed that have formed the beauty and peacefulness of the European countryside. Nature and culture don’t just exist side by side, they create each other and augment each other. Where there is beauty, there has been death. Where there is change, there is the durable consciousness of history.

A Working Men’s Club In Sheffield was the masterpiece of this programme. Shot in and around the Dial Working Men’s Club in Sheffield in 1965, we are transported to way of life that was already vanishing at the time of filming. This is a moving and at times breathtaking account of the vibrant community that surrounded the dark metalworks and factories of Sheffield before the collapse of British industry.

Nestler immerses himself in this community, resisting any temptation to sentimentalise working class life, or to rage about the injustices of the grinding toil at the heart of this way of life. As always, Nestler is interested in the personalities that create the world he is filming, whether it is the personality of the city or the people that populate it.

There is humour and joy, pathos and melancholy, but all presented in an intimate way, never distancing us from the subjects of the film, but bringing us closer to them, and to ourselves.

For all the hardship and graft, the lives of these talented and forgotten people were untouched by the homogeneity and toxic noise of brand coffee shops and pedestrian high streets. This is an England of a calm, dutiful work ethic, a witty, unselfconscious endurance.

Local people take to the stage throughout the film, each displaying their own talents for song or performance. The level of ability it striking. One man, perhaps a recent immigrant to England, has a voice like Frank Sinatra. A young couple sings a Bob Dylan song with aching promise, captured in the glamour of a 16mm glow. A pedal steel guitar player plays daring and rambunctious lines of music with the steady glance of a butcher cutting his daily meat.

All of this is spliced with shots of the dark furnaces of metal factories, or the smokey backstreets of city slums. The flower of the human soul bursts open wide despite the blackening creep of industrial life.

Instead of sitting round a TV showing Pop Idol, people lived their lives as actors upon a self-made stage. Obscured by class and back-breaking work, they nevertheless were able to walk with dignity. Today, working life is luxurious and dull in comparison, but one wonders whether we have the same room for personal flourishing and self-respect that people did 50 years ago.

Nestler achieves a masterful voice through remaining responsive to his subjects. He does not impose an auteuristic vision upon the world he strives to capture, but instead listens to that world, searching for the stories want to be told.

This is a director who makes films in the same way Woody Guthrie wrote songs. There is a humility and simplicity in his technique, a sense of service towards the human spirit for its own sake.

 

Digital oppression requires a new counter-culture

A sneering , scoffing cynicism is the sign of a culture in decline.

The opposite of superstitious gullibility and saccharine Victorian emotiveness, is not as the modern generation seems insist, a snarky, nihilistic despair.

Even the existentialists like Camus and Sartre were not arguing for a sort of ideological belief in isolation and horror. They were not prescribing an ‘ought’ so much as describing and ‘is’.

In a world that is industrialised and where family and community and religion are no longer the engines of stability and security, an existentialist confrontation with meaning is inevitable and to be desired. The great contribution of the existentialists was that they fearlessly looked into the dark soul of the modern man.

You can see too, that this kind of society made some form of socialism or communism a seductive alternative to the grinding impersonalism of the machine age.

For centuries, a sense of tribal unity and familial rhythm maintained the psychological integrity of individuals in the context of political society, whether it was nation state of local villages. From the Homeric age onwards, small and localised intimate relationships were the tonic to mass war or the environmental uncertainty of life.

As our culture became industrialised, these things were no longer enough, and some of the bulwark against despair, such as religion, were shown to be epistemologically and morally insufficient to capture the anxieties of a modern life.

Such is the narrative of modernity that we have all read and all would recognise in some version or another. What has changed in recent years, however, is that the world went from industrial to digital, without giving philosophers or poets or social thinkers much time to alter their world-views in correspondence.

The result, is that the ancien regime is still perceived to be the old, white haired bourgeois factory owner; and the rebel-with-an-answer is still seen as the renegade revolutionary. Neither of these poles in the paradigm are of any use, because the paradigm has altered beyond recognition.

The industrialised model of commerce, doesn’t apply to modern business. That much we can recognise, and we see the massive shift for what it is. What has failed to change is the counter-culture. The counter-culture is trapped in fighting an enemy that no longer exists.

Trying shovel the digital world and all its failings and advantages into the same ideological ditch as the industrial world, treating labour concerns and social fragmentation in the same way we would treat slavery, industrial poverty and factory mechanisation, has resulted in a massive dislocation of the counter-culture.

As most of the poets, comedians and artists treat Trump and all that he represents as confirmations of their soggy-Marxist assumptions, a new world is being ushered in that threatens to alter human nature and relegate the individual to a mythic relic.

This is a world of big data, artificial intelligence and no privacy. It is a world of light-speed gratification and instant distraction. It is not New Lanark. It is not even Orwell’s 1984. We have no precedent to understand this new world, and yet the old counter-culture tropes of existentialist novellas and civil rights newsreels are all people seem to have to make sense of their feelings of oppression and anxiety.

The most glaring sign of the counter-culture’s inability to meet the challenges of this new emerging world, can be found in the tone of voice, the scoffing bickering anachronisms of your typical leftist debate.

Your averagely educated and ‘wised-up’ type will either still cling to outdated Marxist tropes, or will give you some lecture on the meaninglessness of life, and hopelessness of the human soul. Both of these are really just symptoms of the same problem – an inability to evolve new ideas and a new counter-cultural arsenal to meet the challenges of the age.

Ironically, the only way anyone has ever created a new paradigm, has been to reach back into the past. It is through the preservation of culture, that culture evolves. Today, such an assertion is regarded as a kind of blasphemy, as if to say anything positive about the past is to argue for the divine right of kings or a return to the British Empire.

Behind this fear of the past, lies a fear of ideas. The great collapse of the old world has left a vacuum in what Woody Guthrie called the human ‘hope machine’. The current despair is not that of Sartre characters in the 1930s, shuffling through the alleyways of Montmartre is a daze of horror at their own isolation. Rather, it is the despair of the endless distracted, the endlessly bombarded and saturated mind, whose self is submerged in the feedback loop of consumer driven algorithms. To adopt the ironic pose of the Camus character in the long jacket, smoking and shouting in the wilderness, is to do nothing more than signal to our monopolistic, corporate rulers, an aspect of a our buying patterns for them to target in the next email.

What we need then, is not a scepticism about meaning and ideas, but a reaffirmation of the culture. A return to first principles. However, we cannot do this, as long as the counter-culture is trapped in Marxist/Existentialist tropes.

Everybody these days operates under the conceit that they are an ‘independent thinker’. The modern cynic creates a dogma around his uncertainty. He uses doubt and scepticism as a kind of ideology, a default and easy way of approaching the world. When presented with a complex idea, or some challenging ideal – say Islam – he lazily and self-congratulatingly collapses into nihilism.

What the cynic wants and needs, is not an honest engagement with ideas, so much as a quick way of convincing himself not to bother. Far better to dismiss the challenge as unsolvable and irrelevant, than to discover that there is something new and potentially devastating in his midst.

The modern cynic gets away with this by giving the impression that his ignorance and disdain for ideas is worldly, putting the sheen of irony and detachment onto a stance about life that is really quite small-minded and stupid.

Like Dylan’s Mr Jones, the modern cynic scoffs thinking he is being satirical, is sarcastic where he thinks he’s being ironic and resorts to despair when he should take refuge in a conscientious uncertainty.

The very notion that one would want to engage in ideas, to take on an ever moving challenge of developing fresh responses to one’s environment, is an affront to the bougie, suburban luxury of our generation. However, instead of admitting to this middle class taste for ignorance, the better to adopt the pose of not needing to engage, to give off like you have been and there and come out the other end, and that your inability to develop ideas is really some form of hip, switched-on nirvana of the absurd.

Along with a disdain for ideas, comes a disgust at the notion of ‘meaning’. The idea that one’s life would involve duty and sacrifice towards a higher ideal, that one’s citizenship is part of a larger more sacred story than one’s minute concerns, is met with palpable rage among the modern generation.

If you are bold enough to live by a set of ideals, to affirm a positive or even traditional purpose to your life, this is immediately met with scoffing accusations of egotism. The cod-Freudianism of pop culture seeps into any discussion of common psychology, and those who prefer nihilism to duty, will traduce any sense of of a personal quest to evidence of a narcissistic complex.

The idea of a hero is seen as anachronistic and outdated. Ironically, however, it is this need to dismantle personal narratives that is the real narcissism. Those who seek to live out a sense of their own heroism are far more likely to sacrifice their own concerns for the wider good. The nihilist however, has no reason to make sacrifices at all; it’s all pointless and absurd, so why bother?

It has been shown however, that, far more than a trendy healthy diet or ‘lifestyle’, what is more likely to give longevity and satisfaction in life, is in fact a sense of purpose, being part of a grander project. To live life as if one’s own existence mattered is crucial to the development of healthy, happy and moral beings.

To assume the posture of post-modernist cockiness, is to at once affirm chaos and despair, while at the same time living by a very strict and immovable fundamentalism.
This is neither tasteful, nor is it in any way useful in leaving a legacy for future generations as they face the battle against a loss of individuality and privacy, a loss of conscience in favour of social algorithms.

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

Sixty Years at Tate Britain is a journey through the events of British post-war history, seen refracted in the prism of work by artists from 1960s to today.

The opening blurb tells us that each piece in the collection is a response to narratives and issues such as ‘immigration, feminism, racial and sexual identity, AIDS activism, music and club culture’.

The show is explicitly political, and political in a very particular, post-modern sense. The Britain presented here is not the Britain of Churchill, empire and high gothic ambition. Each piece appears to have been chosen for its explicitly non-historic, anti-patriotic sensibility.

Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series is a strong example of the kind of searching, slightly nihilistic eye that this exhibition wants to celebrate.

His pictures show empty back streets, overpasses, rail bridges and derelict housing blocks, all in black and white and all of them devoid of human activity or the comfort of identity.

The photos were taken between 1977 and 2008, in and around North Kensington and west London, and they show a London still peppered with bomb sites, still reeling from the damage of war.

This could be East Germany as much as London. There is no civilisation here, but only concrete and the carcasses of Victorianism, the bland, hard edges of dreary development.

This is a London that is somewhat unrecognisable today. However, following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, you do catch yourself searching for anything that might resemble that building. There are skylines with high rise blocks, and the general texturelessness and loneliness of the landscapes presented here does speak to this recent trauma.

However, much of these areas have probably been gentrified now, and the London we see through Savage’s eyes is only one side of the city – there is no creativity, no bustling energy of optimism. All you are allowed to see is the forgotten, vacant lifelessness of desolate alleys and parking lots.

The pictures themselves, however, are clean, well composed, and show a technical control for depth of field that allows for maximum impact in conveying the shape and form of the city Savage was trying to present.

Cunt Scum (1977) by Gilbert and George, presents a similar face of London. We are still seeing a dour, post-war Britain, only this time with slightly more explicit political flavour.

Gilbert and George give us the prophetic images of what we will come to know as ‘Thatcherite Britain’. Working men in crowds, Bobbys on the beat, homelessness, inner city high rise developments.

The photographs used are not as technically pristine as Savage’s, but the over and under-exposed quality of the shots deliberately contrast the stark light and grim shadow of a Britain gutted of its identity.

If anyone still has doubts about the power of Abstract Expressionism, and the thrust of its techniques, they should look no further than Ataxia – Aids Is Fun (1993), by Derek Jarman.

Almost certainly the most moving of the works in this exhibition, Ataxia hits the viewer in the most vulnerable aspects of the subconscious. No amount of description and campaigning can compete with this image of the fragmentation of the nervous system caused by AIDS. It is a terrifying work, that leaves no one in any doubt about the meaning.

AIDS was not just a cull of gay men, it was, and still is, a tectonic natural disaster for every individual affected. This painting is hard to look at – violent, uncompromising and entirely precise.

Hommage a Chrysler Corp. (1957) by Richard Hamilton, is possibly the most technically impressive part of this show. A masterpiece of negative space, and a proto-Pop Art achievement, the work explores the sexuality of women and motorcars – a staple of pop culture already by the time it was painted.

In this painting you see so much of modernity captured in the slick curves and urbane textures – everything from Kerouac, to the Velvet Underground to Madonna’s aggressive slut-empowerment in the early 1990s.

As a primary source, this painting will communicate to future historians unspeakable truths about the post-war age in the west, so much more than the nihilistic trends that emerged from the 1960s.

Michael Fullerton’s portrait of disc jockey John Peel (2005) opens this patchy exhibition, and it’s a brilliantly understated and traditional work.

A reference to the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century, this work captures the loveable paradox of Peel. He was on the frontlines of counterculture for the best part of four decades. However, he was a national treasure, as well-known and loved as the Queen herself, by the time he died.

Painting him in this way, allows the viewer to see Peel and all that he represents, through a lens of continuity and cultural endurance. The other works in this exhibition lack this sense of connection.

Peel’s love of the underground was not a post-modernist quest, but rather and desire to keep the tradition of British art alive and thriving. To be counter-culture, for Peel, was not to be anti-culture. He was a kind of spiritual patron, rather than an iconoclast or revolutionary. We see Peel here where he belongs, in the Pantheon of British creative innovators and leaders, not as some snotty champion of disaffection.

Fullerton’s portrait reminds one of Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s Oscar Wilde portrait (1884) also showing in the Tate. The same deep colours, the same ironic, but accessible creative expressions on the subjects.

There is a deliberate dislocation of Britain from its past in this exhibition which seems designed rather than simply observed.

Taken on their own, each piece has something important to say about this country. However, there is a disingenuous agenda in the collection, as if the only things relevant to post-war Britain were issues of immigration, sexual health, gay rights and feminism.

Britain is a divided nation, and in some sense that divide runs down the fracture between a historic past, and a post-Thatcherite economic identity.

Explicit in the form of this collection seems to be the assertion that nothing of Britain’s past is fit for purpose, nothing about the identity formed over centuries up until the 1960s speaks to the issues that face the country today.

Sixty Years presents a cultural orthodoxy which is itself archaic and mismatched to the reality of the times. The creative disgust of punk and post-modernism are far more connected to time and circumstance than their advocates would have us believe, and the idea of being liberated from the past is no longer the seductive, working class utopian vision it once was.

Far more powerful, would be an exhibition that tried to link the fractured world seen in the works of Savage and Gilbert and George, with the through-line of art history in Britain.

The moral eye of this exhibition is bankrupt, and the forms have become fetishes.

This dislocation was painfully available to us in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors and rabble rousers leaped upon the deaths of impoverished families, as if they were somehow catapulted back to 1981, to a world of miners strikes and the Falklands war.

In trying to present a distinctly modern Britain, this exhibition comes off as suspiciously nostalgic for a time when a clear, Marxist model of social forces was convenient and offered clarity in an era of confused, class emancipation.

Sixty Years goes out of its way to avoid any sense of continuity. For a worldview obsessed with identity, that very concept of identity itself seems incredibly impoverished. Beauty is seen as something representative of the evil establishment, a veneer of the old guard.

It may or may not be true that the classical beauty and Victorian baroque of British art is linked to its imperial past. However, what Sixty Years shows is that the fractured aesthetic of sex-club fetishism and class-war concretism is dangerously anachronistic and ill-fitted to meet the challenges of contemporary Britain.

Even seen as a retrospective, this exhibition is curiously limited, confined to one narrow view of Britain’s recent history. For all its celebrations of alienation and working class anxiety, the world view implicit here could only emerge from someone on the affluent sidelines of the culture, frustratedly clinging to an academic model of urban Britain that is simply not relevant any more.

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

Bohemianism versus hipsterism and lifestyle marketing

Traditionally, bohemians are middle class. But they are not bourgeois, in the sense that they don’t define themselves by wealth. Bohemianism emerges from the middle classes who are disillusioned with economically-driven social values.

Today, bohemianism has been distorted by lifestyle marketing.

Bohemians made an artistic statement through their lifestyles. Hipsters, use lifestyle fashion to seem like they are making a statement through their lives.

The difference is in the substance. Not just your actions, but your values.

Part of the problem, if not the complete problem of modernity, is that consumerism, brand marketing and public relations have made what you say more important than what you do.

The real value of bohemianism is in the influence these kinds of lifestyles have had on the culture. You can’t impact history, by simply dressing a certain way.

By putting out into the culture that it is possible to live a certain way other than through commercialism or politics, that you can put individual values front and centre of your existence, certain groups of people in history have left a legacy of stories, art and values, that remind us that individual growth is as important, if not more so, than collective survival.

This is different from the right wing individualism that is so prevalent in American politics. It’s also wildly removed from the liberal, hummus-eating, Camden-condo lifestyle hipsterism you see everywhere online and with which London is packed right now.

How do we tell the difference between crude individualism and lifestyle fashion, and genuine bohemianism? The influence.

Influence as a cultural force can be defined as that which new generations can’t avoid, they have to confront the phenomenon, before they can be free of it. They both love it, and resent, and the struggle for a new creative influence comes from this need to master the influence and transcend it.

Neither selfish individualism, nor lifestyle hipsterism fall into this. The selfish right wing are concerned with short term pursuits, and they believe that a momentum of short term self-advancement keeps the culture alive. Any case of corporate malfeasance, or political corruption proves this wrong.

Hipsterism is a false individualism. It reduces freedom, emancipation and creativity to fashion statements, and therefore becomes competitive and ego-driven. It’s simply commercial values masquerading as bohemianism.

To repeat, bohemianism is when you display a fresh, non-commercial, non-economic way of living in the world. It’s got nothing to do with technology, fashion or whether you drink green tea or Italian coffee.

What matters is whether you are seeking to create a new way of living that sources its values from alternative places outside the dominant, contemporary culture.

In the nineteenth century, it was bohemian to be a socialist atheist, or a christian anarchist. Nowadays, these things have become mainstream, or simply uninteresting cliches.

If you were a member of the Bloomsbury group, drinking green tea and sowing your own dresses was bohemian. Nowadays it has become a fashion statement.

Being a bohemian is not about what you do, but what values you are manifesting in the world.

Bohemian values are not to be found in certain clothing styles, record collections, or political movements, which have themselves become fashion statements.

Marketing has turned everything into a fetish. Which means that the lifestyle affectations become ends in themselves, rather than means to ends.

The true value in bohemianism is in creating a legacy of independent thought. You don’t fall for branding, advertising or marketing.

Advertisers are expert at looking to what your values are, and convincing you that their product will bring you closer to those values.

But our values must always be ready to change, or if they are fundamental, we must always be prepared to re-examine why we hold to them.

The bohemian doesn’t wear her values as fashion statements. The only value that really matters is individual conscience, free of the manufacture of opinion that characterises modern democracies.

The fastest way to embody bohemianism in the modern Mactopia, is to be suspicious of all lifestyle, fashion and advertising.

Yes, it is a losing battle. The war has already been lost. But there is something curiously and quintessentially bohemian about fighting a losing battle. In some ways that just adds value to the fight.

The number one duty we have is to dig deep into our culture, into what has stood the test of time – the architecture, the philosophy, the ideas and concepts of beauty, that have lasted centuries.

Some say this is a reactionary philosophy. I say it is truly innovative. The purpose is not to use these resources for dictation on how to live, but to build up enough of an inner world of creative possibilities and imaginative sophistication so as to be resilient against the ephemeral culture of modernity.

I am not advocating an orthodoxy of values. Simply recommending a way of feeding the soul so that we can become truly independently minded, free from the influences of contemporary agendas.

Going back to the idea of influence; we do not revisit past culture to imitate it, but to be free of it, and retain all that is useful and valuable in it. Also we remain connected to aspects of who we are that have nothing to do with the short term interests of power and money in our immediate world.

Being free of these distractions and interests is really what being a bohemian is all about.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon