I have just finished a generally disappointing book of essays entitled Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives, by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist. The book was recommended severally by the Economist, the Financial Times, and various end-of-year newspaper round-ups. Sum (as in cogito ergo) is one of those faddish works that snowballs briefly. It’s a whimsical collection of essays about the afterlife, neither fiction nor philosophy nor theology, and the fortieth essay conveniently concludes that there is no afterlife anyway. One phrase caught my eye. ‘There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.’ It’s a facile observation, but is it true of us all, this third, anticipated, death, of the ego? I think of my late parents. As they were dying they certainly thought in terms of legacy: values, education, the well-being of their children and their grandchildren. But it was selfless thought and not at all about posterity. They died when they died, and that was that. Eagleman’s throwaway observation reminds me of a recent column by Luke Johnson in the Financial Times. He spoke about a friend, ‘Richard’, who cut away the crap by asking his fellow financiers which was the most important for them: wealth, power, or fame. I wrote the newspaper a letter, politely asking Johnson to let us know which way he replied (since he, a financier, media mogul and newspaper columnist, conveniently forgot to let us know). But, in truth, this is a ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ type of question. Are all financiers necessarily only concerned with wealth or power or fame? Maybe they begin that way. There is a lot of noisy philanthropy and charity out there, but there is a sufficient quantity of quiet charity to make me believe that wealthy, powerful and famous people also discover other motivations in life.
From the first time I set foot in the country I have always been struck by Italian hospitality, particularly of the spontaneous kind. When, as happened this evening, you are spontaneously invited into somebody’s house, you are not only received with extraordinary generosity but you also eat and drink like a king. On this occasion the lady of the house magicked a delicious meal out of nothing in five minutes. It was just a lovely, simple experience; Italy at its best.
I have just finished reading Paul Auster’s Invisible. The good news is that it is not another Blue Jay Way (see my post of 27 November 2008). I cut out all of the reviews of this book, Auster’s thirteenth novel, but deliberately refrained from reading them until I had read the book itself and formed my own view. So; I enjoyed it. But, as a budding author myself, I confess that a good part of that enjoyment came from studying the writing rather than simply reading it. Auster is a very skillful writer and he resorts frequently to clever devices, but that’s part of the problem. On the whole, the reviewers were similarly critical. Invisible is supposedly a conjunction of three people’s manuscripts, or writings: Jim Freeman, successful author, writes the overall account and the bridging passages; Adam Walker, student friend of Freeman’s and now dying of leukemia, manages to write two chapters of an autobiographical account, and leaves notes for the third chapter, which Freeman helpfully writes out for the reader; and Parisian Cécile, who loved Walker briefly, provides her diary entries to finish the tale off. There are all the standard Auster devices in here: dead siblings; books-within-books (a literary version of set theory); dying narrators. There is also a new one – sibling incest – borrowed from John Irving (Hotel New Hampshire). It all fits together and the tale dutifully twists several times but, at the end, the reader is left asking ‘what was all of that about’? And why does Auster need to hide behind various ciphers of himself (which is what the various ‘other authors’ seem like)? Are these, as one reviewer has argued, alibis because Auster is unable to take the plunge and describe difficult things directly as himself (with the risk that his writing might be considered as having not been up to it)? Alternatively, if Auster is (as I would prefer to believe) trying to say something about different versions of reality, then the exercise doesn’t really come off. There is a lot of atmospheric material in the story about the 1960s – in New York, in Paris; a period and places that Auster knew well then. And I couldn’t help but feel (not for the first time) that he has been plundering his diaries and notebooks. Well, of course, it’s the first commandment of all writing – write about what you know, or about what you have known. Since Auster is a very skillful writer and knows all ten commandments, we must assume that he is making it feel that way. But why? I think Auster is deliberately leading the reader into voyeurism – not once, but several times over. There’s the incest and the lesbianism and the violence. But there’s also Auster’s Jim Freeman declaring that everything and everyone in the story has been changed to maintain their anonymity. By definition, this cannot include Auster’s own identity. ‘Look,’ the author seems to be saying, ‘some of this might have happened to me – but, then again, maybe it didn’t.’ This is not the great book of Auster’s maturity as an artist, but I like to think that he is limbering up for one.
We went to see Avatar, the 3D version, as a Christmas Eve treat. It is well worthwhile. Technologically-speaking, the film takes cinema to a new level (and there are many more 3D films waiting in the wings), so hats off to big name James Cameron for blazing the path others will now surely follow. In content terms, though, I could not help but think that the greening and pacification of Hollywood is complete. The basic story line is the rape of nature by man. The plot is a good example of what Lem would argue is a fallacious anthropomorphic assumption, since the na’vi, the sapient indigeneous race mankind finds on the moon of Pandora is – wait for it – humanoid. But the mankind that does the raping is big business and gung ho military stereotypes combined – what used to be called the military-industrial complex, and the ancient trees that they destroy to get at valuable mineral deposits beneath are a collective allegory for the rain forests of Indonesia and Amazonia. Or are they a metaphor for Vietnam and/or Iraq and/or Afghanistan? Or….oh, well. Alternatively, you can just sit back and enjoy a story which is somewhere between The Jungle Book and Dances with Wolves; you got it – we’re talking about going native, big time.
I have just finished reading Stanislaw Lem’s SF classic, Solaris. Forget about the films (there have been two) and read the book. It is a masterpiece, full of philosophical insights. For me it ranks up there with Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory as my best read of 2009. Lem brilliantly pricks mankind’s basic deceit. We always assume that we are sufficiently intelligent to be able to find a way of communicating with any other sort of intelligence out there. But what if we are not or, quite simply, we cannot? On Solaris, Lem’s imagined planet, a whole ocean is a sentient being of unfathomable intelligence, and the generations of puny men who go there to explore it are, in their turn, explored, the innermost secrets of their minds being probed, their guilty secrets reproduced in convincingly lifelike form and their reactions observed by the being. As in Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone, it is difficult to see where the real science ends and the imagined science begins. Lem is also good in describing the sensations of such physical remoteness from the Earth. I have read nothing else by Lem but his basic theme, that man’s anthropomorphic portrayals of aliens as “humanoid” is falacious and futile, is brilliantly argued in this book. If one day we do come across an intelligent alien life form, Lem is telling us, there is no guarantee that we will even recognise it for what it might be. Once you remove the falacious anthropomorphic assumption, there is no necessity about inter-intelligence communication. Put another way, we always imagine we will be communicating with some sort of version of ourselves. It reminds me of the old saw; ‘God created man in his image, and man wasn’t slow in returning the compliment’!
It’s three o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, 23 December 2009, and I have just sent everybody home early (it’s our last day of work). We have been working so hard this year and we have achieved an awful lot. A couple of hours off is the least the staff collectively deserve. Next year promises all sorts of positive challenges and I know that the Committee will rise to meet them. I like to argue that the Committee has two strengths; its members, and its staff. Together, in 2010, we are going to continue to work together to put the Committee at the forefront of the ‘civil dialogue’ foreseen by the Lisbon Treaty. Personally, I relish the prospect. But for now it is time for everybody, members and staff, to relax together with family and friends and to recharge batteries.
On 9 December, fresh back from Moscow, I wrote a post about time zones and politics. By coincidence, today’s Financial Times carries a full-page article on the same theme. Though I didn’t know it, President Medvedev has recently proposed that Russia’s eleven time zones should be reduced to four. Russian modernists see so many time zones as a drag on the efficiency of the economy. In Soviet times, however, the zones were a source of pride, demonstrating the sheer expanse of the USSR. In China, on the other hand, Beijing time was imposed across the land (though the Uighur population unofficially operates on its own time, two hours behind Beijing). Scientists and doctors argue that time zones are a physical and psychological necessity and they are critical, even of our own one hour switch back and forth between summer and winter time, statistics demonstrating that there are 68% more accidents on the Monday immediately following the switch.
I don’t mean to be grim, but I could not help but notice that Karlheinz Neunreither (29.01.31 – 14.11.09) has passed away. Most of my readers will have no idea who Neunreither was but many older officials in the European Parliament and in the Secretariat General of the European Commission will recall that Neunreither, a parliamentary official, gave his name to the Group he created and in which many of us spent quite a lot of time. The Group, a simple idea, brought together officials from the Commission, Parliament and Council and began to meet on a monthly basis to monitor progress in legislative activities and to try to anticipate and resolve difficulties. The Group still meets, though it is no longer known by his name, but those of us who study or write about the institutions (as Neunreither did himself) will nevertheless remember his creation as an early example of effective interinstitutional cooperation.
For about a week now the meterologists and newspapers have been forecasting snow. So, when it fell yesterday it could hardly have been described as a surprise. Nevertheless, the traffic in Brussels was gridlocked and the airport effectively closed down in the evening, leaving many of the Committee’s members, trying to return homeward after the plenary session, marooned. I know how much I would have hated that and my heart went out to them all (some spent the night at Zaventum and some took over a day to find a way home). In Moscow I met a Russian diplomat who is now at the Brussels Embassy but was previously posted to Bern. He, used to Russian blizzards (and it’s true I saw the bulldozers waiting near the Kremlin), was ferociously critical of what he described as the ineffectual efforts of the Swiss to clear away the snow each winter. I wonder what he made of the Belgian effort….
I came across a terribly sad story in my newspaper this week. In Africa, in Somalia, somewhere near the Ethiopan border, a family sat down for their meal this past weekend. The mother was preparing the meal. The father and their children, a baby and six siblings between the ages of three and eleven, were just sitting down when an explosion occurred. The parents and the baby survived, but the six other children were killed outright. What had happened? There was a conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in the late 1970s. Lots of landmines were sown in the frontier area. One of these had escaped the sweepers and inadvertently the family had built their house over it. The movement of the children had set it off. How dreadful! I could not get this story out of my head all week.