On the Dangers of Certainty

There is nothing I dislike more than people who are 100% certain they are right all the time. Who have such fixed mindsets that they cannot even entertain the thought that others might think or feel differently, or that others might be right and they might be wrong, or that others might be right in their own way.

Bertrand Russell was well aware of this when he remarked: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’ I have often wished I could be more on the side of fools and fanatics rather than as indecisive as moral philosophy professor Chidi from the TV show The Good Place, but then I console myself that Bertrand Russell also said: ‘In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.’

What prompted all this musing? Well, the current political situation across several countries, for starters, where it appears that clueless and cruel leaders can utter the most outrageous statements without the slightest shadow of guilt or remorse. That is because they feel no remorse or guilt: they are breathtakingly sure of themselves and in love with themselves, believe they are always right and that the opinions of others simply do not matter, because the others are not as clever or wonderful or worthy as themselves and therefore not worth listening to.

The recent trip to Romania with its avoidance of political discussion with my parents (and other acquaintances) and of course the ongoing battle about financial settlement with Wet Blanket further crystallised this feeling. I am sure I too have a sense of righteousness about certain moral principles (not killing, except in the fiction I write, would probably come pretty high on the agenda, for example, as would not hurting other people – these are non-negotiable red lines). Beyond, that it’s dangerous when your own ideas and principles trump everyone else’s and make you blind and deaf to any other views, and it’s painful to see this in people whom I once loved or still love, who are highly educated, who have travelled the world and have been given every opportunity to think broadly, deeply and cross-culturally. While most of it seems to be a conflict between generations, I have heard younger people come out with such blanket statements as well. Here are some of the things I’ve heard in recent weeks which have disturbed me profoundly:

  • Watching Fox News documentaries on TV about Soros and the Jewish conspiracy to destabilise democracy in the US and commenting: ‘Ah, the Hungarians have cottoned on to this guy and kicked him out of their country. When will we wise up?’
  • ‘Our Greek Orthodox Church is being weakened by those loose Western values, we are at war with those liberals who need to fill their churches with jazz concerts in order to survive.’
  • ‘At least Putin knows how to deal with those capitalists who just want to come in and buy up the country.’
  • ‘Who could possibly be against declaring that marriage is something that should only exist between a man and a woman? They’ll be wanting to adopt children next and a child needs a proper family.’ When I said that what happens in the bedroom is no one else’s business, the reply is: ‘But they are not content with leaving things in the bedroom. Are they teaching them about homosexuality in schools in England as well? Because this is what is happening here: they are trying to brainwash young children with their sick mores.’ When I interjected that I don’t think anybody became gay because they were talked into it, another person said: ‘You are right: it’s inborn. It’s a disease.’
  • ‘I don’t understand all this #MeToo and Kavanaugh fuss. Let’s face it, there are some fundamental biological differences between men and women. Men are just genetically programmed to be competitive and aggressive, cheat and spread their seed as widely as possible. Women have known this since time immemorial and should just learn to protect themselves. As for that CERN professor who said women are not as good at physics and maths as men, which is why there are fewer of them in this field? Well, that’s absolutely true – that’s why it’s been so hard for me to meet women at work.’

I have spent a lifetime trying to argue with such people and their ideas. Often calmly, occasionally losing my temper and flouncing off. But there is no arguing with these type of people and I cannot realistically expunge them out of my life. Recently, I’ve resorted to the ‘bite your lip hard and run away to count to ten’ strategy. However, counting to ten has turned into counting to a hundred, stress and insomnia. All I can do is resolve not to allow these people to upset me in the future as much as they have done in the past and use all the material in my fiction in future.

What Book Clubs Mean to Me #AsymptoteBookClub

This is not a promotional post to encourage you all to take part in a competition to win a 3 month subscription for the Asymptote Book Club – although it would be great if you would! It is an explanation of why I have become so wed to the idea of an international virtual book club. But first, here is the information you need to take part:

The first book club I joined formed organically amongst friends. When I returned to Romania as a fourteen year old, I suddenly found many of my favourite authors were banned, sometimes simply for being from a certain country. (Those evil capitalist bastards etc.) At first, I tried to borrow books from the libraries set up by foreign embassies – until my father was told at his workplace that I should stop doing it, I was endangering the family. I persevered, underground. I went on to study Foreign Languages, and we all had our sneaky ways of getting hold of forbidden books (which might include the Metaphysical poets – we skipped from Shakespeare straight to Wordsworth in English literature, for instance): smuggled copies, photocopies, forgotten family inheritance, passing through all our hands. We spent long afternoons and nights debating them at parties (whilst listening to bootlegged Western music). It certainly made us value books for more than just their physical scarcity – they were the glimpse of a world beyond our own, the doorway to infinite possibilities when we felt we were walled in.

My second book club was more deliberate. I had developed a bit of a reputation amongst friends as the person who could always recommend a good book. After the birth of my first child, I was no longer able to go out to cultural events so frequently, so when I was invited to a book club run by local mums, which was meeting just a few houses down on my street, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember the first book we discussed was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that the meeting consisting mostly of wine and snacks, 10 minutes of chatting about Oxford (the setting of the book) and then the rest about babies, sleep patterns, potty training etc.

So I swore off book clubs for a while, although I kept hoping I would meet like-minded people. The Geneva Writers’ Group proved a good forum for some reading discussions, but we were mostly about the writing.

I then discovered my reading family online, via blogs and Twitter. First I developed a crime reading community, then I moved onto translated literature. I’m not giving up either any time soon. These are all people who are as passionate as me about reading, thinking about the reading, debating, listening to other points of view. But of course we all read books at different times, so the conversation sometimes takes a long while to develop. ‘Ah,’ I find myself saying after reading someone’s post, ‘I used to love that book in my teens, but I haven’t read it since.’ Can I really contribute to the conversation, when I can barely remember it, probably overestimate my reaction to it at the time, and would almost certainly feel differently to it now?

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how wonderful it is to be part of the Asymptote Book Club, which I would be supporting even if I weren’t helping out at Asymptote. Books from independent publishers from all over the world, books that don’t have the publicity budgets of the big hitters and risk being overlooked, books that are translated with much care and thought, the opportunity to discuss the same book with an international group of book lovers, to ask the translator questions, to find out more about the culture behind the book… And something that I can join in whenever I am free, without the risk of missing a meeting. Sounds pretty much ideal to me.

 

About Inspiration and Awards

Who or what inspires you as a writer? What fuels your passion and your life?  What makes you forget about time, eating, an aching back or even your friends and your children’s supper?  Not that I would recommend the last of these.  And I have only done it very occasionally.  Hardly worth pointing out, really.  Even if afore-mentioned children and friends do remind me of it on a regular basis.

So here are some of my favourite sources of inspiration in random order (ah, but is ‘off the top of my head’ really random?):

1) mountains and seascapes, preferably both together, as in the picture above

2) Shakespeare, especially ‘The Tempest’

3) the music of Brazil, almost any kind of jazz, plus David Bowie and a few other heroes

4) reciting or hearing poetry, the rhythm and roll of the images flooding your ears

5) when reading, finding the perfect phrase, the thought-stretching twist, the heartbreaking confession or the remarkable plot which makes me think:’yes, this is it, this is what life is all about’ and turn slightly green with envy that I could never write anything like that myself

6) the beauty of small creatures and shy buds, everyday things that are the last to be noticed and the first to be forgotten

7) the kindness of strangers, given without forethought or afterthought: things that make me believe once more in the generosity of the human spirit

All this is leading up to the Versatile Blogger Award that Polly Robinson has so kindly insisted I should have.  Thank you, Polly, you are one of the most encouraging people I have had the pleasure of meeting on the Internet.  I can always count on her to read my poems and make some comments.  I don’t know when she does it all, write her own poetry, organise events in her local area in Worcester, United Kingdom, setting up writers’ groups and open mic evenings… she is just amazing!

The rules for this award are typical of many others: share 7 things about yourself (my sources of inspiration, above), thank the person who nominated you and nominate 15 bloggers whom you recommend unreservedly.  I know that to some of them these awards (because they receive so many of them) can be a pain, so there is no obligation.  Unless they wish to leave a small comment below sharing perhaps not seven, but at least one thing that inspires them.  That would be wonderful!

I would so love to hear that from you all, and not just the people I am nominating below.  I am trying to nominate some that I haven’t mentioned before, so they are all fairly recent discoveries to me, although some of them are very well known.

Poetic magic

The Thread Is Red

Marousia

The Wheel and the Star

KD DeFehr

Jeannie Leflar

Stars Rain Sun Moon

Anything but prosaic

Andy’s Words and Pictures

Eric Alagan

Lisa Ahn

Write What You Know

Thought-provoking skullduggery

Crime Fiction Lover – and I loved them even before I started reviewing books for them!

It’s a Crime

Nicci French

Jeff Goins

A picture says more than a thousand words

From the Right Bank

An Afternoon With…

Shedworking