#SixDegrees July 2022

Apologies for not posting anything on Monday. This week will be a bit tricky; in fact, the next few weeks might be a bit off-schedule too, as I frantically try to cope with a sick cat, some additional work obligations, holiday preparations, and quite a bit of change in holiday plans. However, I could not resist joining in with Kate’s game of bookish links Six Degrees of Separation. This month it starts with Katherine May’s Wintering, a combination of memoir and nature writing which sounds utterly compelling. It is definitely on my TBR list, but no, I haven’t read it yet.

A book in a similar vein is Josie George‘s beautifully written memoir about living as a single mother with a disability A Still Life. The author has the eye of a photographer (you can follow her on Instagram) and the sensibility of a poet, and her loving observations of life in general, as well as the natural and urban world around her, are so inspiring that it’s a book I definitely want on my shelves, to dip into every now and then for encouragement and zest for life.

I did get the title of Josie’s book confused with another recent book, namely Still Life by Sarah Winman (I thought publishers tried to avoid titles that were too similar, or had been used many times before?). I haven’t read it, but I understand that it is set in Tuscany (wonderful, one of my favourite places) and depicts a wartime friendship between an English soldier and an alleged spy.

Books about wartime romances abound (although I understand no romance is involved in Still Life), but one that made me thrill and weep was The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I also liked the film adaptation, enamoured as I was with Ralph Fiennes, Kristen Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche simultaneously).

A book about a very different kind of patient, namely one who suffers TB of lungs and bones, is … no, not The Magic Mountain, but Romanian writer Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts (Inimi cicratizate). Set in a French seaside resort, with often gruelling descriptions of medical treatments, it is nevertheless a moving description of the will to live, love, encounter and drink one’s fill of beauty. There is also a 2016 film adaptation by director Radu Jude (which I am really keen to see).

A very simple link to my next book: by another author called Max, namely Max Weber and his seminal work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A must-read for any anthropology or sociology student in the second half of the 20th century, I liked the fact that he added the cultural dimension to Marx’s purely dialectic-materialistic examination of the origins of capitalism. I think it still has much to say about the difference between Northern and Southern Europe, for example.

Bit of a titillating cover from Penguin Modern Classics

By way of contrast, a very complicated link to the final book in the chain. Max Weber contracted the Spanish Flu in 1920 and died of related pneumonia complications. My last choice is one of the few books that directly addresses the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, namely Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, apparently based on the author’s own experience of falling ill with the flu and then recovering from it. The scenes of feverish hallucination are said to be among the best in all of literature.

Quite a lot of illness haunting today’s choices, not just because the starting point was about depression and family illnesses, but perhaps subconsciously also because of my worries about my sweet Zoe. Let’s hope next month will be considerably more cheery.

#SixDegrees of Separation: January 2022

You know the drill by now: start with the same book and end up wherever you like in just six jumps! One of my favourite bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility – and it’s always a problem when I’ve read neither the book nor anything else by that author.

However, I do think his name is rather strange (sounds like ‘Someone who loves towels’, right?), and it appears to be his real name rather than a pseudonym. So I will start with another American author with a strange name, although this one is decidedly a pseudonym. I discovered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events when I was looking to buy something funny and a bit different for the daughter of a friend about 18-20 years ago. The books were a big hit with her (and she has recently qualified as a doctor, not that I believe this was as a direct consequence of my thoughtful present). I read them later on with my children as well, and we loved them, shame that any TV/film adaptations haven’t quite lived up to them.

The second link is rather obvious: from the Baudelaire orphans to Charles Baudelaire, but not his most famous work The Flowers of Evil. Instead, I opt to go for another cranky later work, Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems which are little vignettes of daily life in Paris, foreshadowing so much modern writing, including flash fiction, micro-memoirs and more.

This volume was published posthumously, so for my next link I chose another posthumously published novel. I could have gone for the obvious, Kafka, or the most famous, A Confederacy of Dunces, but instead I will go for E. M. Forster’s Maurice, a gay love story that he could not publish during his lifetime because homosexuality was illegal at the time.

A simple jump via the name Maurice, straight into the imaginative world of Maurice B. Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, which was another firm favourite of my own childhood and that of my children. I even recreated a wild song and dance when reading it out loud. The best children’s books transcend generations, don’t they?

My favourite illustration from the book.

The hero of Sendak’s book is called Max, and for a while that was going to be my younger son’s second name. So once again, somewhat unimaginatively, I choose an author called Max. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of the first books I read when I embarked upon my anthropology studies and I still agree with many of the points he raised.

I will finish this series with another Max that I had to study, but earlier, in school, namely Max Frisch and his play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated into English as either Firebugs or The Fire Raisers). This play was written as a response to those saying that they would never have been taken in by the Nazis or the Communists, but it remains topical to this day, showing how ‘normal’ citizens can be taken in by evil and contribute to their own downfall.

Theatre poster for Biedermann und die Brandstifter.

So my literary travels at the start of this New Year took me from America to Paris, from Cambridge to the Land of the Wild Things, from a founding father of sociology to a Swiss playwright and novelist. I hope to travel even further this year, at least via books. Where will you be travelling?

Max Weber and Durkheim in an Age of Over-Sharing

The more the modern world surprises and worries me, the more I turn to the classics of sociology, who experienced their fair share of major social and cultural shifts. My two favourites are Max Weber with his stark warnings about politics and power and Emile Durkheim on anomie.

Max Weber
Max Weber

It was actually not Weber but Georg Simmel who coined the phrase ‘sterile excitation’ to describe what many of us feel at the moment: a tumult of anxiety and passionate feelings when watching the news, but feeling powerless to do much about it. However, Weber publicised the term and warned also of the dangers of so-called charismatic leaders who unleash a ‘following’ they cannot control. Gripped by a need to increase their ‘likes’ (as Weber would say nowadays, looking at social media), these leaders are willing to court controversy and deliberately incite hate-talk and violence from their followers (while denying any personal responsibility). These followers think they are romantic revolutionaries but they are in fact driven by the basest of motives (adventure, booty, power, spoils) and, after victory, usually degenerate into nothing more than looters of all descriptions, claims Weber. It’s this ‘adventure’ item which I see in the cult of celebrities nowadays: a fantasy that they are leading the life we would like to lead if only… Harmless when it’s merely wishful thinking and daydreaming, but it can be used for nefarious purposes too, just like Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympic gods were used to both inspire and divide German society in the 1930s.

emiledurkheimMeanwhile, Emile Durkheim talked about the tension in any human between individual needs and our social roles.

There are in each of us two consciences: one which is common to our group in its entirety…the other represents that in us which is personal and distinct, that which makes us an individual

Contrary to most contemporary mantras of ‘be yourself’, ‘you owe it to yourself to develop to your full potential’, ‘follow your own path’ and so on, Durkheim actually thinks the social self contributes significantly to the development of an individual character:

Because society surpasses us, it obliges us to surpass ourselves, and to surpass itself, a being must, to some degree, depart from its nature—a departure that does not take place without causing more or less painful tensions.

He warns against the dangers of excessive individualism:

Our purely individual side seeks satisfaction of all wants and desires. It knows no boundaries. The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs. Instead of asking “is this moral?” or “does my family approve?” the individual is more likely to ask “does this action meet my needs?”

It’s when the gap between individual and social needs becomes too unbridgeable, or when one deliberately decides that one has had ‘enough’ of society and will only follow individual desires, that ‘anomie’ sets in.

What strikes me when perusing social media nowadays is this desire to overcome ‘anomie’ by connecting online.

I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry...
I know some or all of these are Kardashians, but I have no idea who is who, sorry…

We are no longer afraid of sharing our most intimate moments or thoughts, sometimes carefully curated, it’s true, but sometimes deliberately self-flagellating, as if in a competition who can hit rock-bottom first. I’m not criticising others for it: I have done it myself. I used to keep a diary to wrestle with my thought processes and feelings, but now I frequently find myself musing out loud online. Perhaps I get more feedback and support from my online friends, with whom I interact nearly daily, rather than from my real-life friends, whom we don’t really get to see all that frequently. Sad but true!

This sharing of stories has enabled us to not feel alone with our anxieties, sorrows or troubles. Others have felt alone, have experienced depression or oppression, ill-health or bereavement, have advice or comfort for us. This is the positive side of the internet and I love it.

However (aside from the more obvious dangers of trolls and shouting at each other over an ever-widening abyss) the plethora of discourses has also resulted in a state of permanent sterile excitation. At least in my case it has. And it’s keeping me from producing worthwhile work, because I see the futility of it all…

If awareness of the situation is the first step towards improvement, may the next steps be close behind, please!

Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.
Any chance of bridging that precipice? From Vancouver Sun, a fearless (or foolish) slackliner.