Book | Why Look at Animals? – John Berger

This week Last month, I read Why Look At Animals? – a compilation of essays and musings by John Berger that deal with the role of animals in our modern society as well as meditate over human behaviour, nature, art and human progress. Berger’s standpoints a lot of the time are depressingly Marxist and neo-Darwinist but the writing style is light and accessible and can actually be taken seriously.!!d8P1)gCGM~$(KGrHqMOKkEEwQOfWmnGBMSC0-tZ8g~~_35

The essay “Why look at animals?” looks at how animals have changed from kindred beasts that we used to interact with every day, share in our labours and revere with respect and reliance, versus now where they exist as a commodity or as often quoted in the book, a “marginalised spectacle” thanks to the logic of capitalism. Animals have become reduced to being things outside of themselves in human eyes, whether as representations of social status or else symbols of exoticism and civic/historical alliance, or else as empty promises of transcending our own emotions and biological limitations. Animals sit listless in zoos or lurking within human homes and streets. We have now become completely separate to animals despite how biologically and emotionally similar we are to them and Berger stresses how capitalism’s powers have corrupted this relationship to an irreparable extent:

“The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant … That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated”

Another essay, “Ape Theatre”, elaborates on the results of animal captivity and marginalisation by talking about his experience at a zoo in Basen. This essay is more focused on Darwinism, evolution and the rejection of creationism. It is structured anecdotally while providing lots of neat facts and philosophy about how similar apes are to us in how they can communicate and experience the same emotions as we do. This essay was written during a time where the discovery of our 99% genetic similarity to apes created a wave of thought concerning evolution and the instability of religion. Nevertheless, Berger’s position is poetic by confronting these two trains of belief and in the way we see our world.

“Birth begins the process of learning to be separate. The separation is hard to believe or accept. Yet, as we accept it, our imagination grows – imagination which is the capacity to reconnect, to bring together, that which is separate. Metaphor finds the traces which indicate that all is one. Acts of solidarity, compassion, self-sacrifice, generosity are attempts to establish – or at least a refusal to forget – a once-known unity … To create is to let take over something which did not exist before, and is therefore new. And the new is inseparable form pain, for it is alone … Alone, we are forced to recognise that we have been created, like everything else. Only our souls, when encouraged, remember the origin, wordlessly.”

Deep stuff, innit.

There are other cool little essays like comparing the eating habits between different classes and why one (no prizes for guessing which) is will be insatiably unfulfilled over the other. Also here’s an extract of this cool poem:

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal’s glance
on every side

Once the animals flowed like their milk

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss

This post ties in seamlessly with the fact that I went to the zoo the other day. London Zoo. Bit of a bittersweet situation. Obviously it is great to spend hilarious times with friends and see all the different animals but you can’t help but wonder how aware the animals are of their own captivity. Seeing endangered species whose only means of existence is within the confines of a zoo is also quite depressing. Depressing’s not really the right word for it. But seeing this rockhopper penguin isolating himself to just stare at the edge of the enclosure says it all really.

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Behind the Scenes at The Word in Edgeways #2

A month without posting. I make no apologies.

Though I guess I should explain why: first of all, I now have employment! Having just arrived in London, I was extremely lucky to land confirmed work in the same week as getting here. Seriously, extremely damn lucky. I am interning in the centre of London at a market research/consultancy kinda place which is very fun – when I’m not doing data entry, I actually get to write the odd piece or two which is great. Everyone is nice and friendly, I’m really enjoying it and learning so much about writing and the working world and all that stuff (particularly how to efficiently use a Mac…). Readjusting my body clock to a 9-5 was traumatic but I actually feel better for it.

Over the December I wasn’t actually working. Besides finishing off a colossal doorstopper, I just could not be arsed reading anything else. My Tsundoku post captures this weird malaise I get with reading and blogging together in further detail, but I just couldn’t be sacked. Reading a book and blogging about it in detail is time-consuming and although I like to write and I am still as interested in literature and books and films and TV as ever, I just didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. Moving to a new place combined with excessive social drinking throughout the holiday period inevitably put book blogging far down my list of priorities.Feelings

So is this the post where I vow to change for the better now that it’s the New Year? No. I don’t want to make any promises that I might not keep. Now that I am no longer a NEET (at least, for the time being), I don’t have the same free time and responsibilities as I do now. My blog may not be updated so frequently but I will do my best to be conscious of offering something now and again. I don’t know. Over the past six or seven months, I can’t really see my blog experiment developing or changing into anything bigger for many reasons, reasons that I now realise all boil down to post consistency, my self-indulgent writing style (apparently a big no-no in the world of blogging successfully) and my own aversion to social media publicity (err… what? Shu’up). These things might change in the future. Nevertheless, I do like writing for its own sake. I actually have some real writing projects for other people in the works on top of the ones I have to do as an intern so unfortunately these will take priority over this blog.

So that’s that. Till next time, who knows when that will be.

Book | NW – Zadie Smith

Warning: this book post will relate very closely to the fact that I have moved to London.

Wait, what?!

I have moved to London. Bye bye, Edinburgh… Hello, London! I love Edinburgh, I really do, but not only could I not get a job there this entire time, but it’s not really where I want to be for the mid-to-long-term future. Does this mean I have a job here…? Um… no… After much deliberation, weighing up pros and cons, switching between yes and no day in and day out, upsetting and appeasing a lot of people, I decided to just take advantage of the sudden opportunity given to me to move. I don’t really want to go any further about how I came to be here but all I can say is that I am one jammy bastard being in the position I am.

nwLet me now awkwardly segue into discussion of the book. NW‘s title, for those who don’t know anything about London, refers to the postcodes of northwest London, (coincidentally not that far at all from where I am staying). In NW, Zadie Smith probes into the lives of four characters who all know one other from their shared youth, all of them having different backgrounds, races, classes, aspirations, social groups, life choices… The novel takes each character in turn and goes deep into their histories and minds to paint a sombre picture of contemporary London life in the northwest.

In terms of overarching tone, I was expecting something along the lines of Smith’s hilarious first novel, White Teeth. NW is not as bubbly and vivid, however it is much more experimental in narrative form. NW is a mishmash of various forms, using streams of consciousness, standard focalised prose, lists, fragmented chapter headings… Doing something like this is often gimmicky and unforgivably Modernist but Zadie pulls it off because each form seems to successfully reflect the busy polyphonic lives that intertwine in cosmopolitan London while preserving an authentic inner psychology. Through these interesting forms, NW delves deep into the relationship between the inner and outer self, what characters hide from one another and from themselves, showing how what one’s perceptions and expectations of another are nothing like what they should be.

The first character, Leah, exemplifies all of this. She conceals her desires (or lack thereof) in life from her own husband while herself falling for the sob-story of a distraught young woman she used to know who comes to her door in need of help. Leah’s development that takes up half of the novel is abruptly cut to make way for a new form and focus on another character. Besides Felix and Nathan, Natalie’s narrative is sandwiched between these two and her story takes on the novel’s other half. Natalie grew up with Leah and her good friend, Keisha, in a council estate. She digs her way out of poverty and into the privileges that being a successful middle class lawyer offers, but at what cost? Natalie seems disillusioned by denying her socio-economic origins and her life is filled with responsibility and banality: her life is defined by the narrative form’s numbered passages that convey her life, passages that refer to cultural commodities of her growing up, such as Friends, The Wire, Amy Winehouse, etc.

There is a nostalgic feel throughout the novel to a time of innocence and youth, to a time where everything was infinite and unchanged. These characters are all in their thirties, stuck with marriages, jobs, responsibilities and the frustration of being boring and middle-class. Characters that are less privileged are depicted as happier, freer, more authentic but they in turn are unhappy with their lot for various reasons. The grass is always greener on the other side. Pretty much everyone in NW is dissatisfied with carrying on or “making it” in life to some degree. And as such, plot lines are left unfinished or exposed, there is little resolution. There is an itching incompleteness to NW that suggests a general malaise of contemporary life; the title therefore hints these characters live their lives in such confinement created by both their social/cultural pressures and defined geographic space.

Decent novel, would recommend. It is pessimistic and depressing but a great novel for thorough and intriguing characterisation. I am excited to be living here so hopefully my own experiences in London will not be so despondent…

Book | A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Confederacy

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned how I haven’t really ever read a book that has made me laugh… A Confederacy of Dunces, however, did. It’s true, I cackled with glee several times to the point where people on the train were giving me looks. What a great discovery and what a hilarious novel about the adventures of a belligerent and over-educated manchild.

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Really’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.

Our first paragraph is immediately quite amusing which is a good sign. It was certainly good enough to hook the novel’s skeptical publisher. After committing suicide, Toole left his novel unpublished; it was thanks to the persistence of his mother and the good faith of the unwitting reader of the manuscript that it became a great literary success and one of the best comic novels of the twentieth century.

In fact, I don’t think I can really make a post to justify how good it is, because it is that good. Cut the usual pseudo-academic analysis. Officially one of my favourite books. Just go read it, yeah?

Srsly, read it

Srsly, read it