Most books now are self-help books. Other books just don’t cut it anymore. They don’t have the sufficient amount of gobbets or bullet points or lists. They don’t mould to your bite. I can’t read self-help books because I don’t need any help. Also I am averse to being taught anything. BY ANYONE.
Self-help seekers want 1. short cuts. 2. mentors. They are part of the wave of belief in accountability. We can account for story telling; we can account for positive thinking; we can account for happiness. Formulaic procedures can lead us in the right direction. Hollywood uses these.Jennifer Anniston is cooky; Ryan Gosling is hunky; Harrison Ford is statesmanlike; Cameron Diaz is ditzy (she can also do ballsy).This is all useful to know when you start watching a film. That way you can have a kip in the middle. Or, better still, not watch it in the first place. Familiarity is key (see familiarity Jan 18). When writing stories self-help books tell us to follow an arc. I know the arc of bio-pics. They start with a key scene in, say, Enid Blyton’s life, an emblematic scene. Then it goes back to childhood and follows her life from there. It crosses the emblematic scene about two thirds of the way through and then completes the life. The last scene is a flashback, normally guaranteed to produce a wistful tear in the eye of the spectator. Arcs, like Valentine’s Day and jokes are for amateurs. Arcs are rubbish.
For the first time in many years I heard the expression used without irony that someone had ‘sold out’. In this case, by becoming a lawyer. The contemporary equivalent would be ‘he’s a loser’. Each expression is working at different ends of the spectrum. ‘Selling out’ imples a position on the margins with a counter culture point of view. ‘He’s a loser’ works from the centre looking out. The shift imples much about our cultural drift in recent years. Or else it imples much about the drift in my cultural entourage in recent years.
I don’t understand either point of view. Any slightly complex version of the world involves us all in compromise. And that line we will not cross will shift from day to day, from mood swing to mood swing. See Montaigne again (January 2013).
A day in Baden Baden at the Baths there. No embarrassments this time. Last time I went there a few years back we went to the totally nude section (men, women, children, Germans don’t care).We bumped into some of Sophie’s work colleagues and I was introduced to them. Though starkers, we shook hands formally as though we were wearing suits and ties and engaged in the usual conversation about weather and holidays. I refrained from looking at anybody’s penis. To Sophie, who is half German, this is all ‘ganz normal’. To me, if there is an errant penis or ambulant bazookahs, it is ‘absolut nicht ganz normal’.
Waiting for my train outside North End station Paris. A man is parked there in a black BMW, wearing dark glasses and what seems to be a kind of shaggy woollen jacket which must be very warm in the heat. He seems to be staring at me through the open window of the car though it is not clear that he is because of the dark glasses. I assume he is a chauffeur. He speaks into a mobile and continues to wait. For some reason, perhaps because his hair is slicked back, I assume he is the driver of some gangster. I shall be interested to see the look of the mobster who comes out of the station to get into the car.
There is suddenly an odd ruffling of his shaggy woollen jacket and I see that it is not a jacket at all but the hair of a little boy who is sitting in the passenger seat and now turns his head so that I can see his profile. And then the wife arrives from the station, a dowdy, plump woman. The driver, or rather husband, gets out of the car and helps her put shopping in the boot. He too is a plump man and the hair is not slicked back. It is thinning. He takes his glasses off to reveal homely, domestic pidgeon eyes. Just a little family unit. Not the mafia at all.
My habit of pitching up in Paris for little meetings with old friends is disquieting for some of them, I suppose. They may have not seen me for two or three years and I come out of the blue, arriving at what may be an awkward moment for them. And then there is the intellectual challenge of finding a way to summarise in a few minutes the chaos that has been going on in the last couple of years, a chaos that might resemble a Jackson Pollock, all action and dripping. In their accounts some people are precise, controlled and abstract (Mondrian); others anecdotal (Spencer); some unable to produce order (Dubuffet) or only interested in partial accounts (Sickert); or else impenetrable (Rothko); others too afraid to show up (Munch The Scream).
Reading Zola these days (La Bete Humaine, Nana, L’Assommoir, Au Bonheur des Dames). His notions of heredity and class, though unfashionable in our era of ‘choice’, find a sympathetic ear with me. These are almost unbearable narratives to a modern reader. L’Assommoir is like watching your mother being relentlessly beaten and humiliated time after time. It is a series of terrible Stations of the Cross on the road to a disaster that is signposted in every chapter. Now and again, Gervaise (the main character) by sheer force of will manages to stagger to her feet only to be bludgeoned down to the ground again. It makes you realise how much modern narrative has come to skirt away from these dreadful truths.
Exceptional stories blind us to the great swathe of truth which is that even today we do not easily escape our class and our background. The choice of the individual is the contemporary mantra, and of course this flatters our sense of agency. But if I look at myself: I don’t drive a car or take long haul holidays. My carbon footprint is probably quite low. But these aren’t my choices. They are due to my upbringing (my dad didn’t have a car till I was fourteen and we didn’t fly). But some people who have a great interest in save the planet activities will have a bigger carbon footprint than me, despite their save the planet choices. My behaviour is dictated less by my choices and more by the thick psychological and economic identity that my history has worked upon me. So I’m with Zola and Marx I suppose.
My mum used to tell a story of her mam and dad (my grandparents) and breakfast.When my grandmother used to serve up an egg for breakfast, just one, her husband used to say, much to the fury of his wife, I knew a man. He had two eggs. He’s living yet.
I remember once my dad revealing to us an important discovery he had just made. You know what I had this morning, he said, as we assembled together to hear what he had to say. No, we said, me; my mum, my sisters. Hot toast. We looked back at him. Hot toast, he said again. Much to the fury of my mum. Toast was supposed to be hot. If he hadn’t been so slow buttering it, he would have been eating hot toast all his life. We all laughed at him. He only shook his head sadly, as though he knew we were all of us in it together, pretending to know about hot toast just to gang up on him.
My friend Andrew cannot abilde hot toast. It is anathema to him. Toast, yes. But not hot toast . And this obvious truth (cette evidence in the French) has spread through his family like a virus. Jacob, his nine year old, looked at me in shock and horror, as though at the revelation of an ‘orrible murder, when I mentioned hot toast. This crime against humanity is som thing I believe he still holds against me.