Archive | November, 2011

Bozimacoo (Or T-word, N-word part 2)

29 Nov

You don’t hear the word ‘bozimacoo’ very often these days.

It derives from the Middle Ages when the church tried to levy a fine on the use of foul language. Obviously the church had to draw up a list of offending terms that would incur the fine and this, naturally enough led to people making up new imprecations that they could use without being charged for the privilege. There were a number of these terms, but bozimacoo is the only one I can remember (It was quite a long time ago, after all).

I’ve always admired Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I think it’s a dark and brilliant novella and it’s well worth reading. My only real problem with it is the repeated use of the word ‘nigger’.

Heart of Darkness is written as a first person narrative and the context indicates that the term is not being used as an intentional expression of abuse, it’s just a word that’s used to refer to Africans.

There is a similar, apparently quite casual, use of the word in Earnest Hemingway’s Fiesta, also known as The Sun Also Rises. (Another novella that’s well worth reading).

My problem in reading these books is that every time I come across this particular word in the text, it jars a little. (I suspect that if I wasn’t white it would do more than jar a little).

So it would seem that the word ‘nigger’ has acquired a power over the years to the extent that, if you put it into a sentence, there’s a very real risk that it’s the only word that will come across and the rest of the sentence will go unnoticed. (Or maybe all it really means is that white people, like me, are finally starting to see quite how offensive the term always was to people of other races).

The ideal, of course, is for our various terms of abuse to fall into the same impotence, obscurity and redundancy as bozimacoo, but I don’t see that happening for a while.

There are times, however, when the power that some words have over us can be a positive thing. Some years ago I was reading about a nurse who had served in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Vietnam during the war. (You can read more about this in a book called Nam by Mark Baker ISBN 0-349-10239-2. It’s a collection of accounts by various American veterans of their experiences in the Vietnam War).

Cleary the people serving in these MASH units would have been exhausted and many of them would have used alcohol, amongst other things, to help them cope. So when this nurse needed to summon a doctor in order to attend to a medical emergency on the ward, she found that it was difficult to get them to respond quickly.

What she learned to do was to tell the doctor that he had to come quickly because his patient was ‘fucked up’. Somehow this expression cut through the haze and got an immediate response where correct medical terminology did not.

So we can conclude that while no one ever died of the word ‘fuck’ some lives have certainly been saved by it.

T-word, N-word

28 Nov

I’ve never been very comfortable using the word ‘teuchter’, mostly because I wasn’t sure of the derivation and I couldn’t be sure whether or not it was offensive, and if so exactly how offensive it is.

In general if I’m going to give offense, I refer to know in advance how offensive I’m going to be and I never like to give offence on a racial, sectarian or cultural basis, because I’d rather personalise my insults. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

The term ‘teuchter’, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a term used to refer to a Highland Scot, and specifically a Gaelic speaker. Normally I prefer the term ‘Gael’, because I know that it’s reasonably polite. The corresponding word ‘sassenach’ refers to a Lowland Scot and specifically a native English speaker. So far as I’m concerned it is not a word used by Scots to designate the English, but many people seem to use the term in this way, and it seems to have become the ‘official’ version.

The situation is confused a little by the fact that Gaels sometimes refer to themselves, and each other, as ‘teuchters’. But as we all know a term may be acceptable if its applied by a member of the group it refers to, but may be completely unacceptable when it’s used by an outsider.

Some time ago I was working with a Gael. He was from Benbecula and he grew up speaking Gaelic. He only learned his English when he started going to school, although you would never have known that from speaking to him, you would have thought that English was his first language.

When  I asked him about the word, he told me that he had no idea where it came from and that he didn’t generally find it insulting or offensive. His attitude was quite sensible. For him, it all depended on how the term was used. If it was just used as a term of reference, or as a joke, he didn’t mind. He was only bothered if the term was used in an aggressive or abusive manner.

Further research has led me to believe that the word is actually derogatory in its origins, so I think I’ll continue to avoid it.

Incidently, I was watching an item in the news about the execution of an African-American man. I don’t know what he was convicted of, or whether or not he was guilty.

The thing that really struck me was that in amongst the various people protesting outside the jail, either for or against the death penalty there was a contingent from the Ku Klux Klan. They were all dressed up in their regalia and carrying various placards, one of which read ‘Burn N-word Burn’.

Whatever you think of the death penalty, and whatever the circumstances of this particular case, I think you have to deplore the sentiment, but I was puzzled about the way they had written it out. (One assumes they can spell the word ‘nigger’. Of all the words in the English lexicon, they must know this one).

So the reason they used the euphemism ‘N-word’, is probably quite mundane, something to do with legal penalties for displaying the word in public, or maybe some concern that their placard might have been pixellated if the word was written out, I don’t know.

Having said this, the idea that the Ku Klux Klan chose not to write the word ‘nigger’ on their placard in case they gave offense to the African-American community struck me as being just too precious to give up.

Evil exists

25 Nov

Apparently this is a Creole saying.

It could seem like a totally superfluous statement of the blindingly obvious, but to some theologians eg Leibnitz, this is a highly contentious opinion.

The widespread perception that a lot of really bad things happen in the world is the basis for Theodicy, which started as an attempt to reconcile the apparent existence of evil with  faith in a deity who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

Basically the problem is that if there is evil in the world then there are three possible conclusions that follow from this fact. 1/ God does not exist. 2/ God chooses to permit evil. 3/ God is unable to prevent evil.

If you don’t want to accept one of these three options, then you have to deny the existence of evil.

If you want to deny the existence of evil, then you have to assert that what we perceive to be evil is not actually evil at all. That it is, in fact, good.

Obviously, it’s going to be hard to argue that events like the Holocaust are anything other than utterly evil, but attempts have been made.

For example, ‘ The Holocaust was actually a good thing because it provided humanity with opportunities to demonstrate virtues like compassion, courage, etc.’

In other words if the Holocaust had been even worse, then this would in fact have been better since it would have allowed greater opportunities for humanity to demonstrate its finer qualities, and if you can live with this argument then can I suggest you seek professional help as a matter of urgency.

Another example would be, ‘The Holocaust was really just an inevitable consequence of God allowing us all to have free will’.

If the price of free will is the death of six million Jews and a similar number of non Jews including pacifists, Gipsies, gay men, trade unionists etc etc. then that price is too high. Incidently, the people who suffered and died in the Holocaust were denied their opportunity to exercise free will. Besides, not all the suffering in the World is the result of human free will eg natural disasters.

Suffering is a punishment/suffering purifies.

The trouble with this argument is that it only applies to those of us who are moral agents. Animals also suffer, but they are not moral agents, therefore they can’t sin, therefore there’s no point in trying to punish them or to purify them. (And that’s even if you accept that suffering does purify, in my experience it just hurts).

I could go on, but why bother?

Either you agree with me, or you don’t. You can fill a small library with the writings of people better versed in the subject than me and I don’t think anyone’s made any fundamental change in their beliefs as a result of any of it.

Let me offer a different perspective.

Whether or not you call it evil, the world certainly is full of suffering. The natural world also contains a remarkable degree of inefficiency eg the eyes of all land animals have a network of blood vessels between the retina and the lens which has the effect of significantly reducing the sharpness of the image. (octopi and squids have the blood vessels behind the retina giving them much sharper vision)

It’s also incredibly beautiful and fascinating.

Anne Rice coined the phrase ‘the savage garden’ and I think this sums it up very well.

Now if you consider that the World is the product of Intelligent Design, you’re stuck with the fact of this suffering and inefficiency and you have to find some explanation for it. And the problem is that much more acute if you believe that this Designer is also benign and omnipotent.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the world and all the living things on it are the end result of a series of natural processes, then you can accept the beauty and wonder of the world and the flaws and failings are really just part of the whole thing. You don’t have to agonise over it.

So you either have the surprisingly flawed work of the omnipotent, or you have the amazing product of natural processes.

I know which I prefer and which I find more comfortable to live in.

The Illuminati

23 Nov

The Bavarian Illuminati was a secret society established on the 1st of May 1776 by Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830). Weishaupt was a Professor of Law and he seems to have intended the Illuminati to establish  a new world order by means of conspiracy. The structure of the organisation took the form of  network of independent cells, each operating in isolation and reporting to a superior who was not known to them, a structure which has proved useful to a number of subsequent organisations.

Freemasonry provided a particularly tempting target for infiltration given its widespread membership, system of graduated initiation and general tendency towards secrecy.

Weishaupt took the name of ‘Brother Spartacus’ and his original aim was to ‘dispel the clouds of superstition and of prejudice’, which all sounds terribly laudable, but the Order soon developed its own gnostic mysteries into which members were initiated as they progressed through the hierarchy.

The Order of the Illuminati was effectively brought to an end by the secular edict of  the 2nd f March 1785, issued by Karl Theodor, the Elector of Hanover.

On the face of it, this sounds like so much historical trivia.

The Illuminati essentially only really existed as the pet project of  an otherwise relatively obscure academic with an apparent passion for secret societies and conspiracies. The only real significance of the Illuminati to most people is the fact that it’s provided such a useful backdrop for novelists and conspiracy theorists.

But there is one interesting thing about the Bavarian Order of the Illuminati.

The most secret of the secrets that was finally revealed in the ultimate initiation of the Illuminati was, ‘There is no secret’.

This is either the most shameless rip off, or the highest wisdom. You decide.

Personally, I think there’s something to it.

All the great teachers, Lao Tzu, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha (Add your own favourites to the list if you want) tend to have a few things in common.

They seldom put their ideas in writing, others tend to do that for them. They often use parables and fables. They seldom, if ever, say anything in plain and simple terms. You have to work at it to understand what they’re getting at.

Why is this?

It’s because most of what they’re trying to tell you is very important, but it’s also blindingly obvious and quite simple once you get it.

If they tried to tell you what they wanted you to understand in plain and simple terms it would sound simple-minded. It’s only when you have to work for it that you see the value in the point they’re trying to make.

So there are no secrets, the really important stuff is all out there. It isn’t hidden and it’s very easy to understand. The only trouble is that it’s much harder to accept and it’s hard work trying to live by it.

So it’s easier to wrap yourself up in sophistry and convoluted arguments. That’s not the way to find any kind of truth worth having, it’s just a distraction and it only feels important because it’s difficult and you get to use a lot of pretentious terminology.

So profound truth or total rip off?

It’s up to you.

But either way, at least you didn’t have to join a secret society to find it.

Bits and Pieces

21 Nov

The paradox of Theseus’ ship is used in philosophy in order to explore the question of identity.

Basically, the paradox can be described as follows; Theseus goes on a voyage around the Mediterranean. As he progresses various parts of the ships wear out, become damaged or rotten and have to be replaced and, by the time Theseus return to Athens every part of the ship has been replaced. In the meantime, some of Theseus’ devoted admirers have been following him around collecting all the discarded pieces of the ship. They reassemble all these components in order to construct a complete ship.

As a result of this, there are now two ships, one composed of replacement parts, which is the ship Theseus arrived home in, and another composed of the discarded parts, which is essentially the ship he departed in. Which is the authentic ship that Theseus sailed in?

This might seem like a trivial conundrum, but it does address quite an important point. Each living body is engaged in a constant process of discarding and replacing its constituent matter, so that even if you’re sixty years old, no bone in your body will actually be more than a few years old. Of course the actual molecules are actually hundreds of millions of years old since they were made inside exploded stars.

What is possibly more important is the fact that people change character traits and qualities in the course of their lifetimes. Sometimes this happens gradually, as people mature over a period of years, or perhaps lose their faculties due to dementia. Sometimes it can happen very suddenly due to a stroke or head injury.

Put simply, if you lose an arm or a leg it will obviously affect your physical characteristics, and it will almost certainly affect your personality as well, but there would be no reason to believe that your identity would be changed in any fundamental way.

If, on the other hand you suffer brain damage that results in the loss of your memory, some of your faculties and possibly changes your personality, (all of which is perfectly possible) does this mean that you are literally a different person?

Personally I tend to the opinion that the paradox of Theseus’ ship, and the questions relating to identity that it’s intended to illustrate are more apparent than real.

All you really need to do in order to resolve these questions is to stop trying to think of identity on the basis of an inventory of characteristics, and to see it in terms of continuity over times.

Essentially this is the difference between seeing identity as a shopping list and seeing it as a narrative, or life story.

If you take this view, then the ship that Theseus arrived home in is the authentic ship, although is doesn’t contain any of the component parts that made up the ship when it first set off. The reason for this is because each component part left the narrative when it was discarded and each replacement part joined the narrative when it was fitted.

If you’re not convinced, think of the Coldstream Guards.

This was a regiment that fought at the Battle of Waterloo and is still part of the British army. Obviously none of the soldiers who fought at Waterloo is still alive, let alone serving in the regiment, but in spite of the changing personnel, there is an essential continuity that makes it the same regiment.

Problem solved.

Dialectics and the Non Stick Frying Pan

17 Nov

My favourite story about Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831) is that he used his formidable skills as a philosopher in order to produce a logical proof that there could be no more and no less than nine objects in the Solar System. At the time he enjoyed a near legendary status that we don’t normally associate with philosophers. Shortly after this logical tour de force someone discovered the existence of Ceres.

Call it a triumph of empiricism over the  a priori proposition.

To return to the main subject of this post, Hegel is probably best known as a master of dialectical argument.

Essentially dialectical argument consists of a merger of opposites with a view to producing something new.

In formal terms this means that you start with a statement, or thesis. Then you take the opposite of this statement, the antithesis, and through the conjunction of these two opposite statements a new statement can be derived, the synthesis.

This can be illustrated in a historical context by the following. One of the conclusions of Hegel’s philosophy was the reification of the state, this is part of the reason why he was seen as supporting right-wing political ideology.

His methods were adopted and developed by Feuerbach and Marx, amongst others leading to the development of left-wing political ideology.

These two ideologies came into conflict during the 20th Century most acutely on the Russian Front during World War II and then again throughout the Cold War.

As many of us know, rocket technology developed rapidly during World War II (Courtesy of Werner von Braun and an unknown number of slave labourers employed in Nazi Germany), as a weapons system.

Further development of rockets as weapons was also spurred on by the arms race during the Cold War. The technology was further developed as an instrument of propaganda during the space race, which culminated in the Moon landing.

One of the spin-off technologies from the Apollo project was the teflon coating used in non stick frying pans.

The above is, of course an exercise in absurdity. Something like 22 million people died in World War II and I don’t think anyone knows how many lives were lost as a result of the Cold War. No advance in kitchen ware can redeem that kind of suffering.

I grew up during the Cold War and to me World War II was very recent history. Both now seem to be receding from consciousness.

Call this my small contribution to reminding people of the crass absurdity of  political leaders who sincerely believe that the systems they create and exploit are worth the destruction of  millions of human beings.

Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads in Them

14 Nov

Obviously this is a quote from Marianne Moore’s poem called ‘Poetry’ in which she called for poets who ‘can present for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them’.

This is probably a good image for poetry, but I don’t think it applies as well to prose fiction.

I think that the opposite is true for a successful novelist, and they should be trying to present us with imaginary toads in real gardens.

What this means in practice is that prose writers should ground their fiction in real places and/or events, but that there should also be at least some degree of imagination involved.

I think the adage about writing what you know has been overplayed for some time now.

You can blame Flaubert, if you want to. His idea of writing a novel set in a draper’s shop was to take infinite pains to ensure that the reader was left in absolutely no doubt whatever that he had researched every last detail relating to owning, managing, working in or even shopping in a draper’s shop.

Doris Lessing responded to this trend in literature through Anna Wulf,the central character in The Golden Notebook, who comments that her interest in reading most of the new novels that she comes across is ‘journalistic’. In other words, she’s interested in the factual information contained in the novel but what she really wants from her fiction is something else. Otherwise, you might as well read non-fiction.

Sometimes the use of factual information can be used in order to ground the more imaginative aspects of your fiction. eg Stephen King’s detailed descriptions of small town New England or his frequent references to popular culture.

Or the use of factual details can be used to help build character. eg Ian Fleming often illustrates the dominant traits of his characters through the things they own or wear (see his description of Goldfinger’s golfing costume, or the detailed description of Grant’s possessions when he first appears in From Russia with Love.

Having said all this, narrative fiction should have a bit of fiction in it somewhere. This is the bit that makes it fiction and it’s also the author’s chance to actually say something.

This is always assuming that they do actually have something to say, and if they don’t, why are they writing?