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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Maps and tropes

In a matter of weeks I will be 40 and, actually, it feels about time – so much so that I am writing this blog post early.

The shift in world view from late twenties to mid-thirties I documented here but it’s now clear that was only half way through a decade-long process of jettisoning and upgrading youthful ideas and attitudes – and actually, that process is ongoing and will likely continue, until I lose my mind or turn up my toes, whichever comes first.

Trying to explain what feels different over these past four or five years is hard to pin down (there are hints of it here and here) though a lot is line with the expected 'life begins' trope: I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have; I know myself better than I ever have; I have learned to value and enjoy the little things more; I give fewer shits about appearance, ego and cool; I have less patience with fluff, bluster and bullshit; I am much more inclined to view things pragmatically and with a calm scepticism than idealistically and emotionally; I have less faith in prevailing wisdom and the judgment of powerful people, because I have seen well-qualified authority figures make demonstrably bad decisions a few too many times; and I have discovered jazz, dressing with a colour palette and the joys of interesting architectural design.

But there's more, something more I'm still struggling to pin down...

The slow process of disillusionment

I started this blog in my early 30s and the tag line “Life: Or ‘the slow process of disillusionment’ as I call it” has been floating around on it for most of that time, supposed to be humorously downbeat but also heartfelt ­– it did feel like virtually everything I thought was true, good, exciting, reliable or even attainable in my youth was in the process of turning out to be more complicated, ambiguous, problematic or simply more mundane as adulthood progressed. Your childhood maps and expectations of the world slowly prove to be flawed and insufficient and you have to update them with amendments in untidy, ugly scrawl or chuck them away completely. How sad, I thought, but them's the breaks.

Then I thought that was a sad thing. Now I thinkThank God for that. If there’s one major thing I would like to point out about my 40-turning feeling it’s this – because if I hadn't got rid of those quaint old maps I'd have been stuck with them.

Because I have been noticing more and more and more in the past half decade how it’s not just me – everyone has these maps of what the world is supposed to be, ranging from basic childhood values to the received horse-sense of adult society – and all of it is a little cock-eyed, riddled with misleading myths and assumptions.

And in tandem with this I have been noticing more and more and more: The world is not how you think it is. Everything is more complicated than you are led to believe. Your maps and expectations are all wrong. Not just mine, not just yours – all of them.

Tropes

I still don't feel like I'm making myself clear enough. So: Let's talk about tropes. By which I mean recurring devices and themes in things like art and literature, especially salient today in film and television.

What happens when a car goes off the edge of a cliff in a film? It explodes. What happens when someone is dangling over an abyss but instead of climbing up to safety they try to reach for that golden amulet on the nearby ledge? They plummet to their death, the greedy nobs. What happens when an authoritarian society creates a 'game' for public entertainment, where people are forced to run or fight to the death? The participants band together and spark revolution, of course!

These recurring ideas and motifs can be anything from a common type of scene (the heroes peep over the edge of that rocky outcrop/hidden balcony to conveniently observe an evil ritual below that reveals the full horror of what is going on!); a basic pairing of things that always go together (aliens = ancient Egyptian imagery, right?); to a full-blown complex narrative (Google 'The Hero’s Journey').

These things are outlined in exhaustive and mind-boggling depth at the wonderful TV Tropes website, which says: “A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.”

In life also it can also be impossible to create a tropeless tale about how you think the world works. Because this stuff doesn’t just happen in entertainment, this is how we think in general ­– in our social interactions, our politics, our culture, our everyday expectations and judgements. Our lives are full of stereotyping, narratives we have invented or absorbed from the world around us, and unexamined 'zeitgeist' assumptions. Some are fairly overt and obvious, but others go unrecognised for what they are – nothing more than shortcuts and habits of thinking that may actually not reflect reality all that well. Because actually, in reality, the car most often doesn’t blow up; it just crunches and comes apart and that’s it.

Here be dragons

These tropes, of course, combine into maps of what the world should be like, whether dealing with politics, romance, religious belief, social shiz or even work or business. Of course these maps are useful, usually contain at least some identifiable truth, and we have to have them to get by and get around. But while some are better than others, not a single one of them is complete or sufficient (no matter what all those self help and 'get rich, happy, healthy and successful' guides may try to tell you) – how could they be? Because the world out there is more bizarre, diverse and complex than any guide-map can convey.

Treating these maps like they are complete and sufficient is often the source of endless trouble and grief. The SatNav is never the territory – yet often people seem to prefer gluing their eyes to that rather than looking at the damn road and learning to take it as it comes. I see people everywhere, all the time, sticking to their maps and coming at life full of some certain 'faith' that it is this way or that, that this will happen or that must happen... as the SatNav drives them off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

It’s not just that this attitude sets you up for disappointment, it sets you up for crisis – because when what you thought 'needed' to happen doesn’t, it’s a disaster – the entire world is cast as a dreadful hell because you can not even contemplate an alternative. All you have is what's on the map and “Here be dragons”. So when your map proves to be wrong – OMG, DRAGONS.

But the world is not a dreadful hell, it just is. Disappointment is a bummer, but if you think one scuppered plan ruins everything, you’re not looking properly. So it turns out life is not arranged around you having fun, or being successful and fulfilled all the time as your entitled destiny, after all. Boo hoo. That doesn’t mean you can never have fun or be fulfilled or successful, just that sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, these things never last forever and you probably have to keep working at it. And no one is immune from bad things repeatedly happening that you have to soldier though – that's not the end of a fulfilling life, it's grist to the mill of it.

The biggest misunderstanding of the field of cognitive psychology is the idea that it's all about positive thinking and telling yourself to be awesome and happy. Yes, we should regularly remind ourselves of the good things – but simply running away from reality and telling ourselves 'positive' fairy tales is not a great strategy for sustained and robust mental health. Getting a more flexible and up-gradable map, learning to read it properly and using it more in conjunction with the actual, real, road is a better one.

Raw, strange and crackling

For me, at 40, it seems life is bigger, more complex and crackling with mystery and possibility than I ever imagined in my earlier adulthood. It's huge, raw, strange and unknowable. It may be stable and calm enough to map out in the steady spots, but it strikes me as unimaginably varied and extreme at the edges. The very nastiest, bleakest stuff does happen. So does the most beautiful and sublime. A lot of the time neither makes its presence felt. But time and again, I've found, whatever you think things are like, they are not necessarily like that.

I honestly don’t know how to communicate this, and will have to keep on trying because I don’t think I’ve done it here at all. I look at younger people and despair to think: “My God, you have so much to go through, so much to do, to endure, to have happen before you can see this," which sounds utterly pretentious, I know. Maybe that’s how my parents look at me still.

Whatever, I’m now so much more wary of over-reliance on maps and tropes, especially those that other people have decided everyone else should adopt – I do not trust the judgement of those who are navigating life from an off-the-peg ideology or overly-embellished narrative, set in stone.

For me, at 40, there is no grand plan. My life’s work is now just to navigate through whatever happens, seeking out the enriching things while trying to avoid the awful stuff, dealing with what comes at me and pushing to keep the good things good or make the bad things a little better, step by step. And most importantly trying to understand it better and deeper as I go – because that is the one project that makes sense of it all to me, though a project that will never be complete, until I... stop. At which point, I 'spose, it stops with me. But let's see how far we get.

That's how I'm seeing things right now. I have no idea what is in store any more – and I really, really like that. To fall back on a hackneyed old trope: 'Life begins', indeed.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Thomas does a book review

Is it tragically romantic or are these people just mentally ill? That, for me, is the central question of Wuthering Heights, as my cynical and pragmatic near-40-year-old self wrestled with the yearning teenage goth I once was.

Don’t worry, I don’t plan to make a habit of literary musings on this blog and only thought this worthwhile ‘cos the Emily Bronte novel is such a well-known part of popular culture – and to my own surprise, what started as a whim of idle curiosity ended up with the novel engaging me in a way a book hasn’t for some time. And it’s all down to the psychology.

Fascinating is the word. It starts with a lurking sense of f***ed-up-ness, drawing you in with morbid curiosity in the manner of a HP Lovecraft short ­– with the discovery of an oddball pseudo-family who all hate each other, a ghost, and a gruff hard-man who cries. In fact the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are more like an MR James ghost story than anything, and it goes on to be as much stomach-clenching gothic thriller as romance.

It’s a Godawful family affair

The novel has a rep ­– it’s that one about the breathless, swoonsome, turbulent love-that-cannot-be between the fierce but flakey Cathy and the rugged-as-granite Heathcliff, on the spooky, windswept Yorkshire moors, isn’t it? A kind of dark and dour Romeo and Juliet?

That’s not the half it. Literally, the latter half the story is usually skimmed over by the films of it, and the deeply strange non-romance of Heathcliff and Cathy is only part of the slow-burning horror of Heathcliff’s revenge on everyone around him, which is what it’s really about.

The narration is split between the out-of-town gentleman Mr Lockwood, who stumbles upon the godawful family situation, and the life-long housekeeper Nelly, who fills in the history to him. Both are kind, sympathetic, intelligent and perceptive and both find the Heathcliff and Cathy business exasperating, frightening, sad and downright unhealthy – and it is clear this is to some extent also the author’s take. But it’s also clear Bronte has some empathy with the ferocity of the doomed pair's feelings, as they're so vividly drawn and explored. There is something seductive, alluring, even sweet, about their bond, which leaves you questioning what you actually feel about it – is it the one admirable saving grace of the awful pair? Or is it just bullshit?

My mother, who read The Heights in school, put it this way: You read it when you’re young and it’s so tragic and romantic; you read it when you’re older and you just want to shake everyone for being so daft, ugly and selfish. I think this puzzling contrast is precisely why I enjoyed it so much, because I can see both coming to it now, as a man whose world view has migrated very far from my teen and twenty-something self – I was that intense, sullen loner who listened to Nine Inch Nails and struck the tragic romantic martyr pose. The strength of the book is that it is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encourage such questioning, and I suspect that’s exactly how it was intended – not as an endorsement of any one take, but as an exploration of the baffling excesses of human nature.

Heathcliff and Cathy are never lovers

Of course a novel of this time is not going to have overt sexy sex in it; but beyond that Heathcliff and Cathy are simply not together, in a romantic way, at all as adults, despite the artistic licence of various film adaptations. I actually think this is utterly key to their strange relationship – they are more like siblings than they are lovers – at ease in each other’s company in a way they aren’t with other people, but also encouraged to cruel sniping and childishness – and their bond makes more sense seen with their early “terrible twins” relationship in mind. There is tenderness and kissing and hand-holding and bashful amorous looking in the book – but for the most part that's between other characters, not them, apart perhaps from their very final meeting when it’s all far too late.

No – what Heathcliff and Cathy are is two free-spirited adoptive siblings, set together against the world at an early age (and remember their “world” is only their family and servants). All their happy times together are as children, running away from the unhappy household, made bored and sad when forced apart from their playmate. This is why it makes sense that they hold onto this feeling that there is no one else in the world who could ever understand them like each other. But by the time they are in their mid teens, it’s like Hot Chocolate’s It Started With A Kiss – Cathy has already discovered other people (the Lintons) and that drives a wedge between them.

For the rest of the book their “romance” is a fantasy in each other’s respective heads, fuelled by not being together – in reality when they do fleetingly meet they are often arguing, misunderstanding and hurting each other, yet both grip, like a comfort blanket, to the idea they are somehow linked by the soul and cannot be happy without each other, even while doing this.

It’s more Greek tragedy than Shakespearian

Much can be made of the star-crossed lovers thing, as Heathcliff is socially out-of-bounds for Cathy, being adopted, of uncertain race, and degraded to the role of a semi-literate servant by the time they are coming of age. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. The pair may be sympathetic as children, but as adults they heap suffering on themselves through their own character flaws. In Greek tragedy that was a big thing – the protagonist is always some frightful Gawd-‘elp-us, with extreme pride, obsession, ideology, stubbornness or anger issues that you can see leading to trouble a mile off, and half the appeal is the anticipation of their inevitable gory demise because of it. This is basically the template of The Heights.

Young Cathy is certainly free-spirited enough to ignore the judgement of her family and elope with Heathcliff – she isn’t coerced to marry Edgar Linton instead, she actually wants to because she fancies him and is enamoured with the idea of being the local lady of the manor. She wants to have her cake and eat it, somehow thinking Heathcliff can come with her and will be fine with this. We know this will go tits-up from the moment she says it.

Heathcliff for his part royally screws any chance of being reconciled with Cathy later because, just as things seem to have found an uneasy balance where everyone can see each other and get along, he deliberately exploits and elopes with Edgar’s sister Isabella because he’s so obsessed with getting his revenge on the Lintons – without a thought for how that will also hurt Cathy. So much for romance. From that point on he’s a happiness-sucking black-hole bogey-man who spreads a thick blanket of shit over everything he comes within 10 paces of. He lives in self-imposed exile from any chance of contentment due to his own pointless revenge obsession.

Catherine is silly, insensitive, selfish and full-of-herself; Heathcliff is cruel, obsessive, greedy and empathy-deficient. It’s not a case of whether Heathcliff and Cathy would have been happy if it wasn’t for society’s rules, man – they bring their misery on themselves, by being themselves.

There are unwitting descriptions of clear mental health issues

A shocking total of 11 characters ­– more than two thirds of the “cast” – die from "illness" during the roughly 30 years covered. And no wonder the death toll is like a 1980s slasher flick when their grip on medical matters is so sketchy – “consumption” is mentioned once, "fever" a couple of times but generally people just die of being "ill", which seems to cover everything from having a cold to childbirth, as well as being in low spirits or having been out in the rain.

But the psychological observations are rather more ahead of their time. Every character has a set of well-drawn and unique dispositions, drives and demons, and how characters can be transformed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to them is a common theme. On top of that, Catherine and Heathcliff both exhibit clear mental health issues that are not so fanciful as they might first appear.

Cathy has "fits" that may or may not be for show, but are certainly self-induced, and goes out of her way to punish herself, lock herself away, disappear into reveries, self harm and refuse to eat. In the context of a 19th century romantic novel this might look melodramatic, until you realise that people actually do exhibit such behaviours when in crisis; and one wonders if Bronte had come across such rather than just making it up. In that light the standard response of "oh she's just after attention" or "she's just trying to get her way" looks shockingly inadequate.

Meanwhile Heathcliff shows cripplingly obsessive behaviour all round, not just in his feelings for Cathy. He gives his entire adult life over to the task of plotting to possess and ruin everything that belongs to the only two families he's ever known along with, of course, thinking 24/7 about Cathy – and continues both obsessions even 20 years after she, and later everyone who actually wronged him, is dead. No man was ever more in need of a distracting hobby. I mean sheesh, Heathcliff, whittle some wooden sheep or take up yodeling or something. This may seem like his character is superficially drawn, but it isn't, the book is very much interested in what is going on in the head of that strange fish.

And the guy also has suspiciously sociopathic tendencies, in that he just doesn’t seem to be able to empathise with anyone at all, treating everyone bar Cathy as an object to play with or despise. It never occurs to him that could be the source of his continued tortured misery, not the solution. With that in mind, while his occasional exhibitions of passion can stir the heart, I was just as tempted call "bullshit" on them – for example when he bangs on about Edgar being unable to feel like he does (so wild and deep and overwhelming is his love blah blah). How the shit would he know? What shred of real insight into other people’s emotions has he ever shown?

There is some cross-over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

But the suffering isn't all caused by Heathcliff. The story is a parable about the cycle of abuse passed down through generations. The Earnshaw dad treats his kids pretty shoddily towards the end of his life, especially Hindley; Hindley becomes master of the Heights, then treats his adopted brother Heathcliff, and later his own son Hareton, awfully; Heathcliff becomes master of the Heights and treats everybody who comes under that roof awfully. Nobody is ever happy for long in that accursed house, but Heathcliff shows no awareness his own project of nastiness is less a rebuttal and more an endorsement of the nastiness dished out to him. He's a hypocrite in that sense, and just not that self-aware, for all his Machiavellian manipulations.

There is also some cross over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here – in that you realise all of this is only happening because the Earnshaw family is so cut off, with only each other and the Lintons to obsess over and no outside influence to tell them this isn't normal and there are alternative ways of being. In that sense it stands in a long line of gothic horror that riffs on decadent, incestuous, mutated things-going-wrong due to prolonged rural isolation.

It’s the ghostly elements that validate the "romance" of it

Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that provide the book's sucker punch (as well as making a lot more sense of some Kate Bush lyrics). Sure, Bronte leaves any ghostly goings-on ambiguous, pooh-poohed by the narrators as just dreams, superstitious imaginings, sickly hallucinations – but she wouldn't have included them if you weren't supposed to consider “but what if...”

And just as you've written off the whole sorry "love" affair as the delusional and destructive BS of a couple of dickheads, you realise their souls were in fact united after death; their love was such a juggernaut it survived the flesh; and they both chose to shun heaven to be forever tormented together on the desolate moors – and that Nine Inch Nails-listening goth kid in me resurfaces and swoons "Oh!"

For a few seconds. Then you recall they were both such silly, nasty gits that, well, good riddance to them and maybe they could have just f***ed off together in the first place and saved everyone else the grief. I know love can be thus, but their "romance" is just too tunnel-visioned, strangely joyless and downright odd to really be held up as an example for anyone to want to emulate in the final account, I think.

The real romance is not Catherine and Heathcliff

Now the real romance of the story is that between the younger Cathy (Catherine and Edgar's daughter) and Hareton. Because it happens against the odds by a mutual effort of forgiveness and understanding – and blissfully succeeds in finally dissipating the storm clouds of decades, transforming years of cyclical abuse into something happy and healthy (that is, ignoring the fact that they are close cousins, beggars can’t be choosers y'know)... but I've already gone on too long, so read it yourself.