March 2019 Media Consumption Round-Up

 

This one’s a little late, but I’m hoping to do one of these each month from now. As you can see from below, this has been a very reading-heavy month. That’s a good thing since reading is always the thing I want to do the most of (followed by watching films and listening to music). The London Library’s really opened up a whole world of wonderful books to read.

Books

Round the Fire Stories

I wrote a review of Doyle’s short stories (minus Holmes) here.

The New Testament: A Translation

I also read The New Testament this month. It’s a weird collection of books (the ones left out are weirder, however). I wrote about it here.

Nicholas Nickleby

This is not one of my favourite Dickens novels, but neither is it terrible. I wrote about it here.

Charles Bukowski

This is the biography of Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne. It’s workmanlike rather than inspiring, but gives a certain insight into an intriguing (and often rather problematic) poet.

The Waste Land and Other Poems

If you’ve read any selection of my posts recently, you’ll have noted that quite a lot of them come back to this poem one way or another. I wrote about it here.

The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land

As above. This was one of my first Cambridge Companion books, though, and I really enjoyed it. The fact it’s just a series of essays on the subject at hand makes it easy to dip in and out of. My suspicion is that they’re mainly written for undergraduates to be able to quote at least 3-4 essays in anything they’re writing without having to read many books, but all I’ve found so far have had high-quality essays from multiple viewpoints.

Apollo

A comic on the Apollo moon landings. I wrote about it here.

From Ritual To Romance

Mentioned in Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land, I wrote about it here.

TS Eliot and the Lay Reader

A rather idiosyncratic, but enjoyable view on all of Eliot’s writing. I wrote about it here.

Guns, Germs and Steel

When I read this I assumed it was relatively recent, but in fact it’s about 20 years old. Basically, it’s a broad sweep of human history showing how the particular features of various human groups owes a great deal to their geography.

It’s A Don’s Life

I’ve been reading a fair amount of Mary Beard recently. This is just a collection of posts from her excellent It’s A Don’s Life blog, but if you’ve never really read it before (as I hadn’t) this is a good place to start.

Four Quartets

More Eliot. These are essentially the last four poems he wrote (before moving on to verse plays that I find less satisfying). They’re beautiful and intricate philosophical reflections on time and being and reward multiple re-readings. I also enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’s reading of them on Audible.

The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot

I think of the two, this broader look at Eliot’s career is more enjoyable than the Cambridge Companion just to the Waste Land.

Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough

This is Wittgenstein’s take on Frazer’s Golden Bough and I wrote about it here.

I Capture the Castle

I’d heard various people say this was their favourite novel, so I thought I should see what I made of it. It’s lovely, and I suspect if I was a bit younger when I first read it, it might of been one of my favourites too.

The Power of Art

Simon Schama’s book to accompany the TV series of a few years ago. As with a lot Schama’s other works, it’s full of bold assertions about the inner motivations of its key players, but it’s a style I enjoy and his passion for the art in question is clearly deep.

Crome Yellow

Aldous Huxley’s debut that I wrote about here.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

More Mary Beard, I wrote about this one here.

How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy

A book by Julian Baggini trying to right the wrong that western philosophy departments thinks there’s no thinking going on outside the west. It’s a very commendable attempt, but I rarely found it hugely illuminating or exciting. I hope many more follow in his footsteps, however.

Films

The Kindergarten Teacher

A strange, but haunting film. I wrote about it here.

Everybody Knows

A compelling thriller with excellent central performances. Returning home for a wedding, a family explore old wounds and jealousies.

Us

Part horror, part social commentary, all excellent. I wrote about it here.

Music

Shura

When I first discovered Shura’s electro-pop I thought she was a new artist. In fact, the English singer been releasing records for a few years. Her album from 2016, Nothing’s Real is great, as is her new single, BKLYNLDN. I recommend trying out What’s It Gonna Be and 2Shy.

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom

Allison Miller’s is an outstanding drummer. Often drummer-led albums can be rather niche and tedious. This album certainly leads on rhythm, and showcases Miller’s talent, but it’s full of great tunes.

LCD Soundsystem Electric Lady Sessions

LCD Soundsystem in their live-band format perform hits mostly from the last album, but a few others too. Added to that, the cover of Chic’s I Want Your Love is joyous.

The National

There’s a new album brewing, coming in May, the singles You Had Your Soul With You and Light Years bode well (the latter has a particularly good video).

Helado Negro

I’ve really enjoyed Running by Helado Negro. Haven’t listened through the album yet, but it’s on the list.

Podcasts

Broken Record

Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin’s series interviewing people in the music industry has started a new series. The episodes interviewing Questlove and David Byrne are two of the best music-related podcasts in the last year.

Brady Heywood Podcast on Apollo 13

I wrote about this excellent series on what went wrong with Apollo 13 here.

TV

Queer Eye

I don’t have many ground-breaking TV recommendations because I haven’t been watching it much, but Queer Eye remains one of the best pieces of reality TV ever made. High quality, touching and genuinely heartwarming.

This Time with Alan Partridge

On the other end of the scale, this is some of the most excruciating TV you can watch. It’s laser-guided uncomfortableness.

(Photo by Pinho . on Unsplash)

Women and Power by Mary Beard

Women and Power is a short LRB-published book based on two lectures given by Beard, one on The Public Voice of Women and one on Women in Power.

Beard leaps through history expertly linking Telemachus in the Odyssey telling his mother to go away and shut up because the men are talking to similar (if differently worded) experiences of men talking over women in boardrooms worldwide. Or female politicians photoshopped into the face of Medusa (Caravaggio’s or Cellini’s being the examples stated), as an example of modern audiences using classical tropes as a means of showing male dominance over female attempts at power.

This is a short book that doesn’t look at length at any of these comparisons, as you’d expect from their creation as non-academic lectures, but this makes the book extremely accessible and gives Beard a platform to talk about misogyny in modern life. I found it reminded me of an Ezra Klein podcast (sorry, male voices again) in which a series of interviews he and his interviewees have reiterated the point that issues like misogyny or even animal rights are not single-human moral issues as much as they are systemic society-wide issues. As such, Beard’s situating of misogyny in a grand arc of history make the extremely important point that we have the option to continue to reinforce these problems by operating in these societal structures, or to challenge them as and when we can. As such, it can make an example of the vile shouting of some idiot man on Twitter be seen not as the powerful agent of the patriarchy, but as a symptom of a diseased society. The latter of which seems like something we could, possibly, recover from.

Continuing Beard’s experiences on Twitter, she briefly references examples of men explaining Roman History to her. Obviously, a first thought is ‘what idiot would do that?’ But secondly, there’s the more insidious consideration that not only did a man (many men in fact) feel confident enough to lecture a Cambridge Classics Professor about the subject that she has devoted her life to, but they did it in a public forum, knowing that all their friends and family could be watching. The first of those is an example of the ridiculous things a patriarchy produces (dozy, over-confident men). The latter shows that it’s the society itself that the man is operating in that gives him the confidence to continue, and it’s that that is both important, and hard, to change.

Beard doesn’t, despite the ‘manifesto’ subtitle, give an awful lot of solutions to these societal problems (solving misogyny in a 100 page book would be a big ask, even for someone of Beard’s talents and capabilities), but her role as a classical historian in showing these problems in their broader context is both important and a very enjoyable read.

(Image is the really rather creepy Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsky)

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

It was only as I was coming to the last few chapters of this book that I remembered why I’d put it on my list to read in the first place. It is, of course, because of The Waste Land, since it is in this book that Eliot found “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana” being played by the cynical Mr Scogan in a village fete towards the end of the novel, to become the cold-ridden famous clairvoyante, Madame Sesostris in the poem.

This is not a good enough reason to read the book – I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some interest in Huxley. It doesn’t have a complex plot – we follow the poet Denis Stone in a visit to Crome where a house party is taking place. Various broadly-drawn characters appear (the snobbish artist Gombauld, the pompous owner Mr Wimbush, and his spiritualism-obsessed wife) and the end result is a novel made up of a number of skits, loosely held together by the overarching location. It’s quite clearly satirical, albeit of a novel-form with which I’ve had limited experience (although the form of a book focused on visitors to a grand house would later be commandeered by murder-mystery writers).

I do share a certain empathy with Wimbush when he attempts to prophecy:

“Human contacts have been so highly valued in the past only because reading was not a commonplace accomplishment because books were scarce and difficult to reproduce. The world, you must remember, is only just becoming literate. As reading becomes more and more habitual and widespread, an ever increasing number of people discover that books give them all the pressures of social life and none of its intolerable tedium.”

In some ways, he was right, we spend more time than ever reading, it’s just on Facebook, replacing one form of tedium with another.

Despite being somewhat different from Huxley’s much more famous Brave New World, the same Mr Scogan mentioned above describes “vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires.” – ideas which Huxley would explore in the later novel – but if you come to the book expecting something of the style and approach of Brave New World, you’ll be disappointed. It’s less ambitious, but more lighthearted and often amusing. More of a book to read to give an insight into a novelist with an important career ahead of him than purely worth it on its own terms, but it’s short so not a massive commitment if the idea takes you.

(Image is: Composizione con rosso, blu, giallo, nero e grigio, 1922 by Piet Mondrian)

T.S. Eliot and the Lay Reader by Ethel M. Stephenson

I only searched out this book because of the fact it’s referenced a few times in The Waste Land app for iPad (which comes recommended, incidentally). The book is a bit of an oddity, being published as it was, originally, in 1944. The copy I read was from 1946, and thus Stephenson is still reeling from the discoveries of Nazi concentration camps.

Coming, as it does, long before the 1971 publication of The Waste Land’s facsimile edition, there are a handful of occasions where theories are put forward that are either proved or disproved by that edition. It’s certainly not Stephenson’s fault, but it makes the work somewhat of a historical artefact in its own right.

Overall, though, this is a very accessible, and often rather fun book. As an example of the flowery but readable prose, here’s Stephenson on the What the Thunder Said of The Waste Land

With the consummate skill of the great artist, Eliot has taken us back to the scene of the crucifixion. We are listening to the clamour and the agony in stony places; we are standing in the frosty silence of our own gardens; we who were once whole and living are now dying as the Spring thunder rolls out its message: DAMYATA, DATTA, DAYADHVAM – “Subdue yourselves – Give – Be passionate”

I also appreciate the fact that she starts her section the The Waste Land by saying

A poet’s most famous work is not always his best poetry, but has frequently won its status in the public mind by the scope of it’s appeal.

The book isn’t exclusively about The Waste Land (although it’s certainly the main focus) and I often found Stephenson’s insights into some of the later works to be interesting. On Little Gidding, she says

Eliot is not tied by time, for him all history is also now.

Which is an important insight into the voice of The Four Quartets. This interaction between the almost god-like philosopher (at least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves) perspective, intertwined with the much more parochial, continues the experimentation with voice that Eliot pushed so heavily in The Waste Land. By this time in Eliot’s career, though, the voices are fewer and more distinguishable, if not exactly identified.

It’s a fun, short, read so find a copy in a library, or since it’s appears to be in the public domain just read it online.

Apollo by Matt Fitch, Chris Baker and Mike Collins

 

As my post on the Brady Heywood podcast outlined, I have a particular interest in the Apollo missions, so a comic that told that story was always going to exert a certain gravitational pull on me.

The comic is drawn in a pleasingly 1960s style with the large coloured dots of the Ben Day process, which anchors the whole work nicely. The story is well-told, but the choice of using regular dream sequences was my least-favourite aspect of the comic. It gave echoes of the dream-like science exploration of Interstellar, but to me reduced the overall coherence of the work, especially when compared to the superior First Man film.

apollo-matt-fitch-9781910593509

Which leads me to the largest problem with the work. Despite being a good read, visually stimulating and enjoyable, it was trumped by a film that did all those things and much more, and in the same year. Clearly a comic is not a film, but First Man was such an emotional journey that the relative lack of emotion in Apollo made it feel less compelling.

look_inside_1

Overall, it’s worth reading. The story’s simple and enjoyable, and the artwork is great, but it suffers from being trumped by a better work on the same subject.

From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston

 

Following on my Waste Land reading, I thought I’d give this relatively short book a go. It’s directly mentioned in Eliot’s half-serious, half-mocking footnotes:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book.

The book makes claim that the King Arthur legends in fact are, in a suggestion worthy of a Dan Brown novel, a coded representation of marginalised pagan rituals. It’s not a claim I really feel knowledgeable enough to rule out, but I didn’t feel that Weston’s argument is strong enough to make the broader claim hold water.

A lesser claim, not quite made by Weston herself, but closer to Jung’s later claims of collective unconscious, is that almost all legends and religious stories reflect some deep requirements of human beings. To quote Wittgenstein in his remarks on The Golden Bough: “we act in this way and then feel satisfied”, or to tweak slightly, we find the form of these stories satisfying, and thus we pass them on.

Religions are about more than the stories they tell (large elements of ritual, community and group identification etc are also important), but in this conceptualisation, various stories are shared in groups and those that are the most popular continually get passed from generation to generation, some written down earlier in their existence than others. Only those that speak to multiple generations have come down through the centuries.

Multiple generations retell these stories in the form that speaks best to their peers. In this chain, The Waste Land itself is a modernist retelling of elements of the Arthurian legends, but in a form where the narrative is almost entirely removed (mainly by Pound), leaving a series of loose voices and images.

Weston’s book is, therefore, an interesting part of this chain. Eliot clearly knew the Arthurian legends before reading Weston, but he also chose to give her prime position in the footnotes, presumably because her book prompted his creativity. To a contemporary reader, it’s hard to give it more credit than this. It’s not an electrifying read, and its central argument, like that of Weston’s hero, Frazer, seems to have started from the conclusions and worked back to the premises with limited and often implausible evidence.

(Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash)

Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough by Ludwig Wittgenstein

James Frazer’s Golden Bough is a now much-discredited work of anthropology, published in various versions between 1890 and 1915. The fundamental thesis is that societies move from a belief in magic, to one in religion, finishing in the knowledge that comes from science. Despite it being challenged rather harshly even from the early days of its publication, it has remained influential in literature. I revisited it because of the influence it had on Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Around 1930-31, Wittgenstein first had some of the Frazer’s work read to him, then made some notes on it himself, which have been published in this extremely short book (it’s only 18 pairs of pages with the original German on one side and the English translation on the other.

Wittgenstein challenges Frazer’s notion that the people (called ‘savages’ by both Frazer and Wittgenstein) engage in magic with a belief that it will cause a particular action:

Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.

One could also kiss the name of the loved one, and here the representation by the name would be clear.

The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut out of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.

This last paragraph makes, what I think is a key challenge not only to Frazer, but also one that applies equally well to the modern ‘new atheist’ movement and their ideas about what religious people believe. In both the religious, and ‘magical’ sense people don’t truly believe that these ritual actions will directly cause change. They do it fundamentally because it makes them feel better. As such, when people pray in church a friend that has cancer, but also support them getting medical treatment, it’s not that there’s some sort of disconnect between the two actions. They are, fundamentally, different things. Science is not a replacement for religion.

Wittgenstein’s responses to the work fit quite well into his later work, especially the Philosophical Investigations. For example, Wittgenstein also challenges Frazer’s notions of how different these ‘savage’ cultures are from us. He uses an example in which Frazer refers to a ‘ghost’ since the important fact is that Frazer has the word ‘ghost’ to refer to. It’s still widely understood in modern times. Frazer did not need to explain this term:

A whole mythology is deposited in our language

This shows a strong kinship with this group. The early ‘magical’ savages, the religious thinkers or the scientists are wildly different from each other, they all share common thought patterns and approaches, and as in the previous example, are not as ignorant to the effect that their actions may have as Frazer would like to believe. It also links with the Philosophical Investigations as an example of the way that language develops (or doesn’t) based on use. We still have a use for the word ‘ghost’

If you have some experience of Frazer’s Golden Bough, Wittgenstein’s remarks are worth a read. Besides anything else, it’s unlikely to take much more than a few minutes and it contains some interesting challenges to the text. If nothing else, his forthright approach makes for an enjoyable read.