Tuesday, 27 April 2010

How to Live Forever Part 1.

"You and I are gonna live forever/ we're gonna live forever," sang Oasis. For most of us, these sentiments are a hollow anthem for doomed youth. Nineteen year olds may, for a brief moment, swallow such naive ideas in the environment of a muddy Glastonbury field. But these ideas are not for the real world of ageing and decay. There is, however, a growing number of people for whom the idea of "life extension" has become a reality. Something that was unattainable, they argue, will become medically achievable. The catastrophe of 100,000 people dying every day will come to an end. Thanks to advances in medical science and its interventions, the "ageing gene" will be switched off and the old enemy, death, will be defeated. There are those who believe that presently living among us are human beings who will, one day in the future, blow out a thousand candles on their birthday cake...and if that doesn't kill them, then nothing will. Of course, they may leave their 1000th birthday party and still be hit by a car and killed, but what won't kill them is disease, virus or old age. In this brave new world, death will be postponed indefinitely.

This sounds like the stuff from a Philip K.Dick or Isaac Asimov science fiction novel. Yet, these evangelical preachers of immortality believe they have science and technology on their side. And who among us, facing death, would reject some medical intervention if we thought we could be restored to the health and well-being of our youth?

Bryan Appleyard's book, How to Live Forever or Die Trying: On the New Immortality, provides a stimulating overview of the current pursuit for eternal life. The central questions at the heart of his study are whether we do want to live forever and what would living forever look like. Imagining a world without death is an intriguing and disturbing business. Great works of art that have considered the transience of love and beauty (which is almost all great works of art) would become redundant overnight. The meaning of love would be relativised. The words "'till death do us part" would become obsolete as relationships went on for centuries. How would the new immortals fill their days? Surely, there's only so much television that you can watch, only so much shopping that you can do before boredom sets in? How would you fill a life that lasted for a thousand plus years? As events faded with time, we would have no memory of ourselves and "medical immortals will simply have to resign themselves to amnesia, to becoming serial, forgetful selves." Suddenly, the science of permanent life extension begins to sound more problematic.

Man alone knows death. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death..." Everything we are as human beings and as a society is shaped by this knowledge of death. We may abhor this knowledge and find ways to deny and avoid it, but it remains, whether we like it or not, the horizon against which we live. But if death could be postponed indefinitely, then the way we understood ourselves would be revolutionised. We would need to invent new concepts, beyond our current imagining, with which to make sense of ourselves. This would be akin to man creating fire for the first time. In the meantime, we remain beings-unto-death and both evolutionary science and religion traditionally accept this view. Appleyard quotes the theologian John Bowker who writes:

...first, in rejecting the view that we are trivial and of little worth because the universe is so immense and because its processes include randomness and chance...and, second, in affirming the high value of death as the necessary condition of life. Both, in their different languages, are saying the same thing: it is not possible to have life on any other terms than those of death; but where you do have death, there immediately you have the possibility of life.

But the school of immortality regard such views as a passive resignation to the fact of death. They want to challenge this view and one of the radical (some say, deranged) exponents of life extension is Dr Aubrey de Grey. "He seems to have sprung from the pages of a Dostoevsky novel," writes Appleyard, "a saint or a demon but nothing in between."

Monday, 19 April 2010

I Am Love: soup and the bourgeoisie

The main loci of interest for most "art house" films are the resilience and wit of the poor or the "quiet desperation" of the middle classes. In recent times, the lives of the rich have rarely been considered suitable material for the cinema. In the pursuit of "keeping it real", audiences have been fed tales of gangsta ghettos or the suburbias of white picket fences. The super-privileged have been largely ignored. Directors have turned their noses up at the upper classes.

Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love (Io Sono Amore) is a cinematic aria to the bourgeoisie. The film luxuriates in the suffocating opulence of the Recchi family. They live in a world so tasteful and stylish that a crease out of place would precipitate a family crisis. Tilda Swinton, the film's star and producer, has described it as "Visconti on acid" which captures something of the sumptuous luxury that the camera captures: pale carpets so thick that footfalls become mute, corridors as highways of marble, interiors designed with a glacial, restrained eye. The men dress in bespoke shirts and suits; the women in Jill Sander, Prada and Hermes. This is the feudal nobility of Visconti's The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) relocated from the Sicily of the Risorgimento to the salone of the haute bourgeoisie of modern-day Milan. Guadagnino observes

Milanese people think they don't have to show off. I've been in a house in Milan - one of the most beautiful houses I've seen, in Corso Venezia, it belongs to a very important Milanese family. I went into the kitchen and there were all waiters eating silently, and on the wall there were nine Morandi [paintings].

This is Milan - it's about being extremely austere, with the most high-luxuary things. When the grandmother gives the Morandi to Emma, it seems generous but it's not; it's an act of power - giving a million-euro painting, just like that.

Not since Peter Greeenaway's The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover has food looked so sensual and provided an exact metaphor for power and sex. The eating of a succulent langoustine becomes a moment of erotic epiphany for the main character, Emma Ricchi. Every element on the plate is erotically charged, a kama sutra of flavours for the sensual appetites. Meals in the Ricchi dining room become acts of power politics or carnal seduction. The rituals of the table define this class. And, in the end, a sip of translucent soup will play a part in the collapse of the House of Recchi.

The film's soundtrack is dominated by the music of the classical composer, John Adams (the first time he has allowed his music to be used in this way), a combination of aural minimalism and operatic expansiveness perfectly express the defining tone of the film. "We had a number of real blessings on this film," Tilda Swinton explains, "and one of them was John Adams, because we fell in love with his music during the last stages of the last draft. He was just in the DNA of the film." In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross points out that John Adams's "defining move was to combine Reich-Glass repetition with the sprawling forms and grandiose orchestration of Wagner, Mahler, and Sibelius." In other words, this music is perfectly suited to the telling a modern melodrama.

I Am Love is a melodramatic riff on the Lady Chatterly/Mellors narrative: aristo, in oppressive marriage, falls for gardener and finds sexual liberation. In the case of I Am Love, Emma Ricchi falls for a cook and upstairs meets downstairs in flagrante delicto. The description of this coupling (like so many of the couplings in D.H. Lawrence) is devoid of joy and humanity. An act of supposed emancipation, feels peculiarly corseted and straight laced. As a consequence, the passion at the heart of I Am Love is reduced to torrid metaphorical gestures that left me rather cold. We learn that if you marry for money or status or power you will get money or status or power, because love cannot be bought but that's the limit of any moral insight. There is, for example, no exploration of the morality, motives or consequences of Emma Ricchi's adultery. The audience is simply expected to be unthinkingly swept along by her act of rebellion. While, I enjoyed watching this at an artistic and performance level, I was far from persuaded by it intellectually.

I Am Love is a film of immense pleasures, every one of them beautifully designed, framed and hallmarked. It evokes a social milieu that, while aesthetically rich, is inhabited by an economic elite who are emotionally and spiritually infantile. As Tilda Swinton, reflecting on the Recchi dynasty, admits, "no unearned income is fair, after all; it costs the soul eventually." For all this melodrama's sensual delights, I Am Love left me hungry for characters and plot with more psychological and moral depth and flavour. Perhaps, that will come with Guadagnino's next film. I can't wait to see how this impressive talent develops. Until then, I will have to live with the delicious memory of that langoustine and that bowl of deadly soup.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Enron and the Financial Crisis II.

In this week's The Tablet there is an interesting article (Have lessons been learnt?) by Ben Andradi who works in the City in the private-equity industry. Here is taste of his article on the fallout from the world recession:
It's in the area of values and ideology that more lessons need to be learnt. The prevalent economic orthodoxy of the last 20 years has been complete belief in the power of free markets. Most politicians on both left and right embraced this with mantras such as "light touch regulation" and "maximising shareholder value". The belief-set was built on several commandments: firms always manage resources better than government (say that to the shareholders of Lehman Brothers, AIG and RBS!); tax cuts are the only policies of governments (but to finance the bail-outs taxes will have to rise); reduction of government power is desirable (except when the banks have to be bailed out.

The other dimension is to nurture virtues and values...Virtue is what happens when wise and good choices become second nature. Choosing the Common Good (the recent document from the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales) is on the mark in emphasising the importance of practising virtue. Moral habits need to be relearned and practised. Some church bodies are involved in training bankers on ethics and values such as, honesty, transparency, accurately reporting risks and striving for a higher standard of conduct beyond mere regulatory compliance.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Enron and the Financial Crisis

It's been a long time (1989 A-Level Economics when I was defeated by the mathematics) since I have read a serious text book of economics. But, in the last week I've read Joseph Stiglitz's fascinating analysis of the recent financial crisis, Freefall: free markets and the sinking of the global economy. "Wall Street's high rewards and single minded focus on making money might attract more than its fair share of the ethically challenged," writes Stiglitz, "but the universality of the problem suggests that there are fundamental flaws in the system." A confluence of things led me to investigate why this respected economist is convinced that there is a "systemic" failure in free-market economies.

I'll return to Stiglitz in a later post but what were the things that drew me to his book? First, a General Election in Great Britain and the intuition that the recession and its consequences are far from over (I write this post the day after the first public tv debate between the leaders of the three main political parties. This debate was peppered with views about what stimulus package would help or hinder the recovery, nationally and internationally. Also, the latest news on the wires is that Goldman Sachs has allegedly been involved in fraud and share prices are collapsing...). Secondly, I bumped into a visitor to Brentwood Cathedral at one of the Easter Sunday services. "What do you do for a living?" I asked. "I work in the City. I'm a banker," he said, adding half-jokingly "but don't tell anyone." In the popular imagination, bankers and priests have acquired a sort of pariah status. We are the new unclean. I shook the banker's hand. And, finally, I got to see Lucy Prebble's play, Enron. Who would have thought that mark-to-market accounting could make for two hours of thrilling theatrical inventiveness? Enron does.

The energy giant, ENRON was America's seventh largest corporation. It had taken 16 years for it to grow from 10 billion dollars of assets to nearly 70 billion dollars. It took 24 days to go bankrupt and collapse on 2 December 2001. This was the corporate world's equivalent of the collapse of the Twin Towers. It's devastation would not be counted in numbers of dead, but in jobs lost, houses reclaimed and futures lost. On 2 December, 21,000 staff in Houston were given a severance pay of 4,500 dollars and half an hour to pack their desks into boxes in a building they had christened the "Death Star".

Lucy Prebble's play is morality tale of financial testosterone (although a number of women executives were involved) and metastatic hubris. "I believe in God. I believe in democracy and I believe in the company," says Kenneth Lay, the Enron Chairman, in the play. It was not Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes that the executives at Enron were reading, but Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene which outlines the view that the genes that survive are those who best serve and protect their own interests. Financiers added dollar signs to their crude reading of Social Darwinism. "Creative" accounting became the intellectual pursuit that masked the self-interest of the Enron executives. In a programme note, Tim Bouquet writes:

Enron was becoming a financial fantasy land still paying million dollar bonuses based on imaginary profits when it was really 30 billion dollars in debt. It was debt that needed hiding. [Jeffrey] Skilling (the CEO) called on chief financial officer Andrew Fastow, who set about creating hundreds of companies called special purpose entities, with exotic names like Jedi and Raptors, in which he stashed the company's debt where it posed as assets.

The financial whizz-kids of Enron were well versed in the films of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas. In a sense, their financing and lives mirrored the CGI effects in the films they were watching. Their conscience was avatarised. The lines between reality and fantasy were wilfully blurred so that self-deception and the deception of others became not only possible, but normative behaviour. Prebble's play is a reminder that behind the flashing stock market figures and adrenalin rush of the trading floors were brilliant men who had lost a grip on an objective moral order within which to work and make money. The fundamental issue was not that they had money, but that the money had them in a constricting stranglehold and they willingly participated in this moral degradation. Bethany McLean, author of The Smartest Guys in the Room about the scandal, observes:

It is like looking at the flipside of so much possiblity that ended terribly. It started with a lot of people who thought they were changing the world and over time they became victims of their own hubris, victims of their own greed.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Lourdes and the cinema

In the 1997 film adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's book, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, the director, Julian Schnabel, presents Lourdes with an eye of sophisticated disdain. For him, it is a religious Las Vegas, a vulgar marketplace where pious artifacts fill the shelves of every shop. In the book and film, Bauby is taken by a girlfriend to visit the shrine:

Josephine was a collector: old perfume bottles, rustic canvases complete with cattle (singly or in herds), plates of make-believe food of the kind that substitute for menus in Tokyo restaurant windows. In short, during her frequent travels she bought everything unspeakably kitsch she could lay her hands on. In Lourdes, it was love at first sight. there she sat in the window of the fourth shop on the left, surrounded by a jumble or religious medals, Swiss cuckoo-clocks, decorated cheese platters and -apparently waiting for Josephine - an adorable stucco bust haloed with winking bulbs, like a Christmas tree decoration.

"There's my Madonna!" Josephine exulted.

"It's a present," I said at once with no inkling of the exorbitant sum the shopkeeper would soon extort from me, alleging that it was one-of-a-kind. That evening in our hotel room, we celebrated our acquisition, its holy flickering light bathing our frolics and casting fantastic dancing shadows on the ceiling.

This moral and aesthetic tone of superiority has become the default position for many who wish to portray Lourdes as a commercial quagmire of religious tat. But these representations are partial and stubbornly one dimensional. They are, in part, a reaction to Henry King's cloyingly sentimental hagiography, The Song of Bernadette of 1943. Their myopic view fails to recognise that for most pilgrims (ordinary individuals and families who are often coping with serious sickness and disabilities of the mind and body) mass produced objects are all they could ever afford. At the same time, these crude devotional souvenirs are imbued with a sacred significance and beauty beyond textbook aesthetic considerations. The medals and statues of popular piety cannot be read in isolation but require a reading that includes both the context of the place and the spiritual longings of the pilgrim.

Jessica Hausner's film, Lourdes, is a comedy of manners that, refreshingly, avoids hackneyed representations. The film follows a young and lonely MS sufferer, Christine, who travels to Lourdes to escape the stultifying routine of her wheelchair bound existence. It is a film of immense visual restraint that, in some ways, mirrors the physical restraints experienced by the sick and disabled. Scenes are largely static frames which people move in and out of with a serene choreography. "The camera is like God's eye," remarks Hausner, "observing, never interfering." The symbolic colour palate of the film are the cool greys of hotel lobbys disturbed by flashes of red from the uniforms of the Order of Malta and Christine's sun hat; the cobalt blue of the Virgin Mary.

For Hausner, Lourdes is a place of mystical ambiguity that defies ideological descriptions. In such a spiritually and emotionally evanescent environment, people and events need to be viewed through a cinematic lens of ambivalent meanings (some secular, some religious). Only then can the mysteries of nature and grace; the mundane and miraculous; decay and healing be approached by the secular imagination. In Lourdes, Hausner finds a perfect metaphor for universal concerns:

I want to talk in my films about the mystery of human beings: it is hard to know what goes on inside a person. Love and communication is full of misunderstandings and errors. In that sense, everyone stays alone. All of my films seem to be with concerned with, as Christine puts it, the feeling that "life is passing by without us." Society has invented a structure consisting of rules and aims in order to give you the sensation of a meaningful life. If you achieve this or that, then your life makes sense. Such as: being successful in your job, having a family, having a house or car, being a good person, doing charity, of getting up at eight in the morning and going to the theatre once a month...I always found it hard to accept those rules and aims - find that life senseless and arbitrary. Fate is unpredictable, just as human beings are. MS, the disease that Christine suffers from in the film, is similar - it's an illness that can change very fast. Today you are fine; tomorrow you are paralyzed...the film is not only about handicapped people in Lourdes, but about everyone's fate.

Of course, one of the transcendental dimensions of Lourdes is that people are not defined by their achievements or status (many of the pilgrims have, in worldly terms, "achieved" little) but by the ontological fact that they are persons. Lourdes subverts the social ordering we are accustomed to and suggests a new paradigm, rooted in the life of the triune God, with which people can model their lives. Those who are suffering and weak lead the processions, take centre stage, are honoured. The first come last and the last, first. In Lourdes, it is not the fittest and slickest who are naturally selected, but those who serve and are served. Perhaps, this answers the question at the heart of the film, do miracles exist?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Faith, the Secular State and May 6th

The April issue of the New Statesman explores the idea of God in Britain's secular culture (it also contains the 50 greatest political photographs which are a powerful pictorial document of recent history). Here is an excerpt from the editorial:

This magazine has been resolutely secular since its first issue in 1913. Yet our annual "God" issue often proves to be our most popular. Proof, perhaps, that as Harold Wilson recognised, social democracy in Britain always owes more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

For us, secularism has always meant a secular state, not a secular society. A belief in a state that does not act on the basis of religious considerations is perfectly compatible with a recognition that faith has an important role to play in the public sphere...

Religious observance in Britain is, with a few exceptions, in steep decline, but interest in science, metaphysics and epistemology has perhaps never been stronger. David Lewis-Willians (author of Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion) is right when he says that the human appetite for belief is hard-wired. We hope this issue goes some way to sating your hunger.

On the one hand, this editorial acknowledges the positive influence that religion has on society ("Britain always owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx") and in the same breath, it wishes to place a distance between religion and the state. I wonder where in the mind of the editor the state ends and society begins. Are there clearly defined demarcating lines separating the secular state from society? Does there exist a more symbiotic relationship, an ecological interdependency that this editorial fails to recognise? Can the state run in isolation from society as this editorial appears to suggest? And if the state "does not act on the basis of religious considerations" then what considerations does it act on? What are its governing principles and foundational philosophical attitudes? Where do they come from? Do they bear moral scrutiny?

These questions are not just the stuff of pub philosophy. They have concrete applications and affect human lives. Take, for example, the account in today's issue of The Times of the Christian nurse, Shirley Chaplin, who refused to remove her crucifix when asked to do so by her employer. In the magazine, Faith Today, the three leaders of the main political parties are asked if they see religious faith as a private pursuit or whether it has a role in the wider community:

Gordon Brown: Our common realm is not and cannot be stripped of values - I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life. Our Equality Bill is specifically designed to protect religion and belief on exactly the same terms as race or gender or sexuality. I welcome the role that people of faith play in building Britain's future - and the Catholic communion in particular is to be congratulated for so often being the conscience of our country, for helping "the least of these" even when bearing witness to the truth is hard or unpopular.

David Cameron: I believe faith groups have a huge role to play in building a stronger and bigger society. I'm convinced faith is a force for good in this country. Compassion, fairness, tolerance, responsibility - these values are shared by people across faiths; they are exactly the values our whole country needs.
What's more, faith groups form a key part of my vision of the big society. They have answers to many of the problems we face and I want to help them in the good work that they do. If I become Prime Minister, I will unleash the power of the voluntary sector. We will fund social enterprises to tackle our toughest challenges. And we will give church groups and charities the power to set up new schools.

Nick Clegg: I do believe in the separation of church and state - but that doesn't mean keeping faith out of public life. People of faith have an extremely valuable contribution to make to public debate and often challenge our consciences on a whole host of issues. Church leaders have spoken out on issues such as refugee rights, international development and prison reform, for instance. I'm also keenly aware of the good work done by people of faith in our inner cities and in schools. A liberal society is one in which all creeds can flourish and in which many different points of view can make their voice heard.

Well, that's that then...isn't it?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Shutter Island

"Is it better to live a violent man or to die a good man?" asks the central figure, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. These binary preoccupations litter this psychological thriller: where is the liminal divide between an imagined world and reality? Was the poet, John Dryden, correct when he wrote, "Great wits are sure to madness near allied,/And thin partitions do their bounds divide."? How thin is the partition within us between sanity and insanity? Must a school of psychiatry that favours invasive surgery (e.g. transorbital lobotomy) operate in opposition to a school that favours medication and therapy? How do the personal traumas of the past impact on the way we live in the present? Did "God give us violence to wage in his honour" or did "God give us moral order"?

With such questions, Scorsese subverts what, on the surface, looks like his toying with the thriller and noir genres. The film opens with a ferry nosing through a claustrophobic fog as it makes its way to Ashecliffe hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. A sinister score increases the audience's sense of uneasiness. In the toilet, US Marshall Daniels is being sick and looking in the mirror, admonishes himself, "pull yourself together." But this order is more than an attempt to maintain the appearance of his office in front of his new partner, Chuck Aule. It is designed to alert the audience to the fact that Scorcese is placing the action within the fractured mind of his eponymous hero.

The film fails as a thriller because the clues are clumsily manhandled and as a result, it is not disbelief that is suspended but suspense itself. Within the first twenty minutes, the final, flaccid plot twist is evident. But where Shutter Island succeeds is in finding cinematic metaphors for a mind in meltdown. We recognise the labyrinthine tunnels and chambers that Teddy Daniels prowls as the stock creepy sets of the suspense genre. But, in Scorsese's hands they become something more profound. They are an image of the imaginary prisons that the mind can construct for itself. "Psychoanalysis reassorts the maze of stray impulses, and tries to wind them around the spool to which they belong," Freud told George Sylvester Viereck in 1930. "Or, to change the metaphor, it supplies the thread that leads a man out of the labyrinth of his own unconscious."

Shutter Island is not about what will be found at the centre of the maze but about whether one can escape the pathological maze of neurosis and fear. Finding an answer to this question is essential for the person who is mentally-ill and for the professionals who are trying to lay a safe route out this disordered maze. In a different context, I have been reading about the experiences of people bereaved by suicide in Alison Wertheimer's A Special Scar. The questions here are not dissimilar to those explored in Shutter Island. Many of the bereaved ask whether it is possible to retrieve any sense of meaning from what appears a meaningless act. Here are a couple of examples of people mentally wrestling with the trauma of suicide:
It's a riddle that goes round and round and round in your mind and drives you absolutely crazy for years and years and suddenly you think - I'm tormenting myself. I shall just never know the exact and precise reason. (Pam)

I'll never know. I've accepted I'll never know, but it does seem important that I don't know. I should know. Why don't I know? I'd like to know why. I don't know why I want to know. It doesn't change anything. (Heather)

Both Shutter Island and the above testimonies point to an aboriginal instinct within human beings: our need for meaning. No matter how oblique that meaning, we find it impossible to order our lives without it. We require our lives to be meaningful. Without meaning we stop functioning in a way that is recognizably human. If our lives are to be more than a series of disconnected meaningless actions and thoughts then we require some unifying principle or narrative arc. Searching through the jumble of meanings (some benign, others malign, many superficial and phony), the human project is to find "the perfect thing" that can holds us together as individuals and communities even in our most fragile, broken moments. Throughout her life the poet, Elizabeth Jennings, suffered from acute depression and spent long periods in psychiatric units. In her poem Night Sister, she concludes that enough meaning is to be found in the vocation of compassion, the sharing in the sufferings of others, for us to be human:

Night Sister

How is it possible not to grow hard,
To build a shell around yourself when you
Have to watch so much pain, and hear it too?
Many you see are puzzled, wounded; few
Are cheerful long. How can you not be scarred?

To view a birth or death seems natural,
But these locked doors, these sudden shouts and tears
Graze all the peaceful skies. A world of fears
Like the ghost-haunting of the owl appears.
And yet you love that stillness and that call.

You have a memory for everyone;
None is anonymous and so you cure
What few with such compassion could endure.
I never met a calling quite so pure.
My fears are silenced by the things you've done.

We have grown cynical and often miss
The perfect thing. Embarrassment also
Convinces us we cannot dare to show
Our sickness. But you listen and we know
That you can meet us in our own distress.

A Special Scar: the experiences of people bereaved by suicide, Alison Wertheimer, Brunner-Routledge 2001
New Collected Poems, Elizabeth Jennings, Carcanet 2002