The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War

Jaroslav Hašek

I bought a cheap second-hand copy of this a couple of years ago and only just got around to reading it, taking a break from obsessively reading books about American history and New York City in advance of our holiday, and it was a good move, because it’s one of the most entertaining novels I’ve ever read. Švejk became a byword for passive resistance and a kind of sly obstinacy in the face of militarism and bureaucracy but he’s also the patron saint of shitposters.

And then there’s this sublime moment when Hašek’s countryman, Karel Čapek, the founding father of European science fiction who coined the term robot, surfaces in one of Švejk’s limitless supply of anecdotes and gets dragged for being a big nerd:

Lieutenant Lukáš only waved his hand and said: ‘You’ve dropped so many pearls of wisdom, Švejk.’

‘Not every man can have wisdom, sir,’ said Švejk convincingly. ‘Stupid people have to exist too, because if everyone were wise then there would be so much good sense in the world that every other person would be driven crazy by it. If, for instance, humbly report, sir, everyone knew the laws of nature and could calculate the distance of the heavenly bodies, then he would only be a trouble to those around him like a man called Mr Čapek who used to come to The Chalice, and whenever he went out of the pub on to the street at night he looked at the stars in the sky and when he came back went up to everyone and said to each of them, “Today Jupiter is shining beautifully. You’ve got no idea, you bastard, of what you’ve got over your head. Talk about distances! If they were to shoot you out of a gun with the speed of a shell, you lousy brute, you’d still have to fly for millions and millions of years to get there.” When he said this he was so coarse and rude that afterwards he himself usually flew out of the pub with the usual speed of a tram, sir, at about ten kilometres an hour. Or take, for instance, sir, the ants…’

This was me at every party I attended when I was an undergraduate and it’s still a mood I’m never far away from. I haven’t felt quite as personally called out by a work of world literature since I read a passage in one of Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories where an old rabbi says to the narrator, ‘Forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart.’

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How to pour piss from a boot: a Vox explainer

A reaction I’ve been having a lot to media reports lately is that they seem to be explaining psychological or emotional phenomena using elementary concepts, as if the journalists and their intended audience lacked some basic insights into how people relate to one another and were building it up with a sort of jargon which I find strangely dehumanising. The latest example was an interview on Radio National with a marketing psychologist about people boycotting George Calombaris’ restaurants, in which she very carefully broke down the process of people becoming angry at his wage theft and deciding to take their business elsewhere, as if explaining to someone to whom this was an entirely novel concept. Not wage-theft, but the idea that “moral shock” (this is the jargon the psychologist used) could influence people’s purchasing decisions at all. The presenter responded in a similar manner, bringing up the Coopers’ boycott over its involvement in an anti-marriage-equality video and asking, “do these sorts of boycotts work?” As if every question has to be reduced to its most elemental components and then slotted in to an overarching principle, which is then interrogated on a level which is so general as to be useless. Obviously, some boycotts work, and some don’t, and the question of whether a particular one will or not is not going to be answered by this sort of thing.

A lot of this is the bones of journalistic structure showing through the skin. As in the formula for academic debate which Levi-Strauss made fun of, all professions have their labour-saving devices — a “cliché” was originally a literal chunk of print, a ready-made phrase which typesetters could click into the press to save the time required to set it letter by letter. The irony here is when the stock formula is the very act of spelling things out, or taking things back to first principles, which in many fields right now seems like a waste of everyone’s time — do we really need more explainers about the far right or climate change? — and is also deathly dull.

There’s an echo here of the processes of modern corporate IT: a business analyst’s job is to break down processes and entities in which they have no particular expertise, and then build models which can be passed on to technical staff who, by temperament and training, are a body of professionals who both need things put into the most basic terms, and also already think that they know everything about everything. It’s justified, but even in the kindest light, it’s like orchestra rehearsals. Necessary if everyone’s going to work together, possibly interesting if you’re a specialist, but also mind-numbing.

But IT, by its nature, is a bit dry and disembodied. In journalism, this cultural movement has lead to a sort of soothing but frozen void, emptied of all possible forms of knowledge and expertise: the writer as a person without qualities, not just a generalist but a sort of middle-brow vacuum.

It’s the opposite of shitposting, which, like all forms of irony, depends on an unspoken awareness shared between poster and audience.

It might also be a kind of panic response. We’re going on a trip to the USA in a month and I’ve been dealing with my own anxiety by swotting up, reading as many books and websites about the US and its history that I can lay my hands on, to stop myself freaking out, so I can hardly criticise the impulse to deal with the present moment in history in the same way.

Rough Beast

SomeBODY once told me about a bird that’s turnin’
And turnin’ in a widening gyre
It was lookin’ kinda lost cause it couldn’t hear its boss
As it soared ever higher and higher

Well, things fall apart and the centre’s not holdin’,
Anarchy’s loose and there’s no controllin’,
Innocence drowned in a blood-dimmed tide,
The worst get intense while the best just hide

So much to do, so much to see
Images out of Spiritus Mundi
You’ve gotta move those slow thighs
Open up your pitiless eyes

Hey now
Lion body
With a man’s head
Go play

Hey now
You’re a rough beast
Get the show on
Get paid

Your hour’s come round once more
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be bo-orn

Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

Flying Lotus – Flamagra

(cw for psychedelic body horror)
(cw for weird kids, David Lynch)

I discovered Flying Lotus in a charity store in Marrickville sometime last year – they had the Pattern+Grid World EP playing on vinyl and it sounded amazing so I made a note of it, and have been filling out my collection of his back catalogue ever since. One of the fun things about this process is when a new album comes out and you can experience it in real-time with the rest of the fans rather than in hindsight. Flamagra is really good, though it’s maybe not as cohesive as You’re Dead! but I’m still digesting it. It spans a greater range of moods, I think, than the earlier albums.

Irritations

It’s been about five weeks since I stopped taking nortriptyline, and things are still changing. Mostly I’m OK, althought for the past two weeks I’ve been irritable, not so much with the people around me as with words and especially words on the internet. Here’s a list I wrote in my journal last week and then immediately concluded hmm there’s a lot of stuff here, I guess it’s my mood.

  • the nerd identity, people identifying as such and having online arguments about it, I feel repulsed by it, if you know what I’m like you can laugh all you want at this but lately I feel like taking a schoolyard taunt and using it to describe any kind of intellectual excitement was a really bad development in our society’s relationship to knowledge and culture;
  • Wikipedia, both my own addiction to reading random articles and its stupid style;
  • programming culture, the articles I read on lobste.rs, especially all the endless whinging about the modern web stack and about JavaScript, and all the C/C++ macho bullshit;
  • This thread about an article complaining that astrology is too fashionable among young queer people; specifically it’s the commenters who are inexplicably furious about astrology and compare it to organised religion or bigotry and homophobia;
  • The ABC’s news app and the state of political coverage in general;
  • That the backlash against the Murdoch press revolved around their anti-Labor bias and not about their bigotry, homophobic, racism, misogyny against Gillard, etc.

There’s something bracing about this, although I’m relieved that it seems to be easing off this week. I went through most of my teens and twenties in a state of high indignation at dumb stuff like the above and I don’t want to be there all the time again. I feel like being off the meds is allowing certain emotional states to resurface, the job I have now is to learn how to handle them.

I’ve had to take a break from social media again: both Facebook and Mastodon, which is where I’ve been most active lately. Partly this is because the election result fallout on FB is too depressing, but, for the most part, it’s not about the content. I was hoping that my compulsiveness about social media would ease off when I stopped the meds, but it hasn’t, and the night of the election I realised that I was going off to read FB or Masto every ten minutes or so as a way to escape my own emotions. It could be that my irritability is getting better because I’ve shut off this avenue of escape and I’m having to sit with things more. Or it is just that I’m reading less random stuff. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back.

I’m not even thinking of going back to Twitter, and I still feel vaguely guilty that I’m on Facebook at all, because they’re both awful companies and I don’t think they’ll ever reform themselves, but the more I think about the ways in which social media is bad for me (let alone what it’s doing to politics) the more I realise that I’ve been relying on it for social connection for years, and I need to find alternatives. I miss everyone, well, maybe not everyone, but most of you. You know who you are.

Cracked – Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good

James Davies

One of the false starts I made towards the previous post was a review of this book, which I abandoned because it was making me too angry. I’m home sick today and feeling spiteful, so here it is.

I picked the book up one day when I was feeling sullen and grumpy with my side-effects: I’m glad that I bought it in a remainder store, I don’t want its author to earn any money from it, because it’s awful. I wouldn’t call myself an outright antipsychiatrist, but on top of my personal dissatisfaction with my meds, I feel like the profession and the pharmacological industry have serious problems and need some sort of reform, and I’m also fascinated by the history of the discipline. Despite this, I can’t remember the last time I read a book written from a position to which I thought I would be basically sympathetic which left me feeling that its author was not only a bad writer, but a bad person.

From the start, the book’s style, at once matey and hectoring, made me think of the last five years of British political debate, and I thought, facetiously, that people like Davis are why Brexit is happening. I persisted with it only because of a growing horror and fascination with the author’s sins, his smug contempt for patients disguised as concern, his apparent ignorance of how much of psychopharmacology’s flaws are those of the drug and medical industry as a whole, his sentimental and captious argument that what people need instead of medication is “traditional values” without ever having to spell out how exactly these should be delivered. By the time I reached the end, this didn’t feel like a cheap shot. People like Davies, and an intellectual and publishing culture which supports them, are exactly why Brexit is happening.

The single biggest problem I have with the book is its childish binary logic. It is assumed that we as a society or as individuals are faced with a neat choice: either submit to the corrupt technocracy of big pharma and keep swallowing ‘happy pills’, or shape up, go to humanistic psychotherapists like himself, and, one supposes, church. (Putting the phrase ‘happy pills’ in scare quotes is a perfect illustration of the book’s stylistic dishonesty: this is a phrase which is only used by his side in the debate, so they own it, and holding it at arms’ length is cheating.)

Davies never makes plain what he means by traditional values, so the reader is free to imagine his alternative to the status quo as some sort of pre-industrial idyll, at least if they’ve never cracked open a history book. There’s no connection in Davies’ thought with the anti-psychiatric tradition which sees modern society as regimenting and controlling alternate and viable ways of being; there’s no evidence that he’s read or even heard of Laing, much less Foucault. Nor is there any sign that he’s aware of the callous and violent ways in which traditional societies dealt with the mental illness before modern psychiatry, or the desperation and misery which has characterised the lives of the mentally ill for most of human history.

Outside the journalistic games of good guys and bad guys which books like these are playing, people with mental illness don’t just visit their GP, take the pills and hope for the best. They got to twelve-step and other self-help groups: they go to therapists and counsellors and family members and, yes, church. Davies is an anthropologist and psychotherapist, which makes his caricature of the actual experience of mental illness all the more frustrating. I found myself reminded of the rationalist blogger Scott Alexander and Jordan Peterson, both of whom are also clinical psychologists but who seem to have strange or deficient ways of understanding how actual human beings behave. All three seem very far removed, in terms of temperament, from the qualities I would look for in a good therapist or psychiatrist, or a priest or rabbi, for that matter.

If you want to read a good book on the divide between traditional psychoanalytical practice and psychopharmacology, written by an anthropologist who seems to be able to observe and interpret clinical behaviour, rather than just try to score rhetorical points off it, I can recommend T M Luhrmann’s Of Two Minds as a much better alternative.

Having just added the title to this post, I don’t know what I was expecting from a book about mental illness whose title is a clumsy play on a slur against mentally ill people. This might seem like a PC quibble, but it’s actually a distillation of the book’s awfulness. It’s like someone making dad jokes about matters of life or death and then expecting you to thank them for their intellectual bravery. Everyone involved in it can get fucked.