Another one’s gone

By David Walsh

I put ‘pen to paper’ the day of Nelson Mandela’s demise. My intention was to celebrate a life I thought worth celebration. And then I kept my thoughts to myself; others would have more to say. Of course, they did. And I felt that apparently idolising Mandela, or anyone, is promoting the notion that some of us do better by force of will. Mandela did do better, but luck, as always, played a part. His earlier response to injustice, which may itself have been unjust, led to an incarceration that forced introspection. While he was jailed, a community rallied around him, he an undead martyr, and a myth was made.

I went to South Africa for a few months in 1992. I had a recently dead brother, a new girlfriend, a South African resident racist soon-to-be-ex-friend, and inadvertent access to circumstances that were about to make me an art collector.

South African cities confused me. I couldn’t breathe Joburg’s air, couldn’t comprehend Durban’s kitsch, and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by Cape Town’s complicated cultivation.

In South Africa, it was easy to start up a conversation, and to make friends. All one had to do was mention Nelson Mandela. By then Mandela had been released, but not elected. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that South Africa was heading for a better place, and most thought Mandela would be the pilot.

Even then it was clear that a comprehensive political peace would advantage both the disenfranchised and the empowered. Attending the horse races in Durban, we discovered three grandstands, receding in orderly fashion from the finish line, for whites, for coloureds, and for blacks. This level of service duplication cannot be constructive, even for those who benefit from inequity.

Societal violence is sufficiently infrequent that, even in those societies that are riven by conflict, the chance of a visitor witnessing an incident is low. Nevertheless we did witness such an incident, at a union march (COSATO) in Cape Town. Corralled into a route by closed streets and buildings, the marchers were spat on by some (seemingly very few), who decanted their puerile commentary from upper-story windows fronting the streets. The result, a near-riot, quelled by rifle fire and accompanied by a few fatalities. The level of South Africa’s dysfunction, though, was best illustrated on another occasion in another city. A newspaper headline read ‘Maritzburg policeman dies of natural causes’.

It was obvious that something needed to be done.

I read, and have read, about Mandela’s humanity. Those who knew him, his friends, his jailers, his political enemies and rivals, even his would-be assassins, spoke of his honour, decency and integrity. I am most fascinated, however, by his unswerving commitment to change. Prior to his prison days he clearly thought violence was a legitimate path to justice. Perhaps because violence failed, or perhaps through a moral transformation, he wholeheartedly embraced an altered strategy, one of inclusion, negotiation and forgiveness. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, he behaved like a decent human being while seeking a political end. That seems to have gotten the job done.

When there is an adult around, kids don’t squabble. Will we still behave, now that the adult has left the room?

It didn’t look good for a while. Even before he was dead his family used the court system to promote absurd agendas concerning rival burial sites. At his funeral a psychotic signer substituted farce for solemnity. Blogs appeared, vilifying him, ostensibly for his early support of violence, while promoting their own vitriolic racist manifestos. Through all this, Mandela stayed honourably dead.

I notice, again and again, that we hold our principles most steadfastly at times of introspection. And we are most introspective at times of loss. Not loss through being affronted, though. That just motivates a desire for revenge. The losses that we learn from are the unfortunate, and the inevitable.

Nelson Mandela may have learned what to value in the twenty seven years when, for him, action wasn’t an option. Did we learn a lesson about taking time out? His death caused us to pause, but soon after, we went on our way. Do we need a Mandela to die every day? Was this the point that the disciples of Christ were trying to make? If so, why did they poison the chalice with polarities, and thus sow the seed for schisms? Perhaps they should have had Christ die of natural causes. And stay dead. In the meantime, I do hope no one proclaims Mandela our saviour.

…And another one

By Elizabeth Pearce

Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. The only thing I remember about that memorable movie Boogie Nights is the look on his face (he played Scotty the porno-techie) when he sees Dirk Diggler’s willy for the first time. I think I must have been a teenager at the time because the look captured the essence of nascent sexuality, adolescent in my case and homosexual in Scotty’s: ambivalent longing and fear, and the combination of self obsession with the thoroughgoing belief that no one, ever, anywhere, could possibly find you attractive in return. Well, that’s how I felt anyway, but to be honest I was a little bit chubby. As was Scotty, and Philip Seymour himself.

I am a new mother (thank you for your kind enquires as to the health and wellbeing of my vagina. You know who you are) so forgive me, please, some soppy sentiment (which is the reason for my absence these months: my mind runs in tired, soppy circles; not good blogging material. And I don’t mean ‘tired’ as sleep-deprived, to be honest that’s all a big beat up, boo effing hoo.1 I mean tired as in utterly sick of my own obsessive thoughts about my baby’s wellbeing. He’s fine, thanks. And he’s, like, totally advanced, and everything he does is massively fascinating). My soppy sentiment is this: I cannot stop thinking about how Philip Seymour’s mum must feel. I don’t know anything about his mother; I could google but I don’t want to, it doesn’t matter. Cf. I haven’t eaten today because I am so nervous about taking my baby for his four-month injections. And that’s serious because for me, as I intimated above, eating is no casual pastime.

It is an unfortunate habit of mine (I’m working up to the point of this little appendage, pun intended, to David’s essay) (I’m not saying David has a little appendage; according to Kirsha, his wife-to-be, his portrait in our book Monanisms does him no justice at all. Cold day etc.) to periodically assume and discard various prophets and doctrines on my road to self-knowledge. Prophets so far, in order:

  1. Jesus.
  2. My headmaster, Mr. d’Ath; my older brother dubbed him ‘Dr. Death’, which I found gravely offensive.
  3. Postcolonial theory.
  4. My obstetrician.

And others but I’m bored of this now, the point is that my current prophet is Steven Pinker, which is good timing because he is about to pay us a visit at Mona to discuss the possibility of blessing one of our future exhibitions. I just finished reading his book The Blank Slate (2002), which is kind of dated now – and the reason it is kind of dated is because it is such a goddam powerful and convincing rhetorical tour de force that its ideas have ascended to – nay, shaped – our intellectual mainstream. Yes, there is a human nature. Some highlights:

  1. The drama of our nature resides in the tension between our ultimate (evolutionary) and proximate (immediate, apparent) motives. Eating high-fat food / going on a diet, for instance.
  2. Self-deception is adaptive, natural; and also lies at the root of our suffering.
  3. It is as human to be kind and forgiving as it is to be vengeful and cruel.
  4. Boys and girls are different. I know. Shocking.
  5. People of different races are not very different.
  6. ‘Natural’ and ‘right’ are not the same thing.
  7. Postmodernism has slaughtered – slaughtered, I tell you! – the arts. I must admit it fills me with glee to discover that the artists he uses to exemplify this slaughtering are represented at Mona: Chris Ofili (he specifically mentions our Holy Virgin Mary) and Andres Serrano, who is, incidentally, the artist who took the nudie shot of David I mentioned above. And of me. David thinks I’m being unfair to Pinker here, taking his argument out of context: the book is a work of advocacy, a statement – necessarily polemical, even strident – against the powerful doctrine of ‘the blank slate’: the belief that we are infinitely malleable, and that society can be born anew, if only we would try. Well, we can ask him in a week or two what he really thinks of postmodern art. We are especially interested in whether or not it is appropriate to take into account non-traditional art forms (including postmodern and conceptual) when considering the possibility that art is an evolutionary adaptation. (This is the subject of a future exhibition, in which we are very much hoping Pinker will take part).
    And finally, the most significant revelation for me, and the point of my appendage:
  8. Children turn out the way they are going to turn out, the good and the bad, regardless of how they were raised. Genes play a significant (but not totalising) role and their chosen peer groups do as well. But as parents, we neither ‘make’ nor ‘ruin’ the men and women they become.

This is both disappointing, and liberating: I am not centre stage in my child’s life, and I am not centre stage in my child’s life. My friend Amy (another prophet, I forgot her) also told me when my baby was born that there’s no A+ for parenting, only pass or fail, a C (for trying your best) or an F for otherwise. Which amounts to the same thing, really, as what Pinker is on about. Is all this love going to waste? Of course not. As Pinker points out, parent-child is a real human relationship, and (this is me now) relationships are all that really matter in the end. Perhaps all a parent can do is make the first phase of life as happy as the child’s nature will allow; to offer it a chance to become the best possible version of him or herself.2

I couldn’t resist it, I googled, and it seems that’s just what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s mother did for him. His Oscar-acceptance speech for his role in Capote:

My mom’s name is Marilyn O’Connor and she’s here tonight, and I’d like if you see her to congratulate her, because she brought up four kids alone. We’re at the party, Ma, you know? And she took me to my first play and she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four, and her passions became my passions. And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I’m proud of you and we’re here tonight and it’s so good.

Regardless of the terribly sad way it turned out, those memories and pleasures are real. I wish I could tell her it wasn’t her fault, and that she has more than earned her C.

1 It’s been over three weeks since I sobbed hysterically at 3am or googled ‘can you die from lack of sleep’ (you can).

2 My kingdom for a gender-neutral pronoun!

True Life

By Elizabeth Pearce

In about two weeks, so I’m told, I’m giving birth to a gi-mungous baby. It is a strange pause, as though before death: do not get me wrong, I am tremendously excited about receiving this child into my life (which is weird. It’s already here. More ‘here’, arguably, than it will be once it’s outside my body, ‘in true life’ as my husband’s eight-year-old rather wonderfully refers to it). It feels like the school holidays leading up to Christmas: you kind of want the days to last, to revel in their warm promise and simultaneous decline (the last days of my true life, or possibly my false one; but either way, the one I like a lot), but at the same time you are stupid with anticipation. And nor do I mean ‘like death’ to refer to pain, intensified by the arrival of a child cheerfully described by my obstetrician as ‘top of the class’ and ‘a chunky kid’; more coolly by the scan-ologist as ‘in the ninety-fifth percentile’ for its size. Good lord. Never mind, luckily I have my heart set on thorough and immediate pain relief. If I needed a justification for this (which I don’t, I don’t!) it would be this:

Some women feel strongly about natural childbirth, and I really do respect that: one reason they feel strongly about it is, as far as I can tell, about taking control of an experience that has been siphoned into patriarchal, institutional processes. But for me, there is nothing more natural than a person coming out of my vagina. That is beside the point, now that I think about it, because I don’t really privilege the natural above its supposed opposite: isn’t it ‘natural’ for us clever human beans to develop more and more sophisticated means to help our species suffer less the burden of our humanity? and other such folksy ponderings. i.e. You wouldn’t have your leg cut off without anaesthetic. This is all starting to smack of desperate justification, so allow me to continue: Compared to other apes, our babies have very effing big heads to accommodate brains that can do really cool things like invent pain relief to ease the transition of the giant heads – through pelvises made narrower by the advent of upright walking – into the world (true life). Why should the female of the species, the ones doing most of the work in this whole ‘evolution’ business, be the ones to luck out on the benefits of our accelerated intelligence?

There are two stolen ideas in that sentence, above. Firstly: the notion that women are ‘doing most of the work’ is a bastardised version of the hypothesis put forward in a book I have just finished reading, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy. Hrdy’s impressively nuanced, cross-cultural, historically informed and broadly inter-species reading of the shaping force of maternity in the process of evolution demands closer analysis, at some stage when my brain feels less baby-fried, and once I have the energy to pose a proper argument about bio-cultural feminism. But basically, she paints a picture, at once bleak and liberating, of motherhood as an intensely strategic state of being. There is such a thing as a maternal instinct, but a wildly contingent one, less pretty and far more flexibly applied than ‘I loved my baby at once’ or ‘mother love is selfless’. Indeed, mother love, it seems, is radically selfish, in that it is engineered to promote the procreative successes of the maternal subject, and not to serve some free-floating, transcendental human ideal. So do human infants – those wobbly-headed lumps of useless cuteness – come into the world prepared to fight to secure the richly rewarding – but not automatically assigned – mother love, so crucial for their survival, and to push through the bottleneck of infant mortality and into the next genetic generation. This is surely feminism (and infantism?), but unlike any feminism I have ever known. Hrdy’s definition of patriarchy is one of the more useful ones I have encountered: so often, ‘patriarchy’ is unthinkingly invoked as though akin to air or water: a transparent agent, self-evident element. In contrast, her definition hinges on a distinction (coarsely applied in this essay, but not in her book) between the procreative interests of men (quantity: lots of sperm, lots of kids) and women (quality: one egg at a time), and on the need for men to counter the disempowerment of uncertain paternity:

Patriarchal societies are those in which patrilineal interests have, over time and by whatever means, come to prevail over strictly maternal ones. The goal is to produce offspring – often many of them – of undisputed paternity, no matter the cost to their mothers.

She uses a number of examples from the human and animal kingdom to exemplify this patriarchal state of play. I would like to think more about to what extent it applies to ‘our’ kingdom, the world of the individual and the nuclear family, of work and money, childcare and child support, paternity tests and privatization.

These thoughts came home to me quite strongly during a sneaky (because deeply embarrassing) viewing of Look Who’s Talking (shut up). Now, you may think it impossible for a film that revolves around Bruce Willis ventriloquizing an infant (‘Look at that – I’ve got a third arm. How am I going to get that in my mouth?’) to have much to offer us in terms of shedding light on male and female procreative strategies, but it’s all there: a woman learning to split her time (like women have done throughout human history, according to Hrdy) between work and motherhood; her appropriation of substitute parental care for her child (i.e. babysitting; again, nothing new there); the timeless tussle between male and female interests (the male too busy looking for new mates to raise his existing children; the woman balancing the pay-offs of bagging a high-status male against his unreliability: ‘I look like I could play the lead in Night of the Living Dead and your father deserted us so he could pork his interior decorator. I think you could safely say that it can’t get any worse’).

John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in that seminal 80s classic, Look Who's Talking.

John Travolta and Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking.

Now, Kirstie Alley (I said shut up) may be compromised, but she is far from helpless. The impossibly cute babysitter of course turns out to be a dream pseudo-father. Poor John Travolta, a lowly cab driver, is resigned to stick around to raise a child belonging to Kirstie’s rich, good-looking first choice; to perpetuate, in other words, the genes of another, more sexually successful competitor. Her choice – imperfect, but hers nonetheless – plays out in the scene of her first attempt to have sex with John T, in which her initial passion, set slightly creepily to the song Daddy’s Home (To Stay), blends into a nightmare vision of their future family life: she, barefoot and pregnant, waits for him to come home from a hard day of cab-driving to feed a Catholic-sized family with food scavenged from a dumpster. But this is the 80s, goddamn it, and she can not only control her own fertility, she can also go out to work in her high-paying job as an accountant – just as long as she has someone to help her watch the baby. In the end, that’s just what she winds up with, along with the double jackpot (in evolutionary terms) of a reliable father figure and good genes for her child.

One more thing, and then I promise to never mention Kirstie Alley again: Interesting for my purposes is the labour scene itself, in which Johnnie is driving her to hospital in his cab, and urging her to ‘breathe’ for pain relief and not to take drugs because it’s ‘better for the baby’: ‘The only people who say stupid things like that are men, because they’re idiots!’ (Later, to the doctor, in an Exorcist voice: ‘Fuck my breathing.’) Now, John is definitely asking for it here. But note how men are ‘idiots’ for trying to give us pain relief, as per the natural childbirth scenario I outlined above, and also for trying to withhold it. The Ancient Mariner comes to mind: ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…’ (‘Patriarchy, patriarchy, everywhere…’ admittedly doesn’t have the same ring to it). I guess what it comes down to is that I’m the one pushing ‘something the size of a watermelon through a gap the size of a lemon’ (Kirstie again; ok, that was definitely the last time) and so it’s up to me. Especially since my watermelon may be extra pink and fleshy. If you mention my lemon, I’ll kill you.

And so to the other stolen idea that I mentioned above: the big-brain justification for pain relief. This one comes from a book I talked about in an earlier blog, Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy, in which the narrator wrestles with the pressure from other women to give birth without an epidural. But that is less interesting to me than the deliciously simple dichotomy Goldsworthy sets up, throughout the book, between birth and death, most poignantly in a scene in which she is taking her young son to visit his great-grandmother, Moggy, for the last time. Earlier that morning, she promises him a trip to see some ‘funny statues’ at the museum and tries to prise socks onto his recalcitrant feet; the action is repeated later for her grandmother, whose mild surrender to being loved and clothed amplifies the child’s robust vitality. Indeed, as he kisses the old lady for a final time, ‘a kiss into oblivion’, and waves merrily goodbye:

‘We going to see some funny statues now, mummy?’
How soon we are erased.

Part of a mother’s job, it seems, is to introduce a child to their mortality. I feel I am a little unprepared in this regard. I blame my mother. But nor is this what I mean when I claim, dramatically, to be poised (rhetorically) on the brink of death. What I mean, rather, is that I know a lot of what I care about now will no longer seem to matter as much. I don’t speak for all mothers-to-be but I know this of myself. Here and now, two weeks before, it is sad, in the same way that death is sad for the bystanders but not for the dead – who don’t, after all, care anymore. But unlike the full stop of death, I’m dicing here with a semi-colon; a breath before a passage elsewhere, true life.

First world problems

By Elizabeth Pearce1

I was halfway through Middlemarch when I got (‘fell’) pregnant. I’m not suggesting there’s a connection. I have only just been able to pick the book up again, and when I say ‘pick the book up’ that is not a metaphor (or metonymy) for reading it; I literally have been unable to look at it or touch the cover due to the powerful association I have built between it, and the all-day, all pervasive morning sickness that promptly followed my ‘falling’ and that, frustratingly, led to no actual vomiting, meaning that it wasn’t even classed as bad in the scale of things. ‘The scale of things’. That means the scale of my wonderful, privileged life, the one in which I can get pregnant when I want to, distinguishing me from lots of other women and couples who have to go through all sorts to get to that point; and distinguishing me, further, from the rest of the world for which getting pregnant and having morning sickness are not significant problems at all, in the scale of things.

I have been wondering a lot lately (ever since I realised I was not going to dedicate my life to saving the world or even, as I had planned when I was younger, to easing the suffering of sick or exploited animals) about the quality of suffering. Is the suffering I rate in my own ‘scale’—that of drug addiction, divorce, loneliness, cancer, failure to express oneself or to fulfill ambition—made of the same stuff, boast the same blood and tendon, as that suffering, unimaginable to me, of war, famine, genocide, or the suppression of human rights? I know that it differs in magnitude: we should be more horrified by, say, the exploitation of children in sweatshops than by the physical degradation and social isolation of old age. Or should we? Is suffering just suffering, regardless of whether its source lies with barbarity (in the first instance), or inevitability (in the second)? Do the scales shift, giving us an ever-relative experience of pain? But the reason that I frame the question, I confess with some shame, is that I want to be able to justify (or not) my ongoing decision to do nothing at all to put a stop to that second-order variety of human atrocity. For instance: two of my friends dedicate a lot of their spare time and energy (and who has much of that?) to raising money to educate children in Benin, and traveling to that country when they can. I could do something like that, but I don’t.

I believe I was sincere in my plans, at a younger age, to ‘do something’, and I don’t think my decision now not to fulfill those plans has anything to do with loss of innocence (even now I rail against the you’ll-grow-out-of-it dismissals we perpetuate on the idealistic young). Hmm. Perhaps my inaction does have something to do with the fact that I recognise, having lived a little longer, that ‘goodness’ is infinitely contingent: there are no essentially decent acts (due to immeasurably complex consequences), but only decent intentions – which are, in turn, shadowed by any number of murkier motivations. (Brian Boyd writes in his book On the Origin of Stories about the fact that, in evolutionary terms, the best way for a socially competitive organism like a human to conceal its intentions from others is to not know them itself. The truth as I see it is that we never really know why we do things and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to find out. Instead we should focus on trying to control the impulses we know from imagination or experience lead to the suffering of ourselves or those around us). Being privy to the childhoods of others (my husband’s boys) has taught me a great deal about the contingency of good and bad: each boy is very different to the other. It is easy for me to see, from my privileged adult vantage point, that they are often, in conflict, both right at once; they do wrong to each other just by (rightly) being themselves. I wish I could explain that to them in words they’d understand. It would truly, I believe, set them up to better know the world and so to make the best of it.

What do you do with the suffering in the world? is a question asked by many (everyone, perhaps); among them, Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Like Dorothea (at least as her character stands in the first half of the book. What I am doing now—writing about a book only half-read—is an atrocity in my book, but I hope, given the circumstances, you’ll forgive me this once?)… Like Dorothea, I am prone to over-empathy, that scourge her admirer Will Ladislaw (do they get together?) calls ‘the fanaticism of sympathy’. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say with Dorothea that ‘it spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it’; but I have been prone to the recurring, tormenting thought: Why should I be happy when that other person can’t be?

It is something of a cliché perhaps to recall that Mother Theresa said, when asked what we should do to promote world peace, ‘Go home and love your family’. (She also said in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize lecture that ‘the greatest destroyer of peace today’ is—abortion. Actually she said it twice. I don’t even find the sentiment that offensive because it is just too weird. I was asked recently if my impending-mother status impacts how I feel about the issue. Yes it does. I have always supported free choice but my own experience has intensified my feelings of indignation—yes, outrage—at the audacity of any group or individual to have any say at all over the completion or otherwise of a pregnancy. It is an intensely personal business, a figment of my body, a biological quirk—at least, up until a certain point in time.2 On my way to work I walk past an abortion clinic, outside which Christian protestors gather each morning; one elderly man wears a sandwich board-style contraption sporting life-size models of fetuses that I could, if I wanted to, pop out and hold. I used to find these religious folk amusing, and even say good morning to them—who am I to discriminate against them on the grounds of their beliefs? They think they’re doing right in the world. But the thought, now, of the things those women must feel as they enter that building, each with their inherently worthy reasons for terminating their pregnancy—I don’t believe any person would make that choice for casual reasons—has put an end to my congenial tolerance of the protestors. I feel seriously pissed off with them instead. And by the way, if you want to you can buy from the internet a number of Mother Theresa abortion-quotation bumper stickers). But what I wanted to say, with or without Mother T, is that the advent of family, mature love, and the understanding that everyone—even people with seemingly everything—suffers, has perhaps been the biggest reason for the non-emergence of the world-saving zeal I looked forward to in youth. I offer this neither as excuse nor justification, merely the truth. Instead of posing navel-gazing questions like, ‘Can I justify my existence?’ I intend to do as much as I can to extend sympathy to the people in my life, friends and strangers, who are inevitably suffering their own silent, first-world scale pain. It is either enough or it isn’t (and of course it isn’t, how could it be?). I will think, as well, of the people around me whose strength, happiness and decency have rubbed off on me when I have been weak, miserable and ignoble. As Will Ladislaw would have it:

The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery?3

And I’m going to finish Middlemarch.

1 I got hitched.

2 If this is neither a scientifically, nor morally, nor philosophically coherent estimation of the beginning point of human life, that is because we humans are incoherent entities. And I’m not saying that ‘the beginning point of human life’ is automatically equivalent to the point at which abortion should be illegal.

3 Middlemarch quotes are taken from page 219 ‘in case you care’ – to paraphrase my co-blogger Luke Hortle.