Giving a little for a lot

I have always felt really guilty about never having worked a proper day in my life.

Sorry, you haven’t what? 

Yeah, you’re probably surprised… Having just turned 19, I must belong to a small minority of teenagers who haven’t held a part-time job. My excuse to myself has always been that I’m far too committed with schoolwork. Even I’m not buying that one anymore.

I’m not that lazy. I study bloody hard I’ll have you know… But so do most people. The reality is that I’ve always been fortunate enough never to need to work for money. And like most people, anything I don’t need to do rarely gets done. Getting a job was never a burning concern – that is until now. Since arriving at a university, the real world has reared it’s ugly head.

All of a sudden, money has become much more than just a number I can indifferently watch fall and rise and fall and fall… It turns out those digits on my bank balance aren’t imaginary.

Person Holding Hire Me Sign in Crowd

If you earn a pay cheque, or have at least sought to acquire one, you’ll know that getting that first job can be difficult. To apply even for a job stacking shelves you will find yourself up against a dozen other applicants – if not a great deal more. Almost all of them will have held other jobs. Most will already be experienced shelf-stackers. And what do you have on your CV? If yours is anything like mine: a Bronze DofE Award (that I didn’t really deserve and received years ago), and a handful of grades that say “yeah I can knock up an essay” – hardly shelf-stacking credentials.

So with a whole month off from university at Easter, it was about time then that I sought some work experience, in-between the 5,000 words in essays I had due (there I go with that excuse again). Okay, I wasn’t quite so motivated… I was led to work experience like an un-thirsty horse to water. You see, my mum had noticed that the local Cancer Research charity shop were after volunteers. They usually are to be honest. And she basically dragged me in. I wasn’t reluctant because I didn’t think it was a valuable use of my time. And I wasn’t particularly bothered about it being unpaid work. I was simply reluctant about the thought of trying something new – leaving my comfort zone – it intimidated me.

I suppose that’s why they call it your “comfort” zone.

Well I did go in, and I have been volunteering a few shifts this holiday. I’m not writing this because I’m after a pat on the back for aiding a good cause. And I don’t want a pat on the back for overcoming my anxiety about work either. I just wanted to write about how the whole experience was really gratifying. I wanted to record my own thoughts about putting myself out there for a change. In the hope that I can look back on this for inspiration to do it more often. I’ve grown up a lot since moving out and starting university but I feel this was another learning curve for me, and a long-overdue one at that.

cancer research shopI couldn’t possibly finish this without mentioning some of the other volunteers I’ve met. I find few thoughts more inspiring than the fact that an army of volunteers – mostly pensioners – are battling cancer, and countless other diseases, in charity shops around the world, one cup of tea at a time. I’ll definitely be volunteering again in the future.

I’d encourage anyone to do the same – particularly if you need work experience!

Social etiquette explained

Last term I left a lecture theatre eagerly – I did quite a few times actually, but on this particular occasion I stopped to hold the door open for some other people first.

No no after you

I let a guy and a girl go ahead of me. They may have been dating; they certainly knew each other – it doesn’t matter. There was nothing unusual about it. You wouldn’t write a blog post about it. So why am I? Why on earth do I even remember this? Because the guy turns to his friend and says: “Maybe chivalry isn’t dead.” I couldn’t tell whether his tone was sarcastic or suggestive. It was just annoying. But what was worse, was when she blushed.

modern_knight_pull_chair

I think they both thought that I was somehow making a gentlemanly gesture towards her. I clearly fancied her. Yeah…no. I wasn’t making any kind of gesture. I wasn’t holding the door open for her, and I wasn’t holding the door open for him. I was just holding the door open.

You might credit me with good manners. But to be honest, it wasn’t even a conscious decision. I have to admit that in that situation I wasn’t actively being polite. Instead I was driven by the innate desire to avoid an awkward situation. We all have this. A group of people getting stuck in a doorway is just embarrassing isn’t it – it would involve further social interaction: an apology and a negotiation anyway about who proceeds first.

The same innate orientation to avoid an awkward situation at any cost is the reason you will offer the last cookie to someone else, isn’t it?

Please, be my guest

Sure, you want it. But it’s not worth feeling guilty over.

And you’ll have the same response in countless other situations too. The fear of failing to meet social expectation has become greater than our desire to do the right thing in the first place.

I should think there’s already a word for the phobia of awkward situations, but on the slight chance that there isn’t, may I suggest ‘politeness’?

 

An Alcoholic’s Anthology

I thought I would write a little post on the subject of alcohol as I am quite fascinated by the relationship between alcohol and creativity. But then I remembered that I’m sober, so I thought I would just compile the more poetic thoughts of proper writers on its consumption instead…

Alcohol Creativity


‘A Drinking Song’ Beer Goggles by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Wine comes in at the mouth

And love comes in at the eye;

That’s all we shall know for truth

Before we grow old and die.

I lift the glass to my mouth,

I look at you, and I sigh.


‘Be Drunk’ by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) in translation 

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it — it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”


[A defence of] ‘Drinking’ by Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Wine bottleThe thirsty earth soaks up the rain,

And drinks and gapes for drink again;

The plants suck in the earth, and are

With constant drinking fresh and fair;

The sea itself (which one would think

Should have but little need of drink)

Drinks ten thousand rivers up,

So fill’d that they o’erflow the cup.

The busy Sun (and one would guess

By’s drunken fiery face no less)

Drinks up the sea, and when he’s done,

The Moon and Stars drink up the Sun.

They drink and dance by their own light,

They drink and revel all the night.

Beer bottle

Beer bottleNothing in Nature’s sober found,

But an eternal health goes round.

Fill up the bowl, then, fill it high,

Fill all the glasses there, for why

Should every creature drink but I?

Why, man of morals, tell me why?

The no makeup selfie

I want to briefly offer my thoughts on the latest social media phenomena to hit my Facebook: the no makeup selfie that’s supposedly raising awareness for Breast Cancer.

Now I’m not against the idea. I just don’t really get it. I wouldn’t condemn anyone for taking part because I’m sure girls are getting involved with good intentions. But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I see the word selfie in the same sentence as cancer.

The significance of it being a no makeup selfie one would assume lies in the notion of it being a ‘brave’ thing to do. Even as a guy, I can appreciate that girls might not usually feel comfortable enough to publicise such a picture, one where they feel that they might not look at their best. This a great shame, but a reality when we live in a world where even profile pictures are filtered and photoshopped. Okay, so sharing no makeup selfies is a good thing because it promotes naturalness and encourages girls to be more comfortable in their skin. Great.

But this isn’t the reason why girls are taking these pictures. They are being taken in the name of Breast Cancer. This is where I find an issue. How can anyone consider taking a no makeup selfie a ‘brave’ thing to do in juxtaposition with the suffering cancer causes? Maybe I’ve missed the point here, but why else would women choose to support other women in this way? A selfie to me connotes vanity and attention seeking, but is more importantly just a bit of fun. It seems hardly appropriate to associate any of these things with Breast Cancer. Feel free to disagree with me, but I can’t help but feel that the whole thing unintentionally belittles a serious issue.

breast-cancer-ribbon

There is one other aspect of this phenomena that baffles me. With the greatest respect to sufferers and their friends and family, of all the life threatening diseases, Breast Cancer is surely the one we are most aware of. Is there anyone who sees one of these selfies pop up on their Facebook and actually feels more aware of the issue? Offering support to the cause is obviously a positive thing, everyone would agree, to the extent that writing a status declaring such seems unnecessary. Surely what Breast Cancer charities need is monetary funding, not empty words. A no makeup selfie that raises awareness has little impact – should it not be, if anything, a sponsored selfie?

 

Social media can be a brilliant means of spreading important messages and addressing issues, but I think on this occasion good intentions have been misconstrued. Perhaps no real harm has been done and I hope so. But I also doubt any real good is being achieved either. The no makeup selfie is certainly a better phenomena than the neck-nomination anyway. May social media continue in this promising direction and refine its efforts to bring about positive change.

Is creativity more important than criticism?

This post was inspired by the ‘Critical Theory’ module I’ve been taking for my English literature course at university.

An underlying similarity between the Humanities subjects is the notion that there are, more often than not, no right answers. Or to be yet more assuring, no wrong ones. This is the thought I equip myself with when I sit down to write any essay. It’s how I, as a student, conjure the sheer arrogance to do battle with reputable critics, theorists, historians – authorities with often decades of knowledge in their respective fields – on topics I was perhaps only introduced to last week, by way of a 90 minute lecture. It’s certainly a liberating concept. But it’s also an immensely frustrating one. To be intellectual (or try to be) is so often to resign oneself to the grey wish-washy area between A and B, for and against, yes and no. It’s a dissatisfying place, but our destination today.

In my previous experience of debate, however informally, whether in an academic environment or in an-early-in-the-morning-after-a-few-drinks setting, I’ve found myself being that awkward guy who undermines the conversation by objecting to the premise of the proposed question itself. The following question, taken directly from a university discussion, falls into this shot-down category.

Is creativity more important than criticism?

I should specify here that I’m primarily concerned with literary creativity and criticism. The question itself is phrased in a way that leans already to the former option, presumably in light of the fact that you can’t have criticism without a creative subject to analyse. The mouthpiece my university module chose to fight this corner was the 19th century critic, Matthew Arnold, who wrote clear as day, ‘The critical power is of lower rank than the creative’. (He also defined criticism as ‘a disinterested endeavour’ which super confused me – the image of an apathetic scholary-looking type, half-hearted churning out some bitter review, springing to mind – until I was informed ‘disinterestedness’ in this case meant objectivity… Why didn’t he just say that?).

The arguments raised in my seminar class in favour of creativity boil down to two points. First is the promotion of creativity as a personal exercise, detached from criticism. You don’t have to be a published author to get a deep sense of satisfaction out of the creative production of art or just words. Even if nobody ever read your piece to offer any form of criticism, its composition would be nonetheless worthwhile for the experience and pleasure of the creative process itself.

“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of man.” – John Steinbeck.

A second popular argument for creativity is a cultural one. Society has always held authors, playwrights and poets above their critics. This suggests that, at least socially, creativity is indeed more important than criticism. There has always existed a stigma of hypocrisy surrounding the critic, who’s job it is to criticise creative feats we assume they themselves are incapable of. It might seem immensely ignorant to dismiss Arnold’s criticism in the view that he himself could be considered only a second-rate poet. It would be. But undoubtedly you would have been more likely to have heard of him if he were a first-rate poet, and perhaps only a second-rate critic.

In my seminar discussion little defence was raised in the corner of criticism. Strange seeing as we were all there ultimately to be trained as literary critics… Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

While I completely agree with the first argument in its value of personal, private creativity, it completely fails to acknowledge the value of personal, private criticism. A critical discussion about a film upon leaving the cinema with a friend, or a review of a book that you write for your blog (I’ll shamelessly advertise one of mine here), can be just as rewarding as the published critiques of a scholar. Furthermore, a 1,000 word review can be just as rewarding to write as a 1,000 word short story. No concrete evidence suggests otherwise. In response to the cultural argument, I would contend that the term ‘critic’ broadly encompasses other titles such as the theorist and the philosopher. Individuals who likewise criticise ideas and judge phenomena. The names of whom – Freud, Nietzsche, Marx – stand up culturally alongside your Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, to dispel the argument that society values criticism over creativity.

nietzsche-marx-freud

I have a final point to add in the defence of criticism. While it is evidently true that without creativity there would be no criticism (a statement even truer than it first appears, I will expand on this shortly), without criticism there would be no distinction of literature – that is, a literary canon. Without the recording and therefore development of literary criticism, it is highly unlikely, impossible, that the great writers would have acquired their status as such. Academic criticism is the flashing neon signs that draw our attention to particular texts in history’s ever expanding library. Without his legacy in criticism Shakespeare would not have reached our classrooms today.

Having reviewed both sides of the argument, I cannot withhold from entering the middle ground any longer. It is time I object to the question outright.

Creativity is no more important than criticism, and vice versa, because criticism is a mode of creativity, and while perhaps less obvious, creativity is a mode of criticism.

“The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.” – Oscar Wilde

A critic’s response to a text is unique therefore it is the critic who creates this meaning. My earlier attempt to open up the word critic, to encompass theorists and philosophers, was influenced by the notion that criticism, in its novelty, is a creative process. The critic is the author of a response to the text in the same way that a theorist is the author of an idea. This is easy to appreciate, but in what sense are authors critical? This sense: an author is the very first critic of his or her work. The interior editing and censorship that goes into its composition is undoubtedly the most important stage of all criticism. The academic critic values the final product of a piece of art; its creator during its creation values the piece as a work in progress.

“There is creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.”   – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is another sense, a cultural one, in which an author might be considered a critic. The author is consciously or unconsciously a critic of the world he or she lives in, or at least the ideas and experiences he or she has been exposed to. The meanings behind a creative composition, whether intended or not, can be seen as a critical statement of an existence outside of the text. This is the fundamental flaw of New Criticism’s ahistorical nature. Context matters.

Is creativity more important than criticism? Yes or no? I object.

It’s a faux-dichotomy. Insert unsatisfactory answer: the question is a false one that assumes a division of the intrinsically linked.

A memento of Memento

I just watched an incredible film and want to tell you about it before I forget.

We all lie to ourselves to be happy.

I’m not lying. I like the quotation.

The prospect of reviewing Memento is wholly overwhelming. I don’t think I’ll even try actually. I’ll just note down my initial response, my appreciation, post utter mind-blown viewing.

Hang on. Memento as in the film that came out all the way back in 2000? Have you been living under a rock? Yup. But that’s pretty hipster now, remember? I’d review a 2015 film if I could. Allow me to remind you, if you did last watch it over a decade ago, how awesome it is. Or allow me to persuade you to watch it, if you’re even more hipster than me, and haven’t got around to it yet. Heads up in advance – there are no major spoilers here.

Question: Who’s better than Christopher Nolan? Answer: Indie Christopher Nolan. This film was his early second hit, its plot based on a short story, ‘Memento Mori’, written by his brother Jonathan. A nice touch I think. It’s about Leonard Shelby, a sufferer of short-term memory loss, short-term memory loss (I won’t be doing that again, don’t worry), who tries to hunt down the man he believes killed his wife. His investigation, even day to day life, relies on a ton of post-it notes, a scrapbook load of Polaroid pictures, and plenty of DIY tattoos. Leonard’s interaction with these objects provides some really cool visuals, a tattoo covered, topless Guy Pearce included. Nolan has you sit through these emotive speeches from Leonard’s friend, Teddy. Where he implores our protagonist to move on… and he’s just about looking convinced… until he checks his little Polaroid snap:

Don't believe his lies

The complexity of this film is superlative. But its greatest quality is that this complexity isn’t lost on non-Nolan mortal viewers. It makes sense, kind of. So often clever plots are so intricate they leave you completely in the dark. Memento is different. The landing light is left dim. Nolan crafts twists and turns, leading you all over the place, destroying your sense of direction, only to reveal you have ended up back where you started. I can only describe the film’s ending as an immensely smug one. Nolan permits you that oh my god moment of realisation only because it forces you to appreciate his ingenious trickery. The same flair crops up in some of the dialogue. In a flashback with his wife, the protagonist says, ‘I always thought the joy of reading a book is not knowing what happens next’. Irony alert. Irony alert. The joy of watching Memento is that, in theory, you do know what happens next, that’s if you can keep up with the scrambled narrative (totally did).

A few words on the film’s structure are due then. I know structure isn’t really a fun word, so I’ve borrowed (stolen) a diagram to spice things up a little. The film plays out a non-linear narrative that combines two sequences. A black and white one is constructed chronologically, while a coloured one is told in reverse. The colour coding is very generous on Nolan’s part. He ties the threads together seamlessly at the end, creating a classic circular plot. This film’s simplicity is its intricacy.

The aforementioned fun diagram to illustrate Nolan’s narrative wizardry (includes spoilers):

Memento Timeline

Plot overview. Narrative structure. What’s left? Two cool bits and another quotation.

Firstly, there’s a scene, crucial to Leonard’s character depth, where he burns his wife’s stuff. What’s special about Leonard? He forgets things – specifically, new things. What can’t Leo forget? (Let’s just call him that herein.) Long-term memories. What’s the one thing in particular he wants to forget? Bingo. His wife’s death. We have a tragedy. Leo says, ‘If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal.’ Irony alert. Irony alert. Only in erasing his wife’s memory can Leonard heal. But that’s an impossibility – one that haunts Nolan’s miserable protagonist.

Forget that he looks pretty happy below.

Leo Polaroid

My last mention goes out to the Sammy Jankis. Sad, sad Sammy. The emotional magnitude of this film is entrenched in this subplot. He’s a sufferer of the same condition as Leonard, but a passive sufferer. Our protagonist is determined to learn from Sammy’s case and beat the disability. Nolan’s portrayal of mental illness has been deservedly praised by specialists. He captures how society struggles to empathise with those suffering with mental illness in the same way we can with physical illness. He gets this just right, with none of the glorification you might see elsewhere.

Sammy

That’s all I have to say really, which just leaves room for this cracking quotation:

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.