Tag Archives: Alain de Botton

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

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This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

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Alain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.