Despite the opportunity lockdown offers to spend time qualitatively, I'm finding the opposite effect is true: my ability to waste time is in inverse proportion to its growing availability. The more time I have, the more I squander. For example, excitedly planning pandemic reading last year, I have a pile of excellent philosophy books and classics in literature which I am ashamed I haven't yet read. They lie on the bedside table, unopened, gazing back at me in resigned disappointment.
Instead I'm reading crime fiction, spy thrillers and watching boxsets of similar genre to fill 'quality' time in great quantity. Rarely watching TV for news, I listen to the radio a lot. So it was with some relief, flipping between stations, to pick up the tail-end of a discussion (including Val McDermid) on BBC Radio 4: why has there been a surge of comfort-reading crime mysteries and thrillers since lockdown began?
According to these crime-writers – who ought to know a thing or two about the human condition – although dark undercurrents of violence and death characterise the genre, paradoxically such books are uplifting. Good triumphs over evil in the end. Most importantly, there is resolution. In these times of fear, of insecurity and lack of control – the world suddenly unrecognisable – we are unsure how and when the pandemic will end. In such times, a resolved crime thriller gives us much-needed comfort.
To these unconscious motives of the reader, I'd add the following: the human brain needs complexity. Simplicity is easy, but humankind cannot bear too much simplicity: it rots the brain, you know. On the other hand, too much complexity is uncomfortable, and chaos induces total confusion, which can drive you mad. Something complex but easy is the ideal fodder for the mind, like a good, old-fashioned crime novel.
One of my favourite spy films ever, The Lives of Others
was released in 2006, but for some reason I didn't see it until last week. A German movie set in the German Democratic Republic in its death throes, the performances are exquisite, the ending beautiful. It will stay with me for a long time. Special mention must be given to the actor Ulrich Muhe who plays the Stasi operator Wiesler with chilling realism. He was a brutal, ordinary wee man (spoiler alert) who transforms, scene-by-scene, from the personification of political evil to a quietly magnificent hero.
As an aside, one of the unread books on that bedside table is Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil
. That is my shameful confession of the year. Having read so much commentary on it, I hadn't got round to actually reading it. It has now moved to the top of the pile.
If you enjoy The Lives of Others
, you will enjoy the French espionage drama series Le Bureau
, advised by the excellent foreign correspondent of The Herald
, David Pratt. He was right. Set within the department of the French secret service in charge of deploying undercover agents abroad in hostile territories, it is thrilling. A series which links to current events, it provides enough complex detail and psychological drama to convince us this is exactly how this strange, clandestine world operates in reality.
I guess the espionage genre (interspersed with the superlative Schitt's Creek
) offers sufficient complexity and escapism while still engaged with human behaviour. That wouldn't be the whole story, however. I fell in love with a KGB man when I was 12 years old: my wonderful, good-natured, laughing, affectionate 'Uncle Boris'. I'll never forget the sight of him on the news being deported from the UK as a spy. I've never gotten over it either.
'Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated'
These are the words of Confucius. He was largely wrong, but not completely. A hammer is simple; a complicated relationship most certainly isn't.
Einstein surely got it right: The golden rule of communication is to make everything as simple as possible, but no more than the material allows. Too often ignored in intellectual circles, pseudo-intellectuals often claim a topic is complex when in fact it is rather simple, and then use neologisms and obfuscating terminology when plain language would do the trick. The aim is not to enlighten or teach, but to pose.
J S Mill is perhaps the best example of a worldclass mind abiding by Einstein's wisdom. Unfortunately, his example is all too rare. Far more common are those who openly flout the pedagogical maxim. The worst perpetrators include Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze and Judith Butler. The latter admits her deliberate obfuscation: 'There are advantages to remaining less than intelligible…'. Damn tootin' there are. Butler goes on to explain, if I've read her unintelligibility properly, that the rest of us are too dumb to realise our language is based on prevailing cultural norms. Patronising, or what?
Actually, if you cut through the prolix text, what is said could be described as empty depth: either banal and/or easier to falsify. Both are anathema to the preening intellectual.
Why does this matter? Well it wouldn't if it were just a matter of academic parlour games enjoyed by those with nothing better to do. But these thinkers have an audience among those unable yet to see through their sham/e (they love this sort of childish word play). And it does matter. Because, as brilliant communicator and philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse pointed out, it is impossible to have the right affective response to an action or policy if your beliefs on the subject are false. Muddy the waters, and truth and falsity are difficult to distinguish. Confusion and susceptibility result, which is too often exactly the intended result.
Incidentally, if you want to read genuine female philosophers whose complexity may take some cogitation but well worth the effort, read (among others) Martha Nussbaum, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Midgely, Iris Murdoch and, of course, Hannah Arendt. All are hugely influential but as women, they do not receive the attention they deserve. In fact, why not buy the beautifully illustrated book, The Philosopher Queens
, edited by Buxton and Whiting? A guide to 'badass women' whose amazing ideas changed the world, but without much credit or the usual fanfare that accompanies their male counterparts.
I've just returned home after receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. My family can now breathe a little easier. I opened the door to loud cheering – including some my husband's students on Zoom! He's off to buy a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. To add to the uplifting mood, I've just read that the Oxford vaccine jabbed into my and many thousands of other arms, offers protection of 76% up to 12 weeks after a single dose. Thank you, marvellous scientists.