Mythos by Stephen Fry

Reviewing gifts is problematic. Reading the book from beginning to end is the first task. Fortunately, Mythos is readable. Unfortunately, it is an entertainment that lacks a certain something. It is educational and funny, but it is smug.

Smugness is really awkward in art. It sits next to complacency and causes a great deal of trouble. It prevents emotions from coming across. It blocks insights from registering. And it interrupts jokes. Ultimately, it leads to ponderousness.

Stephen Fry is erudite. He is intelligent. However, he rests on his laurels. His communication skills are blunted by his lack of self-awareness. This is shown by his lack of care for the literary sensibility of the reader:

“To the victors, the spoils. Like a chief executive who has just completed a hostile takeover, Zeus wanted the old management out and his people in. He allotted each of his siblings their own domain, their areas of divine responsibility. The President of the Immortals chose his cabinet.”

Clumsy prose aside, the text does have its moments. The aside on hope is worth reading, while the discussion of narcissism has genuine political resonance. The whole might not satisfy discerning readers, but everyone should be able to take away a pleasing episode from the ‘good read’.

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Mrs Icarus by Carol Ann Duffy

Some successful poems are deceptively simple. They aim at universality. Mrs Icarus is such a poem. It refers to an experience which is common. And it evokes recognition.

There are three main things about Mrs Icarus which highlight the skill of the poet. The title fits well with the content of the single stanza. A flash of feminism brightens the work. And the juxtaposition of classical myth with slang gestures to a postmodern sense of humour.

However, some of the minor aspects of the poem are also worth underlining. The punctuation is of great interest. There are two apostrophes, three capital letters, four commas, and one full stop. In this context, a full stop may be associated with death. This economy is noteworthy.

Furthermore, the poem has an unusual rhythm. It starts slowly. And it builds. The last line is fascinating. The denunciation of the man is savage. And the vision of a woman banging her fist on a table is transparent:

“he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.”

There may be something tautological going on. Nonetheless, the woman feels that the man needs to be taught a lesson. Hence, the repetition is justified. Without listening, there can be no lasting relationship.

A Person Who Eats Meat by Leonard Cohen

“If these thoughts interest you for even a moment
you are lost”

The conclusion of this short poem by Leonard Cohen raises several questions. The lack of a full stop is of importance. It encourages the reader to carry on thinking. What kind of poet is so accusatory? Cohen started the work by getting the reader to focus on the consumption of meat. He then underlined that vegetarians are interested in eating products which are not meat. And then he contended that thinking about what we eat was indicative of being lost.

This position of Cohen is odd. We all know that we are affected by what we eat. We may even understand that food is a highly ideological issue. It is only natural to be concerned about the environmental impact of our diet. There is also the question of cost. Meat-free Mondays are not simply the preserve of vegans; eating non-meat products can help individuals cope with inflation.

Of course, Cohen was not a prophet. The famous singer-songwriter and poet had no way of predicting that ‘Veganuary’ would evolve. Marketing was arguably not so powerful when Cohen penned his poem.

Nonetheless, the idea that we should be uninterested in the subject of a poem is strange. If the content of art is dismissed by the artist then we have to take their perspective seriously. Poets do not play games for no reason.

It seems that Cohen was roughing up the sensibility of the reader. Firstly, he was privileging style over substance. Secondly, he was defining the realm of the trivial in an assertive way.

Hence, there are several responses which can be made. One could claim that Cohen is missing the point of poetry. If a poem is not meant to communicate something profound or amusing then it is in danger of being irrelevant. Less aggressively, one may question the success of the poem. It is aiming for mysticism but hits blandness. Saying something prosaic is dull or futile is slipping into a negativity which has nothing in common with what John Keats described as “negative capability.”

Eating meat matters to people. It also matters to non-humans. The consumption of meat has often been connected to social status, while the food industry is central to the capitalist mode of production. The decision to limit one’s personal meat intake is an ethical choice. Vegetarians and vegans are too passionate to be lost.

Nevertheless, this weird poem about meat and teeth goes beyond its limitations. There are no sentences in the solitary stanza. The poem is lost in space, even if the reader is anchored to solid ground.

Beautiful Invisible by Giovanni Vignale

This remarkable text is visible. But it is a homage to what is unseen. It is an introduction to physics, but it is a celebration of literature. It is a tribute to what people know. But it is a reminder of how much we don’t know. In short, this book takes any ordinary reader on a thrilling journey of discovery.

Nonetheless, there are two caveats which must be underlined. Firstly, much of the theoretical physics is hard for the dilettante to grasp. Secondly, the link between the literary references and the equations of postmodern science remains uncertain. The cynical reader may question whether the work is a triumph of style over substance.

However, the imagination and knowledge of the author is sufficient to inspire awe. His taste in literature is exquisite, while his appreciation of physics is sincere. Indeed, he loves life itself. Ultimately, it is his enthusiasm which banishes critical thoughts from the brain.

This reader is composed of particles in a universe which defies description. As a blogger, I am ill-equipped to stand on the shoulders of giants. The mystery of life has brought this book to my attention.

Although I am wary of engaging in a detailed debate about theoretical physics, I appreciate several aspects of the fascinating discipline. Physics focuses on the abstract and the concrete. It is no wonder that there is an intersection between physics and philosophy. Philosophy might not unearth the rules that govern the universe, but physics cannot tell us how to live. There are non-capitalist reasons behind the division of labour. The division of labour is central to the postmodern economy, but specialists are needed in any economic system that is reliant on tech. However, generalists can appreciate expertise and Beautiful Invisible is the most interesting example of proficiency I have witnessed for a long time.

Philosophy attracts vandals!

There are few authentic Marxists in contemporary Britain, but debate about the legacy of Marx did not end with the cessation of the Cold War. The recent vandalism of the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery was described as “mindless” but it is evidence that the philosopher and economist can still provoke strong emotions in the UK. Marxist can be used as a term of abuse by journalists and mainstream politicians, many of whom fail to understand which aspects of Marxist thought remain relevant.

Orthodox Marxism may be wrong if it is viewed as a predictive social science. It can also be misleading if it is seen through the prism of dogma. Nonetheless, it flags up the confrontation between capital and labour. Its usefulness can be seen when we look at the gig economy. Workers for Deliveroo can be perceived as proletarian, while postmodern sociology may struggle to convince people that the precariat is an actual social category. Guy Standing may prescribe a Universal Basic Income, but real proletarians may want to be political actors in their own right. They could aspire to form their political and economic demands themselves.

Orthodox Marxism is not going to describe every aspect of complex societies. The point is that it is a starting point for understanding the world around us. There are other entry points. But it must be conceded that Marx asked some of the right questions. It was his ruthless social criticism that led to movements that wanted to change the world. The reasons behind their complex failure are many.

Capitalism inevitably produces some hostility to the rule of the market. This opposition is often treated with harshness. It is best to understand where anti-capitalists are coming from. In this way, reforms can be introduced. This listening approach is better than hammering on a gravestone.

Viscount Lever: a study in narcissism?

Postmodern individuals are often contemptuous of selfie culture. They assert that people have fallen in love with their images. It is commonplace to bemoan the fact that the middle classes photograph their food prior to tucking in. Politicians even argue that the social media is having a direct impact on the mental health of young people. They sometimes appear oblivious to the negative influence of traditional newspapers and magazines.

This hysterical trend is profoundly conservative. Postmodern commentators are often taken aback by the shock of the new. The truth is that concern with the presentation of the self has a long history. Paranoia among the powerful has been prevalent throughout the ages.

William Hesketh Lever may have been a grocer’s son prior to becoming a Viscount. But he seems to have had a Napoleonic complex. As a result, he accumulated a huge amount of wealth and objects. Nevertheless, neither money nor culture could protect him from being alarmed by a portrait that was not to his liking.

Augustus John, a fine artist, painted the Viscount. However, the entrepreneurial capitalist resented the picture to an extraordinary degree. Resorting to violence, he cut out the image which he deemed to be offensive. The unflattering depiction was concealed in his safe. The artist was then the recipient of the remainder of his work.

While nobody should be sanguine about unhealthy aspects of the postmodern era, we should recall that history tells us grim narratives of its own. This means that we can develop a positive perspective in challenging times.

Can economics soften Brexit?

Economic uncertainty is high as the UK approaches the ostensible date for Brexit. The High Street is suffering, the manufacturing sector is struggling, and consumers are apprehensive. It is common knowledge that any type of Brexit is likely to be inflationary. The fluctuations of the pound have caused consternation already. But Brexit is all about priorities. In the first instance, Brexit is about garnering support for the flagging Conservative Party. However, it is also about resolving the relationship between the UK and the EU. The ‘dismal science’ of economics does not really get a look in.

Reversing things is always really difficult. It is impossible to recreate the British economy that existed before the country signed up to the European project. Leaving a gym is different from joining one. Lamenting Brexit is understandable, but blocking it is awkward for political reasons.

Many people know that Leave voters were misled. However, Leave voters feel frustrated. They do not accept that they were manipulated in the first place. Largely, Remainers have failed to empathise with the victors of the second referendum on Europe. Tribalism set in early, and the patronising tone adopted by many Remainers has been alienating.

Identity was at the heart of the Brexit vote. A coalition of the too-wealthy-to-care and the too-disenfranchised-to-know was formed. Despite some concerns about a lack of competence, the Conservative Party has kept this alliance together. Information about inflation is not changing the minds of the people.

There is also the issue of the sluggish economic performance of the European Union. Countries like Italy are struggling, while discontent in France is simmering. These inconvenient truths are weakening the argument of Remainers.

Nor has the chaos in Venezuela helped the European cause. Calls for regime change have not been confined to the United States. Regardless of the complexity of the social catastrophe in Venezuela, it is a really bad look for European bureaucrats to weigh into a situation that can only be resolved via dialogue.

Economics is a discipline that is better at informing the elite than the public. Ordinary people are prone to view a national economy as being similar to that of a household. This ignorance means that individuals can be tempted to support parties which will not deliver a reasonable living standard to them in the long-term.

Brexit is developing a faith-based narrative. Instead of focusing on pounds and pence, Leavers are attacking political correctness and defeatist thinking. This sort of discourse relates to American politics, in as much as it points towards a culture war.

Although a plethora of economists want to intervene in Brexit, a lot of the population has switched off. There is a pervasive desire to get on with it. People do not think about what the agenda is based on. This is because we live in a society where politics is discussed in a superficial way. For example, the BBC has demonstrated that many Cornish voters are not conscious of the hit that their region could well receive. The European settlement included supporting lagging areas, but the revenue did not secure loyalty.