Should we be dispassionate about writing – like Spock?

The other week I argued that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara was a poorly written Tolkien rip-off that put me off the rest of the novels. Responses fell into two camps – people who agreed and thought the whole Shannara series was dismal; and those who were offended.

Wright_Typewriter2Fair point. People don’t have to agree – indeed, differing opinions are great, because they push discussion. And maybe something nobody thought of will come out of it. That’s what counts. Good stuff.

But what intrigued me about the discussion was the level of emotion it provoked in one or two places. A couple of of the responses were – well, a bit personal. Surely it’s possible to chat about the abstract value or otherwise of books? And then I got thinking. In some ways it isn’t, because the purpose of both reading and writing is emotional.

Authors write because they get an emotional satisfaction from doing so. Readers read because of the emotional journey it produces. By describing the opinion I and apparently others have of Brooks, I’d affirmed one sort of opinion. But I’d also trodden on the toes of others, who got a positive charge from reading his material.

The question, then, is whether writers and readers should step back from the emotion? In some ways I don’t think it’s possible for reading, because the very purpose of reading is to have an emotional experience. People read to become entangled in the emotional journey – be it to learn something, to feel validated, to find place, or simply to be distracted. However, I think it’s essential for writers to step back.

Yes, authors write because they get their own emotional satisfaction from doing so – from producing material that meets a need of their own and which will take others on an emotional journey. But at the same time, the clarity of thought that this process requires demands abstraction. How often have you written something in the heat of a moment and then, later, read through it and realised it’s foolish?

Authors have to be able to not only include the intended emotion, but also to step back from their own entanglements from time to time – to look at what they are producing from a more abstract perspective. Only then can the content and intent become properly clear – and the emotional journey on which they are going to take the reader emerge in balance. Really, we all have to approach writing like Spock would.

Seething with emotion underneath – sure – but not letting that get in the way of careful thought and analysis. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Do societies re-package their narratives of recent events? And is that ‘history’?

The other day a reader commented on a post I’d written about 9/11 as history and pointed out, quite rightly, that it doesn’t take long for events to be ‘packaged’ in ways that stand against the more dispassionate requirement of historians to understand.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of ‘Shattered Glory’. Out of print (sigh…)

I agree. There’s no doubt in my mind that dramatic events affecting whole societies are swiftly re-invented by those who live through them. Not least because of emotional entanglement with what’s just happened. This is normal, historically. I traced just such a re-invention of New Zealand’s 1915 Gallipoli defeat in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010). By April 1916, just five months after the stalled campaign ended in an ignominious retreat, it had been re-cast as a glorious victory, because it was a sacrifice for Empire. This reflected prevailing pop-sentiment of the day towards our place in a wider British Empire and helped address grief at the death toll, which was colossal for a country of just under 1 million souls. But the conception of Gallipoli as triumph was the exact opposite of the military defeat and human truth; a demonstration of the way societies, en masse, rationalise events to suit immediate emotional needs. And it had an impact on our view of history because, in a demonstration of the stickiness of re-invention, that view is largely what guides the popular conception of New Zealand’s Gallipoli experience today, nearly a century on.

So can we analyse recent events ‘historically’, in the same sense that we can analyse something that happened a century or two ago? History-as-discipline is one of the intellectual pursuits that self-examines its analytical philosophy. Hobsbawm, for instance, didn’t divide history via round-number centuries but by events, typically, political and social (‘social’, inevitably, encompasses ‘economic’, which despite the ‘hardening’ of economics with a mathematical over-gloss since the late 1940s, is at heart about society).

To Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century was ‘long’, book-ended by the French revolution of 1789 and the First World War of 1914. Whereas the twentieth century was ‘short’, framed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1992.

Those arguments were possible because Hobsbawm stood at the end of the cycles; they were evident to him and he had a distance to perceive what had happened in fully historical terms, certainly as far as the ‘long’ nineteenth century was concerned. But what about things that have just happened? Things we popularly call ‘historic’ but which still burn fresh in memory and haven’t achieved the more sonorous quiet of a deeper past?

To me there are several issues. The first is the problem of context. Sometimes, the deeper over-arching forces that drive the widest patterns of history – combinations of long-standing technological, social, political, ideological and, it seems, environmental factors – aren’t obvious for decades afterwards. We can’t tell precisely what a particular development may mean until it’s put into place not only of what went before, but also of what went after – and, usually, some time after. Last week’s, last year’s or even last decade’s news won’t cut it in these terms.

The second issue is the related one of emotional perspective. It takes about 25-30 years, or more, for one generation’s problem to be resolved and replaced by another; and also for the people primarily involved in it to be far enough back to be treated with the (ideally) abstract dispassion of history.  It is only now, for instance, that we are seeing treatment of Winston Churchill that moves beyond the pro- and anti- partisanship of his life and immediate decades after his death.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai, a place that brings the human condition into sharp relief. Something happened to me five minutes after this photo was taken that gives the lie to notions of ‘rational egoism’. Ask me in the comments.

Thirdly there’s the ‘recency’ phenomenon, in which we tend to view events just gone as larger than those further back, to the cost of proportion. This also fuels a tendency to view whatever just happened as the arbiter of the future. Take the Cold War, which – via Hobsbawm’s thesis – was a temporary product of the way the old world collapsed in 1914-19. But you wouldn’t have known that living in the middle of it. And when it did finish with the predictable collapse of the Communist economy, Francis Fukuyama insisted that history had ended – that Western capitalist ideology, as he defined it, had won, and there would be no further change. Ouch. This was ‘recency’ in full display.

The reality of abstract historical analysis, of course, is that it has nothing to do with ‘direction’ or ‘progress’ towards an inevitable or ideal one-dimensional ‘end’ such as I believe was implied by Fukuyama. Indeed, by definition, history cannot end. It’s a product of human change through time; and the onus is on historians to understand that deeper human condition, the ‘unity in diversity’ beloved of social anthropology, as a pre-requisite to being able to understand how that then expresses itself in ever-smaller scales of detail when framed by a specific society.

I’ve found through my own work in the field that practical detail changes affecting a specific society usually happen generationally – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with sharper impact as happened in the 1960s when the generation brought up in wake of the Second World War objected to the philosophy of their parents.

And so we have the tools with which to approach the issue of ‘recent’ history. The pitfalls of those tools may not be fully overcome – indeed, logically, they cannot be; but to know they are there and to understand how these limitations work is, I think, a very great step towards being able to couch recent events in more dispassionate light.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Of moral compass and our human duty of care

Even after nearly twenty years, I have not quite forgiven the producers of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, for a sequence filmed in the Savage Memorial above Auckland harbour: ‘The Wedding of Alcemene’, involving a cheesy 1990s-era CGI monster named Perfidia.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage was arguably New Zealand’s greatest Prime Minister. His government came to power in November 1935, when New Zealand morale stood at its nadir in wake of the Great Depression. New Zealand had already recovered from the direct effects of the downturn. The coalition finance minister of 1933-35, Gordon Coates had engineered it.

But Savage offered something Coates did not – underscored by the first gesture of Savage’s administration. There was a little money left in the government account. Savage and his cabinet promptly distributed the lot to the needy.

That small gesture – bringing Christmas cheer to New Zealand households for the first time in years – was never forgotten by people still demoralised, hungry and desperate. Savage followed it with other initiatives to make sure everyday New Zealanders were fed, clothed and housed – that they did not suffer when beset with misfortune not of their own making.

When challenged over his policies in Parliament – told they were ‘applied madness’ – Savage retorted at once. They were ‘applied Christianity’. And that was how they were received. There were reasons why his picture hung in many households during the late 1930s, alongside that of Christ.

When Savage died in early 1940, the outpouring of national grief was unparallelled.

In the political context his approach was associated with the left; it stood against much of the thinking of the day.

But if we separate Savage’s sentiment from way it was framed politically, we find humanity behind his approach, which stood apart from political considerations. At this level, Savage – and others in his cabinet – were genuinely concerned for the welfare of others.

As a species, we have an unerring ability to intellectualise ourselves into loss of moral compass. History is riddled with it. I see it in universities where – on my experience – bullying has been intellectualised and acculturated to the point where it is integral to academic life, certainly in New Zealand. I see it in attitudes people take to others on the street. I see it in attitudes by commentators. I see it, subtly and insidiously, in TV shows.

We live in the age of the ‘me’ generation, and it seems that all too often our moral compass is led astray by selfishness, unthinking conviction, demanded behaviours, worries over status, ambitions, and by ‘us and them’ thinking in all its forms. Our needs and wants, our insecurities, our greed, our western cult, since the 1980s particularly, of self-centredness.

All these things, and more, blind us to the basic human values of care and kindness. Values that Savage brought to the people of New Zealand when they most needed them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014