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Gravity and Grace (Routledge Classics)
Gravity and Grace (Routledge Classics)
by Simone Weil
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3.0 out of 5 stars The good is scattered among the nonsense, 13 April 2016
Simone Weil is a writer whose name I have heard a few times, but never really knew anything about her. Part-way between a philosopher and a mystic, she is an intriguing prospect. Jewish by birth, but choosing to be a christian, with activism amongst some on the radical left, this melting pot of cultures and thought seemed almost bound to result in fresh expressions of thought, of belief and highlighting aspects of life in ways alien to many, offputting to some and captivating to others.

It needs to be noted, as is made clear in the extensive introduction by her friend and confidante, Gustave Thibon, that this is not a book she set out to write. Rather, it was put together by Thibon from notes that she left him before she died. This is then the collection of those notes, ordered by approximate them.

The introduction gives an insightful background into Weil’s personality and her politics. It is very valuable, though does drag on a bit. He states that Weil wasn’t a catholic, though when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this work, my friend was adamant that she was; just one who refused to take the sacraments. In a few references, her take is rather ambiguous and I would conclude that she certainly wasn’t catholic but neither did she fit into any recognisable stream of christianity. If anything, she might be regarded as a supreme non-conformist!

The idea behind the title begins with gravity. What Weil does is to adopt a well-known concept from physics (natural philosophy) and turn into a metaphysical analogy, even if it is more akin to entropy what she describes. The idea is that “nature” tends to descend, to fall to a lowest state. This is what she calls gravity. In this sense, low is regarded as being degenerate. My thought was that she was driving at the state of sin, though I don’t think this was mentioned quite so explicitly. The opposite of this is grace, which is something that defies this descent into entropy, a kind of anti-gravity.

The aphoristic nature of the book does make it somewhat to review, as there is no central idea being put forward and one paragraph may be nearly wholly unrelated to the one that either precedes or follows it. Some of the aphorisms are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial; others are verging on the incomprehensible. Unfortunately, this latter tendency increased as the book went on and I found it harder to take her seriously. At times, it was like looking down a bad Twitter feed where someone, puffed up with self-confidence, is pumping out material they think it deep, but which is just nonsense.

It made me think of a term used by the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: deepity. There are some incredibly mundane and nonsensical things said here, but which have a thin veneer of thought on them. If one wants to believe that Weil says something profound, then you can fool yourself into thinking that she does, when in fact there are times when there is simply no substance to her writing. In contradistinction to Dennett, however, I would be willing to give Weil the benefit of some doubt and say that she was merely a poor communicator. But then, as this is a book review, it means I can’t recommend the book. There are good things said here, but they are too few and far between.

It’s not a book that will linger long with me and I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
by Rebecca Solnit
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars A book to be savoured, 8 April 2016
I love walking, but I've never read an awful lot about it. I just do it. I've seen Solnit's name come up quite a lot in the small amount of walking literature I have read and so decided to read her work, which I understood to be a collection of essays on the subject of walking.

I must note that the editors put in a lovely touch. The book is printed in fairly small print, so the reader is forced to take their time, almost squinting at the page, in order to read. This slows the reader and evokes the slowing to a walking pace from the rush of everyday life. At the bottom of every page there is a quote in some way related to walking. But they are not restricted to a single page, some run over for a few pages, as they only include one per page, in what looks like an old fashioned share price ticker. So as you read the text, underneath it is a steady stream of words of beauty that evoke the feeling of walking by a river, with the words flowing like the water.

What of the content of the book?

Solnit’s work covers a huge range of subjects, which one might not expect for a book about walking, but it is a fascinating and enlightening work, written with prose of the highest calibre. She covers the romantic poets (in particular Wordsworth), the peripatetic philosophers, urbanisation, the flaneurs of Paris, walking as a leisure activity, as an act of protest (e.g. through Reclaim The Streets), an act of pilgrimage, as art and a whole host of other things. It is so wide-ranging, it’s quite staggering that one person could so confidently and adroitly write with such wit and grace on these, intertwined with her own reflections on some personal encounters while walking in the western United States.

This may all sound rather gushing, as though I had lost all my critical senses, but let me assure you that such high praise is well deserved. From page to page, one has (in the proper sense of the word) an apocalypse, an unveiling of a world we may have been faintly aware was there, but which is revealed to us now in splendid glory. I thought I liked walking and am generally regarded as “a walker” but I can see that I have had such a narrow definition that it seems hardly anyone can be. My walking is restricted to a little urban travel when I have the time, some long distance paths in sunny weather and the occasional protest.

In reading through the book, there are some paths we wander down several times. The one most frequently trod is the one marked ‘social history’, but there are other than are near parallel such as ‘politics’ and ‘culture’, while at times we may go off in other directions entirely. Yet with this range of topics, there is a risk that the book could lack cohesion, but it doesn’t. It all hangs together as one. Given the small print, and the fact that it runs for some 300 pages, it’s not a thin book to read over the course of a weekend. It is a book to be savoured.

Neither Here Nor There
Neither Here Nor There
by Miriam Drori
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Debut novel falls a bit flat, 7 April 2016
This review is from: Neither Here Nor There (Paperback)
Neither Here Nor There is a debut novel from Miriam Drori.

The story centres on Esty. We meet her shortly after she has made a major life decision; she has left a community of ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, known as the Haredi. Her dream is to “become secular”. The book’s title can then be understood as saying that Esty has left one life, but has not yet integrated into a new one. She is an in between space, neither here nor there.

The impetus for the plot is provided by Mark, who is the first person she happens to meet. What evolves is the love story between them, though it did come across as a bit rushed and contrived. There was no reason given for their attraction; it was little more than “love at first sight”.

One of the things I couldn’t get past as I read was that Drori was very keen on getting the reader to understand the emotional side of the characters. Quite often, though, this was told to us in a quite forthright manner, rather than being shown to us. So the characterisation ends up a little flat, with no mystery at all. The whole person is laid out on the page for the reader to see. But this happens for both Esty and Mark. So while we might used to be reading a book from one character’s perspective, what Drori does is try to show us both main characters at the same time.

The other problem I had with the book was the lack of a sense of place. So much has been invested in the emotional feel of the book, that Jerusalem fades into the background. With a few exceptions, the story could take place almost anywhere. I wanted to be able to get a sense of the ground underneath my feet, the heat of the atmosphere, the smells of the city, but it was all just a bit thin. It was almost as though the intention had been to write a play rather than a novel, given how dialogue-driven the whole book was.

The progression of the plot has a very familiar feel to it. Anyone who has encountered Romeo and Juliet knows the idea of the love between two people from different, but intersecting worlds. What we get here then is the walking down of a well-trodden path, almost to the point of cliché. It’s not a bad book, especially considering it is a first novel, but it’s not one that I feel rushed to recommend to people as (to compare to another debut novel) I did with The Night Circus. If Drori writes a second novel, I wouldn’t be disinclined to read it, but I would be hoping for something with a little more substance to it, where the reader gets to smell the atmosphere and has to work a little to get to know the characters and their motivations.

Thank You, Jeeves (Everyman's Library P G WODEHOUSE)
Thank You, Jeeves (Everyman's Library P G WODEHOUSE)
by P.G. Wodehouse
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.55

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable farce, 6 April 2016
Wodehouse is one of those writers that almost everyone has heard of, quite a few have read and who garners a loyal following. Yet I have never, until now, read any of his works. It seemed only right to start at the beginning, only there is some ambiguity over precisely where to start, for the characters of Jeeves & Wooster made some early appearances in Wodehouse’s short stories, but I was hoping to read a novel. So it seemed that Thank You, Jeeves was the appropriate place to start.

One of the odd things about Wodehouse is that even if you haven’t read him, you are likely to have heard of Jeeves & Wooster or even seen a few episodes of the television programme that was made starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in the title roles. So I certainly came to the book with those two forming my mental image, as the book opens with a duologue between the two.

That particular opening sees Jeeves hand in his notice (that’s hardly a spoiler, it’s the first chapter) over the matter of Wooster playing a banjolele very badly. This has also prompted a number of complaints from Wooster’s neighbours, but being a stubborn old so-and-so, he decides not to abandon the instrument, but instead to abandon his home. The story then transfers to a coastal area, where Jeeves decides to rent a house and obtain the services of a new valet.

From here on, there are a series of farcical episodes that befall Bertie and thwart his every plan. Old friends and old loves bounce around his world (or rather, he bounces around theirs) in a delightfully comic fashion.

A reasonable review cannot pass over one very uncomfortable fact about the book. Written in the 1930s, there are racial epithets used here that were taken as norm, which I am loathed to put into writing myself and, if I were to use them in the workplace, I might well find myself unemployed. But it doesn’t end there. Much of the 2nd half of the book revolves around a running joke of one of the characters “blacking up” and getting into all sorts of scrapes. I strongly doubt that this particular book would get made into a tv programme or film because of this (though I later found out that this episode was adapted for tv as recently as 1991). So if you are thinking of reading it, consider this a due warning, in case you are sensitive to racism.

With that warning aside, one is left trying to read through the book and see what was intended. While it firmly falls into the category of comedy, there is an element here of the Victorian sensation novel. The speed with which events happen, along with the sudden plot turns ensue, result in a story that is really rather fast-paced. The entire action takes place over just a couple of days. It provided me with the light relief I was after and was, all in all, a rather jolly tale.

If the world’s getting you down and you need a bit of gentle escapism, then this wouldn’t be a bad book to go for. Though very different in genre, it sort of reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I definitely intend to return to Wodehouse later and read some more of his works.

Hebrews for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone)
Hebrews for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone)
by Tom Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Small critiques of an otherwise very good work, 5 April 2016
Of all the ‘For Everyone’ series of books, this one naturally provokes the most jokes, typically involving cups of tea. However, such frivolity is not the subject this book.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the ‘For Everyone’ series, they are commentaries on the bible. Tom Wright has written all of the New Testament commentaries whilst John Goldingay is making good progress with the Old Testament. In addition to providing commentary, Wright also gives his own translation of the book of Hebrews. The intention is to make it as accessible as possible. So while he discusses issues of great depth, he doesn’t go into all the depth that he could.

The format is such that you get a section of the text (say, 6-15 verses) followed by Wright’s take on it. Sometimes that interpretation begins with a radically left turn. We get little windows into Wright’s world, whether it be his family or professional life. But these are the mark of a preacher who wishes to relate to his audience an exposition of scripture that is firmly rooted in the life and world that people can relate to. Of course, this may be limited to 21st century British christians, but that happens to be a demographic into which I fit.

The overarching theme that Wright brings forth throughout the book is the idea of “better”. This is something that is prevalent throughout the book, and is by no means a unique insight that Wright brings. What he does bring is a gentle insight into the Jewish background against which Hebrews was written. For it was to a primarily Jewish-Christian audience. This was a somewhat more thorough approach than that adopted by my church, which began a series on Hebrews shortly after I finished this book. Their approach was to find 4 or 5 words scattered throughout the book that, in English, began with the same letter, and claim that these words form the key themes of Hebrews.

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright clarifies his particular nuances in relation to supersessionism, though here he doesn’t have the space to go into these, which may lead some to raise a quizzical eyebrow at his interpretation.

Another criticism I’d have is that there are times Wright goes off on a bit of a tangent, importing commentary that really belongs in other books, rather than concentrating on Hebrews. In other words, he incorporates some Lukan narrative as well as Pauline theology into his commentary, when he hasn’t established that either the Lukan or Pauline corpus was either available or known to the audience of the book of Hebrews. So while it may mesh with his other ‘For Everyone’ commentaries, it doesn’t always seem to stand up on its own.

My final critique is about the theme of priesthood. I’m not convinced Wright brings out the meaning of the text, and somewhat sidesteps the fact that Hebrews is not advocating an institution of a christian priesthood. I might suspect this is due to Wright’s own Anglicanism, which rather dilutes the radical nature of the text.

That said, it’s still a very worthwhile work and serves as a useful introduction to the book of Hebrews. That’s what it sets out to be, so it fulfills the brief.

Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Peter Singer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful for this non-expert, 6 Dec. 2015
In a few of the books I’ve read recently the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet almost any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read *about* him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Singer wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where one cannot but think of Karl Marx, whose own thought was heavily influenced by Hegel.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.

Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great, if unsettling book. Watch out for missing paragraphs., 23 Oct. 2015
This review is from: Go Set a Watchman (Hardcover)
Set some 20 years after Mockingbird, we get a reintroduction to some of the characters. The book’s focus is on Jean Louise, who most readers will remember went by her nickname, Scout. But here, she’s a grown woman, so references to Scout are few and far between. There are some flashbacks to her childhood with her brother Jem, but very few of these link directly to the summer of Tom Robinson. The case is referred to, though not by name.

The first 100 pages or so are setting us up, introducing the characters, but very little else. That might be a bit unfair, because Lee is good at making her characters have independent voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue form, and there are times when Lee drops the narrative aid of “said Jean Louise” or “said Atticus” for some time. If this were a lesser writer, sometimes you have to turn back a page or two to work out who is speaking. Not so in this case. The voices are so distinctive that with just a sentence or two, you know whose voice is speaking. And even as I read in my head, without overdoing the phonetic spellings, I still ended up with an array of American accents in my inner monologue.

Then comes the sucker punch. Jean discovers some literature in Atticus’ possession which are of a decidedly racist nature. Jean Louise is then torn. To her, Atticus had been the model of all that was virtuous and just. Yet here, and in a public meeting he was spotted at, he was seen sharing a platform with those who viewed one race as superior to another. To whom can Jean Louise turn?

Towards the end of the book, there is a practical issue that has caused some problems. That is, on the books with the orange covers, the bottom of some of the pages haven’t printed properly. There are several paragraphs missing. So I still cannot tell you for sure how the book ends. I have a very good idea, but some of the details are missing.

What I can tell you is that it has really pissed some people off. While Mockingbird was seen as a triumph of liberal social attitudes over racism, there is more of a compromise here. If you can’t beat them, learn to live with them. In some ways this is even more liberal, as Atticus refuses to make an enemy out of racists. Instead, he is adamant that they must be given a platform and not have their views censored simply because some might disagree with them.

Some reviewers have chosen to see this is as Atticus becoming a racist. It’s not quite that simple.

What the book shares with Mockingbird is that it is a book about growing up. Only now this is something more of a grown-up kind of ‘growing up’. The thing is, Jean Louise idolised Atticus somewhat (as have many readers – or viewers of the film of Mockingbird) and at some point we must learn that our idols will let us down. Atticus knew it was coming, as did others, but Jean Louise didn’t. He was her rock, her point of steadfast faithfulness and upright morality whom she could lean on. Now that source of stability was rocking and she suffers a crisis of identity.

Just as To Kill A Mockingbird stayed with people for a long time, so will Go Set A Watchman, but for very different reasons.

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Cynthia Freeland
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Very helpful for a novice like me, 22 Oct. 2015
It’s sometimes good to pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about, just to try to get an early handle on it and immerse yourself in its world. This was my thinking when I started this Very Short Introduction (VSI). My only prior exposure to art theory was during a conversation with an art student when we were both at sixth form college. Here, she claimed that art was whatever an artist said was art. She followed up by saying that an artist was anyone who considered themselves to be one. Being keen on logic and wanting to bust her bubble via a reductio ad absurdum, I stated that I was an artist and that my poking her in the shoulder was a piece of art. It was done in jest, but for me it was a perfectly justified reaction against art theory as she portrayed it to me.

Onto the book. Freeland chooses, as seems fitting, to illustrate her work through example. Now the body of art in the world is far too great for any single work to do justice to, so Freeland is forced to limit her choice to just a few works. One of these in particular is given prominence as the lens through which she views the subject: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. It is through this, and other works like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in formaldehyde) that Freeland explores the question of aesthetics. Are these things beautiful? Freeland gives a brief survey of the philosophy of aesthetics, with a particular emphasis on the ideas of Kant. Her conclusion is that “Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.”

From here, we get a whistle-stop tour of various different kinds of art, all the way along questioning what it is that makes it art. What are the common themes and what are the differences. In particular, the idea of intent seems to be paramount. This is illustrated through looking at some of the pop art works of Andy Warhol. What made his version Brillo Boxes art while the commercially available equivalent isn’t?

When it comes to looking at a variety of cultures, Freeland asks the reader to face some uncomfortable questions. What for one culture is an expression of their identity may be taken as a quaint form of “tribal art” for another culture. This has given rise to an industry of such art that may have originated in particular cultural or religious expression, but later has become little more than a commercialised fulfilment of an imperialist fetish.

This naturally leads on to issues of money and how capitalism corrupts the art world. Fighting against this is the idea of public art; that which should be available for all the public to experience in whatever form the art takes, typically visual. There’s a brief history of the changing natures of museums here which was cut short for it to fit into this volume, but could easily have been expanded into a much larger chapter, as the treatment is all too brief.

One of the themes that has long permeated art, but which is particularly highlighted in modern art is the act of subversion and how art becomes a tool of that subversion. This is a subject Freeland examines through a few lenses, but in particular that of feminism. There are other lenses that have could have been used more extensively, but I think that in using the feminist angle, she was angling for an approach that would appeal to as wide a liberal audience (for that is who she seems to be writing for) as she could hope for. So it was a little ironic that in what should have been the most controversial chapter, she chose potentially the safest option.

So what does it all mean?

Here, we move to what I thought seemed to be the heart of the subject: how do we interpret art? It seems that any artist must have some idea of what it is that they want to convey and the viewer of the art is intended to receive a message. But unlike the written word, visual art (for in Freeland’s world, literature doesn’t really seem to count as art) can have “fuzzy edges”. What we then get is a rundown of various theories as to how the message is conveyed. If a viewer understands one thing, is it “right”? Is meaning generated in the mind of the viewer or can the artist turn around and tell them they’ve no right to interpret their art in that manner?

Towards the end of the book, we come right up to modernity, with an examination of the digital revolution and how art can be made available for all. It is worth questioning the future of the art galleries given that a click of a few buttons, we can see versions of the great works of visual art on our computer screens.

I’ve come away from the book with what feels like the beginnings of an education. I think that’s the best that one could reasonably hope for. The book could have been a lot different if different examples were cited, as the world is full of art of a wide variety. I’m not sure I’ll take up art more seriously in the near future, but if you’re vaguely interested then I would certainly recommend this work to you. As I’ve tried to hint at in this review, there are lots of questions, so it’s certainly a book to make you think; and that can hardly be a bad thing.

Penguin Great Ideas : The Social Contract
Penguin Great Ideas : The Social Contract
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £4.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Quite alien to 21st century Britain, 29 Sept. 2015
Rousseau’s work is maybe not one that the majority of people have heard of. Amongst those who have an interest in political philosophy, though, it is regarded as something of a classic work.

So what is this social contract? Well, let me attempt to sketch an answer by contradiction. I recall a conversation I had with a fundamentalist libertarian where they argued that they had no duty to pay tax because they had not entered into any contractual arrangement for goods or services with the government. Their argument was that they should only pay for the precise goods and services which they have requested and have agreed a price with the supplier. As this individual did not have a contract which they had signed, they argued that they should be exempted from any obligation to society, including the paying of taxes.

While this was a ludicrous argument, based on a narrow view of contract law, applying to arenas of life where it does belong, it is interesting to consider what the best route is to take in countering it. One such answer is the idea of the social contract. This isn’t a paper contract that one signs, but is a tacit agreement between two sets of people, which we might broadly call the government the people, on how best to run a country.

I say “broadly call” because Rousseau brings in his own definitions, which are quite alien to a 21st century Englishman. For example, I would regard the term “sovereign” to denote a single person, the head of state. In our monarchy, that is the queen. In a republic, it would be the president. Yet for Rousseau the sovereign might not be a single person. A magistrate is not a low-level person who presides over a civil court. A prince is not a male member of the royal family.

What this leaves us with is a work that is rooted in a very different politics from that which we find ourselves in. If you wish to guide someone from A to B, it can be a little perplexing for someone who is starting from C; even more so when both A and C use the same terms but mean different things by them.

The book gets bogged down in some of the detail at times, such as how to conduct elections and the nature of dictatorship. On the latter point, Rousseau derives much of his understanding from the Roman Republic, which I was fortunate to be (by no design or specific purpose) reading Livy’s Early History of Rome at the same time. So while the historian of political thought may find Rousseau useful in tracing how modern western democracies view the nature of the relationships between citizens and their government, I cannot say that it has an enduring value in terms of the specifics of what Rousseau proposes.

If there is to be any application, it is in America where government is split into two arbitrary sides, entitled legislature and executive. In the UK, there is no such clear division, there is one government. Yet Rousseau contradicts himself on this particular point, as he states early on that to artificially separate the two functions (which are poorly defined) is not recommended yet he goes on later to talk about them as though they are two separate arms of government, but again with insufficient detail as to how someone is meant to discern between them.

The one major point where I disagreed with Rousseau is on the matter of taxation. This is something Rousseau sees as a burden on the people, but I couldn’t help but question whether the taxes he was subject to were the same as we have today. If you go back as far as the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, then taxes were raised to keep the aristocracy in luxury and to fund wars. Indeed, our modern income tax began to take its current form as a way to finance the wars against France in the decades after Rousseau was writing. It seems he had little concept of the mechanics of a welfare state. While his opinion differed from mine, his view also wasn’t the same as my conversation partner alluded to above.

So what do I make of it? It’s a bit frustrating, as it’s dying for a re-write. If we clear up the muddled terminology then we could clarify the priorities of government, its democratic mandate and how it is funded. As it stands, it is a testament to the old adage that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Rousseau’s world seems quite alien to 21st century Britain.

Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-dance with Death
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A decent anti-war work with some odd bits thrown in, 24 Sept. 2015
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Billy Pilgrim is not your average character in a work of fiction.

This is one of those books that has eluded me for some time. Every time I’ve thought of getting round to reading it, something else has cropped up to take priority or I’ve developed a guilt complex over reading too many male authors. But this time, I was determined to get round to getting stuck into what is a relatively short work. If, like me, you like to know a tiny bit about a book before reading it, you will know that Slaughterhouse 5 is an anti-war book.

Upon reading the first chapter, I was rather wrong-footed. It is the first chapter and doesn’t come with a heading of ‘introduction’ or ‘foreword’ yet it is written wholly in the first person, who is evidently the author, talking about the book that is to follow. In it, he states that while the names have been changed, vignettes of the book remain true to his own experience. In particular focus is the fire bombing of Dresden during the Second World War. I had to wonder then if this really was a semi-biographical work or whether the introduction itself was a work of fiction, much like the introductions of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project.

Billy Pilgrim is our central character, around whom the entire narrative is devoted and around whom all the characters come and go like waves on a beach. He is what the author describes as being ‘dislocated in time’. He doesn’t have a vessel in which to travel back and forth, he just closes his eyes in one period and wakes up in another, entirely out of his control. It removes the sense of ‘now’ from the novel, as in all times he speaks in the present tense. At one time he is a soldier, a prisoner of war, a veteran and a man about to die. He is also a person who has been abducted by aliens (called Trafalmadorians) who sit outside of time.

The main thought that went through my head as I read was the similarity in style and aim to that of Catch 22; a book that I have long hated as it’s a fantastic idea but very poorly executed. Here, there isn’t anything quite as strong in the ideas department but while Heller is a decidedly mediocre writer with an over-inflated reputation, Konnegut is a much better writer.

The other thought was “where is Dresden?” Not in the geographical sense, but in the fact that the book only makes a few references to it and it is not until right at the end that Billy finds himself in that city during the firebombing, as a prisoner of war who survives, unlike the many thousands of civilians who were murdered in what was probably the worst war crime the United Kingdom ever committed, yet like later war crimes, such as the war against Iraq, the United Kingdom was never prosecuted.

The whole sideline of the aliens I found a little distracting. They were never properly fleshed out and just drifted in and out of the story, which would have progressed (if that is the right word for a book with a non-linear timeline) just fine without them. What we are left with is a book that seems to be intentionally fractured. There are moments of sharp cynicism interspersed with periods of mundaneness, but even these are interesting and well-written. Do I regret having put off reading it for so long? I can’t say it blew me away like Love In The Time Cholera did, but I’m certainly glad I did read it and would recommend it to you if you’ve not read it already.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention; the work ends with an onomatopoeic bird song: Poo-tee-weet.

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