Archive for the ‘Short Essays’ Category

Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

Terry Pratchett raises eloquent questions about our world through his books of the Discworld. I am a recent convert to his style of writing, this being only the second of his books that I have read, and without even trying I find monumental statements from which a million ideas and arguments spring.

In Hogfather the residual commentary on human nature seemed less translucent. In dealing with childish (or children’s) beliefs immediately the adult reader feels removed from Pratchett’s focus. It is only towards the end of the novel when Death begins to reveals his concerns about why belief in the Hogfather is so important that the message of the story becomes clear. Death claims “You have to start out learning to believe the little lies” in order to ‘believe’ in more complex ideals such as “justice”, “mercy”, and “duty”.

Pratchett suggests that human society is based on a set of untruths (in as much as they are not tangible enough to scientifically prove) and we are taught to take such ideas on faith as children are taught to believe in magic and various folkloric creatures.

Could we, as sentient beings, live in full knowledge that the world we have created for ourselves is false: altruism, love, loyalty – none of these things actually exist except inside our own heads where we perceive the world. Or would we descend into absolute chaos? Would we return these ideals knowing that it does not exist inside of anybody else? It is an interesting, if pessimistic, view to take on the world.

The quote I have taken from Hogfather above encapsulates this argument in a single sentence. The “falling angel” being the ideal perception of what it is to be human and the “rising ape” being the reality of what it is anthropologically to be human. Can our inherent genes be tamed by our created minds?

(Reading Challenge: Book 9 of 20)

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Between jetting off to Corfu last month and losing my head in the latest Rockstar video game L A Noire I haven’t dedicated much time to reading.

I only managed to read one book, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods which was very entertaining. I’ve tried various of his books in the past and always found his style difficult to grip. I find once the book is put down I do not feel compelled to pick it up again. However, whether it was because I was too hot to contemplate starting something else or whether it was the book itself came so highly recommended from my boyfriend I forced myself to keep picking up the book and eventually became engrossed in the story and characters.

At the time my boyfriend was upstaging me with his copy of Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show On Earth and on a fundamental level there were similarities in the arguments behind the text. This led to many a drunken debate over the importance of evidence over belief.

The philosopher Didactylos in Small Gods, a play on the word didactic, argues with his followers that the movement of the Discworld does not need to be believed in as it just is. The gods however need belief as their strength comes from this very act. This, I think, provides a very provocative basis for debate.

Religion vs. Science (or creationism vs. evolution) is a very heated debate at the best of times. Dawkins has published several books proving, educating and defending evolution against religious arguments. You need only read the preface to The God Delusion to comprehend his passion for the subject. Pratchett’s contribution to this debate in the words of Didactylos seems to diminish the importance of defending the theory of evolution itself. (The word theory being used in the scientific sense.)

Whether we believe it or not, evolution will still exist. Religion, on the other hand, feeds directly from the minds of its followers. The fewer the followers the weaker the religion is in the wider world.

But should I champion my viewpoint in the hopes of persuading other people away from their religion? After all they have no qualms about banging on my door and reading scriptures from their pamphlets trying to persuade me towards their beliefs.

(Reading Challenge: Book 8 of 20)

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Please be aware this article will give away some of the plotline of Ender’s Game.

Card depicts the character of Ender as a victim. He is bullied at school, at home and in Battle School. Though he is small in stature and resented for his powers of intellect, Ender is by no means a pushover. Though he is represented as weak and compassionate, when backed into a corner he viciously defends himself to the end. It is this quality that gains him the admiration of the adults and the respect of his peers.

Ender demonstrates his will to survive in the non-dangerous environment of the games in the Battle School. However outside of the games when the pain is very much real, Ender’s will to survive develops into a monstrous streak, belying his hitherto placid nature.

Within the first few scenes Ender has already taken down his school bully and asserted himself in the shuttle by breaking Bernard’s arm. Both acts seem outside of Ender’s nature and can be attributed to the change of situation he is suffering. Graff encourages the other boys to pick on Ender in the shuttle and so his reaction can be empathised with. The difference in gravity accounting for the unforeseen strength of his action.

The scene with Bonzo is a key scene. Ender is a few years older and is more or less settled at Battle School. The teachers continue to make his life difficult and his constant success has earned the jealous hatred of some of the other students. Ender’s violence in this scene depicts how far he will go to ensure his own survival despite the odds. He is dragged away by another student and sobs that he did not want to fight. Ender’s repentance demonstrates the compassion he still houses in his soul but the monstrosity within him is just as clear.

Ender often repeats his fear that he is more like Peter than Valentine. At first he is adamant that he will never become like his brother, however by the age of twelve he has already committed two murders, two more than his brother has. Squirrelcide not included. Ender is also preparing for Genocide, he is being trained to kill an entire species in order to preserve his own race. The fact that the Buggers are not attacking seems irrelevant.

Peter and Valentina represent the two extremes of Ender’s personality. Whilst Peter is strong he is also malicious, Valentina on the other hand is extremely intelligent but too placid. We are led at first to believe that Ender’s temperament is closer to that of Valentina’s, he himself certainly thinks that is the case. However, backed into a corner Ender is vicious with only survival on his mind. At these points his temperament swings to the complete opposite and he aligns himself closer to Peter.

Aside from his personal conflicts, Ender moves to completely and utterly destroy the buggers in a manner he knows is immoral. That he is tricked into believing it is a simulation is beside the point. He was willing to cast off what he knew to be unfair about conflict in order to succeed in his “examination”. Ender’s level of intelligence also raises the question: did he honestly not know he was being set up?

The fact that Ender is a child is his final advocation. Childish innocence and naivety explain away the monstrous side of his nature. When he is allowed to grow up, free of Battle School he chooses to educate the humans about their late enemy, the buggers. He feels repentence for his military actions.

Can repentence truly undo all of the monstrosity in his nature? And is it genetic or has it been manifested through the manipulation of the teachers?

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In George Orwell’s, 1984, everything has the sense of being created for a specific purpose. Nothing is wasted. Everything is a ruse by the Party to invoke a very deliberate response to their world.

Winston moves through the created world, editing and deleting past documents in order to preserve the infallible presense. Though he himself rejects the new world, believing the past to be the Utopia the Party is striving for, he has a large helping hand in keeping the masses ignorant of the truth.

The devices which the Party uses to keep the masses in submission are interesting, particularly that of language. The Party develops its own language for its members to speak in, referred to as ‘Newspeak’. It reminded me of ‘textspeak’ a term more popular a few years ago to describe the unusual way in which students were writing in class. It transpired from before affordable contracts and each 120 character sms had to be refined and shortened to make that 10p message worthwhile sending.

‘Newspeak’ was not the unconscious collaboration of innocent minds but instead a very deliberate move to eradicate meaning from language. Orwell goes into more depth of ‘Newspeak’ in the Appendices to 1984 which goes further to explain the construction of the unusual words and reveals more about the motivation behind them. By stripping meaning from words the Party intended to control what people thought by not giving them the words that would allow their minds to explore the possibility that there is a brighter, alternative possibility.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quote: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” encompasses the idea elloquently that without the words to formulate the idea, the idea can never emerge. We think in words, at least I do. As I’m thinking of this article I hear the words in my head before I write them down. If I did not have the words would those ideas still reside in my head in the form that they do? Philosophers may argue that the ideas would still exist.

However I am seduced by Orwell’s inclination that control of language gives an unprecedented control over the minds of the speakers. Don’t want to argue about the state of the economy? Then remove recession from my vocabulary and I can say no more about it.

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Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the other actors you watch on your videos. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.

The Hailsham students are special in that they are clones that have been modelled on real people. They are “reared” until they are ready to begin their training to become a carer. After a varying length of time they will then begin their donations. The ‘donors’ are not aware of where their organs are being shipped off to, generally they take little interest in the process as a whole, it is just the penultimate part of life, preceeding only death or ‘completion’.

Having an almost non-future is difficult to comprehend. There is no incentive for them to educate themselves as they are unable to have a conventional career, education is more a distraction to fill in the gap between ‘creation’ and ‘completion’. They often have fantasies about what could be in their future but they are all too aware that none of it is possible, being a ‘donor’ is their only future.

This situation of being created for a specific purpose raises questions about morality. Humans here are being contained and dissected purely for the benefit of other humans in order to combat diseases such as cancer, motor neurone disease and heart failure. Miss Emily and Madame campaigned to ‘rear’ the students in more humane conditions, educate them and treat them as near-normal students. Even so they still possess a clear perception that the students are different:

Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders.

Miss Emily, a guardian from Hailsham herself even admits:

We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion.

The revulsion that both Miss Emily and Madame is never fully explained. Though people do not like to believe that their organs come from fully human-like ‘clones’ and guilt is logical, that they should feel a ‘spider-like’ fear towards the students is never explored. Here the first-person narrative limits the readers understanding of the situation. As Kathy is a student the information is held back from her. Though Miss Emily admits she dreaded the students, she does not explain why. What was so disgusting about the students? By leaving this open-ended Ishiguro keeps the narrative focused on the story rather than the moral implications or debates that it could spark.

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What is truth? – Pontius Pilate’s question.

And how mysteriously Jesus answered him – Every one that is of truth heareth my voice.

Once I thought I understood this exchange but no longer.

In setting forth this story of the Mulvaneys, of whom I happen to be the youngest son, yet, I hope, a neutral observer, at least one to set down what is truth. Everything recorded here happened and it’s my task to suggest how, and why … I will include as many “facts” as I can assemble th rest is conjecture, imagined but not invented. Much is based on memory and conversations with family members about things I had not experienced firsthand nor could possibly know except in the way of the heart. (p. 14)

Joyce Carol Oates depicts an idyllic American family, respected by the local community ‘living the dream’. Mike Sr. built up his own business and eventually procured the large plot of land to house his four children and wife and their many, many pets. We Were The Mulvaneys indicates the title something lost about their identity. The story is told through the pen of Judd, the youngest child, who later works for the newspaper.

From the outset of the novel the narration is flawed. Judd claims he wants to record the truth, however, by doing so he has to include untruths as he cannot possibly know every single detail – especially those about his sister who refuses to relay the full details about the night of the prom. Judd’s own observation about how he has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge with educated guesswork is self-reflexive. Any narration in fiction is fictional – it can never encompass truth as by its very genre it is rendered untruth. Autobiography comes close to truth but a fictional character cannot write an autobiography for us to read, it is always through the pen of its creator: the author.

With this tiny paradox in mind, each interchange between the characters takes on an anecdotial facade. The story of how Corinne and Mike Sr. met was an often repeated tale which Judd records as though he was present. Repetition of facts creates in Judd false memories about his family allowing in his mind for him to exist in a world long before he was even conceived.

Judd states in the opening of the novel: “I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.” (p. 3)   which suggests a masochistic attitute towards story-telling. However as the novel progresses Oates demonstrates through the eyes of Judd the damaging effect concealing the truth from family members has on the family as a whole. The uprooting and abandonment of Marianne is never discussed at the time and Judd is completely unaware that Marianne even wanted to return to High Point Farm for the first Christmas. However this detail is revealed in an exchange between Marianne and Patrick after Patrick has moved away to university. Judd is not in attendence and so the ‘fact’ comes from Judd’s own ‘conjecture’.

An exchange between Patrick and Mike Jr. Judd did overhear himself presents the philosophical paradox of spoke truth: “What you say is always less than you know … So every statement is a lie, we can’t help it.” (p. 96) as it would be impractical to speak every known related fact to support every statement. Writing the truth is somewhat simpler as you have the reader’s attention and can lay down every fact in the structure of an argument or essay.

Truth is resolved, for Patrick at least, at the end of the novel: “what relief in having access to detailed weather facts twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year, you only have to switch on a tiny button to hear so solemn and incantatory a recitation of simple unassailable facts beyond all human subjectivity” (p. 454) Though Mike Jr. claimed it is impossible to speak only in truth Patrick managed to find a source of unending truth which provides him with peace.

Judd finds his truth in his writing. His job description is to “put out a ‘good, decent, truth-telling paper’ and that’s what I’ve been doing and will continue to do.” (p. 6). However when subjective writing is mixed with fact, the truth can be distorted beyond all recognition as is evident every time one watches a news segment, no matter how well credited the source. News is a business and exciting news sells.


Oates, Joyce Carol. We Were The Mulvaneys. London: Fourth Estate, 2001.

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The relationship of the father and the son is a prevalent theme throughout the novel. However it is the educational nature of their relationship which lends poignancy to the absence of society in the novel. The father is teaching the son how to survive in a cultureless society. The norms and boundaries which we are used to have long since decayed along with the apocalyptic ‘event’ which is left ambiguous.

In social / communication studies there is a theory referred to as ‘socialisation’. Like words and basic actions, a baby learns the rudiments of human existence from its parents/guardians. At first it is a nonsense sound or movement which produces a positive reaction such as weird sounds or presents which encourage the baby to repeat. Later the baby attaches meaning to the sounds and movement and can achieve a more specific reward such as food or attention.

Socialisation is a similar pattern of encouraging (and discouraging) certain behaviours and words. The ‘teachers’ expand from immediate family to institutions such as schools, and to friends and wider family. From these we learn the boundaries of society and what is ‘normal’. Dress codes, accents, mannerisms and to some degree personality all develop as a result of how we have been socialised. A baby may think nothing of wailing and defecating in public but we quickly learn that these behaviours are unacceptable. Whether or not we choose to ‘conform’ is a different matter …

In The Road the various inputs in socialisation are absent, the responsibility all remains with the father. For the most part of the novel it is only the father and the son present in the narration. The extraneous characters are all treated as outsiders: distrusted and almost always feared. The son’s experience is thus a reversal of our own. His father is essentially ‘desocialising’ him: teaching his to reject any form of company outside of their duo. Their singular act of humanity towards the character of Eli results in the threat of them losing their entire supplies, potentially facing starvation reinforcing the son’s desocialisation.

The reversal is important to anyone considering the theme of ‘decay’ in The Road. In a world where society has been broken it is further led into destruction by the savage nature of humans. We will ultimately do anything to preserve our own survival, including attacking and in some cases cannibalising our own. We need not look too far back into our own history for examples of our savage nature (arctic explorers for example…) to see that McCarthy’s pessimistic prediction may have some grounding.

It is interesting that at the end of the novel the group which ‘adopt’ the son are far more forgiving and humane. It suggests that in a wider group of people it has been possible to maintain that level of noble humanity we believe is innate. It is only after the father’s death that the son is able to interact successfully with outsiders. However it is possible that small pockets of humane humans still survived but the father’s suspicion of the world may have blinded the narration; making the world appear more desolate than it is. It is difficult to be any more certain about this aspect of the novel as McCarthy leaves a lot of ideas open to the reader’s interpretation.

Why is it only when the son is completely alone is he able to find civilised company? If anyone has any more thoughts about this please comment! I’ve thought myself into distraction!

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