Age cannot wither us

Age cannot wither us

A mosquito or something like it took me for a free lunch on Saturday night, leaving three lumps on the right side of my face. I might feel disfigured, but I suspect like most people, much as though I’d like to think I had such beauty to be marred, the reality is a little less exciting.

Age doesn’t help of course. It’s another common aspect of human experience, that we can look out on the world through the same (old) eyes and think we’re not much changed, until we catch sight of our reflection and are forced to acknowledge that, really we have.

This might not be the end of the world (that will come later). A female friend told me a few years ago, when we were both in our early 40s, that she thought young people had a glowing beauty which was unique to youth. Another remarked in a separate conversation that young faces had a blandness which made them uninteresting. Both statements seem true to me, though I’d always want to stand against the cultural fascism which seems to think that only those under 40 could be emotionally interesting for any audience.

Mid-life crises

Middle-aged men don’t help the situation, apparently needing to ratify their illusions of an enduring youthfulness by partnering with much younger women, as if women of their own age could no longer make them feel good about themselves. I’ve even heard it argued that once women hit the menopause they no longer have the hormonal capability to attract the Darwinian male. Men who think this way must have egos that are stronger than their sex drives, or they just don’t get out enough.

Women paradoxically don’t help these sad male illusions by privileging “personality” defensively over good looks. It seems too that the enduring puritanism of the 19th and 20th centuries still urges many women to play down their sexuality, as if it was something best minimised (while I think it’s entirely reasonable for any individual to have little interest in his or her sexuality, it seems to me there is no fundamental difference between men and women here, and any apparent differences have been culturally conditioned). Male sexism also sustains these guarded feelings, and it’s about time we all grew up.

Thinking fast and slow

So far, so conventionally liberal, but there is too an uncomfortable “fundamental” truth that we need to acknowledge, which is that good looks are influential, at any age. There has been some academic research which suggests that better looking individuals have better chances in job interviews. While this is clearly wrong in the sense that our looks have little bearing on our capacity to do a job, it’s more understandable when an interviewer or interview panel is faced with a 50/50 choice (all other things being equal).

I said it’s understandable rather than particularly defensible, but then we need to understand it better, because this appears to be a compelling aspect of human behaviour. This blog was prompted in part by a reflection from Alain de Botton on why we marry the wrong people, which among other things noted how important the way someone looks might be to our judgements. He’s not suggesting that matinee idol allure will overrule every other consideration, but noting how much we will extrapolate from features which (for whatever reason) we might find compelling. This chimes too with Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about our predilection for instinctive judgement, and how it might lead us astray.

I’m not suggesting that good looking idiots will continue to command our attention when they open their mouths, but only that in the many greyer areas before we’re faced with idiocy we generally give more credit than we should to the physically attractive.

We can’t simply discount these intuitions. We won’t begin to discard them by saying “appearances don’t matter”. We’ll only deal with them if we can notice how and when they operate in our own judgements. We’ll only deal with it too by acknowledging how and when superficial judgements are all we need. Prejudices about appearance can feed the snap judgements we make all the time, but that speed can be necessary to make the most of the limited time we have available. It’s wrong to demand that we consider the full humanity of every individual we encounter. Much of the time those encounters are simply functional, and while I’d agree that our default behaviour should always be at least polite and considerate, we usually don’t need to look much beyond the function (getting your hair cut, or a cup of coffee). Prejudice about appearances may well be operating in these encounters, but it doesn’t matter very much. It’s when we need to make finer or better judgements that we must look further.

Enduring love

Shakespeare as so often got there first. This blog’s title is from Antony and Cleopatra, that fine tragedy of two middle-aged people caught in a doting dotage. In a famous speech Enobarbus say of Cleopatra “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety”.

He’s not talking about the persistence of her famed physical beauty, but of the traits that make her captivating. Not least among the many prejudices that can skew our judgements we need to be open to the possibility that all people, including older people, have a vitality we can usefully attend to and value.

Talking of Shakespeare, de Botton’s chapter on marriage falls into a common error, suggesting that our more romantic ideas about the possibility of a lifelong coupling only appeared somewhere in the mid-18th century, as part of the rise of Romanticism. But there’s plenty of evidence against this, not least Romeo and Juliet (or Much Ado, As You Like It, Twelfth Night or indeed Othello, all written in the late 16th or early 17th centuries). It’s quite true to say that through most of western history marriage has been primarily a commercial or dynastic contract, but certainly since at least the Roman republic there have always been parallel narratives of emotional love.

de Botton’s right that our immediate feelings, shot through with the neuroses we carry from our childhoods, make a poor basis for such an important judgement about our future, but maybe the real answer is to dial down the importance of that judgement, to accept that we will almost certainly get it wrong, and there may be no other way to come to understand the neuroses and primal attractions that drive our judgements than to go through this process of trial and error.

If that’s the case, the best we can do socially is ensure that we minimise the pain of the fallout, equitably for both partners as well as any children. As individuals all we can do is learn from our mistakes, sometimes called the wisdom of age. Sadly I’m not sure the older are always much wiser, but at least their persisting beauty may be a little less superficial.

Passion and sincerity

Passion and sincerity

This is the first of a two part essay on aspects of good and bad writing. Because it straddles my cultural and business blogs I’ll be posting it in both (it is identical in both).

Commercial and creative writing demand quite different approaches to ambiguity. When Mark Antony hears the news of Cleopatra’s (overstated) suicide he says, with the tragic vaingloriousness that has marked his character throughout Shakespeare’s play

Unarm, Eros, for the long day’s task is done,
And we must sleep.

The double sense of the word “done”, spanning the distance between something that’s complete and something that’s simply over underlines the common tragedy of human aspiration, our dreams of attaching to our lives the potent meaning of a project that might be accomplished, rather than the meaningless drift of our daily efforts cut short by death.

Writers working in poetry or indeed any other kind of creative form relish such ambiguity. It offers a way, to paraphrase TS Eliot’s remark on English Metaphysical poetry, of suggesting in one experience other kinds of experience that might be possible. Or as Geoffrey Hill quoted approvingly from John Crowe Ransome (I’m relying on memory for this)

In the cry of a woman deserted by her lover is a whole history of civilisation.

Language not only helps us connect to each other. It offers a common ground which reaches into the past, evoking associations and ideas that may colour or even transform our sense of the present. Ambiguity, the power of a word or phrase to mean more than one thing, makes these connections. Creative writers embrace this power, nurturing it and shaping it, calibrating its limits in different ways for different contexts, helping us re-imagine the familiar and so experience it differently.

Commercial writing by and large must do the opposite. Commercial writers must assume only limited interest among their audience, and so a very limited attention span. Whatever needs to be said must be said quickly, must have an immediate impact. Ambiguity becomes a distraction, or even something to be feared (summoning unwelcome associations).

Commercial writing also has a very different relationship to cliché. In creative writing cliché is the kiss of death, the dead hand, so to speak, but in commercial writing cliché is often enough a first resort. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cliché can comfort with the ring of the familiar: give it a little twist and you have the familiar ringing with a different tone, which is a sure way to catch attention quickly. It’s why so much advertising copy trades in reanimated cliché and catchphrases. It’s not art but it is effective. We can enjoy the wit, however trivial the selling exercise, and indeed art writing can play with similar effects.

But there is a vicious side to the comfortable familiarity of cliché, in the way corporate bodies wrap themselves in hackneyed language as though this could mark their status as a serious player.

The worst, most obvious example is the overuse of “passionate”.

Perhaps we should blame Tom Peters, who once suggested that managers should have “A Passion for Excellence”. The book was successful and influential, to the point where managers started doing what they often do, using an apparently attractive word wherever they could as if saying it often enough would make it so.

It’s usually rubbish of course, which is the first problem. Claiming you’re passionate about something is a very big claim, so you had better be sure it will be consistently borne out in your behaviour. A business which on the one hand says it’s driven by shareholder value (as most publicly quoted companies have done in the last twenty years) can’t really expect credulity when it also claims to be passionate about something else: it’s true you could always make an argument that the pursuit of a particular uncompromising excellence in your products was the best way to create shareholder value in the long term, but for the most part in those last twenty years a long term view has not been available.

You can’t claim to be passionate about something if it can be compromised by financial pressures.

There’s also a potential mismatch between the claim and its object. The UK sandwich retail chain Pret a Manger claims to be “passionate about food”, but you can’t say that without evoking the world of haute cuisine. As sandwiches go Pret’s products are of consistently good quality, and I imagine the Pret management is rigorous about maintaining standards, but snail porridge this is not. It’s not even interesting bread (which I imagine would be impractical at this scale). What’s more I can’t imagine any true fanatic would be happy to serve or drink coffee from a paper cup.

“Passionate about food” is intended to position the business as one you can trust for its quality. Such trust depends on the reality of your performance, and the irony is that by and large Pret delivers that performance, but the overclaim about passion undermines its positioning rather than reinforcing it.

This is a common aspect of cliché: people reach for cliché because they think it will be immediately communicative, readily understood, but when we read such a hackneyed claim we’ll usually understand something different, that the business isn’t serious about what it says.

This seems pretty obvious, but it’s an insight that’s made no difference to common practice. “Passion” and “passionate” have spread like a rash across business-speak, to the point where if you really are passionate about something, you need to find a different way of expressing yourself.

The familiarity of cliché is problematic because when we reach for cliché we signal that we’ve stopped thinking about things we need to think about. This is a general problem, as notable in journalism as business writing. For instance journalists writing about someone with cancer often suggest that the person is “battling the disease”, but this is somehow to suggest that disease puts us at war with our bodies, and feeds the general dread about cancer. Having seen cancer treatment close up I can say this is a seriously unhelpful way of thinking about what’s going on. Chemotherapy in particular wreaks a kind of violence on the body, but that’s coming from the cure, not the illness, and a cancer patient usually needs to find a way of accepting that treatment rather than fighting it. “Battling” suggests a false agency as well as a dubious way of looking at ourselves, our bodies. It promotes a misleading idea of what can or should be done in a context where truth can make a difference between life and death.

Because business writing needs to be direct and immediate (given the likely limited interest of any audience) there is only limited scope for creativity: it can’t explore the potentially rich allusiveness available through ambiguity. It can still be alive and vibrant, but this requires as close attention to meaning as creative writing, albeit for a different end. It means being alert to cliché as well as permissible jargon, the latter requiring a constant thoughtfulness about the context in which your words will be read.

This much should be basic, but that thoughtfulness is too often conspicuous by its absence in business communication, which means that instead of drawing your readers closer you can only expect to push them away.

I’ll say some more about the imperatives and problems of context in the next concluding instalment on this subject.

Stories, cheating, ending

Stories, cheating, ending

The US spy drama Homeland chugs on, probably losing viewers even as the story picks up, but you could say that it’s getting what it deserves since it cheated so comprehensively in the first few episodes, all for the sake of a dramatic twist.

In the first few episodes we saw our heroine Carrie apparently being sold down the river by her boss, the usually sympathetic Saul. Later we discovered this was all part of a cunning plan to entrap an Iranian terrorist mastermind.

But the root of our anger with Saul was a shared emotion with Carrie, when she sat apparently on her own, apparently reacting with disbelief as she took in the news that she had been betrayed. This could not have happened if, as we now know, Carrie was in on it all along. Now I feel betrayed, not by the CIA, but by the programme makes, the storytellers.

It’s not the first time, and this cheating can take subtle forms, some more satisfying than others. There’s the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, a great film in many ways and unfairly pilloried for its alleged sentimentality. I suspect the sugary music soundtrack is responsible for that misapprehension of sentimentality, and Spielberg must take some blame for approving it (all the more ironic given that the sound design is one of the most powerful elements of the astonishing opening with the Normandy beach assault), but I think he is successful in his stated aim of honouring what those soldiers did, giving us an unflinching narrative of what they went through, and rightly, literally saluting them without embarrassment at the end.

I admire the film so I don’t knock it lightly, but it does cheat, by way of a camera convention. At the beginning we see an old man shuffling through a war cemetery, falling on his knees in front of a cross. We are not shown the name on the grave and the camera zooms in close to the man’s eyes, then the film cuts to the Omaha beach landing in 1944. By cinematic convention that close up to the eyes suggests that what we’re now seeing is the old man’s memories, and because the camera next focuses on Tom Hanks’ trembling hands we conventionally assume that he is the younger incarnation of that older man. So we spend the rest of the film in some confidence that our hero will survive. The cheat can be justified partly because it makes Hanks’ eventual death more shocking and so gives more force to the revelation that the older man is in fact Private Ryan, who was saved by Hanks. It is (like Homeland) deliberately misleading, though it has more integrity than Homeland: it never shows anything that could not have happened, but instead simply manipulates our emotions through the conventions of film storytelling.

You could say with justice that all stories are selective in what they choose to tell and the order in which they tell things, and that they do this to manipulate our emotions. This is is what stories do, and it’s potentially what makes them so powerful: we call people who are particularly good at this manipulation, who can always carry us with them, “master storytellers” and we admire them. But we submit to this manipulation in the expectation that there will be a reward, that the journey will take us on a journey we enjoy and that there will be some satisfaction at the end of it.

This can make ending itself problematic: there is a contract to be fulfilled. We feel frustrated if a story ends without resolving the different strands it may have introduced, unless it ends like The Sopranos, which doesn’t so much end as stop mid-sentence, forcing us to reflect on the artificiality of endings, the folly of our own desire for resolution. Shakespeare as so often has his finger on this particular pulse, when Antony hears of the (faked) death of Cleopatra and says to his lieutenant “Unarm Eros/For the long day’s task is done and we must sleep.” Antony is being vain (as so often) characterising his life as a task, and this sad vanity puts a pressure on that single word “done”, which then itself spans the distance between something which is finished and something that’s simply over (the word means both things).

Perhaps surprisingly, on reflection The Sopranos’ ending feels right. It is at least aesthetically satisfying. The series self-consciously drew on soap operas, spinning multiple storylines that threaded the banality of ordinary life with extraordinary violence. One of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they don’t have an ending; they go on and on like a pub bore. The Sopranos turned that tedium on its head, telling stories of domestic tensions within a world where antagonism was routinely fatal.

Not everyone was so satisfied, and after the final episode the interwebs were buzzing with people speculating on what might have happened next, eking out hints from the smallest clues as if they could be significant, all of which missed the point: the story was over and whatever happened next is beyond the story, beyond what we could reasonably expect to know.

In this light I see the proliferation of fan fiction on the internet as a kind of collective derangement. We like stories partly because they come to an end and yes that may be a wrench (think of Dickens’ wistful letting go of his own story at the beginning of David Copperfield), but it is part of the pleasure, the experience of something achieved. I guess you could see the desire to continue a story as a kind of tribute, but it’s one that shows scant insight into whatever made the story entrancing in the first place.

On the other hand we have all seen films or TV dramas that end frustratingly up in the air, and which then feel like acts of bad faith by the writers. The worst example in recent TV history must be the successful French supernatural series Les Revenants: I sat through eight episodes spellbound, but part of that spell was the belief that sooner or later the mysteries of what was going on would be explained (that seems to me part of the viewers’ contract with the programme makers). I suppose you could say that the series was remarkable in that it ended without explaining a single thing, but I felt more irritation than admiration, and though the prospect of a second series might promise that deferred insight, I’ve already lost my trust in the writers to reward my attention.

There is after all the example of Lost. I stayed with the first series, watching the increasing complication of the present day narrative and the back stories, enthralled by the prospect that all these different strands might be tied together. American fiction has form here, in the greatness of the hard boiled detective genre, particularly in the hands of Hammett and Chandler, where every element of the plot proves significant (and contrast it to the flaccid plotting of English writers like Agatha Christie, loaded with red herrings). Unfortunately it became increasingly clear in Lost that this was not going to happen, that the writers were making it up as they went along. I stopped watching. I let those other lives go, and I’m glad I did so.

I’ll stick with Homeland for the time being. I understand that a fourth series has already been commissioned, but if that series is going to command my attention it will need to go in a radically different direction. Plots often have a very determinate shelf life. I think this is what Aristotle meant in his Poetics, when he distinguished “action” from “plot”, with the action being whatever it is that drives the particular train of events, the plot being the sequence of events. The action is like the spirit that must make itself material in the plot. Though he’s hardly been in the third series, Homeland is still running on the emotional energy created by the idea that the hero Brody might betray his country; it’s an energy that continues to drive interesting questions of allegiance and truth among the other characters, but it’s almost used up (and has been squandered by pursuing the utterly uninteresting story of Brody’s suicidal daughter, rather than more relevant questions about the fidelities within Brody’s marriage and friendships). A fourth series is going to need to find a new “action”.

This one could run and run. In future blogs I’ll be exploring ideas about storytelling in business, what goes wrong and what goes right, and how those corporate stories can play on our sense of ourselves.