I slowed down my reading during January, trying to get more depth of engagement with what I read, relishing it more. This includes books of less than 150 pages that I would typically zip through. Recently I read three short books from Penguin, all of them full of big ideas. It took longer than I expected, and I found strong links between the three, so I’m reviewing them together.
A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind
Rating: 2 stars
I don’t enjoy cleaning. I try to avoid it if I can. Life’s too short, you know? It’s definitely a chore for me, with all the negative connotations that word now carries. I definitely see it as an obligation, not something that I do willingly, with a song in my heart.
My mum was the opposite to me. She rose early every morning before work and cleaned a communal room of the house. On her day off, with nobody in the house, she’d thoroughly clean a bedroom. We three kids were expected to clean our own rooms, but it was never to mum’s standard, so once a month the bedrooms would get The Mum Treatment. She also ironed everything after washing it – clothes, handkerchiefs, towels, bedsheets, underwear.
Reading this book made me realise that she would have made a good Buddhist monk. Not me, though.
After reading an interview with the author, I’d hoped it might unlock for me the secret of making housework less of a chore and more of a joy. There are some ideas in it that have helped me rethink my attitude to housework, such as thinking of it as taking care of my living environment, which is something that helps keep me alive and therefore should be treasured not taken for granted. I also liked what the author said about not being wasteful, repairing rather than replacing, recycling rather than throwing away, and not putting off the things I don’t like doing until the next day. On the latter point, I did the dishes before bed last night, instead of my usual washing up the previous day’s evening dishes and the current day’s morning dishes before tea. It felt satisfying to leave the kitchen cleared of dirty dishes, and even better this morning to not have to make breakfast around a pile of pots and pans waiting to be cleaned.
Mostly, though, I felt as though I was being judged and told off. The author is very particular, because he’s a monk and it’s part of his chosen lifestyle, but not everyone is cut out to be a monk, and not everyone has space in their life for daily cleaning that involves contemplation. He didn’t seem prepared, for the most part, to make allowances for that. It was the monk’s way or being condemned to a life of degradation and a dirty heart. I found some of it funny, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention. Buying a handmade Japanese feather duster to clean your tokonoma with was my favourite, but also wearing white socks to do the gardening. Although I don’t think pots and pans can speak to me about where they want to live, I’m with him on everything having its place and returning it to that place when I’ve finished using it. Also, not leaving cupboard doors open, I agree with him on that. Although probably not for the same reasons.
One thing that I would like you to pay particular attention to while cooking is to shut any drawer or cabinet door you have opened. When you’re busy it is easy to forget to do it, but this is a sign of your heart being untidy. After taking something out, you must close what you have opened. This not only helps to prevent dust from coming into contact with tableware, but also keeps your heart tidy and clean.
I think it’s the use of bold text when he wants to make a specific point that left me feeling chastised. His tone of voice doesn’t help, though. Nor did what came across to me as his Japanese nationalism.
I definitely knew I was reading the wrong book when I read his advice on sleep.
Sleeping longer than what your body actually requires is nothing short of lazy. Succumbing to sleep gluttony is giving in to your worldly desires. Idly sleeping your days away is no way to live.
Clearly he’s a wrong’un.
Rating: 4 stars
From a treatise that includes words on why excessive consumption and accumulation of stuff is bad for you, I jumped to an extract from Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 publication The Theory of the Leisure Class. This work demonstrated how the behaviours of the upper classes in a feudal system – the warriors, the priests, the landowners – had continued into the industrial era. The old upper classes, who indulged in useless activities that made no contribution to the economy or to the production of the useful goods and services that keep society functioning, had been joined or replaced by the business class represented by the men who owned the means of production. The Capitalists, in other words.
I’ve had an interest in reading some Veblen since I read and loved The Portable Veblen. When I saw that the Penguin Great Ideas series included a volume that extracted a selection of Veblen’ theories on conspicuous consumption from his longer economic study of the Leisure Class, and it was available in Waterstone’s, I had to buy it.
As regular readers will know, I’m a feminist and I hate the Patriarchy. Within four pages of this book, I decided I liked old Thorstein. He talks about differentiation of function in the more tribal feudal era, before the Leisure Class came into existence, in a way that explains why the Leisure Class is traditionally male and why few societal structures are fair to women.
There is a differentiation of function, and there is a distinction between classes on the basis of this difference of function, but the exemption of the superior class from work has not gone far enough to make the designation ‘leisure class’ altogether applicable. The tribes belonging on this economic level have carried the economic differentiation to the point at which a marked distinction is made between the occupations of men and women, and this distinction is of an invidious character. In nearly all these tribes the women are, by prescriptive custom, held to those employments out of which the industrial occupations proper develop at the next advance. The men are exempt from these vulgar employments and are reserved for war, hunting, sports, and devout observances. A very nice discrimination is ordinarily shown in this matter.
So, when all the men see themselves as equal, they give the drudgery to the women, and when some of the men see themselves as superior to others of the men, they give the drudgery to their inferiors and make the women redundant. I’m taking his use of nice to mean subtle, rather than pleasing. Or maybe the original meaning of the word – ignorant.
Veblen was briefly on shaky ground when he asserted that the differentiation based on gender was on physiological and psychological grounds, with men more suited to activities requiring physicality and aggression. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, though, because he acknowledged that in primitive societies there was no such differentiation, and that it seems to have become almost a self-fulfilling aspect of modern society. If you say something enough times, and you’re the one who holds the balance of power, it becomes a truism.
As the tradition gains consistency, the common sense of the community erects it into a canon of conduct; so that no employment and no acquisition is morally possible to the self-respecting man at this cultural stage, except such as proceeds on the basis of prowess – force or fraud.
Coincidentally, I read an interview with Leïla Slimani and Afua Hirsch at the time I was reading Conspicuous Consumption and in it Slimani says something that takes the differentiation a step further.
“I think that we have a very cliched way of looking at race,” she replies. “Of course, if you are from Morocco or from Algeria, you’re going to be poor, you’re going to be a nanny, and you’re going to live in the suburbs of Paris. If you are a boss, and you employ a nanny, you are a white woman, very successful. But it’s not true, it’s not the reality.”
The reality, she continues, is that there are plenty of north Africans living in the centre of Paris, many of them lawyers, journalists, actors. And many white working-class people do what are regarded as “immigrants’ jobs” and are consequently despised by those around them.
As far as I can tell, and I’m going with my gut here, we currently have a pecking order of Rich White Men, Rich White Women, Other White Men, Other White Women and Men of Colour (sometimes a man of colour is preferred because he’s a man, sometimes a white woman is preferred because she’s white), Women of Colour. Equality laws say this shouldn’t be the case, but attitudes in white society don’t appreciate what the law says.
In a further coincidence, I’d read an interview with Slimani in a magazine at the hairdresser in which she talked about her book Sex and Lies: Sexual Life in Morocco. One idea stood out for me – that of white liberals hiding behind the cliché of not seeing colour and thinking that protects them against accusations of racism. I have used that phrase and by it I’ve meant that I don’t differentiate people by race, that I see everyone as human. Slimani’s point is that I have the privilege of doing that because I don’t have to think about my race. I should see colour, and I should understand that people of colour have a different starting point to me – that of prejudice on the basis of being different.
Having demonstrated how the Leisure Class came into being, Veblen moves on to an examination of how the leisured gentleman demonstrates that, even in private, what he produces with his time is unproductive. Veblen pinpoints the use of titles, heraldic devices, quasi-scholarly knowledge that doesn’t contribute to the furtherance of human life. The list of quasi-scholarly pursuits made me smile: knowledge of dead languages, correct spelling, syntax; understanding of fashion and lifestyle trends; the adherence to standards of polite social behaviour. Mr Hicks and I re-watched The Talented Mr Ripley on the evening I’d read this passage, and the lives of Dickie, Marge, Freddie and Meredith are those of the mid-20th century Leisure Class, the children of the monied industrialists who exploit the means of production to generate ever increasing wealth, the generation that adds nothing of economic value to society but instead maintains society through unproductive consumption. They still exist. Paris Hilton and Ned RocknRoll spring to my mind.
The discussion of how the servant class came into being interested me. Veblen suggests that it moves from the ownership of slaves, to the separation of slaves who perform productive labour from the slaves who perform domestic duties that maintain the unproductive comforts of the master. This involves the ownership of women as evidence of status. The owned women turn into wives, who then require servants to maintain their own unproductive comforts, while remaining the property of their husbands. To demonstrate maximum wastage of resource, the servants of the wives are mainly male, who perform vicarious consumption on behalf of their employers. Veblen was writing before domestic appliances came into their own, but the 20th century saw society move from wealth and leisure being solely demonstrated by the employment of servants to status being indicated by how many appliances a man could afford to buy his wife, thus freeing her from vicarious consumption on his behalf to indulge in her own conspicuous consumption. I once had an Economics tutor tell me, not quite tongue in cheek enough for me to not want to punch him, that I wouldn’t be at university were it not for the advent of domestic appliances. He was partly right, but my argument was that socialism in the form of comprehensive access to education regardless of wealth was the more significant reason for me pursuing further education rather than getting a job or becoming a housewife.
Veblen also gives an analysis of why, in Victorian industrial society, it remains a badge of honour for wealthy men to consume drugs and alcohol to excess, but for women and the lower classes it’s a sign of a dissolute life. Women and the lower classes are still viewed as the property of the wealthy, morally if not in fact, in today’s society. Particularly for women, there is still a prevailing attitude that if we become intoxicated, we are entirely responsible for any harm that comes to us. The patriarchal convention that, for women, intoxication is a dereliction of duty still holds true to a larger extent than society is willing to admit.
The wryness of Veblen’s observations about landscape and animals was amusing. He theorises that in Britain our obsession with lawns, parks and other swathes of green stems from our early days as keepers of pasture. This pastoral heritage leads the Leisure Class to want to place livestock in their landscape, but because cows aren’t lacking in utility they have to install something more useless, like deer. From livestock, Veblen makes the leap to domestic companions and an evaluation of cats, dogs and fast horses.
The cat is less reputable than the other two just named, because she is less wasteful; she may even serve a useful end. At the same time the cat’s temperament does not fit her for the honorific purpose. She lives with man on terms of equality, knows nothing of that relation of status which is the ancient basis of all distinctions of worth, honour, and repute, and she does not lend herself with facility to an invidious comparison between her owner and his neighbours.
Cats are my favourites. They’re the pinnacle of the Leisure Class and the owners of their human servants.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the way Veblen used contemporary cultures that didn’t match his idea of civilised as signifiers of the old primeval and feudal cultures he was investigating. And that discomfort tied in with the next book I read.
An Image of Africa/The Trouble with Nigeria
Rating: 5 stars
Chinua Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a difficult but important essay for me to read. I started reading Conrad only recently. Heart of Darkness was where I started. I really liked it. I thought the writing was exceptional. The content was unsettling, describing as it does a white European colonial attitude to Africa and its peoples, but I put that down to the time it was written and the prejudices of the time. Conrad was writing about white European squeamishness about different cultures not fitting with what white society viewed as civilised behaviour. Conrad depicts the African people as savages and weaves a story around the, to his mind, tragic loss of a colonial settler to a savage way of life.
Achebe gave me a different perspective. It links to Slimani’s statement about the clichéd way white people think about race and her assertion that those of us who could be called liberals hide our racism from ourselves by saying we don’t see colour. Achebe wrote his essay in 1975. It’s still relevant. I’m going to quote a huge chunk because what Achebe says calls me out on the thinking I refer to above.
The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked. Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr Kurtz.
Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in this reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad’s great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments … Its exploration of the minds of the European characters is often penetrating and full of insight. But all that has been more than fully discussed in the last fifty years. His obvious racism has, however, not been addressed. And it is high time it was!
He is balanced in justifying his position. He considers the possible arguments that might be made in challenge to his opinion and cogently counters them. The bottom line is, Conrad was a racist and present day readings of his work need to acknowledge this fact. Achebe’s concern isn’t to discredit Conrad as a writer but to open up the discussion of his work to include an honest appraisal of its content and stop the blind worship of the man as a literary god.
The other piece in this volume is a 1983 booklet that explores the nature of Nigerian society. Achebe is angry about the corruption and lack of true leadership in the way Nigeria is governed. This maybe isn’t a piece of writing for everyone, but I found it really interesting. Manchester has a large Nigerian community. We have collections at work that relate to Nigeria and its different nations. I have read a fair amount of Nigerian literature, including Achebe’s fiction, and this extended essay provides context for both my work and my leisure.
Achebe points out that Nigeria has abundant riches drawn from its natural resources and the potential of its population. He also points out that these riches have been squandered by the corrupt leaders in government. The revenue delivered by Nigeria’s resources could have been invested in transforming the economy and improving the lives of the poorest in society. Instead, Achebe says, the wealth has been used to buy useless consumer symbols of prosperity, embezzled through the issue of government contracts to cronies, and wasted on the over inflated salaries of an over staffed civil service.
Achebe also points a finger at those who cling to tribal discrimination and prevent any citizen from working anywhere in the country, as well as stopping people from contributing to the social, political and economic life of the community on the basis that they might not be from the appropriate tribe. Nigeria has its own form of internal racism. Nigeria was formed as an administrative unit from a number of different nations and was run as “a mere geographical expression” by the British. Post-independence, the ruling elite have continued to run the country on the British model in order to check the success of rivals from different nations.
Prejudice against ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ is an attitude one finds everywhere. But no modern state can lend its support to such prejudice without undermining its own progress or civilisation.
Achebe believes that Nigeria’s leadership suffers from a cargo cult mentality, expecting an imaginary ship to come in, bringing with it all of the status and economic clout Nigeria thinks itself worthy of without any effort being expended on building that status and economic clout.
Listen to Nigerian leaders and you will frequently hear the phrase this great country of ours.
Nigeria is not a great country. It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun.
I once saw a car sticker in Lagos which said LOVE NIGERIA OR LEAVE IT.
The gentle reader of this booklet may feel like the man who displayed that sticker and wonder why I still live in Nigeria. The answer is simple. Nigeria is where God in His infinite wisdom chose to plant me. Therefore I don’t consider that I have any right to seek out a more comfortable corner of the world which someone else’s intelligence and labour have tidied up. I know enough history to realize that civilization does not fall down from the sky; it has always been the result of people’s toil and sweat, the fruit of their long search for order and justice under brave and enlightened leaders.
I found Achebe’s take on patriotism interesting. It’s a word politicians like to bandy about. As a result, I feel like it has lost all meaning. The type of politician who urges patriotism is most frequently a nationalist whose idea of nationhood isn’t one that I accept. I don’t feel patriotic. Often I feel ashamed of being English. I can make a case for being British, because Britain is more than just England and its petty obsession with Empire. I also see those in power who shout loudest about patriotism not working in the interests of the whole nation, but rather working for their own gain.
Achebe puts it this way:
… patriotism, being part of an unwritten social contract between a citizen and a state, cannot exist where the state reneged on the agreement.
He also sets out what he thinks a patriot is:
He is [a person] who cares deeply about the happiness and well-being of his country and all its people. Patriotism is an emotion of love directed by a critical intelligence. A true patriot will always demand the highest standards of his country and accept nothing but the best for and from his people.
It made me think about why people in the UK are largely disengaged from politics. I think it’s because they look at the political class, don’t see them doing anything worthwhile, and so don’t see the point in voting. I think the ability of data companies to manipulate people in the European Referendum stemmed from this disconnect. We are not encouraged to think about the greater good of the nation, but to think about the immediate benefits to ourselves. When politicians tap into what those benefits are, they are able to hoover up support. I think the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn among younger voters is because he presents himself as being in politics for the greater good, not for his self-interest. I think the disappointment in him is his unwillingness to see Brexit as immensely damaging to the majority of people who elected him leader of the Labour party and who would like to vote his party into government. I truly don’t think that any politician in Westminster today fully recognises that their self-interest and rewarding of mediocrity is a turn off for a majority of the electorate.
Achebe closes with a discussion of the Nigerian politician Aminu Kano and his questioning of why people seek political office and why they want to rule. Achebe seeks to understand what the purpose is of political power. He cites Aminu Kano as Africa’s Mahatma Gandhi, and compares power hungry Nigerian politicians like Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo with him unfavourably. Achebe’s description of a new generation of politicians choosing the political old guard, represented by Azikiwe and Awolowo, as a means of greasing their way into power rather than building a new politics reminded me of British politics. Nothing ever changes, because the politicians don’t want their comfortable way of life being taken away.
All three books gave me pause for thought. It’s time for some fiction next.