Book reviews 2018 - #25, #26 and #27

#25 – “The Descent of Man”, Grayson Perry (2016)

I absolutely loved this book.  Clever, funny, thought-provoking, easy to read. What’s not to like?

Perry is most well-known as an artist, but he is also well known as a transvestite.  He is a heterosexual man in his late 50s who likes to dress up in women’s clothes.  He went to the same school as me.

More importantly, he dresses not in ordinary day-to-day women’s clothes (he makes no attempt to “look like a woman”) but in over-the-top frocks with garish make-up in a manner that suggests some sort of pastiche of a deranged Alice.

He discusses this in ‘The Descent of Man’, not as some sort of autobiographical confession but as part of his argument that contemporary masculinity is in profound crisis and we (all of us) need to sort it out.  His argument is erudite, his examples telling, his anecdotes engaging and his propositions persuasive.

I made loads of notes in the margin and scribbled all over my copy and tweeted multiple quotations, including:

“Most men are nice, reasonable fellows.  But most violent people, rapists, criminals, killers, tax avoiders, corrupt politicians, planet despoilers, sex-abusers and dinner-party bores do tend to be, well… men.”

“All of us males need to look at ourselves with a clear eye and ask what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone.”

“If George Osborne had dressed up as a cross between Flashman and the Grim Reaper instead of a business suit when he delivered his budgets, perhaps we would have had a more appropriate vision of who was controlling the nation’s budgets.”

“Because men on the whole are less aware of their feelings, they characterize their often angry, mocking, combative view of the world as dispassionate.”

“The only validation a man craves for his masculinity is from those who really understand his achievement: other men.”

“One reaction to the redundancy of the traditional male role has been the rise of a kind of cosmetic hyper-masculinity… These performers pay great attention to detail: hair and beards are groomed in precision lines; torsos are waxed till they resemble figures from computer games.  Like a miner’s wife obsessively scrubbing the front step, the dishevelment of poverty is kept in check.”

I could go on, but I’m going to stop there.  “Like a miner’s wife”!  Perry’s humanity, his cultural awareness and his artistic sensibility combine to make this one of the finest works of sociology I’ve ever read.

Don’t just read it – give it as a gift.  Someone you know needs to read it.

#26 – “Dependent Rational Animals”, Alasdair MacIntyre (1999)

Two and a half thousand years ago western philosophy set off on its weird and winding paths from ancient Greece.  Many are its wonders.

Along the way, despite trillions of hours of introspection by some of the finest mammalian minds yet delivered by evolution, some fairly obvious features of the human condition have received rather less attention than is probably warranted.

In particular – MacIntyre points out, in this difficult but powerful work of moral philosophy – our chronic state of dependency on others has been almost completely ignored.  The concentration, instead, has been on Man, the individual agent: each of us, in theorised isolation, reflecting on the ceaseless struggle between our rationality, our emotions and our bodies, trying to decide what is the best thing to do – this, or that?  Yes, there are other human beings with whom we share this thing called life, but in the huge majority of moral philosophy these others are merely Other, they are the people who comprise the terrain upon which, in our magnificent abstract solitude, we must make our moral choices.  They are present: but they are not Us.

(I have a theory that this state of affairs may be a result of the particular type of mammalian brains that have worried at these things these past few centuries.  It is perhaps not surprising that it should be assumed that human beings are isolated thinkers developing their theories in the abstract, given that those making the assumption were isolated thinkers developing their theories in the abstract…)

(This reminds me of another pet theory about writing more generally: people who write are, perforce, sitting on their own as they write.  They are the kind of people who spend a lot of time on their own, indeed probably like being on their own.  So that’s the perspective they unavoidably have when they write.  Writers are therefore ill-positioned to say anything at all about the collective.  About crowds.   About what it is really like to be part of group.  About what it is really like to lose one’s sense of self and to be part of a transcendent whole.  There is a profound paradox here: to understand society, one has to understand the collective.  If you have that understanding, you are probably not a writer; and, if you are a writer, you probably can’t have that understanding.

Just a thought.)

Anyway, MacIntyre points out the obvious: while we are infants, and at various times during adulthood when we are sick or injured or disabled, and when we are elderly and infirm, we are very much not an isolated self.  We are, rather, profoundly dependent on others.  And this state of dependency – past, present and prospective – is a fundamental and determining feature of the human condition.

It also impinges directly on questions of ethics and morality.  Having been dependent, are we in debt?  If so, how might we repay such a debt?  To whom, and on what basis?

We are animals, too, not abstract processing devices.  We have bodies, and frailty.  These features of our reality also tend to have been diminished by the abstract thinkers that have been largely responsible for the western philosophical canon.  What do these things mean for our moral choices?  How in error might established ethical maxims be as a result of these omissions?

This is MacIntyre’s terrain in ‘Dependent Rational Animals’.  It is not easy stuff.  It is made even less straightforward by MacIntyre’s writing style.  He is very fond of exceptionally long sentences (some of which stretch to almost half a page).  He is also a philosopher’s philosopher, very aware of how important it is to be precise about what one is saying, and what one is not saying, and he is at pains to head off objections at the pass before they can scupper an argument whilst still at a preliminary stage.  All too often I found myself re-reading something several times before I even knew which clauses and sub-clauses belonged together never mind actually understanding what he was saying.

So it’s not a book I can easily recommend.  I can’t easily summarise his conclusions, nor even offer a synoptic quotation.  His final sentence, rather than offering a punchline, is:

“It is because and insofar as rational enquiry serves and partly constitutes that common good that it is itself the good that it is.”

If this sentence makes you go ‘Oooh, intriguing” then give it a go.  Otherwise, steer clear and just try to be nice to everyone, including yourself.

#27 – “Why Grow Up?”, Susan Neiman (2014)

More moral philosophy, but this time in the ‘accessible to the general reader’ category.  And not just that.  This is outstanding, contemporary, relevant stuff from a furiously well-read and elegantly furious woman.  “Why Grow Up?” is what – to my mind – philosophy is actually for: to bring the reading and thinking to bear on the actual problems of trying to live a life, not in the abstract but here, and now.  Neiman is absolutely concerned with the here and now.  She asks questions and offers thought.  She reports on Rousseau and Kant.  She teases and mocks.  She challenges.

She does not let us off the hook.

This book is so good and so relevant that it will be joining “Why We Sleep” as a ubiquitous gift to my friends and loved ones.  I wrote to tell her I was thinking of giving everyone I know a copy for Christmas.  She replied saying that she herself had been giving it as a gift – but it was better for birthdays.

Very smart.

So.  Enough.  You must read this book.  If I give you a copy, read that one.  If I don’t, you’ll have to buy it yourself.

And then buy one for someone else.  It really is important.


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