The rise of fear and misinformation around COVID-19 has allowed promoters of malicious matter and hate to engage with mainstream audiences around a common topic of interest, and potentially push them toward hateful views. – Professor Neil Johnson
This isn’t not is the Titanic
There’s a feeling when say the circus leaves town. You walk over the rubbish strewn waste ground that had, until yesterday been bubbling with the hum of humans, scents of glossy candyfloss and a sensation of collective anticipation—to gawp from the stalls at the leotarded trapeze artists, to stare at the caged, dead-eyed lion (would tonight be the night it finally flips and severs the head of the comic compere?) and to see again the star of the show, the wild-eyed clown, comically nicknamed “Commander & Thief” (‘i’ before ‘e,’ accept after ‘c’). The grass is now threadbare in more patches than one, the trees around the periphery of “The Rec” (for recreational ground) have reverted to reclusive and solitary form; no longer serving as impromptu urinals and supports to hold whilst being rogered by Ray or orally relieved by Phil (some idiot had freshly carved out “JH 4 JH” on to one such trunk). A poster, once pinned erect, vivid, bright and gay, announcing the troupe’s tour dates with your home town’s name in bold (with drop shadow to boot), now lays sodden, soggy and washed out upon the ground (unlike one of its lucky compatriots, it hasn’t become a souvenir and, lovingly encased in laminate, been Blu-tacked upon some girl’s boudoir wall). It is emptiness. It is the inner realisation that the thing that had once so dominated your thoughts and attention… no longer exists. Yeah memories remain, but they are, when all is said and done, fictitious little affairs of your own making (whether you know this or not—I mean to say, depending on if you have bothered or not to read up on what lies behind dreams and the machinations of cognition—you and your brain will soon remold and reshape actual happenings into figments utterly removed from what once immutably was). This is that feeling: “I’ve got the spirit, but [I’m] los[ing] the feeling“ / … / …
Let us not forget either these other performers who all, in their own walk on ways, played pivotal roles in this now concluded tragicomedy circus:
“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything”
Science. Technology. Want for nothing. Maximum pleasure. Welcome to a world where society exists without war, poverty, sickness or unhappiness, where instant gratification and mass consumerism sooth the inhabitants into happy conformity. One man stands to challenge all this: Bernard Marx, alone in harbouring a longing to break free. His attempt to do so sets off a chain of events that could disrupt everything.” — Is this Brave New World that Huxley imagined where we are headed, or are we already there? Take the drugs and float away through Huxley’s relentless cityscape, and you might find answers to questions you didn’t know you should be asking. (This is taken from a too be published 2021 edition introduction by Yuval Noah Harari.) 
“Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust.”
A gang war is raging through the dark underworld of Brighton. Seventeen-year-old Pinkie, malign and ruthless, has killed a man. Believing he can escape retribution, Pinkie is unprepared for the courageous, life-embracing Ida Arnold, who is determined to uncover him. This is Graham Greene’s chilling exposé of violence, class, and gang warfare inspired many imitators. Few, if any, can match the originality of Brighton Rock, and of Pinkie – one of fiction’s most unnerving and compelling villains.
by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 — Joseph Heller
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”
It’s the closing months of the Second World War and Yossarian has never been closer to death. Stationed in an American bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, each flight mission introduces him to thousands of people determined to kill him. But the enemy above is not Yossarian’s problem – it is his own army intent on keeping him airborne, and the maddening ‘Catch-22’ that allows for no possibility of escape. Penguin, the publisher, writes, “No book has satirised military madness so hilariously and tragically. It is the tale of one man’s struggle to survive the sheer lunacy of war.”
“The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories”
English Writer Angela Carter. September 23, 1987. (Photo by Doris Thomas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories — Angela Carter
“Midnight, and the clock strikes. It is Christmas Day, the werewolves birthday, the door of the solstice still wide enough open to let them all slink through.”
We grow up on fairy tales but it is only later we realise what we have been fed. Angela Carter saw the power of these dark stories – stories in which objects betray, children threaten, men turn into animals and women are unsafe. Erotic, subversive, ancient, modern: the tales in this book pulse with a vivid, radical imagination. Turn the key, enter the chamber. Carter untwists our old tales and offers them up with sensuality, depravity, humour – and a mirror held up to ourselves. (From a yet to be published 2021 edition with an introduction by Laura Dockrill.)
by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse 5 — Kurt Vonnegut
“So it goes.”
Billy Pilgrim – hapless barber’s assistant, successful optometrist, alien abductee, senile widower and soldier – has become unstuck in time. Hiding in the basement of a slaughterhouse in Dresden, with the city and its inhabitants burning above him, he finds himself a survivor of one of the most deadly and destructive battles of the Second World War. But when, exactly? How did he get here? And how does he get out? Travel through time and space on the shoulders of Vonnegut himself. This is a book about war. Listen to what he has to say: it is of the utmost urgency.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
In the baking sun, in a small village off the coast of Havana, lives an old fisherman named Santiago. It has been eighty-four days since he last caught a fish. The locals call it bad luck. Refusing to accept defeat, Santiago sets off in his tiny skiff alone, fishing further out than ever before. It is here, over a number of days, that he, his will and his character are tested beyond imagination. Faced with bad weather, hunger and thirst, the old man finds himself in battle with a giant marlin, a fish bigger than any to have been caught before. Nature is not kind and gentle in this fable, nor is Hemingway. You hold in your hands one of the very best pieces of writing to have ever been created.
“When Breath Becomes Air” — Paul Kalanithi
by Paul Kalanithi
When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi
“Even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”
This magnetic, hopeful book was first published in 2016. Adored by millions of readers, it is a Vintage Classic already and a book that will stand the test of time. — We often ask ourselves how we should be living. In Paul Kalanithi’s deeply moving memoir, he is forced to ask himself the question, ‘how do you live when you are dying?’ At thirty-six, having just finished his training to become a neurosurgeon, he was faced with a devastating cancer diagnosis. This is his memoir. From student, to doctor, to patient, to father, and to writer, Paul preserved his last years and legacy in this truly unforgettable book.
“To Kill A Mockingbird”
To Kill A Mockingbird — Harper Lee
“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
This evocative and amusing novel has charmed and inspired generations. — Summers for Scout in the Deep South are long and golden. Her story is one of innocence, and growing up. It is also about justice. When Scout’s father Atticus Finch, a lawyer, agrees to defend a black man against an accusation by a white girl, he takes on the prejudice of the whole town. Through the case, Atticus teaches Scout that your imagination is not just for childhood games, but for understanding other people. Because you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.
by John Williams
Stoner — John Williams
“He learned silence and did not insist upon his love.”
For nearly fifty years this book existed as quietly as its protagonist before it was rediscovered. It is now regarded as one of the most heart-stopping and beautiful classics of the twentieth century. — This is the great forgotten novel of the last century – a quiet book; the story of a quiet life. William Stoner is a man who learns to contain himself, but beneath the surface lie passions and principles. An undistinguished career, an unhappy marriage, a bitter conflict with a colleague; Stoner endures. He is a different kind of hero. This wise, moving story seethes with the power and beauty of an individual life.
Atwood’s Handmaids have become a symbol of feminist resistance. This masterpiece blurs the boundaries between fiction and news headlines. — Imagine a world where women’s bodies are controlled by men. Where society has descended into religious patriarchy and censorship. Where the environment has been destroyed and a powerful few hold the reins to all wealth and freedom. Welcome to Gilead. This is the story of Offred, a Handmaid forced into sexual servitude, in the country once known as the USA.
❝ Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness . . .
. . . Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. ❞
— John Keats (extract, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)
 Vintage Classics [Penguin, 2021]: “MOST LOVED. MOST RED.” — ten must-read modern classics. You get me, don’t you:
Joseph Conrad places fiction in the schema of *art
— What is *ART?
As Maria Popova writes in The Atlantic on the subject of (the increasingly, nowadays, ‘controversial’) Joseph Conrad, “Much of his writing bears a profound philosophical quality, exploring the depths of psychology and other pillars of existence.” In this post I give you some of Conrad’s case for how strings of (“tired old”) words can be construed as a form of fine art. I would personally place literature (not music, as he does) at the pinnacle but, this is me and, I am not he:
A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential—their one illuminating and convincing quality—the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts—whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living. They speak authoritatively to our common-sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism—but always to our credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims. It is otherwise with the artist.
Fiction—if it at all aspires to be art—appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, in fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament, whether individual or collective, is not amenable to persuasion. All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus: My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Sometimes, stretched at ease in the shade of a roadside tree, we watch the motions of a labourer in a distant field, and after a time, begin to wonder languidly as to what the fellow may be at. We watch the movements of his body, the waving of his arms, we see him bend down, stand up, hesitate, begin again. It may add to the charm of an idle hour to be told the purpose of his exertions. If we know he is trying to lift a stone, to dig a ditch, to uproot a stump, we look with a more real interest at his efforts; we are disposed to condone the jar of his agitation upon the restfulness of the landscape; and even, if in a brotherly frame of mind, we may bring ourselves to forgive his failure. We understood his object, and, after all, the fellow has tried, and perhaps he had not the strength—and perhaps he had not the knowledge. We forgive, go on our way—and forget. And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim—the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult—obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.
To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile—such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished. And when it is accomplished—behold!—all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile—and the return to an eternal rest.
Lest we forget or indeed, in case we aren’t yet fully au fait, you may like to listen to or download even, the “1619 Project” podcasts.
literary analysis: a character from Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The novel ‘Paradise’ (or ‘paradise’ as Morrison later wished the title to be; to capitalise or not, a capital idea!) is not known for being an easy to read novel. In fact, as with many of Morrison’s books, it has a reputation for being the opposite—it should be noted that Morrison began writing to “forestall melancholy,” not to write easy to digest stories for cash. Be that as it may, it has nonetheless been said that the “complexity” of this novel distracts from “the profound and, deeply polemical message it conveys” regarding, “gender and American history” (Widdowson 2001 313). It has similarly been described as, “structurally complex … barely heeding the laws of time and place [and Morrison’s] most overtly feminist novel” (Smith 1998) and to be, “the most difficult and complicated of Morrison’s books” (Byerman 2010). In this short essay, the character Mavis Albright will be considered.
To address the question of why this charter is complex we need to consider some facts at the outset (facts relating to this work of fiction). One she was instrumental in the deaths of her two young children. Two her mother betrayed her location to her enraged husband (she had stolen his cherished verdant green Cadillac) and has previously had sex with him. And, three, she was at the one of the women residing at the Convent when the men of Ruby descended upon it to violently attack it. In acting independently our Mavis felt a rare happiness only once experienced before on a funfair ride—“When ‘the Rocket zoomed on the downward swing, the rush made her giddy with pleasure; when it slowed just before turning her upside down through the high arc of its circle, the thrill was intense” (33). She got this from the thrill and safety of absconding in Frank’s Cadillac, “the stable excitement of facing danger while safely strapped in strong metal” (ibid.). Later, in the “Mavis” chapter, we read what Connie said to Mavis in the kitchen of the convent, “scary things not always outside. Most scary things is inside” (39). This chapter also tells us something strange about the convent, “how still it was, as though no one lived there” (45). Is this magic realism? What exactly is real and fictional in this complicated work of fiction?
One reason for why Mavis is a complex character is to do with trust, guilt and confusion. She lost two of her kids (twin with rhyming names: Merle and Pearl) because of a mistake/error she made (so we think) this must be a huge mental burden to anyone. She did not trust the sympathies of the local journalist or the neighbours around her. She has paranoia too (maybe it is more like justified worries) because she wants to escape her abusive husband (understandable) and her surviving children who she feels want to kill her (less understandable, but her eldest daughter does seem to dislike her). Then there’s the mother-daughter trust issues. After escaping from Frank her husband), she ends up with her mum. But soon after her arrival she hears her mum telling him that his wife is with her and that he can come and get her. She heads West again with cash and tablets borrowed from her mother. As with many a great American novel she plans and dreams of California—in a colourful twist, she spray-paints the Cadillac repainted magenta. . . .
. . . Another reason for the character Mavis’s complexity could be because Morrison is linking her to an African spirit god. The character Mavis has been linked not to a biblical character as is often the case with Morrison’s fictional protagonists but with a West African deity (Bur 2006 165–166). It is argued that Morrison links Mavis to Osun. In African mythology, this is linked to a god of joy and children who is also feisty—“is easily offended”—remember that Mavis fights Gigi in a street brawl (who herself is probably sleeping with Seneca). In ‘Paradise’ (168) it does say that Mavis was a “joyful hitter” who enjoyed the fight, “pounding [and] pounding, even biting Gigi was exhilarating” (171). Linked to this is the question of how real the fiction is meant to be, is it a ghost story, is it all an allegory of the unfairness of Adam and Eve?
To the men of Ruby, the women’s self-sufficiency is deeply threatening and see it as, “a coven not a convent” (276). According to Morrison, ‘paradise’ coalesced around the idea of, “where paradise is, who belongs in it … all paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening” (Smith). Mavis is plagued by a terrible situation, abused by her husband (and eldest daughter?) she apparently leaves her infant twins in a Cadillac on a hot day with the windows up, and the babies die” (23). The description if these events are, “wrought in the full glare of Ms. Morrison’s uncompromising gaze” (Smith 1998). Such vivid and ‘haunting’ moments have appeared in many of Morrison’s previous works—mothers killing their kids (‘Beloved’); fathers raping their daughters (‘The Bluest Eye’).
To sum up, Mavis is a complex character in a complicate and difficult to follow book. She certainly is not the only complicated character in this book, but her journey West is like a symbol of the American dream especially because of the icon car the Cadillac. The book shows to us (most) men’s hatred (and lustful desire) for women. This book is more about Adam and Eve than black and white. As critics point out, who was the white girl we read about in the opening lines? Morrison provokes the reader, challenging them to identify a character in terms of race without identify the race of most of the convent’s inhabitants (Byerman). Is our Mavis white? Is it Gigi or her lover Seneca? Maybe it does not matter too much as this book is more about gender than race.
— § —
 This has been to the benefit of us all, in her acceptance talk for the Nobel prize in literature, she said the written word has the ability to, “limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers” and to keep fear at bay but it can also have the opposite impact, “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence” (Smith 1998).
 In trying to understand literary analysis better I learnt a lot from the following point made by Keith Byerman: “Shakespeare never had an original idea for a story. He stole everything.” Writers steal. Writers lie. That is their business. Morrison takes whatever she needs from wherever she gets it. You could pull apart Paradise and find all those different frames of reference. There is some John Milton here. There is some Dante, William Faulkner, and Melville. Pick your source. Do not assume that because you identified the source, you have therefore solved the puzzle. … No! Morrison used a particular kind of source in a particular kind of way. She is always doing it for her own purposes.
 Magenta is a colour that is often defined as purplish-red. It is hard not to link this defiant repaint as encouraging the reader to think of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, ‘The Color Purple.’ They key protagonist in ‘The Colour Purple’—Celie—has a difficult past which is borne from racial discrimination and violence against women. This work is as one with many of Morrison’s magic-realism fictional works because it also follows a journey that is constantly dealing with the vexed subject matter of identity.
Seneca, an interesting non-biblical name. Seneca was venerated as a moral Stoic thinker and for periods of time was one of Emperor Nero’s closest advisers (Kolbert 2015). Seneca He is said to have said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This makes the reader think of the ending of life in African and the starting of slavery, the ending of slavery (explicit) and the beginnings of hidden slavery, the end of Haven and the Move west to Ruby. We then come to think of Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Solder’ the lyrics of it are as here:
There was a Buffalo Soldier
in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
I mean it, when I analyze the stench
To me it makes a lot of sense
How the Dreadlock Rasta
was the Buffalo Soldier
And he was taken from Africa
brought to America
Fighting on arrival
fighting for survival
— § —
Burr, Benjamin. “Mythopoetic Syncretism in Paradise,” in Shirley A. Stave (Ed.). Toni Morrison and the Bible: Contested Intertextualities (pp. 159–174). 2006.
Literary analysis: identifying the ancestor role in Morrison’s 1994 work of fiction, “Paradise.”
The role of ancestor is a constant motive of much of Morrison’s magic-realist writing and it is something that she sees as being distinctively linked to Afro-American literature (Morrison 1988) and something that is important to the Afro-American community in the real world too. She makes it clear it is not so much the role of man but that of ancestor that can hold (and guide) the individual and the family unit, “if we don’t keep in touch with the ancestor that we are, in fact, lost.” (Morrison 2008 63). To understand the definition of the significance of the ancestor role in Morrison’s works of fiction, “one must become familiar with the function of ancestor in West African cosmology” (Beaulieu 2003 4). However, while in some of her novels, the ancestor character is pretty clear, it is not obvious in ‘Paradise’ (1994). In ‘Love’ we can attribute it to L, in ‘Song of Solomon’ we can attribute it to Pilate. Critics contend that the ancestor character is most explicitly spelt out and dealt with in the following works: ‘Tar Baby,’ ‘Beloved’ and ‘Jazz’ (ibid.). This short essay concerns itself with the possibility of Zechariah being the ancestor character in ‘Paradise,’ it also suggests that because gender not race is the key theme of this work, the ancestor element is possibly less important and thus, less prevalent.
Morrison asserts that the ancestor is one of the distinctive elements of Afro-American writing (2008 61) and terms them “timeless people” (62). The timeless status implies the ancestors’ abstractness and their ability to transcend both time and space, diachronically as well as synchronically. In Morrison’s understanding, the particular ancestors coalesce into an abstract mass whose influence on the present is marked, regardless of the times or eras the individual ancestors originate in. Such characters in Morrison’s magic-realist style function as advisor and guide. by always (or is it almost always?) including ancestor figures into her work she enables these “culture bearers” to serve as, “a bridging point between the past and present cultures, mixing the two and influencing the communities through their understanding” (Kota 2016 2).
‘Paradise’ is primarily concerned with two communities: the residents of the small town of Ruby and an old stately home called the Convent in the nearby countryside (Widdowson 2001 314). ‘Paradise’ begins with a group of men from Ruby prepare to kill five women who live in a nearby convent (Krumholz 2002). From the men’s perspectives, the women, like Eve, embody a loss of innocence and an ejection from the Garden of Eden, the earthly Paradise, a loss the men fear and wish to prevent. But as hunted does anointed with “holy oil,” the women are also Christ-like sacrificial victims and the men their executioners (Krumholz). After the massacre of the five women of the Convent by the men of Ruby, their bodies disappear, and the residents of Ruby are then obligated to make sense of the attack and the subsequent strange disappearances—“all the characters in the novel are haunted by past events” (Anderson 2008 146).
The Convent can be viewed as a kind informal women’s refuge. a kind of informal refuge for damaged women. This complicated work of magic-realist fiction is broken down into chapters named after the work’s key protagonists—e.g., “Mavis,” “Grace,” “Seneca.” All key characters are women and include, Gigi, a seductive young woman whose boyfriend is in jail; Seneca, a hitchhiker who has survived abandonment and sexual exploitation; Pallas, a wealthy lawyer’s daughter whose lover left her for her mother” (Kakutani 1998). For the characters of Morrison’s novel to “learn to live,” one literary critic argues they must, “negotiate borders not only between life and death and past and present but between all binaries” (Anderson 148). In ‘Paradise’ Morrison, “privileges liminality, as the Convent women, erased and negatively “ghosted” by the larger society, find empowerment through their communal spiritual experiences in the Convent” (ibid). . . .
. . . Before considering the ancestor role in this work, we must focus more on gender. Why? Well because the focus on gender, reduced the need for and focus on the ancestor role. Whereas earlier Morrison novels like ‘Beloved’ and ‘Song of Solomon’ married the historical and the mythic, the mundane and the fantastic into a seamless piece of music, ‘Paradise’ is said to be, “devoid of both urgency and narrative sleight of hand. It is neither grounded in closely observed vignettes of real life, nor lofted by the dreamlike images the author has used so dexterously in previous works of fiction” (Kakutani 1998). However, it might be because this book is less about the Afro(-American) ancestor and more about gender inequality. Regarding the theme or the subtext, it has been argued that Morrison is saying that, “the price of Ruby’s insistence on maintaining a morally superior master narrative may well be the sacrifice of that very narrative. Rather than a perfect paradise, Ruby ends up as a conservative, patriarchal, thoroughly racialized, and violent community” (Dalsgård 2001).
There is another view on the subtext, it is that Paradise is a. “provocative allegory of nationhood… it begins in July of 1976-the bicentennial of the United States… it is no coincidence that these men are black, and that the first woman they kill is white. When one reads the novel allegorically, as a reconfiguration of the founding of the United States, Morrison’s vision of totalising patriarchal historiography takes on double weight. Storace 1998; Davidson 2001 371). The novel ends (frustratingly and one must say intentionally) before we the readership can know the consequences of the massacre. But we do know what Misner thinks of it all, he inwardly chastises the town for thinking, “they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him… [this is a great thinking point placed here by Morrison:] How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it” (306). It is argued that Ruby, for Misner was an unnecessary failure (Davidson 370).
We first come across the character: Zechariah Morgan on page 96 of ‘Paradise’ (or as subsequently Morrison wished it had been titled “paradise” or alternatively “War”):
“My Father,” he said. “Zechariah here.” Then, after a few seconds of total silence, he began to hum the sweetest, saddest sounds Rector ever heard. Rector joined Big Papa on his knees and stayed that way all night.
What is in a hum? Nothing and everything. We can think of Pilate in ‘Song of Solomon’ to get some guidance here—it is this bellybuttonless ladies’ hum that opened and closed that book. Turning back to our Zechariah Morgan, he is the one who tells us about leading a group of people away from Louisiana toward Oklahoma. Being “too black” to be accepted into various communities along the way, this “disallowing gives them the impetus to migrate westward to establish their own town, Haven (Oki 2013 41)—recall that the character Mavis is headed West too to escape the chains of her husband to the promised lands of California. These basically forced migrations often noted in Morrison’s fiction have been linked by literary critics to the bible’s myth of “Exodus.”
It is Zechariah who talks about a mysterious “walking man” and says this is a moment of epiphany, a kind of revelation (Oki). Zechariah says of this incident, “you can’t start it and you can’t stop it” because, “this is god’s time… [god ain’t gunna] do your work for you, so step lively.” (Morrison 1994, 97–98). At the core of the history and its retelling are the figure of Zechariah Morgan as the link with the ancestor and the oven as a symbol of the ancestral ideas and stories (The Ancestor as Figure in the novels of Toni Morrison 128). It can be argued that the oven that Zechariah constructs in Haven and is then transported to Ruby is symbolic of the community and the fire that they gather around to pass on oral stories. As is mentioned, “Zechariah, the ancestral guardian of the 8-rock community, guides the original wayfarers in their search for the promised land” (ibid.).
To sum up, we can say that Morrison, in most, if not all of her books, seeks to champion the idea that being aware of one’s roots (one’s history in both cultural and ethnic senses) will have more importance to one’s success in life (be this inner contentment or being a good citizen) than would say ignoring the past and/or relying for the most part on self-help books et cetera. As has been said, the relationship between character and ancestor, in Morrison’s prose, “antagonistic or amicable, directly correlates with that character’s success in navigating life” (Beaulieu 5) Milkman’s shifting relationship with his (ancestor character) Aunt Pilate provides a great case study. Regarding ‘Paradise’ I think that Zechariah fits the bill, so to speak, of the ancestor character. It is not as clear cut as in other novels, but ‘Paradise’ maybe had a more contemporary subtext message which may have been less about rootedness and more about feminism.
— § —
 In West African mythology the ancestors live on in a spiritual continuum between worlds and generations. It is articulated as follows: “While anyone has the power to tap into the energies of the ancestors [it is typically the elders of the community that do this in order to] ensure that subsequent generations understand the importance of the ancestors … Morrison modifies this use of the ancestor and transforms it into a literary device that explores the manifold ways in which characters relate to their ancestors and, by extension, their communities” (Beaulieu 2003 4–7).
 Zechariah is a historic character linked to the bible’s Old Testament and is thought to have helped pen the ‘Book of Zechariah’. What might be interesting and explain why Morrison chose this name for the (or one of the) ancestor figure(s) in ‘Paradise’ was because of Zechariah’s circumstances. He was said to have been in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) during the reign of Darius the Great in the era when the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem (think: Africans forcibly transferred from Africa to the heart of America as a consequence of the slave ships) and were being encouraged to build (temporary) homes in lands they’d not originated from (think: Haven then Ruby).
 As is argued, the convent is depicted as a liminal space in which, “the monolithic categories of religion, race, class, and gender converge and make cultural hybridity possible,” this is in stark contrast to Ruby and its men who, “perceive hybridity as a disruptive evil which threatens their sense of selfhood and nationhood” (Fraile-Marcos 2003 4). To be clear here, in an anthropological (and maybe to cognitive and psychological sense) liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that takes place in the middle stage of a rite of passage. French philosopher Jacques Derrida said that if learning to live is to be achieved, “it can happen only between life and death. Neither in life nor in death alone” (Anderson 146). In a liminal state of mind, the concerned individual—or protagonist in a work of fiction—will no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete; a stage between text and subtext, between conscious and unconscious:
 To expand on this point more fully: “By making Ruby’s success dependent on an ancestral heroic commemoration of the success of the community’s founding fathers in establishing a covenanted community in an inhospitable western landscape, by dramatising the angry accusations made by the community’s contemporary patriarchs against the younger generations when the discrepancy between its morally superior master narrative and its actual cultural practices becomes too vast to ignore, and by ultimately having Ruby scapegoat a group of unconventional women for its internal problems, Morrison invites us critically to acknowledge the presence of one of the most canonical European American narratives—that of American exceptionalism, in African American discourse”(Dalsgård 2001 244).
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Anderson, Melanie R. “‘What Would Be on the Other Side?”: Spectrality and Spirit Work in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 307–321. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40301213. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann (Ed.). The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, (2003).
Dalsgård, Katrine. “The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2903255. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Davidson, Rob. “Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 47, no. 3, 2001, pp. 355–373. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3176022. Accessed 19 July 2020.
Fraile-Marcos, Ana Maria. “Hybridizing the “City upon a Hill” in Toni Morrison’s “Paradise”.” Melus, vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 3–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/3595298
Widdowson, Peter. “The American Dream Refashioned: History, Politics and Gender in Toni Morrison’s ‘Paradise.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 2001, pp. 313–335. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27556969. Accessed 19 July 2020.
The essay considers the prospect of large-scale, ethically motivated (individualistic) short-term sacrifice taking place for the assumed longer-term (collective) common good. Put differently, it considers the likelihood of the deferral of immediate gratification occurring; the not eating of one’s cake today so that one (or indeed, one’s offspring) can have it tomorrow. Put specifically, this essay will ask why it seems possible for world governments and international institutions to act quickly and decisively when met with a crisis like Coronavirus (Covid-19) yet seemingly be incapable of acting in such a way when it comes to tackling the longstanding issues of desertification, overfishing and rainforest destruction (i.e., the catchall: ‘environmental crisis’). In sum, I will argue that the reason is simple: today’s humankind have been conditioned to act and think in the short-term, to take pleasures today and bury their heads in the sand when it comes to dealing with the consequences. This is exemplified in activities such as binging on Netflix (resulting in overtiredness and the propensity to eat junk food the following day); spending on credit cards (whereby the hard graft of actually earning is deferred to a future date); overconsumption (that is causing unsustainable natural resource depletion) and, indulging in meat eating (which directly leads to yet more natural resource depletion and, greater likelihood of more zoonotic diseases, resultant from the homogenisation of animals and factory farming). I will argue that because Covid-19 is an immediate problem, government and citizenry seem able to forfeit a lot in an attempt to tackle it ‘now’; however, because the global environmental crisis is seen as a longer-term, abstract and theoretical problem, the political will to make big sacrifices—policies that enforce radical lifestyle changes—is lacking and are, it seems. easy to defer to a non-binding ‘future’ point in time.
It has been argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an impressive level of large-scale inter-governmental coordinated action. However, the extent to which the action is coordinated or unilateral is not yet an established fact. Nonetheless, there clearly has been a great deal of collaboration (be it helping to repatriate citizens, the sharing of research for an inoculation etc.). So, if such collaboration on global issues has now been proven possible, would it not be possible to believe that something similar could happen with respect to the environmental crisis? To answer this question, we would first need to consider if the Covid-19 pandemic is in any way analogous with the environmental crisis? Incidentally, a strong case for directly linking this pandemic to the environmental crisis can be made (consider, e.g., factory farming, overpopulation, and rapid unregulated urbanisation). There are indeed many interconnected questions. What possible lessons might be got from the globe’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic for addressing the environmental crisis? What role may international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) play in bringing about such transformative measures? As Weizsäcker and Wijkman (2017) point out, while leading governments now, “claim to recognise the need to change our way of life, “if we are to survive as a species,” it is far from clear if they actually appreciate, “just how radical that change needs to be.” Lastly, what can concerned individuals do in relation to self-sacrifice for the greater good—not eating the honey to ensure generations to come can have some on their tongues? Does the adage, “think globally, act locally,” still suffice?
This essay will consider the role of ethical sacrifice in effective action on the current pandemic and how that might be extended to effective action on the environment. It will proceed as follows. Firstly, it will consider the issue at hand, the quarantine we in the Arabian Gulf and those in many other parts of the globe are placed under because of Covid-19 (“The issue at stake”). It then considers possible ways of addressing the environmental crisis in light of responses to the current pandemic from the theoretical standpoints of utilitarianism and deontology (“Hypothetical speaking”). The essay then moves on to look at how we tend to opt for immediate gratification even if we half think we would get greater gratification by delaying it, this is made into a honey today allegory throughout this text (“Short-termism”). The next section considers the mechanisms by which such acts of short-term self-sacrifice may actually take place in an ethically sound and non-coercive way (“Implications of large-scale coordinated action”). In the essay’s final part (“Concluding remarks”) research is referred to that implies there are ways to overcome humankind’s propensity to opt for a teaspoon of honey today as opposed to a very likely—but not guaranteed—tablespoon tomorrow.
The issue at stake
As I write all university students in the Arabian Gulf are in self-quarantine (as are many other categories of people; international travel has essentially stopped and most forms of social gatherings have been halted). This period of self-quarantine is in most countries mandatory, varying degrees of punishment are given for those not obeying these orders. The question this essay considers is more focused on the justification for the quarantine than the right of authorities to impose it upon us. Specifically, how can policymakers and think-tanks concerned with the environmental crisis learn from the measures and restrictions rapidly imposed by governments the world over and the general acceptance of citizens to accept these.
Environmentalists have a hard task (not least because overconsumption and going to shopping malls to buy things whether we need them or not seem to now be the pastime of all those in the world who can afford to or have credit cards). As O’Donoghue and Rabin (2000, p. 233) put it, “people have self-control problems.” Environmentalists have to somehow tackle the extent to which the idea of Social Darwinism has become the norm in schools, welfare systems and society at large. As Von Weizsäcker & Wijkman (2017, pp. 6–7) explain the way that Social Darwinism has become blindly accept as the way of things, “right and proper” and even “an iron law of nature” in which “only the most competitive should survive” poses a huge challenge. The notion of survival of the fittest, in my view, does not apply to all species and especially not social ones like us. However, it is easy to see why those wanting to maximise their profits and retain all of their wealth for themselves would propagate Social Darwinism as an immutable truism. Secondly, and in a not unconnected way, environmentalists need to tackle the de facto way in which businesses now operate today, a culture in which the free market doctrine of Milton Friedman is seen as gospel in public management systems worldwide (see, e.g., Klein, 2007).
If we take the point of view that this current quarantine is for the greater good, what arguments could we make to convince sceptics of the merit of self-sacrifice in relation to addressing the root causes of global warming? (i.e., what are the key points to make in order to encourage the public to accept and lawmakers enact self-quarantine legislation). We will also need to ask what a proper ethical framework for understanding the role of sacrifice and large-scale coordinated action with respect to such events ought to be. Such understandings will help give insights in how to better deal with the environmental crisis. Any such insight would need to articulate clear roles for international organisations—e.g., WHO, the World Trade Organisation and other UN bodies—governments and citizens to play. Such roles will need to be conveyed in a consensual way in order to be affective. The truth is most people would prefer a future of uncontrolled chaos than a future where everything is clean and green if the price to pay for the latter is to be bossed around and always told what to do.
Philosophically speaking we could adopt a utilitarian or a deontological perspective in order to justify self-quarantine as the ethically and morally appropriate thing to do. We may then extend the same logic to further acts of individualistic self sacrifice in order to tackle the environmental crisis. To be clear, in the theoretical sense, “utilitarianism” places the focus on the pros and cons of the consequences of any given set of government policies or personal lifestyle choices; it looks beyond self-interest in the here and now and focuses on the common or collective interests of others at a later point in time. The “deontological” differs in that it focuses on the ethical implications (rights and wrongs) of the actions now and not the consequences of those actions at a future point in time.
As we know, democracy is compromise and as we know too, being too dogmatic in one’s views is neither progressive or likely to result in new inventions and forms of creative art. Therefore, it seems to me that in the real world, thinkers and philosophers should not advocate exclusively utilitarian or deontological arguments for dealing with the environmental crisis (and/or the current Covid-19 pandemic). It might help to think of the “carrot or the stick” analogy. As opposed to it being a binary choice, a one or the other, it should be a combination of the two: a bit of carrot and a bit of stick. The question then becomes how much carrot and how much stick?
As Fisher (2019) points out, the discounting of the needs of future generations is analogous to “burying a shard of broken glass in a forest.” The logic is as follows: if a child steps on the glass and cuts themselves today (‘now’) then a discount rate suggests this injury is much worse than a child hurting themselves on that same piece of glass in a millennia or so from now (in the ‘future’) but basically and ‘ethically’, “there is no difference between the two.” Giving in to temptation (e.g., scrolling through an infinite number of Instagram posts as opposed to finishing the research essay) leads to immediate gratification (e.g., happiness from effortlessly looking at satisfying things), but also to delayed negative outcomes (e.g., anxiety and a lower score for a essay submitted after the deadline date). On the other hand, resisting temptation (e.g., drafting and redrafting the research essay) does not make one feel good in the here and now but should result in delayed positive outcomes (e.g., a well received essay with a high grade awarded to it)—see the research of Magen and Gross (2007) on ‘temptation’; a key human tendency.
If we watch TED talks or listen to Big Think or Intelligence Squared debates it seems to be so that the longevity of humankind depends on us reducing our honey consumption rather radically to enable (in theory) our grand and great grandchildren to partake in this heavenly delight too. They key questions seem to be (1) is it, or can it become, part of human nature to be altruistic enough to care about people we will not even be alive to walk and talk with? And if so, (2) what will it take to break free from the short-termist ways so many of today’s humans seem to have adopted?
Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding argued in the mid 1970s; “if one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” Just imagine, Fisher (2019) ponders, how would Boulding react to today’s “relentless, Twitter-fuelled politics” and the non-stop fashion advice etc. that we are bombarded with on a daily basis as a consequence of the internet of things and our love/hate affair with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. As Fisher (2019) states, it is little wonder that “problems like climate change feel so hard to tackle right now.” He asks, “how often do we contemplate the impact of our decisions as they ripple into the decades and centuries ahead?” (see Appendix B). As Magen and Gross (2007 p. 415) put it, today temptations surround us—“sugar-coated donuts [and] distracting TV shows—critically these things all have one thing in common, the “promise [of] immediate pleasure and delayed suffering.” They go on to articulate how less obvious forms of temptations are also potential sources of harm to us and others—e.g., “driving too fast, speaking angrily, and procrastinating”—and caution that the struggle against temptations is “constant, and success is far from assured.”
In a seminal study that sought to investigate the antecedents and correlates of choice behaviour with respect to the delaying of gratification, Mischel and Gilligan (1964, p. 411) observed that
Yielding to temptation—in a situation in which attainment of achievement rewards is contingent upon deviant (cheating) behaviour—was conceptualised to be a function of (a) the strength of the motivation to attain the prohibited gratification, and (b) the inability to delay immediate gratification.
Some psychologists have used the metaphor of a “horse and rider” to describe this tension between our rationality and urges, “the rider knows it is smart to think longer-term, but the horse has its own ideas” (Fisher, 2019). This begs the question, if we are susceptible to ignoring the wellbeing of our own health the day after tomorrow, it is even harder to imagine how most people will have real empathy for their yet to be born descendants. This focus on self-interest and short-termism is most obviously seen in politics (doing what is necessary to be popular today and not what is best for the given country’s longer-term interest) and economics (consumption over and above necessity).
As Semuels (2016) has argued, once upon a time, what was good for many business tended to be good for the country as a whole, “companies invested in their workers and new technologies, and as a result, they prospered and their employees did too.” Today things are different. They are different because people want to have their honey today, not to delay for a possibly larger and possibly tastier quantity of honey tomorrow. There is now widespread concern that businesses are too focused on short-term profits and are thus not, “investing in their workers, in research, or in technology—short-term costs that would reduce profits temporarily” (Semuels, 2016).
Implications of large-scale coordinated action
Beckstead (2013 p. ii) has put forward the following thesis, from a global perspective, “what matters most (in expectation) is that we do what is best (in expectation) for the general trajectory along which our descendants develop over the coming millions, billions, and trillions of years.” This sounds and seems to be utilitarian in nature for it suggests that future generations are of more import that our current one. We most of us have tasted some honey, those yet to be born certainly have not. What right do we have to deny them this delicious opportunity? The issue soon becomes technical and difficult because who knows what are the best actions for us to take ‘now’ to ensure that we can best ensure there is honey available to be tasted in the ‘future’?
One way of trying to measure this is use Social Discount Rates (SDRs). SDRs might be used to put a present value on costs and benefits that will occur at a later date” (LSE, 2018). In the context of tackling the environmental crisis, SDRs might be used to calculate and forecast how much today’s society should invest in trying to limit the impacts of climate change for tomorrow’s generations. In other words, they calculate how much self-sacrifice will probably be needed in the here and now in order to ensure the generations of the future will still have a natural environment to enjoy and utilise in a sustainable way. SDRs are designed to weigh future people’s benefits against the costs borne by us today (we self-sacrifice by self-quarantining; we could then self-sacrifice by reducing the number of times we travel by air for holidays and pleasure).
This all gets complicated because nobody really knows how much we should sacrifice. Imagine for instance international travel, should we tell rich people to only take one holiday per year, would they accept this? Which government could win elections with such promises? According to Hodgkinson (2014), the main issue in terms of addressing the environmental crisis is that, if the world’s key governments and institutions were to agree to reduce carbon emissions now, “people living in the future will benefit, not those living today … but it is we [who will] bear the costs of reducing such emissions.”
Remembering the extent to which Social Darwinism is seen as a law of nature (it is not) and the extent to which most business leaders and world governments have adopted the economic philosophy of Milton, it is hard to see how anyone (be it a liberal democratic institution or a concerned individual) advocating frugality, reusing as opposed to throwing away and repurchasing is likely to do well. The thing is this, free market economic policies are causing the overexploitation of the natural environment and businesses are all encouraging people to spend big today and forget about tomorrow. The few businesses or governments that might want to self-sacrifice will likely be put out of business or become unelectable as short-termists will price them out of the market. As many have suggested, the dominant view prevailing view at the international level about action on climate change seems to be, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” And it is those views about what future generations are worth that will determine whether or not we are actually able to deal with the world’s most pressing issue, the global environmental crisis (e.g., Hodgkinson, 2014; Martin, 2015)
While I argued that short-termism is the current zeitgeist, politically, economically and in terms of humankind’s consumption and lifestyle choices, and that it is short-termism—“The Century of the Self” as Adam Curtis (2002) calls it —that is the main reason for there being no clear roadmap to address the environmental crisis, I am actually a rational optimist. I will dwell a bit and now ask you to dig deep, in a thinking sense, to what Andersen wrote in 2012. She argues, and I paraphrase, that humankind must consciously put aside their own pleasures and preferences for the greater good, because it exercises a kind of ‘moral muscle’ in us. She continues, such selfless acts can actually strengthen us by showing us that we are not simply selfish, hedonistic creatures. Acting in such a way, she contends will probably lead to, “stronger bonds of trust and mutual respect” amongst human beings, reminding us that “living on this planet is a group endeavour; that none of us can survive alone.” We must begin to accept (with the ‘carrot’ of improving our ‘moral muscles’) that making ethical choices that may not be comfortable or lucrative are sometimes, simply put, the right thing to do. I would say that too much of a draconian ‘stick’—like the authoritarian tracking of citizens to, monitor their temperature as some states are doing now—will ultimately backfire.
As Magen and Gross (2007, p. 415) point out and then ponder, “many of us succumb to temptations, despite knowing that we will later regret doing so … how can such behaviour be avoided?” I can reply with experience, “such behaviour cannot easily be avoided.” However, referring once more to the seminal work of Mischel and Gilligan (1964, p. 417), two important findings are drawn, both of which do offer us hapless sinners some ray of light (a possibility of there being some honey and happiness both in the ‘now’ and for the ‘future’). First, they did observe that responses to temptation are not “simply a function of internal controls” and that conceptualisation concerning behaviour in a temptation situation should take into consideration the reward value of the prohibited gratification. Secondly, they concluded that “individual and situational differences in preferences for such immediate gratification.” O’Donoghue and Rabin (2000, p. 247) talk about ‘naïfs’ and ‘sophisticates’ and they demonstrate that with education and increasing the awareness of the implications of behaviour today and its impact on them tomorrow may result in changes to short term behavioural patterns. They back this up by saying the sophisticates were in some ways more able to delay immediate gratification as they were more aware of its possible future adverse consequences.
Therefore, it seems to me that if leaders and role models can really sell us the idea of delayed pleasure (e.g., the foregoing of (some) honey for the common good of tomorrow’s generations) can bring us happiness in the sense of the feel-good factor of being a nicer person, then we can hope to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic response. We can then realistically dream of averting the impending climate change catastrophe. It is very important that we do not be totally utilitarian or totally deontological in approach. I will say that a mixture of the two is both ethically and morally sound and critically, more likely to bring to us the end we want without making the means too unpalatable and difficult to endure.
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 In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic; the extent to which it has impacted on GDP growth and international travel by air is unprecedented and is projected to result in the biggest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s (Gopinath, 2020). The ‘environmental crisis’ includes the following features, all of which human population growth and consumption choices cause: biodiversity loss (a load of fauna and flora are threatened with extinction because of the destruction of their natural habitats and direct exploitation—think of Wuhan’s animal market and overfishing of the seven seas), climate change (global warming and stratospheric ozone depletion), deforestation, desertification (soil erosion and degradation) and the scarcity of clean fresh water.
 Refer to Sheahan et al. (2008); “Zoonotic SARS-CoV likely evolved to infect humans by a series of transmission events between humans and animals for sale in China” (p. 2274).
 As I write this essay, China and the USA are playing a blame game. Basically, both governments are attempting to shift attention from their own mistakes by seeking to turn the public attention to the mistakes they allege of each other (see Appendix A). More recently still the U.K.’s government has accused Russian spies of seeking to steal British research insights into Covid-19 and, the very next day (‘…you took it all away’) the U.S.A.’s government accused Chinese spies of seeking to pinch American research insights into Covid-19. (see: Walker (2020) and Gramer (2020), respectively)
 In this wide-ranging video documentary, we hear a lot about consumerism and commodification and links this to contemporary view on fashion. It makes the argument that superficiality benefits big business. what is interesting is that this was made before social media. So, the points made almost 20 years ago are even stronger today. The last US election was not about politics and policies, it was about media manipulation, showmanship and ad hominem gone wild.
 China is using big data to control and monitor everything its citizens do, where they go, what they do and who they meet. Many others are following China’s lead in increasingly monitoring every move of their citizens be it Hungary, Thailand, or the Philippines (Gebrekidan, 2020). Closer to home, we see this happening too in Egypt. As Magdy (2020) writes, Egypt’s President has granted himself more powers using Covid-19 as a cover. While some of the new powers can be linked to Covid-19 human rights groups say, others such as the power to now ban public and private meetings, protests and even celebrations, can not.
Mischel, W., & Gilligan, C. (1964). Delay of gratification, motivation for the prohibited gratification, and responses to temptation. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(4), 411–417. doi:10.1037/h0048918
O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (2000), The economics of immediate gratification. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, 13(2), 233–250.
Sheahan, T., Rockx, B., Donaldson, E., Sims, A., Pickles, R., Corti, D., & Baric, R. (2008). Mechanisms of zoonotic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus host range expansion in human airway epithelium. Journal of virology, 82(5), 2274–2285. doi:10.1128/JVI.02041-07
Despite there being many instances of global cooperation etc., not everything is ethically minded and being done altruistically. According to one viewpoint, historians of the future might record that, “the Covid-19 pandemic marked the start of a new cold war between China and the US” (Rachman, 2020). As Prasso (2020) makes clear, mistakes in relation to the virus were made on both sides—cover-ups and arrests on China’s part, downplaying the virus’s contagiousness and suggesting the injecting oneself with household bleach may be a remedy on America’s part.
As Fisher (2019) stresses, today’s population of 7.7 billion is small if balanced against all humans who are to be born. If Homo sapiens endure for thousands of years to come, billions of yet to be born individuals do rely on us to do the right thing regarding the environmental crisis. Intangibly it will benefit ‘our’ peace of mind; the benefit to ‘them’ will be very tangible.
Simply put an illusion is something that is not real. But we most of us want to believe in things that science and reason tell us, by verifiably replicable experiments and observations, are not real; are “illusionary.” They say we see with our eyes, but let us be clear here, our eyes simply act as conduits to our brains, it is our brains that decipher and decide. For those fortunate enough not to be blind, we do like to be titillated by objects of beauty, panoramic views, the flickering of a fire, the waves rolling in and, optical illusions. The latter are a subject of much interest, writing in 1976, Coren et al. (1976, p. 129) pointed out that in the 120 years since Johann Joseph Oppel published the first systematic work on visual geometric illusions, “nearly a thousand papers have appeared that deal with distortions evoked by simple two-dimensional patterns of lines.” In the past 20 years with the aid of computers (to analyse) and social media (to share) the interest in optical illusions has grown further still (Alter, 2013; Hogenboom, 2015; Schultz, 2013). In this short essay I will discuss a number of such illusions, the way/s in which they trick the brain (alongside the human visual system) and the psychology behind them. But first I will discuss the workings of the eye and how it, like the human brain, is very susceptible to chicanery and trickery—to being deceived.
In the beholder’s eye
We know that the human eye works like a camera. When we look at something, light reflected from that thing enters the eyes through the pupil. Bizarrely it comes in upside down and this light and colour info is focused through the optical bits and bobs within the eye (see Appendix A). As Whitaker et al. (1996, p. 2957) point out in relation to the typical functioning of the human eye:
Judgment of the relative position of objects is an important feature of the human visual system. We seem able to perform this task effortlessly across spatial scales. Thus, whilst we can view two objects and estimate their separation, we are also aware of the relative position of internal features of the objects themselves.
However, the human eye, as with the human mind can easily be tricked. Optical illusions occur because our brains automatically try to interpret and make sense of what we see, usually they get things right, that Apple iPad ‘is’ an Apple iPad but, magicians and sellers of snake oil (and psychologists and visual artists) have long known eyes can be tricked because the human brain is partial to seeing myth as fact and fact as fake. Optical illusions fool our brains into seeing things which are there when they are not actually there or are not seemingly there when, in fact, they actually are.
Perception—what we think, what we think we see—is the interpretation of the things that enter our minds including via our eyes. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is subjective. Therefore, the same object will not be seen as the same thing by any two people. As pointed out by Hogenboom (2015) Aristotle wrote that, “our senses can be trusted but they can be easily fooled.” This was in the context of him looking (not into Nietzsche’s abyss, but) into a waterfall for too long. He observed that, if we watch something moving quickly for too long, and then look at an inanimate object next to it — like the rocks beside a waterfall — they will appear to move in the opposite direction; a phenomena now classified as the “motion aftereffect” or, “the waterfall illusion.” Neuroscientists have argued that this can be explained by the fact that it takes a lot of energy and effort for the eye to compute fast moving and continually ‘forward’ moving objects so that when it suddenly switches to seeing a stationary object if over emphasises the lack of movement and moves the object slowly ‘backward’ (Hogenboom, 2015).
There is a theory attached to all of this and it is called the Centroid Hypothesis. It states that judgments of distance between visual objects are influenced by the brain’s computation of the “centroids of the luminance profiles of the objects” (Whitaker et al., 1996). Concerning the Devil’s Trident (see Appendix B), the Müller-Lyer arrows (see Appendix C), the Penrose triangle (see Appendix D) and similar illusions, the pattern of neural excitation evoked by contextual flank overlaps with that caused by the stimulus terminator, thereby leading (due to the shift of the centroid of summed excitation) to its perceptual displacement. The relative displacement of all stimulus terminators leads to misjudgement of distances between them; that is, the illusion occurs as a side effect due to necessarily low spatial resolution of the neural mechanism of assessment of the relative location of the visual objects.
The Devil’s Trident 🔱
The Devil’s Trident (a.k.a., “The Impossible Trident”) was first noted in the academic press by an American psychologist—Donald Schster—who is said to have been inspired by an advert he saw in a magazine (Schuster, 1964). Accounts of the “Devil’s Trident”—see Appendix B—stress that the middle prong, “appears to be in two places at the same time” and that it involves, “incompatible surface depth cues linked as though they were compatible” (Masterton & Kennedy, 1975, p.107).
Knowledge of optical illusions is not a recent thing. Like all good things, we can go back to Ancient Greece to find initial thinking on the subject: Aristotle and the waterfall (as mentioned above). Indeed, as Bach and Poloschek (2006 p. 21) say, Plato also alerted us to the discrepancy between perception and reality in his “Allegory of the Cave.” Philosophers remain intrigued to this day. As Donaldson (2017) argues that impossible figures prove problematic for sense-data accounts of perception that contend that, corresponding to every visual human experience, there are mental objects (sense-data) that we are aware of—and that sense-data have the properties that the objects that our experiences tell us they do. The problem is that sense-data would have to be impossible objects … surely, impossible objects can’t exist!” There are other explanations. For example, illustrations like the Müller-Lyer arrows (see Appendix C) confuses the brain (in some cultures, according to Alter (2013), not all) and it overcompensates, “making the line appear bigger — as it would have to be in real life to produce those kinds of proportions” (Hogenboom, 2015).
To sum up, we can assume that we will never be able to suddenly see true reality with crystal clear clarity and 20/20 vision, be it the waterfall’s rock, the shadow play in the cave or the Devil’s Trident. But this is the magic of reality. This is something we should embrace and revere, not fear. Just because we do not know what lies within black holes or what exists beyond the edge of the universe does not mean we need to create myths to fill in the gaps and then dogmatically and religiously follow them (see Dawkins, 2011). Personally, I like that art can trick us it actually says to me we are human. Also, I feel that visual illusions are actually logical and explainable by reason and science: our brains have evolved to need to constantly predict what is about to happen so, illusions demonstrate our brain being logical and telling us what we should ‘typically’ see not what we rarely physically see.
Whitaker, D., McGraw, P. V., Pacey, I., & Barrett, B. T. (1996). Centroid analysis predicts visual localization of first-and second-order stimuli. Vision Research, 36(18), 2957–2970. doi.org/10.1016/0042-6989(96)00031-4
Please allow me to introduce to you, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, by James Frazer (1st ed. 1890; 2nd ed. 1913). (📙 The Golden Bough.)
William Blake’s The Ancient of Days
Christ Pantocrator mosaic @ Hagia Sophia
Mephisto in front of God and the three archangels, drawn by August von Kreling in Goethe’s Faust.
Michelangelo’s God @ the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican
You know, when we English Lit. students dream of being writers, we somehow think we’ve something to add to the canon, in some ways, we all have, but the more I dig, the more I scan Project Gutenberg (e t c .),* the more I realise that countless thousands who’ve lived (read, thought, written) and died before I was pushed out into this world, have probably (no ‘definitely’) thought what I think (far more deeply), have set out to articulate what I abstractedly and dreamily plan to one day articulate (& they’ve actually done so in concrete codex form). I feel I’m in the dead calm at the very centre of a tropical vortex –((( it’s wondered off course, North, for I reside in The Pearl; a multi-story complex built beside an artificial lagoon on a peninsula that juts out into the tepid seawater of the Arabian Gulf. Languid in largesse the panoramic view is beset by an unrelenting, near blinding, shimmer — the sun bleaches and becalms vigour. Maritime scenes are confused by midday mirages, mercury in colour — oil money stymies gainful endevour. )))– for I’ve scedules and to-do-lists, ambitions and passions, but I’m laying here listless. And while all is swirling tumultuously around me I’m strapped down by paralysis, I want to write, I want to let it bleed, I so dearly want “writing to be my therapy” as we’d say to each other it would be. We’d say such things in abstract ways mulling over a potential future parting of ways that neither you or I, back then, could seriously contemplate as a possible eventuality. // The whirlpool’s walls tower up indeterminately, they seem to be leaning in, this could be an optical illusion, but more likely it is nature’s way via the force of gravity; you sea, once I had it all; now I’ve nothing at all. \\ They’d say things like “he’s a man of letters” — I’ve read it said — and I’ll update that to be s/he, but yes, in the days before swiping right and switching swiftly between screens, writers on their typewriters (or with paper and gravity aloof pencils), would certainly have been better readers and thus better writers. I was born less than half a dozen years before the millennium, iPads were out before I was into my teenage years. I can’t compare the past to now from knowledge of both, but I’m confident that reading (in say the Victorian/Edwardian way/day) is increasingly a rarity today. On my bloody fucking university campus most key text books are only supplied to us as eBooks (I ain’t even lying . . . I will walk and I will talk).
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Here’s an extract — the Preface to a follow-on work The Aftermath (1936) the language, I think, is sublime:
When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Rough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking ; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood. But insensibly I was led on, step by step, into surveying, as from some specular height, some Pisgah of the mind, a great part of the human race ; I was beguiled, as by some subtle enchanter, into inditing what I cannot but regard as a dark, a tragic chronicle of human error and folly, of fruitless endeavour, wasted time, and blighted hopes. At the best the chronicle may serve as a warning, as a sort of Ariadne’s thread, to help the forlorn wayfarer to shun some of the snares and pitfalls into which his fellows have fallen before him in the labyrinth of life. Such as it is, with all its shortcomings, I now submit The Golden Bough in its completed form to the judgment of my contemporaries, and perhaps of posterity.
Here is another one:
The advance of knowledge is an infinite progression towards a goal that for ever recedes. We need not murmur at the endless pursuit:
Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.**
Great things will come of that pursuit, though we may not enjoy them. Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future—some great Ulysses of the realms of thought—than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. In the ages to come man may be able to predict, perhaps even to control, the wayward courses of the winds and clouds, but hardly will his puny hands have strength to speed afresh our slackening planet in its orbit or rekindle the dying fire of the sun. Yet the philosopher who trembles at the idea of such distant catastrophes may console himself by reflecting that these gloomy apprehensions, like the earth and the sun themselves, are only parts of that unsubstantial world which thought has conjured up out of the void, and that the phantoms which the subtle enchantress has evoked to-day she may ban to-morrow. They too, like so much that to common eyes seems solid, may melt into air, into thin air.
* Project Gutenberg is the world’s oldest digital library. It places books into the public domain — most are older works that are thus out of copyright. This altruistic endevour began with the efforts of American writer Michael S. Hart in 1971. See for example: 📙 The Golden Bough. A similar project is called The Internet Archive. It provides free access to researchers and the general public. It’s mission is none other than to provide universal access to all knowledge thus far accumulated by human kind. See for example: 📙 Aftermath, a Supplement to the Golden Bough
❝ Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. ❞
— John Locke
❝ Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. ❞
— Sir Francis Bacon
❝ If you do not like to read, you have not [yet] found the right book. ❞
— J. K. Rowling