A Choreographed Dance Through Time

Smiling Victorians

To everything turn, turn, turn; there is a season.”

You may be familiar with this verse, adapted from Ecclesiastes for song by the musician Peter Seeger in the late 1950s and later sung by The Byrds in 1965.

An excerpt from the original:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Ecclesiastes 3

It’s in the changing of the seasons, that I become most aware of the passage of time, as autumn gently gives way to winter, which always seems too long; and spring and summer, when they finally arrive, too short.

The flow of time is mysterious like that, it flows ever forward and never backwards, and yet so much of existence, like the seasons, seems cyclical; hence the eternal wisdom of the words above.

Strangely, I had that same feeling looking at pictures of smiling Victorians.

The smile broke the time barrier.

The usually severe Victorians suddenly seemed closer in time than they ever had before. The photographs could have been taken yesterday. Over a hundred years separating us seemed like hardly any distance at all.

We live in an age obsessed with “the future” and the next big thing, as if human development occurs in a straight line with no opportunity for rear-view glances.

But, as the beautiful poetic words from Ecclesiastes suggest, the human psyche is rooted in something more ancient and abiding than the latest technological fad.

Hands joining hands in a Hora-like dance that has lasted millennia, the dancers change, but the steps endure.

Featured Image Credit: “Smiling Victorians”

Mob Morality

twitter mob

Nothing quite affords anonymity like the Internet does. One may choose to be anonymous there, and by its very nature you already are: a minute part of an enormous data set, where our merged identities form a gigantic collective, infinitesimal flashes of electricity, amongst trillions of others, in a remote server farm far, far away.

On a personal level, anonymity is a convenient little costume to slip into online. It usually acquits you of any repercussions; one can perform traceless acts of virtual violence, then withdraw from the online world and carry on with everyday life, as if nothing had happened. Although your chosen prey may not find it so easy to afterwards.

Social media enhances and amplifies this phenomenon, and it is there that something really ugly emerges:

Mobs.

They are a permanent feature of life on social media now. Outraged mobs on Twitter resemble scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where a lone individual is pursued by a swirl of angry, pecking tweeting.

Believing might makes right, these mobs, by sheer virtue of their numbers, demand conformity and total obedience. It doesn’t matter how much hurt they cause, they operate in an anonymous, consequence-free zone where power is crowdsourced and responsibility distributed.

Even though a member of the mob may go by their real name, they are anonymised through their absorption into the furious multitude.

No one has yet been held responsible for the vicious attack on the family of the late Sunil Tripathi, the student wrongly identified as one of the Boston bombers by the misguided hordes on social media.

Jittery advertisers, afraid of compromising their brands, often acquiesce to the mob’s demands by pulling financial support from individuals and websites that have incurred the mob’s wrath, serving only to legitimise it and setting dangerous precedents that are wide open to future abuse.

As a result of these faceless gangs on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, etc., people have had their livelihoods destroyed or been forced out of their jobs, reputations irreparably damaged. Often for the simple sin of expressing an opinion the mob don’t like.

This is the true horror of social media and modern Internet culture, how destructive it can be of individuality and independent thought.

A while ago, I had a run in with someone on Twitter over an article I wrote, he said to me something I can’t remember verbatim, but to the effect of: “Now you see the reaction to your blog, maybe you’ll rethink what you said.”

What he seemed to be implying with this statement is that my conscience should be externally, rather than internally guided. Instead of speaking my own unique truth, I should allow it to be defined by others, should it come into conflict with their worldview.

This is mob morality, which is, in fact, no morality at all.

It is merely a display of pure brute force, where the ends justify the means, and righteous anger devolves into verbal abuse. One concedes not to a superior argument, but is overwhelmed by a wave of rage.

In this new social order, the reaction to content is more important than the relative merits of the content itself – and in the hits-hungry digital economy, probably more valuable.

And there’s the rub: unscrupulous, controversy-courting media loves whipping up the easily manipulated mob to get more traffic to their sites. They are the ones who truly benefit from discord. It’s an effective strategy: divide and conquer.

In the midst of these cynical agendas, we must work hard to retain our individual identity, listen carefully to our inner voice and not reduce our complex humanity to someone else’s triumphant spike on a Google Analytics report.

Featured Image Credit: Candice Holdsworth

Love Letter to Science, from a Romantic Aesthete

Particles

It is with some interest that I am following the ‘discovery’, or perhaps, ‘confirmation of’ the existence of the Higgs boson particle. And although it is not with the in depth knowledge of someone who can credibly hold forth on the minutiae of what the actual implications of this are for The Standard Model, I can still take pleasure in this advancement of human knowledge. It brings up so many themes and topics, too numerous to discuss here, but perhaps the most important is that the scientific method has once again won through with its humble, painstaking approach to problem-solving. Which is something valuable in a world of ideological and political grandstanding. It has the courage to stand humbly before the unknown, and if proven wrong, to admit to it and begin again; all along knowing (without 100% certainty of course) that the journey of discovery does not end with one erroneous turn.

This, in contrast, to the many divisive figures today, in the media and the public sphere, who resemble small children, fingers defiantly stuck in their ears, yelling nonsensically. To make the analogy more accurate, we would have to multiply the number of children (at a conservative estimate) by about ten thousand, all yelling at once, in a crowd.

So, when the intellectual arrogance and pessimism of the media chorus becomes too much, the place to go to is the serenely scientific Carl Sagan, who perhaps married art and science more successfully than any other public figure. In the series Cosmos (1980), his precise, poetic rendering of the Universe, allowed noobs like me to entertain the absurd notion that we understood exactly what he was talking about.

Left: Carl Sagan, featuring Stephen Hawking – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ (Symphony of Science) 

 

Indeed, he was a champion of wanting to know, resisting the comforts of complacency. And that is not something only science can lay claim to. I’ve never understood the often aloof relations between art and science; because if we were ever to reach Mars, in that first expedition, along with the scientists, we would have to send philosophers and artists and poets too. Because, when combined correctly, there is no coupling more capable of achieving the sublime.

Love and Affection

For those of you who have been following Athena and Wry Republic for some time, you will remember that I wrote last year about my brother’s time in the ICU ward after undergoing brain surgery. It was an instructive period that taught me a great deal about fragility and kindness.

This last week, my brother found himself in that place again. It’s been a tough few years for him, he’s recovering well after this latest bout of surgery. I hope it will be the last time he will have to endure it and will finally be able to move on with his life, unblighted by malady.

These past seven days have taken on a strange routine, ordered by the hospital’s visiting hours and the duration of the journey there and back.

All other duties and obligations faded in importance next to the primacy of this daily task, which my family and I completed happily everyday.

For anyone who has spent a prolonged period of time in a hospital will know that even in the grim circumstances, a camaraderie develops between the staff, visitors and patients. A tacit acknowledgement that we are all in this together.

The nursing staff were saintlike when stress and worry prevented us from being as friendly and forthcoming as we normally would be. They were patient and understanding beyond the call of duty, leading my brother to remark on how under appreciated they are.

Love and affection, the only two things that make this brief time suspended in space, orbiting the inferno, truly worth it.

Jealous Hyacinth, Faithful Violet and Beautiful Orchid; Flowers, Language and Love

“They say that her limbs became rooted fast in the ground; and a livid paleness turned part of her colour into that of a bloodless plant. There is a redness in some part; and a flower, very like a violet, conceals her face. Though she is held fast by a root, she turns towards the Sun, and though changed, she still retains her passion.”

The metamorphosis of the nymph Clytie, who was in love with the Sun, into a sunflower. (Ovid; Metamorphoses 8AD) 

….

In Japan it is known as Hanakotoba (花言葉), “the language of flowers”. In Victorian England the study of floriography reached its cultural peak.

When it comes to matters of the heart, we commonly assume that flowers are more articulate than we are. A bouquet of roses or a single carnation are perfectly formed symbols of our desire. Quiet codes that we proffer in the hopes that they communicate a sincere feeling.

 

Left: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (John Singer Sargent 1885-6) Right: “Rose”; Source: Creative Commons, Flickr

In ancient Greek mythology, some flowers had their own creation myth; as in the excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses above, such was often borne out of human drama, of love and rejection. According to the Greek myth, the flower Narcissus Jonquila was created after the handsome mortal Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. Unable to touch and hold the image he was so besotted by, he died heartbroken by the waterside and his body was transformed into a white flower with a yellow centre.

It is the expressive aesthetic qualities of flowers that lead us to anthropomorphise them in this way, using them as emotional prosthetics. After all, what can convey passion more powerfully than the deep scarlet of a rose?

Its simple evocative beauty contains all the subtlety of a love poem.