Category Archives: Literature

History and Historical Revisionism – Is What We Read Of The Past Ever A True Reflection Of How It Really Happened

This week I was alerted to a wonderful quote about books and reading – ‘the miracle of literature is that it can get you to understand, even a tiny bit, what it is like to be another human being’. My all-time favourite quote on reading before finding this one, goes ‘I read to realize I am not alone’. I have always been a ‘bookworm’ throughout just about all of my life. My mother often used to laugh in my pre-teen years, as whenever she called me, I would never hear her, as my head was always ensconced in a new book, and my mind always enthralled by tales created by great writers of the past to a level that the fiction of what I was reading often claimed more of my attention than that of the reality around me. As I grew older and became an academic, my taste for reading changed completely away from fiction to non-fiction, and I am sure whatever intelligence, viewpoints, perceptions and way of reasoning I have developed is mostly down to what I have read and absorbed from reading (obviously social interactions, particularly with significant role models, either negative or positive, played their part in my development too). A significant discussion with a highly respected old family friend, Simon Pearce, in my early thirties, when he said to me I should read history to best understand life, had a profound impact on me, and while always being interested in history, perhaps because of this advice from someone whose intellect I greatly admire, the last decade I have read a lot of history, and have indeed benefitted I think from doing so in many ways. But history, and the description of it, can be a ‘treacherous’ teacher, given that it is by nature reflective, dependent on the world-view and background of the historian who writes it, and a product of the contemporary zeitgeist of the current period of time in which it was or is written, and one therefore has to be very careful of how much one ‘believes’ of what one reads of history as being truly representative of the events as they happened in the times they describe.

History is defined as the study of past events, especially of human affairs. The word history is thought to have come from the Ancient Greek word ‘historia’, meaning ‘inquiry’ or ‘judge’. Historians are folk who write about history, and it is still controversial if a historian should be merely a chronicler or compiler of past events, or a critical analyst of them. Generally it is perceived that written documentation or transcripts of past events are necessary for historical accounts to be both assimilated and described, and events occurring prior to the presence of written records are described as ‘pre-historic’, and fall in to the realm of archaeological based academic work. We therefore have a relatively short period of historical ‘knowledge’, given that the first texts written have only survived from a few thousand years in the past, and the great period of human life and ‘history’ prior to these is virtually unknown, save what can be gleaned from archaeological digs and speculation from what is found in them. History is divided up into a number of fields of study, from a generic perspective which includes comparative history (historical assessment of social and culture entities that are not confined to national boundaries) and counterfactual history (the study of history as it might have happened had different circumstances arisen), and from a specific perspective includes the history of particular epochs of time or the history of specific human activities (such as military or economic history).

Academic researchers studying the field of history occupy themselves with identifying and solving the philosophical conundrums related to studying history such as what the correct ‘unit’ of study of the past is (for example is it the individual human condition, or the prevalent culture of the time, or the activities of the nation or state and how it impacted on the individual and other nations or states around them), and whether from history patterns or cycles of behaviour at either the individual or nation level can be determined. As described above, a ‘problem’ of history is that it is always written at a certain contemporary time, which will have a dominant social thinking and view of the past, and it is surely difficult for a historian not to be affected by this when writing their own account of whatever component of history they are involved with writing about. An even more post-modern view which has been suggested is that history as a concept is irrelevant from a generic perspective, as the study of history is always reliant on a personal interpretation of sources, and thus ‘history’ as a general concept is a redundant one. History writing itself often moves in ‘patterns’ of its own, with some epochs focussing more on ‘glorifying’ the successes of nations or ‘great’ individuals in history (and clearly many nations create ‘official’ historical publications as a way of glorifying their past, or justifying / ‘cleansing’ the more sordid components of their past) with subsequent epochs of history writing challenging these ‘glorious’ interpretations of history in a more dispassionate and reasoned way.

A good example of all of the interest of history as a subject, how it can be revised and manipulated for national or individual ‘gain’, and how with reflection a more balanced interpretation of the true nature of history is derived became evident to me after ‘studying’ from a reading of history perspective the role of Winston Churchill in World War Two. Churchill was, and perhaps still is, surely one of the most well-known figures in history in the Western world, and if you polled folk for their knowledge and opinion of him, they would say he was the person who saved Britain during the war, and / or led the country to ultimate triumph during the war in a heroic and masterful way (though even the knowledge of Churchill is becoming ‘dimmed’ with the passing of time as it does with all people). My own interest in him, and the World War Two period, stemmed from growing up in the 60’s and 70’s with a father who had an interest in military history and was for a short period of time in the civilian force military, and with the knowledge that a grandfather had fought in World War Two and was interned for a long period of it. On our bookshelf in the home of my youth were all Churchill’s volumes he himself wrote on the history of World War Two in the decade after it ended, and I remember with fondness many discussions with my Dad, or between him and his friends that I listened to way back then, describing or arguing about Churchill’s leadership during the war, and the merits of his place in the pantheon of successful military and political war leaders in general historical terms.

I had a mostly positive viewpoint regarding Winston Churchill and his part in ‘winning the war’ because of these early experiences of ‘history according to Dad’ for most of my life, until I started reading more carefully other accounts of the events during the war and Churchill’s part of them. The most startling of these accounts which very much changed my perspective on Churchill were the war diaries of General (later Field Marshal) Alan Brooke, who was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and military leader of all Britain’s ground forces, and worked in tandem with Churchill who was the political leader. Diaries are fascinating, given that as long as they are not altered at a later point in time, they tell things ‘how they are’ on a daily basis, albeit with the particular viewpoint of the person writing them, and I have read and re-read Brooke’s diaries between 10 and 20 times to date (and they are about 1000 pages in length, so each doing so was surely a ‘labour of love’) given how astonishing the information described in them is. For what became clear to me when reading them, is that Churchill, in writing his own version of the ‘history of World War Two’ after it was complete, essentially wrote an autobiography giving his own interpretation of his own role during the war, and as such (like so many autobiographies) glorified his own role, attenuated or ignored his own responsibilities for the more sordid or disastrous events Britain suffered or was part of during the war, and perhaps most shamefully, was not generous in acknowledging the role of people around him in ‘winning the war’ (and I am talking person wise, rather than country wise – surely Russia can take almost 90 percent of the credit for ‘winning’ that war). Some of the most disastrous campaigns of the war – Norway and Greece for example – were shaped and driven by Churchill himself, yet from reading his books one would assume that the British and Allied Force Generals were almost solely to blame for these disasters, and that he was almost completely uninvolved in the strategic or tactical decisions that led to them. Throughout the war he constantly tried to push forward strategically appalling choices for campaigns – one example being his constant ‘push’ for an expedition against the ‘northern tip’ of Sumatra – which his military staff had to work daily to resist him initiating, and which would have dispersed the forces available in a disastrous ‘minor campaign’, similar to the Gallipoli and Antwerp campaigns in World War One, of which Churchill was similarly the architect. It is astonishing to read Brooke’s diary (and the diaries or personal war accounts of a number of other military and political staff of that time, most of which validate Brooke’s diary account of the war) to see how many times his advisors and folk like Brooke had to spend most of their day ‘heading off’ or convincing Churchill not to continue with his wild schemes, rather than what appeared to be the case when reading Churchill’s own written accounts of World War Two, when it appeared as if Churchill was the architect of all successes, and his military staff merely carried out his great ideas. And this is to say nothing about Churchill’s role in the area bombing of Germany, or his astonishing ‘imperial’ (a nice word for racially biased) views on India, or his personal habits, or injudicious views on most subjects freely imparted to all and sundry on an almost continuous basis. If he was a politician in modern times, with the current daily media scrutiny they face, he would surely not have lasted more than a few days before having to resign in disgrace and shame as a result of his utterances and behaviour as a Prime Minister as he did in those times back then.

All of the fascinating and enjoyable time I have spent reading about this topic, apart from being a relaxation ‘tool’ in itself, did indeed, as our great old family friend Simon Pearce said it would, teach me a whole lot of lessons about not just history, but life itself. Firstly, it taught me that the character of any ‘great’ person, or indeed any person, is surely complex, and while someone like Winston Churchill surely had a number of attractive and positive traits, he also had a lot of negative and extremely selfish traits that unless carefully ‘looked for’ would not ‘reach the light of day’ when reading most historical accounts either of his life or that of World War Two. Secondly, it taught me that one needs to be cautious in believing only one account of anything, least of all the person who is the one telling the story / giving the account of how things happen. Thirdly, it taught me that history if often created by those involved in it who write about it afterwards in a way that will benefit that person themselves in an unduly positive way (as they say, history is mostly written by the ‘winners’ of any event being written about). Fourthly, it taught me not to put anyone on a pedestal from reading about past events that they were involved in – as my great current work mentor, Professor Nicky Morgan, often reminds me, even the greatest leaders have ‘feet of clay’. Fifthly, it taught me never to have a fixed paradigm about anything from the past – my own interpretation of and ‘feeling for’ this period of history was very different in the time of hearing about the events then as told by my father, or reading Winston Churchill’s own books about World War two as a teenager, compared to the more complex, less positive perspective I have of Winston Churchill and the events occurring during World War Two today, thanks to a reasonably extensive reading of different sources of information of events occurring at that time in the last few years. Finally, it made me think about the importance of diaries – a long lost ‘art’ that perhaps needs to be revived – there is much to be gained from keeping a daily diary about events. If Alan Brooke had not spent a few minutes before bed each night writing up a description of his daily life working in close proximity to Winston Churchill in his diary, we would be the poorer for not having it, and our understanding of events way back then would remain simplistic and perhaps unbalanced.

There are surely, therefore, a lot of lessons one can learn not just about history and historical revisionism (as Churchill’s own post-war writings of events surely were), but also in understanding contemporary life and how in describing it some folk who want to personally gain from the telling of it, may be able to do so by how they subjectively describe events of which they were part. There is surely a positive gain from keeping a daily or weekly diary, so that one can be to a greater degree sure of one’s own history, or at least of the events happening during a particular period of time from one’s past if one wishes to review it, than if one did not have a recorded history of it. Equally, one surely needs to be aware when reading the ‘official’ history of any person, organization, community or nation state, that it may be written with potentially (some would say surely) an either subconscious or conscious / overt or covert bias (as much as it should also be remembered that each time one personally reflects on or writes about an experience one has been part of, it will surely also have one’s own particular bias and perspective), and should therefore always be read with caution. Reading, and for me particularly reading about history, is both one of the most enjoyable activities that I can ever do, and the activity that I learn most from, but I know that a lot of what I read, particularly biographies, and certainly autobiographies, need to be read with a large ‘pinch of salt’. So when I am done with writing this, I will surely look forward to later today taking up again the current historical tome I am enjoying reading. But, surely, I will read it with our salt-shaker very close to me!


Passion And Desire – The Wild Horses Demand Freedom But Cause Chaos When Their Halter Is Let Slip

‘Travellers at least have a choice. Those who set sail know that things will not be the same as at home. Explorers are prepared. But of us, who travel along the blood vessels, who come to the cities of the interior by chance, there is no preparation. We who were fluent find life is a foreign language. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back worse.’ So did Jeanette Winterson, in her written masterpiece, The Passion, describe and define passion and desire. In my youth as a twenty-something, this book was given to me by a good friend, Wendy Sanderson Smith, after she thought it would synchronize with my own temperament and approach to life back then (as I guess most folk in their twenties ‘lived’ and ‘loved’ in their own halcyon early adult days), and indeed it did. I have noticed that a lot of folk post pictures on Facebook (including myself) of their late teenage / early adulthood days, and often these include friends or activities from University or College times. My brother, John, sent me a video clip of some young folk doing extreme sports such as skydiving, bungee jumping and aerial cycling tricks, which led to a fun discussion of whether we still had the passion and desire to do such activities (or are physically capable of doing them) as our fifties fast approach, or as quaintly suggested in the film the Big Lebowski, ‘our revolution is over’. All these got me thinking of passion and desire, and what the teleological reason for their existence is, and whether losing our passions and desires as we get older, or at least refining, sublimating or managing them is a good or bad thing, or at least a necessary ‘evil’ allowing us to maintain the order and structure which is required to us to be successful in most facets of adult life.

Passion is defined as a very strong feeling about a person or a ‘thing’, and desire as a sense of longing for a person, object or outcome. Some research folk classify both passion and desire as emotions, which itself is defined as ‘relatively brief’ conscious experiences characterized by intense mental activity that results in a high degree of either pleasure or displeasure. But, others perceive extreme passion and desire to be part of the spectrum of obsessive disorders, and to have a degree of psychopathology underlying them. Passion and desire have through history been contrasted with reason, which together engage in a constant ‘battle’ to control one. Mostly passion has been given a ‘bad rap’, with Plato suggesting that individual desires must be ‘postponed’ in the name of ‘higher’ rational ideals, Baruch Spinoza suggesting that ‘the natural desires are a form of bondage’, and Dave Hume suggesting that passions and desires are ‘non-cognitive, automatic, bodily responses. To most religious doctrines, passion and desires are very much feelings and sensations to be resisted, unless that desire leads one towards ‘God’, when it can then become a mechanism for good and positive advancement of a ‘higher’ moral functioning and way of life, without the sinful desires of ‘the flesh’.

However, passion and desire have also been suggested to be (unless extreme) an important component of human bonding and the establishment of a sexual relationship with a mate, without which there would be potentially no propagation of the human species. Sexual attraction is based on the capacity of someone to arouse the sexual interest of another, and the requirement of someone else to respond to that capacity. Folk can be sexually attracted to physical qualities in another, or how they move, their voice, smell or what they wear and how they interact (flirting is a mechanism of triggering arousal in another), or their social status, but it is generally always a two way ‘thing’, with both individuals needing to find the prospective partner sexually attractive to each other. There is a strong brain-body ‘loop’ and physical sensations associated with desire and the feeling of ‘passion’ generated by another, including trembling, pallor, flushing, heart palpitations, pupil dilatation and general feelings of ‘weakness’. Folk in the throes of passion also describe ‘feelings’ and symptoms such as awkwardness, stuttering, shyness, confusion, and even insomnia and loss of appetite. Current research is working on trying to understand the mechanisms related to the development of these ‘symptoms’, and it is thought that perhaps acute hormonal (cortisol and pheromones for example) changes or components of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal gland axis are involved in linking psychological ‘desire’ to physical body structures and physiological systems which generate these symptoms. Interestingly, a relationship between sexual attraction / desire and anxiety has been suggested, and when folk are more anxious, or are put in situations where they have heightened anxiety (for example generated by physical danger) they appear to experience increased sensations of desire and passion.

While as described above there are teleological (purposively beneficial) reasons why desire and passion exist, passions and desires can become pathological, particularly when they are uni-directional or unrequited. Limerence (also known as infatuated love) is the state of mind which results from an attraction to someone else in which there are obsessive thoughts and fantasies about that person and strong / overpowering desire to have one’s passion / love reciprocated. Obsessive love is defined as an obsessive desire to ‘possess’ another person towards whom a strong desire is felt, together with an inability to accept rejection of their desire by the person towards whom it is felt. Limerence involves intrusive and often intolerable / painful ‘thoughts’ of the person who is the ‘limerent’ (person towards whom the ‘crush’ is directed), an acute longing for reciprocation and fear of rejection, and periods of fantasizing about ideal circumstances where there is cohabitation with the limerent in an intimate way (sexual fantasy is a usual but not an absolute requirement of the limerence state). Interestingly, in this obsessive state there is always a ‘balance’ between hope and uncertainty, or indeed a requirement for both, and the uncertainty component results in constant analysis by the individual suffering from limerence levels of desire or passion, with every utterance or perceived body language of the limerent being pondered about endlessly, and analysed for meaning. Folk can remain in this limerence state for a prolonged period of time if their desires and passion are not requited, but if the limerent returns their affections, a ‘normal’ relationship can develop. If there is absolute rejection by the limerent, after a period of time the desires eventually become attenuated and the individual ‘moves on’ to another potential limerent and ‘transfers’ their extreme passions and obsessive desires to this next unfortunate soul. It is thought that early childhood trauma or a failure of childhood attachment bonding to their primary carer may be associated with this extreme level of passion or desire in folk with obsessive levels of passion and desire, though this theory is still controversial and not completely accepted by research folk in the field.

As one gets older, several changes occur which attenuate the extreme passions which are associated with youth, and in most folk they are either assuaged by involvement in a healthy / mature relationship with the person one is attracted to (had a crush on), or one’s passions are sublimated into other ‘pursuits’. These can be work related, or a hobby, or sporting endeavours. This ‘sublimation’ can be healthy and lead to a sense of satisfaction and success in a chosen career or hobby or sport if there is genuine enjoyment of whatever is being done that one is passionate about, and in a circular way if one is successful in the field one choses to focus the attenuated drive in, it can potentially bring about an attenuation of the sublimated drive itself. However, if one does not enjoy work, or a hobby, but continue to do it obsessively and as a compulsion, as what happens in the case of attraction limerence, this can lead to workload related stress, burnout and a sense of dissatisfaction / psychological ‘pressure’ that is not assuaged no matter how hard one works. Perhaps therefore, many folk who work extremely hard, or are involved in hobbies or sports in an extreme manner in their middle or old age, may have sublimated drives related to unrequited passions and desires in their young adulthood (though the causation of this is very complex and a number of factors may be involved). Equally, some folk may never adequately sublimate their limerance related desires, passions and obsessions, and engage for most or all of their lives in unrequited, or requited but unfulfilling obsessional relationships in a serial manner. It must be noted that while most folk at some stage of their youth develop a ‘crush’ on someone or at least feel a sense of passion or desire for someone they meet or interact with, not all folk feel extreme desires, passions or limerences for other folk at any stage of their lives, and rather choose a mate and settle into life routines using cognitive / rational decision based processes, without feeling any substantial passion. Whether these folk perhaps have an abstract notion of romantic ‘love’ they ‘feel’ for their chosen partner, or genuinely feel no passion or emotional bond with their partner, and merely co-exist without any overt or covert show or feelings of passion and desire, is still not clear / well determined – though they clearly would need to choose a partner who is satisfied by such a ‘passionless’ but functional arrangement if it has a chance to be a success and a long-lasting relationship.

A ‘crush’ on someone, which occurs usually in early adulthood, has intense feelings, desires and passions associated with it. If the crush is requited it often creates long lasting memories that are usually positive and can be very intense. In one’s young adulthood there are fewer responsibilities and therefore more ‘freedom’ to explore and entertain such crushes, though of course if you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of an unwelcome and unwanted crush or limerence it is surely not a pleasant experience, whether in early adulthood or at a later life stage. Passions and desires when they are not obsessive serve an important purpose from a mating and reproduction perspective. But passions and desires when they are unrequited, or when they are obsessive and / or cyclical, can be problematical, both at the time of their occurrence and long after in middle and late adulthood, and can cause future negative memories which are both intense and can potentially affect future dating strategy and relationship interactions. As most folk get older, and establish a successful relationship and have children, and become creators of life’s boundaries and infrastructure in which the next generation of young folk can ‘play’ and consummate their ‘passions’ as they please, the passions and ardour of youth seem to wane, or at least are more controlled – perhaps with the development of successful adult relationships any ‘rough edges’ remaining from one’s bonding and attachment period of childhood are removed and smoothed. However, it’s not clear if passion is still ‘felt’, in a wistful way, by most folk as they age. The success of films and books (such as Jeannette Winterson’s beautifully written books) dealing with unrequited love and lust, or of obsessive desire turned pathological (most folk of my generation will surely still get a ‘queasy’ feeling when remembering the ‘bunny boiler’ film Fatal Attraction, where the character portrayed by Glenn Close developed an almost fatal limerence / obsessive compulsion for that of Michael Douglas) would indicate that issues related to desires, passions and ‘crushes’, whether they are unrequited or have a ‘happy ending’ as happens in most films and books, are still at play / being processed in the psyche of most folk as they go about their daily routines and business.

My wise cousin, Andy Shave, often reflected in our youth on whether love or lust was more important in and for a successful relationship. The answer probably lies in the taming of the wild horses of passion, and the keeping of lust on a tight rein. But in the deep of the night, most folk still probably ‘dream’ of or at least remember wistfully the passions and high emotions and crushes of their youth, when late at night they sighed and gasped at the thought of their still unrequited love / lust object, and sang along to the Chris Isaak song, ‘what a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way, what a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you’. But at some point in life, these passions need to become and remain as dreams and memories, and one has to forego the passion and lusts of youth in order for those horses of passion to become one’s servants, rather than one’s chaotic master, even if this is supremely challenging for those who have lived a lot of their lives travelling along the blood vessels of the city of the interior, somewhere between the swamp and the mountains, between fear and sex, between God and the Devil.

The Concept of Solipsism and Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said – Does A World Exist Out There Outside Of The Mind

For my current job and career development plans we moved to a small town in rural South Africa, where one feels a million miles away from the big capitals of the world and science and society, and where each morning from the home where we live we look over miles of farm and bush land and feel like we are in a timeless place. This week on Twitter there was a lively and fun debate over some altmetrics – the metrics of one’s public interactions and engagement such as the number of Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and LinkedIn contacts, for example – and whether the higher number of these meant you were a ‘top’ scientist or not, and I guess also whether one’s work and it’s impact had relevance and meaning to, and in, the wider world. I also had a recent Facebook discussion with Andy Schulze, one of my closest friends from the halcyon days of our youth as students at the University of Cape Town, where we all debated life and it’s meaning on a daily basis, and this conversation with him reminded me of a book that had a great effect on me at that time (and still does), but which provided Andy with much mirth when he read it – Samuel Beckett’s ‘Ill seen Ill said’. All of these got me thinking of the concept of solipsism, and whether the connections one has both with the physical world and with family, social, work or broader public life makes a greater difference / one’s life more relevant than if they did not exist.

Solipsism is the theory that the ‘self’, or one’s mind, is all that one can be sure exists or can be known – in other words that nothing exists outside of what is occurring in one’s mind and thoughts. Furthermore, solipsism posits that knowledge of anything outside or beyond one’s mind is uncertain, and the external world, other people and what goes on in the minds of others cannot be known and does not exist outside of one’s own mind. The word is derived from the Latin words ‘solus’, which means ‘alone’, and ‘ipse, which means ‘self’. There are different types of solipsism which have been suggested to occur over the years. For example, metaphysical solipsism is the ‘strongest’ version, and suggests that the ‘self’ is the only existing reality, and that all other existing realities, including the world and other persons in it, are representations of one’s own self, and have no independent existence beyond one’s capacity to think of them and thereby acknowledge their existence for the time period that one thinks of them. Epistemological solipsism is less ‘extreme’, and suggest that only the directly accessible and current contents of one’s thoughts can be known, and that the existence of an external world is, with the knowledge we have, not possible to verify (rather than not existing at all), as one is required to ‘rely’ on second-hand / indirect ‘knowledge’ of the external world which is only perceived through, and is knowledge generated by sensory structures which transmit images, sounds, smells or vibrations from the external world, which are integrated as a unified but ‘second-hand’ version of reality in one’s own mind. Therefore, given the ‘second-hand’ nature of this mentally created version of reality, one can never be sure if this reality is real or a ‘figment’ of one’s imagination or the sensory structures that create them. A further version of solipsism is methodological solipsism, which suggests that no knowledge of an external world, or indeed any knowledge, can be absolutely certain, given that even that which we perceive as the brain is actually part of the external world, as it is only through our sensors of the external world that we can ‘see’ or ‘feel’ the brain and think on it, and therefore the existence of thoughts rather than the brain per se is all that we can be certain of.

All of these concepts go back to Rene Descartes (and others) idea of ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ – I think, therefore I exist – and therefore, if one does not think, or if one has no thoughts, one does not exist, nor does the external world. This will obviously be a troubling concept for most folk, to whom the external world and people in it surely ‘feels’ real and surely are ‘real’. But, an interesting theoretical example, known as the ‘brain in a vat’ experimental scenario, perhaps shows best how tricky it is to absolutely refute solipsism as a concept. In this hypothetical scenario, the brain of a brave volunteer is removed from their body by a pioneering scientist and suspended in a vat of life-sustaining fluid, while all the brain’s outgoing and incoming neurons are connected by wires to a computer, which provides it with electrical impulses identical to that which the brain would normally receive if it was still in a body. By simulating actions such as walking along with all the sensations and actions associated with walking, as would all the sensors in the body which send information of the external world to the brain, the ‘disembodied’ brain would continue to have normal conscious experiences without these being related to objects or events in the external ‘real’ world. Therefore, one cannot ever be completely sure that the reality we ‘feel’ and ‘observe’, and life as we know it is, is real, or whether it is a created artificial reality, and we can also never be completely sure whether our brains are indeed in our bodies rather than in a vat of self-sustaining fluid and being manipulated in an artificial way. Another example used to explain solipsism is that of dreams, which often feel ‘real’ – how sure can we ever be that what we are doing at a certain point in time is certainly reality, rather than being part of an elaborate dream, or vice versa.

These concepts are explored in Samuel Beckett’s book, Ill Seen Ill said (though there are a number of interpretations of what the book was really about, and Beckett was never clear about the meaning of his book), which for its full length (59 pages) was written in a streams of consciousness manner about an old woman sitting at a window in a room, at the end of her life, where nothing actually happens to her, and she never does anything, for the entire content of the book. Furthermore, the book was written from an observer perspective where the observer who ‘wrote’ the book was never sure anything she did was real or had meaning, or if she even existed. If that sounds crazy, you will understand why my good friend Andy scoffed at its contents (and I had to read it about ten or twenty times before I finally ‘got it’, or at least got what I thought it was about, which was eventually ‘enough’ for the book to make a big impact on my life and way of thinking). The point of the book, or at least what I got out of it, was that one can never be sure if one’s existence is real, and that the line between reality and illusion is not clear. Furthermore, the book suggested that at the end of our lives, we can never be completely sure that all of the things we ‘did’, all of the things we ‘saw’, and all of the things that ‘happened’ during our lives, which are at the end of our lives just memories residing in our brains and minds, are ‘real’, and how much are ‘dreams’ or just fiction our minds have created. As the pivotal paragraph of his book (at least to me) so eloquently puts it: ‘Incontinent the void. The zenith. Evening again. When not night it will be evening. Death again of deathless day. On one hand embers. On the other ashes. Day without end won and lost. Unseen.’ The idea of Beckett’s is that for the old woman living alone in her house, with no-one to validate her life, there is no way to be sure that she exists, and she passes through her life ‘unseen’, even if she does indeed exist. Similarly, we ‘feel’ at a certain point in time when we see or smell or hear some activity around us that this activity we perceive is real as it happens, but in effect this perception of activities and occurrences are only thoughts, and like Beckett’s woman, we have no possible ‘certainty’ about what is occurring around us beyond these thoughts we have about them. We experience these thoughts ourselves, and our own thoughts exist only in our own minds and for our own reflection alone, in the best solipsistic sense. We are like Beckett’s woman, condemned to be sure of our existence and that of the world around us only in an abstract and intangible way, as a collection of thoughts occurring at a certain point in time in our own unique brain.

So how does all of this link to the idea of altmetrics and Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and the like which are surely concrete ‘evidence’ that we do exist, that we have connections with the external world, and that we have a record of our past musings and thoughts recorded as our old posts and tweets (and indeed blogs, books and scientific papers we write). To me the interesting thing of all of these altmetric related ‘records’ of our existence and ‘connectivity’ to others, from a solipsistic perspective (rather than as a record of our relative success or failure as a scientist or person, if they can be taken as such, which is a different story), is that as much as they create a record of ‘us’, we can never be sure if they actually are related to the person that writes them. For example, those that know me may think and be fairly sure that I am indeed the person who wrote this article. But, can you be absolutely sure that the articles I write, or the tweets I send, or the pictures I put up on Facebook are really mine, and not generated by either someone else using my name, or by a random computer generating device. This will likely sound absurd to some of you folk, but it goes to the ‘nub’ of the concept of solipsism, and the issues and problems solipsism raises about ‘absolute’ awareness, knowledge and truth. The whole internet experience has also raised other interesting questions and dilemmas in this regard. As we no longer have to ‘connect’ with the ‘external’ world in a physical sense, but rather can do it via the electronic / computer channels which we currently use, and which are becoming increasingly both more complex / real-time ‘lifelike’ and ubiquitous, we can ask ourselves whether Twitter and Facebook interactions are really ‘real’ life and indicative of contact with the external world, or in contrast are potentially attenuating our links with the ‘real’ world and replacing them with links that are more ephemeral, and dare I say it, more solipsistic.

When I sit and drink my tea each morning before work while looking out at an endless vista of bush and farmland, it is easy to wonder if the world beyond the horizon really exists. While working on my computer, responding to emails, sending out tweets, or posting Facebook pictures and text, I wonder if the person or people ‘out there’ they are ‘dispatched to’ really exist. I go back inside and look at my wonderful children and family, and wonder whether like Beckett’s old woman they really exist. Then I realize that my vat of self-sustaining liquid is running short of a few essential nutrients, and I indicate to the scientist conducting the experiment I am part of, from my fluid filled vat, that I need a few energy fuels added to the broth to keep the solipsistic thoughts and doubts at bay. When he/she has done so, I rise from my chair on the balcony in front of the bush and farm land that stretches to the horizon, and go back to that reality which is my daily life, which feels so real and so good, and wonder where on earth such crazy thoughts came from. Ill seen, ill said!

%d bloggers like this: