Amy Winehouse and Dostoevsky

Our last post was a quote by Dostoevsky, and it bears repeating. “The man who bows down to nothing can never bear the burden of himself.” By a strange synchronicity, following straight on from the discovery of that quote came our discovery of the documentary on Amy Winehouse, a tragic real-life illustration of the truth of Dostoevsky’s insight.

The film is a brilliant and moving portrait of a sweet yet spirited and extraordinarily talented young woman – and what the fate of such creatures can be in an indifferent, cruel and corrupt society.

At a young age, Amy’s father walked out of her life, and she felt about it then as we should surely all feel at that age: “Thank Christ! Now I am free to do what I want!” And do what she wanted is precisely what she proceeded to do. She bunked off school to mess around with boyfriends in the house. Later, after a modest first success with her music, she moved in with a friend, and took advantage of that newfound freedom to smoke pot all day and have fun. As her career as a singer became more established, she turned to drink and drugs and dysfunctional love affairs as a solace for her ambivalent attitude to success and fame. An early problem with body image led to bulimia. The combination of all these things eventually killed her at the age of just 27.

Of course, what Winehouse was doing is just normal. It’s the job of the young to go a bit wild and the world would be a duller place if they weren’t given the freedom to. We would for a start have been denied Winehouse’s wonderful songs. Her problems with her body image are tragically common in women – and increasingly in men – in a society increasingly obsessed with image over substance. Taking to consumption to cover up our suffering is a common strategy of our monkey minds.

But what normally happens, even in a society that’s entirely lost touch with wisdom, is that the young grow up. Perhaps the responsibilities of jobs or children intervene. Perhaps they just get tired of seeking happiness in sensual pleasures – an ultimately futile road, as anyone who has travelled it can tell you. Perhaps the suffering gets so bad that it just cannot be born anymore and so we shrug off the burden of ourselves.

But Winehouse found herself in rather different conditions from the rest of us. Rather than responsibilities putting a rein on her living, she found herself living a life where such wild behaviour is expected, even considered heroic. No reins, but a spur. Her growing fame added to a sense of alienation – she says at one point she would trade it all just to be able to walk down the street unmolested by a media mob. The wonder is, not that Winehouse paid the ultimate price for living such a life, but that more don’t.

By Winehouse’s own admission, what she wanted more than anything was a father to tell her to stop: someone in her life who had authority based in love, and who, out of that love and a wiser understanding of what was best for her, give her the guidance and instruction she needed. If the hints in the documentary be true, I suspect that Russell Brand attempted to step in to provide something like this, though I don’t follow the gossip columns closely enough to know just what happened there.

It is a terrible story, but a brilliant film, and for me one not so much one limited to the tragic story of one brilliant singer, as an indictment of our whole society. To see this troubled woman struggle with the burden of herself, with little help but that provided by people with an interest in exploiting her, or who were as confused and burdened as she was, and to see her hounded by the pack of ravenous wolves that is the media, and be chortled over in lame gags by Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno and the like, and reported on as if a newsworthy event by breakfast news shows, makes one sick to the stomach. Our society is cruel and insane and ill.

And you, gentle reader? You who read those gossip columns and buy those newspapers and chortled over those gags and watched this documentary? You are as responsible for Any Winehouse’s death as anyone. Let us ponder on how many Amys are living just down the road from us – how many of them we hurry past on our wearily familiar route into work. Let us ponder and hang our heads in shame.

New Year Resolution: don’t just do something – sit there!

The New Year is a time for reflection – on where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we might be going. It’s a time for new beginnings and resolve to do better. There’s nothing wrong with this and we’ve been indulging in it as much as anyone. But it’s wise to reflect too on resolutions past – and why none of them ever came to anything.

We have been through many rebirths, many previous lives – does not yesterday strike us as a previous life, and this very morning, this very New Year, as a rebirth, even before we realise that, just an eye blink ago in evolutionary time, we were but fish? Or star dust? We have been, I say, through many previous lives, many rebirths, and what it is we want changes with the seasons and the ages. But is there some common essence in all the apparent variety of things and states of affairs we lust after? Some common thread that links all our previous lives, makes sense of our earnest seeking? A good contender I would suggest is “freedom”.

As human beings, we want to be free. Or we claim we want to be. But could our very desire for freedom itself be a kind of tyranny? Do we in fact want to be free, or do we actually rather like it in our cosy little cocoon of a cell, muttering to ourselves and running once again through all the treasures we’ve stored up in our minds, like a miser over his gold? Is freedom even possible? What does it look like if so?

When I was a child, I remember wanting, longing, praying to be free to go out and play. Parental authority was a terrible thing. But looking back I can reflect now and see that without parental authority I wouldn’t have survived or grown up to be the person I am. My desire for freedom caused me much suffering, and yet it was at the same time a delusion – just a thought, not possible of realisation. Even in the moments of freedom and play, I soon found myself at the same time a terrible slave of passions and feelings – to anger and jealousy, to shyness and insecurity. I wanted freedom, then resented it when I had it for not quite living up to my great expectations.

As an older child, I realised I could medicate the shyness and insecurity away with alcohol and drugs, making playtime more fun, perhaps, than it had ever been before. But then I became a slave to them – and to the need for constant entertainment. All the things I had previously found meaning in – sporting prowess, learning and academic achievement – fell away in the pursuit of fun in my newfound freedom from parental authority. And thanks to the conditions I found myself in, due in large measure to luck – not least the luck of being born in a rich country – fun was to be found in abundance. I revelled in it – and attached to it aggressively. When, through the process of growing up, society tried to take the toys away, I was like a hungry dog growling over a bone. And yet, just like a pet dog, my living was dependent on the labour of others, my good humour to how often I was petted. Take our bones away and all the aggressiveness of our natures snarls out unbidden. And in any case, humans can not thrive as pets. They must be independent.

So, forced by economic necessity and social pressure to take a job, I then became another kind of slave – to work, yes, although work is intrinsic to life, but particularly to the feeling that this particular form of work was just not for me, that its imposition in ways not in full accord with my will was a tyranny. So began the hankering for freedom once again – this time, freedom from the toad work that squatted on my life. This led in time to my becoming active in various socialist circles – believing that socialism was the only way to true human freedom, to freedom from work. But the pursuit of social freedom just turned me into a slave to ideology and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual accumulation – later to largely ineffectual activism and evangelising. And the wheel turns, turns, turns.

In short, the pursuit of freedom is itself a form of bondage. We put something in front of ourselves and then run after it. We’re restless if we can’t have what we want, dissatisfied and soon bored if we get it. We live in a state of anxiety and stress, and given how restless we are when not under stress, begin to wonder whether we don’t prefer it that way. Our resolutions to change never come to anything much because we don’t ever change anything fundamental – we just change what we want to run after, we take different shopping trips to acquire what it is we think we want or need. We are furious and angry about all the things in the world that aren’t to our liking, and yet will do precisely nothing to change what it is within our power to change – namely, our minds, our attitudes, our strength of character, our mental reaction to whatever it is that’s going on.

The secret to real freedom was given by my favourite philosopher, Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Do you want to know what my secret is? he once asked, in one of his talks. His acolytes perked up, sat forwards in their seats, eager to learn at last what the real secret behind his enigmatic-sounding teachings really was. “You see,” he said, “I don’t mind what happens.”

This is the kind of freedom that really is possible and you can have it right now (it’s available at no other time). Certain things are conditioned – our feelings, the arising of thoughts and emotions, sensations both pleasant and unpleasant, whatever it is that happens in the world. But remarkably, if we are awake and aware, the reaction of our minds, and hence our actions, are not – freedom, in other words, is not an external state of affairs to be achieved in the future, but is a matter of choiceless awareness of all that is, and of love, of compassionate action. Could we make that attitude of mind our non-goal for the New Year? To not react like a dog to whatever takes place, but instead to accept it totally, find a way to make friends with it, to take care of the situation, and of ourselves, of others? Is such a life of peace actually possible? Don’t take anyone’s word for it – it’s entirely a practical question, a matter of practice not theory. We shall certainly be non-striving to make it so.

Whatever it is you are hankering after this new year, dear reader, we wish you every success and happiness on your journey. But you might be happier still if you can remember that there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.