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.

The best way to be political is to be non-political

Regular readers will hopefully realise by now that they are witnessing two people experiencing a common journey. We met as socialists in the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), before leaving and shifting even further to the (ultra) left in our search for revolutionary purity. After this stage, and having found the limitations of this approach, we eventually moved into the world of the pragmatic: this time, our quest was how to combine our desire to change the world with practical political activity in the here and now. But here we discovered a new set of limitations, and currently find ourselves in ‘negative capability’; looking for a God we don’t actually believe exists, but determined to find him nonetheless.

Each stage has been part of our learning and we embrace all those who have fed and watered us along the path. This learning has shaped us, and all involved (for good and bad) have been integral to our education. We have never thrown out the baby with the bathwater (although it may have looked like that on occasion.) On the contrary, we always bottled the bath’s dirty water, open minded about what of value might remain, and often attempted CPR on our damaged infant if we considered it to be drowning in its own infantile contradictions.

In essence, we are attempting to find the source of everything: a starting point. Unless we strip everything down and shed our various skins and narratives, how are we to make progress? Well, the good news is that we have found something positive, a guiding principle which allows us to clarify our thoughts and insights. Four words best describe this: compassion, empathy, understanding and love (CEUL).

Practising CEUL is not easy. We still swear, rant, rave and throw our hands about (particularly when watching what passes for ‘politics’ in the media), but we don’t leave it there. We realise that the people we are vexing are vulnerable human beings (yes, even the capricious Iain Duncan Smith.) However, it is vital to create a space between us and the so called ‘political’ world, in order for us to understand it without losing our minds in undiluted rage. There is a practical dimension to this. We no longer have the capacity to carry this rage around on a daily basis as it was destroying our lives and relationships; corroding our very souls. But the ‘rage’ remains our friend because we continue to learn from it, and it has been the best facilitator in our attempts to find peace.

We decided to start by looking inwards, clearing out our own closets. Naturally, it is impossible to be completely clean: the more you scrub, the more dirt you actually find. However, this ‘dirt’ need not be your enemy as it unites everyone together. We are all dirty and clean in equal measure, what is important is the ‘cleansing’ process itself, and the realisation that it is an impossible task: the more you scrub, the more shit you find, and the more shit you find, the ‘cleaner’ you become.

To argue that we are all essentially equal (from the lowest ‘criminal’ to the most exalted ‘saint’) is both controversial and counter intuitive. It is certainly the main insight from Christianity, but one rarely finds a Christian who actually believes it. This may derive from a category error. The idea that some people are inherently ‘bad’ and others ‘good’ is predicated on a particular view of what it means to be an ‘individual’, which necessarily loses the most salient, yet paradoxical, feature of authentic individualism: we are all interconnected. If intellectual historian Larry Siedentop is correct, the ‘invention of the individual’ was Christianity’s greatest bequeathment. Could it be that our interconnectedness got lost in this, only to make the occasional abstract appearance; relegated to the status of a rhetorical device?

Writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly appeared to be conscious of such a gap, and wrestled over its implications in both their novelistic and critical works. The one thing they appeared to agree upon was how we are all responsible for each other, and that compassion and understanding is key to the human condition. In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, all the brothers share in the guilt for the murder of their father, although only one of them actually killed him. Arguably, the complex matrix of individual and collective responsibility achieves its highest artistic expression in this work.
People build a narrative, an identity, and present it to the world as their true selves. We believe that much of this is a post hoc rationalisation of what they want to be, certainly how they want to be perceived. We have all met the socialist who proclaims his ‘love’ for humanity through gritted teeth, whilst displaying the manners of a gutter snipe. He loves the people of the world in abstraction because rudeness and a general coldness are his actual character traits. He seems oblivious to this, and the chances are that such inauthentic behaviour is not consciously realised, and in his mind, at least, he truly does want a better world. Conversely, we have all met the self-proclaimed conservative who actually cares about the people around him and can be relied upon to help out when required. It’s true he may not be so keen on lots of refugees coming into his country because it violates his understanding of elementary resource allocation. “There’s not enough room for them”, he will opine, but unlike our open borders socialist friend, may genuinely help out when faced with an actual living refugee because it is in his nature to assist people.

There is a mediation between the person in the flesh and the ideas being espoused, which leads us to the view that every conceivable position may have something to offer the world. The trick is to attempt to understand the motivation behind the ideas and the internal psychology. Is it not possible that a racist may be motivated by love for a perception of a lost community? How long does it take to go from that position to a hatred of ‘strangers’? If the premise of love is correct then our racist brother is not a lost cause. And even if he is truly motivated by hate, he has lost himself completely and the only response that is both moral and effective is CEUL.

So the first thing to do is to check how one acts in the world on a day to day basis. Subscription to a set of tenets is not an adequate substitute. And it is precisely because people make this substitution, disaster can often hove into view. For example, many young Muslims have reacted angrily about the highly immoral actions taken by western governments in the Middle East. With no compelling domestic narrative as a counter balance, many have left behind family and friends to fight on the side of ISIS. They have made the decision that ISIS are defending a moral truth which may result in them performing hideous crimes because after taking such a drastic decision, a post-hoc rationalisation is never far away. If one believes one has been violated, one often loses one’s head, before others starts losing theirs.

We have all heard of disaffected British lads joining the army because it gives them an opportunity to act out a revenge upon people they have grown up despising. Why they despise is complex in itself, but it may come down to a perception that strangers have moved into their communities and taken vital resources which they believed belonged to them. Some of these lads may have done and seen terrible things in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but by which objective criteria are we to adjudicate the actions of these lads to those who joined the other side?

The simple fact of the matter is that the material results of these ‘just so’ stories are not just independent decisions made by people in perfect circumstances with perfect knowledge acting with freewill. All such decisions are mediated by the social matrix which we have all contributed to in one form of another. This doesn’t do away with individual responsibility or freewill, but it does provide a basis for understanding how judgements and moral choices are selected, their contingencies, and how the difference between one murder and a thousand can be a hair’s breadth. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a disaffected student, Raskolnikov, kills an old money lender for a complexity of reasons which cannot be discussed here. Suffice to say that the empathetic Examining Magistrate, Profiry (understanding that Raskolnikov is young, highly intelligent, but ensnared in a high brow theory), quips that it was a good job that his theory only lead him to kill an old woman. “Who knows what might have happened if had picked a different theory?”
Indeed, this is a salutary reminder for any of us who proclaim this idea or that, may actually end up doing something terrible in the name of this idea. Particularly if God or revolution is involved.

So this is what it means to be political without being political: examining the gap between one’s professed ideology, how one really feels, whilst extending this courtesy to others, acknowledging that we are all vulnerable, frightened, angry, strong, weak, hard and soft. Shedding skins, throwing off shibboleths, and practicing CEUL.

The real prophet of the 20th century was not Marx…

… it was Dostoevsky. Albert Camus’ provocative statement provides the backdrop as to why socialists should be interested in this most original of writers. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement with a group of Russian utopian socialists. His death sentence was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia, an experience that shook Dostoyevsky to his foundations and resulted in a political shift to the right with a revitalised faith in Christ.

However, despite his subsequent reputation as an arch reactionary, Dostoyevsky’s conservatism was far more nuanced than is commonly understood. Indeed, socialists should be able to identify with his penetrating psychological insights into the mindset of Russian ‘nihilism’, and the irrationality of humankind more generally.

Novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Possessed’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, won him monumental praise from the likes of Nietzsche, Freud and Albert Einstein. For some, he was the ‘prophet’ of what became the ‘nightmare’ of the Russian Revolution.

But did Dostoyevsky offer any real alternative, and what is his relevance for us today? Negative Capability blogger Dave explores these issue in his excellent talk, given to the comrades of a party we were both once members of. Please do have a listen.