So I had to wait a few extra days for your letter which is fine; the wait was worthwhile even if the sending of your letter was slightly frustrating for you. I can see where the problem with the stamps comes in to play, the rules and costs are slightly different to those for domestic post and the USPS has even produced a special Forever stamp for international letters, which is called the Global Stamp, and comes at a cost of $1.15 for a one ounce letter. I think they have two main designs at the moment, neither one of which is particularly exciting, but who takes note of the stamps unless they’re a collector? And since these are fairly normal postage stamps anyway, I doubt that too many collectors would show an interest either, unless it was a strange or false print or perhaps a special edition on something like a first day cover. But there is also a price difference, which would probably be of more interest to you than anyone else, and that makes it worthwhile looking to see whether global stamps are available. Since you’ve already seen that there is a need for half a stamp, I’m surprised that the mail room didn’t mention the availability of a more suitable form of postage.
You’ve hit upon something which has inspired countless writers throughout the ages: the power of the pen, the power of the written word. There is this proverb claiming that the pen is mightier than the sword, but many people fail to understand its true significance: the pen has far wider reaching consequences when used, far more possibilities than the sword, and can be used in very many more situations to better effect. A sword, or any other implement of actual or potential violence, is a short-term solution, whereas the results of employing a pen remain in the mind and can be passed from one generation to another simply and effectively. And, of course, the pen, with the right mind behind it, is creative; it takes the writer out of their present environment and places them inside a new world, perhaps a world of their own creation, perhaps a world extending from that which we know. It can remove a person completely from wherever they are, and bring them to luxurious, verdant fields on a mild summer’s evening with the best company, the finest wines and all the blessings of a ripe and working imagination.
Not that my idea place to be would necessarily be in the middle of a field with a bottle of wine; that has connotations around it more attuned to the life of a tramp with some cheap plonk picked up at the local supermarket. But a cool breeze blowing across a flowing river as a pair – or a small gathering of friends, if you will – sit together in quiet contemplation upon a patchwork rug adorned with a suitably filled picnic basket and surrounded by nothing but trees and birdsong. There are not so many swords which could create either this impression, nor the reality. And our weather, on this side of the world, is ideal for such a moment right now: not too hot but enough to entice one to leave the coolness of an office or sitting room and venture out into the wilds. We had a massive, but very short, rainstorm the day before yesterday, which cleared the air and settled all the dust which had gathered and, even more welcome, brought out the best in many of the gardens near here. Not mine, I’m sad to say, which is more of an overgrown jungle fit for a hunting cat than anything else, but certainly all the ones nearby. My direct next door neighbour increased the size of his pond over the weekend, adding a small waterfall at one end and a form of boardwalk for table and chairs on one side. His neighbour is busy scraping algae from the inside of a pool he built a few years ago, but hasn’t really taken good enough care of. And my neighbour on the other side spends time planting runner beans and flowers of late, while allowing a commercial firm to come regularly and mow the lawn. I keep on promising myself that I will get out and hack a way through the jungle of my garden so that it is halfway presentable, but I haven’t managed to get the energy to explore let alone work yet, and there is always something else which needs doing, somewhere else I have to be.
I’ve not quite reached the stage of every day being exactly the same, although I do sometimes loo up in the evenings, as the dusk throws its shade across my desk, and ask myself where the time has gone. It seems almost as if I have achieved nothing, and yet spent the whole day doing something, or spent the whole day trying to get something completed which should have been very simple, should be have taken up little time, but became more of a burden than a distraction. It’s at times like these that I fancy simply packing my computer and work things away, settling down, and spending quality time doing something else. The three things which come to mind are travelling, reading and writing, of course, but I get enough time to do all of these things anyway. If I go out for a meal at night I always have a book with me; curling up with a book in the evening, and fighting over a comfortable place to relax with the cat, are also everyday events. Likewise with writing, no matter whether it is a paper, a talk or a letter; the time is there and I take that time every single day.
Travelling is another matter, of course, and one which takes up more time than most would care to sacrifice. We all enjoy it, no doubt of that, but getting out there, physically moving from one place to another is the hard part. This weekend I was in Bremen to collect forty-nine old photographs for my collection; travelling in to the city on the bus which one ninety minutes there, ninety back. Last week I spent an evening in the beautiful town of Lüneburg, which is a one hundred and eighty minute journey, each way. This coming weekend I have to be in Bremen again, then in Hamburg and it always seems as if the journey is longer than the time I spend in town. If I could teleport myself, one of the few things that hasn’t been realised yet despite being a major feature in Star Trek, I would do it without a second thought. Although I should be grateful, and remember that there were times when travelling was on horseback or in a very uncomfortable stagecoach, and required considerably more time and effort. I wrote recently to someone else that I would love to be able to do the Grand Tour which was so popular with the English in the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries, but not by stagecoach. Travelling across Europe, visiting all the intellectual and cultural centres of the known Western universe (the USA didn’t count back then!) is a definite must, but a little comfort and luxury should also play a part.
Now and then I get to see the sunsets too; that’s mainly the way that I know the working day is coming to an end and I need to get up and do other things. Te sun sets right behind me each evening, having gone its course over the top of my house and flooded my working / living area with sunlight through the late afternoon. My greenery thrives on these couple of hours, but I have to pull a curtain in the summer months so that I can see what I am writing, what I am trying to research on the computer. And then the patch of sunlight moves across the room, from my work to my sleeping area, and the light begins to dim and there is the sunset across the houses behind my back. Then I know it is either time to get up and go out somewhere for a bite to eat, or to curl up in a corner of my couch and lose myself in whichever book I happen to be reading, having fought for room on the couch with my cat who, having stayed out all night, insists on sleeping exactly where I wish to be at all the wrong moments. I enjoy the sunsets here, and sunrise too, which is often a massive dim red ball rising across the church buildings on the other side of the river, or the same across fog-covered fields when I am driving off towards a neighbouring town. The sunrises and sunsets across the desert, which you happen to mention when thinking of your own area in California, are not quite so impressive as some might believe. I ‘enjoyed’ six months of both in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and, finally, Kuwait in the early Nineties and cannot say that they are filed in my mind under romantic or beautiful memories. Not because of the situation, simply because they didn’t have anything to them. A really good sunset has a few thin clouds nearby, which are then lit up by the last rays of sun and become a reflection of so many colours, so much light that the mind is overwhelmed by their beauty. And endless blue skies? We had those in Saudi Arabia too; definitely unenthusiastic reaction towards endless blue skies from me! It was as if I held two sheets of paper in front of my eyes: one sheet a beige, sandy colour, the other a washed-out blue. The two fit together perfectly, but there was nothing to enhance, nothing to make the image interesting.
Were I to write my memoirs about this time in my life, it would be a very short chapter indeed. I could probably write far more on sunsets I have seen in Germany over a three day period than those – and all my other impressions – from Saudi Arabia. There are good memories, of course, because we had the camaraderie and typical British spirit common to military units, but there was nothing there aside from that. If I’d had books I would have spent my entire day reading, as it was I had the pleasure of writing letters to a few people, but rarely the added pleasure of having a reply or of embarking on a long and worthwhile written conversation with anyone.
I suspect that your critical paper would only elicit yawns from those who are incapable of thought, or who do not understand the implications of genetic research – either from a biological or a philosophical point of view – and don’t want to strain their brains in any direction other than the next meal, cigarette or glass of warm beer. Human enhancement through genetics is a major topic at the moment, especially since it is the sort of thing people with money would be interested in: the ideal baby, brewed with scientific help whilst still in the womb. It is also one of those advancements in medical science which will be almost impossible to stop: as soon as the right genes are broken down and analysed correctly so that beauty, intelligence and all the other attributes of the perfect human have been isolated, it will be offered to those who can afford it. Some countries will then ban it, from religious or ethical grounds, and a real tourist trade will begin. This sort of trade, with people travelling to wherever they can get what they believe they need, already exists, but mainly in the beauty business – which is now widely accepted – and in the less acceptable areas of euthanasia and abortion. In Europe euthanasia is offered in two countries – if my memory serves me well – and people do travel across the borders to leave this life without the stigma of being called a suicide. Likewise with abortions: if it isn’t available in your own State, you travel across the border to a State where doctors are allowed to terminate a pregnancy, and that is that.
Such things are long past philosophical consideration now, but genetic modification remains a reasonably new and exciting topic. There has always been a form of genetic modification used throughout the history of society, admittedly not prior to the birth of a child, but in a similar fashion. The survival of the fittest – as Darwinists would term it – whereby children were tested for their suitability to live on by being left on a mountainside overnight, for example, so that only the strongest survived and the tribe, people or society they belonged to only had the fittest, strongest in their ranks. From a philosophical perspective this would have been fine, letting a new born suffer the elements of their world to show their suitability, but our modern world is heading in a completely different direction. We’ve moved on from Dolly, the cloned sheep, and from Miss Brown, the first test-tube baby, and into the area where the actual make up of a future living form is being altered and amended. There are enough discussions around the images created by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to know that this is a very delicate subject, and one which could well lead, sooner or later, to the same form of violent reaction as we’ve seen abortion clinics subjected to in recent years. If people imagine that discussions over genetically modified food are bitter, they have no conception of what will happen when the first genetically modified child is on offer.
Taking an astronomy class will most certainly help you in gaining your degree, not with credits admittedly, but with the additional information and knowledge you will gain as a result. Astronomy and philosophy – and many of the other hard and liberal sciences – have always been linked with philosophy, were once a part of the whole and have only recently – we’re talking about centuries with philosophy, rather than years or decades – been split off into their own areas of interest. The idea that knowledge will evolve into wisdom is hardly a new concept, it has been held by some of the finest minds since we first started looking around us and asking awkward questions:
Seekers of wisdom first need sound intelligence
as Heraclitus tells us, and he is counted as being the first person to really take himself into the very depths of the mind, the inner workings of a human being by deciding to study himself and his relation to the world during the short span of life. And it was Socrates, as you know, who came to admit that wisdom was knowing how little you know. For Socrates and Plato, and many of the scholars who followed them regardless of the philosophical path they took after the split from Aristotle’s school, knowledge is the path to wisdom, and wisdom is the ultimate happiness. Of course, Heraclitus also wrote:
Goat cheese melted in warm wine congeals if not well stirred
Corpses, like night soil, get carted off.
The first is a piece of wisdom which is of some use, if you happen to like goat’s cheese in your wine, while the second is knowledge of use but not necessarily something we really want to know! Unless, of course, you happen to be enjoying a glass of warm, mulled wine while your recently, dearly departed rival is awaiting collection, wrapped in the living room carpet, by those the Indians call the untouchables.
The interesting thing about people who choose their words carefully these days, is that their lack of speed in replying is taken to be either a form of ignorance, that they cannot think fast enough to formulate an answer, or of timidity, that they cannot bring themselves to say what they should be saying at one particular time, or to a particular person. The fast-talker quickly rides them into the ground, overcoming the fact that they have nothing to say but can react quickly, and forcing those who do have something of interest to pass on to retire into the background, or to be forced there through the impression created. This is what populism is all about: the populist bringing their ideas in a rush and hurrying through the justifications, overwhelming all those who know better but wish to weigh their words, and convincing the listeners (or the people, taking recent events as an example) that their way is the one way, the only way. It takes time to show how hollow many of the arguments are, and it is often first with experience that the listeners learn they have been dazzled by a light which has no source in reality or possibility. Then, of course, those who did not speak out – because they were weighing their words initially, and then overwhelmed and discredited by the populace – are blamed for not warning anyone of the dangers involved.
I have long since given up taking people at their word, and would much rather rely on a mixture of experience and observation over a longer period of time. I enjoy posing questions during the many debates I take part in, almost in the Socratic tradition, and getting a person to justify their opinion down to the smallest detail which, not surprisingly, those who have not thought through what they are professing have a hard time doing. No, the typical person does not communicate in any other means but that which will do them no immediate harm or, for the more calculating, will bring them the most benefit in the long run. It is very hard to see through some of these people, very hard to break down their resistance to truth or reality. Quite a few times I’ve been fobbed off with the suggestion that I would not understand what they are talking about in any great detail, or that this, wherever this is, is not the time or the place for such discussions. There are, of course, no right ties and places, so long as other people are there to hear answers and justifications, or learn that there is nothing behind the words but personal interest.
I suspect that you could be a little disappointed with Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. I had considered buying a copy because someone quoted him to me, within context and in a manner which suggested far more. Then I came across an example on the Internet which gave me a chance to read the whole thing and appreciate that it is much the same as many other ‘guru’ writings, and has its origins in the thinking of classical philosophers as much as early (serious) evangelical preachers and Zen masters. Having read through the entire book – very short and easy to get through – I used it in a reply to the person who had written to me quoting him, and discovered that this person hadn’t read the book at all. He didn’t recognise any of the quotations I used, and the book is really not that long, and I had to enlighten him. It’s easy to find quotations on the Internet, without needing to know exactly where they come from or the context in which they were written, and easy enough to give the impression of great knowledge, wide and broad reading without having taken the trouble to leaf through a second page. Wikipedia and all the various quotation sites may be good for after dinner speeches, but not for detailed and intense discussion, or even conversation. My books have so many slips of paper in them because that’s where I get my quotations, having read the books through too, and not from a quick search through Google to find something which relies on a few buzzwords regardless of the context of original or discussion. My only problem is that I have so many books, and so many slips of paper, it takes time to find the right quotations again. I once used small notebooks and made copies of all that I thought suitable or eligible, but that became too complicated too. And I had too many notebooks with no form of order in them. Arno Schmidt, a German writer, used index cards for his quotations; rather like the old reference cards in a good library. Everything cross referenced for subject matter, writer, reliability, set words and context. But I’m not quite that dedicated, and I think I’d be scared of anyone who is.
most people […] do not care for the type of reading that I do
and I can agree with this notion more than you would imagine. I tend to take my current book with me wherever I go just in case I have time to get a few pages in. Seeing someone reading a book these days is an oddity: people turn and look, they stare. What kind of person, they seem to be asking themselves, reads a book instead of poring over a smart phone like normal people do? Can only be a crazy person.
And then there are those who make it a point to see what you are reading: the latest from Lee Child perhaps? Or one of those detective stories which have started appearing where someone takes a beloved character – Hercule Poirot, for example – and uses the original author’s name to sell their own work. Agatha Christie is one author suffering from this at the moment, Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes character another. I say suffering and that is, perhaps, unfair, as I do not know whether these new writers are doing justice to the talent of the originals. I shall read Sophie Hannah’s Closed Casket (The Brand New HERCULE POIROT Mystery, as the cover claims) and see. But these people who try to see what I am reading tend to draw back slightly when they find out; either because they know what the book is, or because they do not but can guess. I have never, in my entire life, had anyone come up to me, see what I am reading, and start an intelligent conversation about literature, history or philosophy. What I have had are frowns when someone sees that I am reading a book in some foreign language (not German), as if this is a crime. I read German-language books too, just not all the time, and certainly not when I can read a book in its original language.
My favourite – this came to mind as I was writing the last paragraph – is a very short comment by someone in a bar in London back in the Eighties. He told me I would never pick up anyone if I sat in the corner reading a book all the time. I hadn’t realised it was that kind of bar, not that it would have bothered me too much, and he was wrong in the end. But that’s another story, and it was a very long time ago.
Of course, I am not as limited in space and allowances as you are, so transferring quotations into a notebook is not a necessity for me. What is a necessity at the moment, and something which I keep on putting off, is finishing another room in this house I am meant to be renovating, and moving piles of books onto shelves. If I had to donate books for any reason, then I’d do it to a small library too, as you do, safe in the knowledge that I can get to see them again, and that other people of like interests will seek them out and care for them as I do. Gifting them to another person, or putting them in a street library makes me nervous.
I shall close now in order not to miss the post, and continue this in a few days time since there is much more I would like to take and write about in your letter. The print with the sheep is what I see when I go across the road directly in front of my house, up a small rise and then pause. The oldest part of town, across the river, where I lived when I first arrived here. And, yes, we have sheep in the middle of town. The other photograph is an insignificant something taken when I made a small presentation to the town back in 2014, easy enough to hide from view.