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The Writer’s Life

The Writer's Life

Let’s Study Philosophy In Ireland…

 

My sister and I are as different as can be, with opposing values and political views. She cares almost exclusively for things and very little for ideas, unless those ideas can somehow be monetised. I grew up reading poetry and novels while she read business books and Vogue. She’s always considered me recalcitrant and spiteful because I value ideas more than money. I remember telling her that I was going to study English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard and she told me I should study economics as it was the only useful degree that Harvard offered.

 

I didn’t think economics was for me. This was the early 80’s before people like Tyler Cowen,  Tim Harford, and Stephen D. Levitt made economics so interesting that we are all eager for their next book or blog. I wanted to be a writer—she thought that was a bad idea. A dreadful idea. I didn’t disagree it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t really an idea at all. For me, writing was a portal into ideas, a means of engaging, of joining the conversation if you wanted to, or sitting in the audience as a reader if you did not.

 

As adults, my sister and I have gone our very separate ways, but I was reminded of her today when reading this Guardian article by Charlotte Blease. It’s about the result of Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who has finally triumphed after a 3-year campaign to introduce the subject of philosophy into the school curriculum in Ireland. I am delighted by this decision, because I agree with Bertrand Russell that, while “philosophy bakes no bread”, nor draws definitive conclusions, it has a positive effect on those who take it seriously.

 

Let me start by saying my sister, like many Americans with her political beliefs, does not approve of reading the Guardian in the first place. I no longer receive reading advice from my sister, but on several occasions she has warned my daughter not to read The Guardian as it is way too left-wing. It has articles like this one, for example, that suggest that within the curriculum of secondary education we include philosophy, which at first glance appears far less useful than computer science, engineering and robotics. How is America meant to compete with China if all we do is consider useless, dusty old ideas?

 

I don’t mean to pick on engineering and robotics. I  just wrote a piece on big data, marketing analytics and robotics, as a matter of fact, and I kind of like the stuff.  I am not suggesting we ignore education that has practical applications, not at all. In fact, among my many contributions to the world of education is my singular tutorship of my second child, Nick, who is learning the programming language, Python. Let me make it clear: when it comes to learning stuff, I am game. I’m game to evolutionary biology, the history of science, psychodynamic theory, computer science, neuroscience, neuromarketing, politics, and linguistics…. I’m even game to game theory. If I can learn it, I want to learn it.

 

But here is the thing. I don’t consider art to be soft stuff. I don’t believe that intelligence can easily be measured on IQ tests (there are several good books on this topic) and I say this as someone who does well on those tests. I value my daughter’s ability to make make a film of a criminal bunny shooting vegetables in a market, and I value the syntax of required to code. It’s all good, in my book.

 

But philosophy is particularly amazing to me. As the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins said in November during a celebration of World Philosophy Day, Philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

 

I don’t know that it is possible to monetise philosophy (though Derrida and Barthes managed to become rock stars somehow but I am delighted that Higgins looked beyond the immediate utilitarian notions of many in the field of education and understood that while we do, definitely need engineers, we need engineers who can think about something other than physics and computer models.

 

It is important to consider the question of the value of philosophy in view of the fact that many men under the influence of science or of practical affair, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.

 

I read this in Bertrand Russell’s 1912 book, The Problem Of Philosophy, on a page that discusses the apparent dichotomy between “the practical man” and one who considers ideas just as important, not because the ideas are of immediately material use, but because they change the one who considers them.

 

1912. Before Hiroshima and Nazi Germany and two world wars. In retrospect, we can see how philosophy, knowledge, the consideration of right and wrong independent of their expediency was so desperately needed then. Is it any less needed now?

 

 

The Writer's Life

Author Interview With Fish

 

My son gets into the car with a large frozen fish in a blue bag. He explains it is for a Sudanese dinner which involves frying just this kind of fish (what kind of fish is it ,exactly?).  That might be all right, the frozen fish and the Sudanese dinner. He regularly buys teff flour to make injera, the bread one finds in Ethiopia, nori to roll sushi, and rice noodles for his Chinese food. Buying unusual food for exotic recipes is perfectly normal in our household, except tomorrow I have an interview with a major national newspaper and they are coming to my house, which will now smell like fish.

 

It’s hard enough to be interviewed at home when you live with four dogs, two budgies that fly around in the room we euphemistically call my son’s “office” (it is more a language laboratory/aviary) and a pasture of sheep and old horses. Also, when the house is crammed with books, musical instruments, electronic equipment, and all my daughter’s art supplies and canvases. This is the trouble with a household of creative people: we have a lot of stuff, are messy, have no patience for ironing, no aptitude for tidying.

 

My daughter’s sense of colour and space is so sophisticated she won a scholarship to one of America’s most competitive computer animation schools—but her bedroom looks like a what is left when teenagers at Glastonbury festival finally decamp. The art supplies take up one side, books she refuses to pass on to others or store in the attic are on the other. In between you’ll find rail tickets (she collects them), playbills (she collects them, too), dirty clothes, clean clothes, wrapping paper, coffee mugs,  uneaten food, receipts, coins, unpacked suitcases, a wolf costume, running shoes, paper flowers, a werewolf mask…

 

I can close the door to her bedroom, but what about the giant frozen fish? I tried defrosting it in the fridge overnight to contain the smell, but this morning it is still a big fish-ice cube.

 

“When will it be ready to cook?” my son wants to know. He’s bought all the trimmings that go with this dish, including ful medames, a special bean.

 

“After the reporter leaves,” I say, though I can’t decide if a defrosting fish is worse than a recently fried fish. “Oh, and the photographer.”

 

I have an image of the photographer searching the house for someplace suitable for a photo shoot and finding nothing. The house is a boring, modern, relatively compact four bedroom thing of no special appeal to most people, though I love it.IMG_2045

 

I love it but…I know it is weird. For example, next to the antique walnut upright piano with the terrifying cherub face I cover up (the piano with it’s scary cherub was given to my husband by his uncle) is a life-sized dalek, made by the same people who make daleks for Dr. Who. The dalek is enormous, with its strange egg beater-like arm and plunger arm and metallic paint. You might say, “Oh, please Marti stop complaining. Just get rid of the dalek and get your living room back!

 

But I like the dalek. I like all the clutter of my household, especially the four dogs with their four beds and all their colourful bowls and leashes. I like the free-ranging budgies that perch on my son’s shoulders as he studies Amharic or Chinese or whatever language takes his fancy. I like the bouzouki he rarely plays and the guitars we both play. I like the djembe drum—brought from Africa—and which I’ve placed kind of where you would put a side table, if I had such a thing as a side table.

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But the fish. I don’t like the fish. I keep passing it in the kitchen, wondering just how bad it will make the air. I keep thinking the interviewer will forget all the questions she had about my novel and focus on the fact I have an exotic, defrosting, stinking fish in the kitchen, that this is the atmosphere in which I construct my narratives.

 

I can’t even bring myself to take a photograph of the fish to show you—it’s that bad. Fat, sad, frozen, dead fish. It is difficult enough for a vegan like myself having a corpse defrosting in the kitchen. I somehow feel that if it weren’t for the fish the interview would go well, but with it anything could happen.

 

Let’s just hope Nick doesn’t start frying just as the interview begins…