The tyranny of the Positive: a rant in red.


’ish makh’ovot means man of pains

I was a little annoyed and dare I say, demotivated this morning when I choked on a (supposedly) ‘motivational’ quote sent to my inbox by a motivational quote lover. Here is the exasperatiingly positive message – quoted in full, followed by my unashamed rant in red:

“If you want 2019 to be your year, Don’t sit on the couch and wait for it. Go out. Smile more. Throw out what you’ve been cluttering. Unfollow negative people. Go to bed early. Be fierce. Don’t gossip. Show more gratitude. Be brave”.

Before I take a closer look at this little piece of philosophy, first a quote about Voltaire”s Candide:
“Candide, ou l’Optimisme is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire. It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow and painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.” (Incidentally, the great earthquake and Tsunami of 1755 had recently decimated Lisbon killing an estimated 200 000 people). “Voltaire concludes with Candide, if not rejecting Leibnizian optimism outright, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden”, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds”.
So let us examine the Panglossian, Leibnizian mumbojumbo expressed in this motivational quote:
“If you want 2019 to be your year”
Why should it be ”my’ year? Why should the year revolve around me? This self-at-the-centre of the universe is precisely why we’re in such a goddamned mess. It’s the self-conceit at the centre of all human folly. And it’s an expression of western selfishness and neoliberal hubris.
“Don’t sit on the couch and wait for it.” This assumes I own a couch, which I do, but which the majority of the world does not. There’s a cosy, bourgeois inclusiveness in this assumption – we’re all couch-owners, aren’t we? (And no, I don’t sit on the couch and wait for anything actually, though my dog uses it as a vantage point to observe the world go by, and that has its own value). 
“Go out.” Why? Why the emphasis on going out? Where to? For the sake of it? Because you’ve got ants in your pants? Why is ‘going out’ preferable to, say, ‘coming in’, coming home or staying still and watching the clouds crossing the sky? Go! is an action word, which is just what extroverts with impoverished inner lives love to beat introverts with. It’s all about DOING. (Here I remember Theodore Roethke’s words, “Being, not doing, is my first joy.” What an idiot the famous American poet must have been, to prefer being to doing. Did he make any money? Do monks, poets and artists make any money? If not, there’s no point, right? Yeah right – if you’re a capitalist philistine with a heart of a raptor. And ‘the doers’, of course, get RESULTS, because it’s all about MEASURABLE RESULTS, right? Heaven forbid we sit quietly, thinking things through, or in prayer or meditation or contemplation, in stillness and quiet or stasis like a Saddhu or an Anchorite. These are anathema. Make a change? Well change is as good as a holiday, right? but change for change sake? Surely we should ask what should change and why change, and what we should keep and cherish? Change constantly displaces things: its an obsessive, junk-creating upgrading of tech gadgets and cars, the restless flicking from one TV programme to another, the anxious and manic push of entertainment and the displacement of meaning. It’s the pervasive sickness of late capitalist society. We’re so addicted to constant change we no longer recognize the sickness. We can no longer stop to contemplate the stars and their passage across the sky or the movement of a leaf in the wind, the texture of old stone, to hold a 40 million year old trilobite in our hands and reflect on our impermanence. We want to fast-forward without even knowing what we’re fast-forwarding to; we are addicted to the rush and tease of the new. Is new always better? Is being inferior to doing? Why not stop at least long enough to get intel on that jerry machine gun nest before we dash over the top of the trench? Nah – there’s no time. Just do it.
“Smile more” Yep: an inane smile should about do it. An invasive TV-anchor smile, a politician’s false smile, an evangelist’s aggressive smile as he pushes his good news, a salesman’s smarmy smile, a ‘how can I help you’ smile from a shop assistant weighed down by drudgery. The smile that is a tawdry mask hiding a thousand sorrows. Fake smiles really do the job! So smile like Brian, in The life of Brian! My old man would threaten to give me something to be miserable about if I didn’t put a smile on my dial. A kind of tyranny of happiness. Yeah: smiles are so important.
“Be excited” because… visits to fun fairs are exciting but sitting quietly in a cathedral is, like, not exciting which is bad, right? Because manic American-gameshow excitement’s a virtue, right? All that shouting and excitement’s important, right?
“Throw out what you’ve been cluttering.” What does that even mean? Hopefully a page or two of some medieval manuscripts won’t find themselves on the trash pile?
“Unfollow negative people.”Well that’s me ‘unfollowed’ right there. Please, I beg you: UNFOLLOW ME! And unfollow any one who isn’t as oppressively positive as you. Of course: you’ll be unfollowing the Old Testament prophets too, and Saint John of the Apocalypse would be a definitive candidate for unfollowing if he’d had a blog. All that shit about plagues and the end of the world. Why was he so goddamned miserable? SMILE, JOHN OF PATMOS!
“Go to bed early” Right, because all the really interesting people are up and out at night, and you don’t want to meet them. Who needs to meet a Van Gogh with his silly Starry Night painting, or his paintings of night time pavement cafés in Paris or Arles? But yes: Jesus used to get up early according to one evangelical friend; so early to bed/early to rise has gotta be good, right?
“Be fierce”. Yeah. Lets all be fierce. Trump is fierce. Take what you want is fierce. Fucking Vikings were fierce but not the finest examples of human behavour. So are we talking Capitalist businessman fierce or Nazi fierce here? Or just good ol’ intolerant fierce?
“Don’t gossip.” (self-censure easily becomes puritanical disengagement. Think of the mischievous conversations of Enlightenment satirists and frequenters of ‘the coffee shops’ of eighteenth century England – the attacks bordering on calumny against establishment figures by intellectuals with their caustic wit and cartoons: we’d call them out would we, shut them up? Don’t gossip!
“Show more gratitude”. My personal favourite. There are children starving in Africa so who are you to complain? The censure by the well-healed of anyone who expresses dissatisfaction with their lot. How dare you. It also assumes there’s a sort of hierarchy of sorrows – a ‘value-chain’ of melancholy – and your sorrows are worth less than someone else’s. And of course: there’s nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a complainer. Root ’em out and shut ’em up. Yeah – be grateful: ‘Thank you Lord for the Tsunami that wiped out my family thank you Lord that I live in the first world and am not in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen being bombed by first world bombs amen.’
Be brave.
Can’t argue with that. ‘Rah rah over the top boys’ – and don’t mind the Jerry machine guns, the barbed wire or the bombs. Except that when you read the firsthand accounts of the men in the trenches, you’ll find this blab by non-noncombatants insulting. Facing death, fear was a constant companion and no insult to bravery. Read Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and feel his contempt for the officers, politicians and society which demanded bravery of the common soldier.
Further reading:

“He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.  We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Isaiah 53:3

The Servant of God in Isaiah is a “man of sorrows.” The Hebrew phrase (’ish makh’ovot) means, literally, “man of pains,” and refers to both physical and emotional suffering. God’s Servant would not be immune from difficulties. In fact, he would be “acquainted with deepest grief.”


Sartor Resartus

Sartor Resartus (meaning ‘The tailor re-tailored’) is an 1836 philosophical novel by Thomas Carlyle.

It was overcast and rainy in Chester today, and quite dark by 4.30 in the afternoon. I stopped in at The Architect for an ale (Bragdy’r Gogarth ‘dark abbey ale’ from Great Orme in North Wales). I took a small book from the shelf: a 1906 edition of Sartor Resartus by the Scottish philosopher and satirical writer, Thomas Carlyle.



It was delightful. I ordered another half pint of Bragdy’r Gogarth and read further, loving the gentle and at times silly humour, and the strange written language that was the English of 180 years ago. I asked the barman if I could buy the book, as I doubted there’d be a big rush on Thomas Carlyle any time soon. “Have it,” he replied with a laugh, “put a few coins in the charity box”. And so for a few pennies I now own a 1906 edition of one of Thomas Carlisle’s important satirical works.

“In Carlyle’s view, civilization—that is, religion, government, and all the other institutional garments that human beings weave to clothe themselves—is frayed and shabby and needs retailoring.” –enotes

About describes we enlightened ones in  the 21st century rather well I think.

“Sartor Resartus teems with wit, irony, fun, either in the guise of, or gently
mocking from beneath, its seriousness and downright difficulty. It also playfully generates uncertainties between fiction and fact, disguise and the naked truth. The text’s humor, often lurking in obscure absurdities and a Sterne-like play with its own fictionality, tends to give way to a gravitas and profundity which
many nineteenth-century readers, particularly at first in America, found both fascinating and a solace for their evanescing religious faith.”

– Ralph Jessop




From Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

monachopsis n. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.

wytai n. a feature of modern society that suddenly strikes you as absurd and grotesque—from zoos and milk-drinking to organ transplants, life insurance, and fiction—part of the faint background noise of absurdity that reverberates from the moment our ancestors first crawled out of the slime but could not for the life of them remember what they got up to do…

exulansis n. the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land…

odus tollens n. The realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.

vemödalen n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.

vellichor n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

anecdoche n. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.

Mauerbauertraurigkeit n. the inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like—as if all your social tastebuds suddenly went numb, leaving you unable to distinguish cheap politeness from the taste of genuine affection, unable to recognize its rich and ambiguous flavors, its long and delicate maturation, or the simple fact that each tasting is double-blind.

xeno n. the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangers—a flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence—moments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone.


trumspringa n. the temptation to step off your career track and become a shepherd in the mountains, following your flock between pastures with a sheepdog and a rifle, watching storms at dusk from the doorway of a small cabin, just the kind of hypnotic diversion that allows your thoughts to make a break for it and wander back to their cubicles in the city.

ambedo n. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life…

aimonomia n. fear that learning the name of something—a bird, a constellation, an attractive stranger—will somehow ruin it, transforming a lucky discovery into a conceptual husk pinned in a glass case, which leaves one less mystery to flutter around your head, trying to get in.

hiybbprqag n. the feeling that everything original has already been done, that the experiment of human culture long ago filled its petri dish and now just feeds on itself, endlessly crossbreeding old clichés into a radioactive ooze of sadness.



Nostalgia by Emily Barker
and The Red Clay Halo.

Music adapted for the television series Wallander.


Excerpt from the lyrics

… a door that shouldn’t be in front of me

Twelve thousand miles away from your smile,
I’m twelve thousand miles away from me

Oh whisper me words in the shape of a bay

Shelter my love from the wind and the rains

Crow fly be my alibi
And return this fable on your wing
Take it far away to where gypsies play
beneath metal stars by the bridge

Oh write me a beacon so I know the way
Guide my love through night and through day

Only the sunset knows
my blind desire for the fleeting

Dark God

images (1)

Paulist Press International  |  2013

“The God of the Old Testament can shock readers of the Bible: he drowns his creation in the Flood, requires Abraham to sacrifice his son, destroys the first-born of the Egyptians the night before the Exodus, and ruthlessly eliminates the Israelites who were devoted to the worship of the golden calf. Throughout the centuries, many Christians and philosophers have rejected all or part of the Old Testament because of these divine characteristics that violently contrast with the image of the good and kind God of the New Testament. So, can we believe in a God who is macho, cruel, despotic, or who even indulges in ethnic cleansing? Thomas Römer puts forward a reinterpretation of these difficult passages in the light of the most recent research into the Old Testament. For the author, the characteristics that God appears to have, and that at first seem repulsive, are aimed at preserving the faith from dogmatic complacency by instilling in mankind the unexpected vision of a God who is engaged with the real life of humanity.”