Presumption and folly

Revolutionary Road Front Cover, Vintage Books

No discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle, and such discipline I call presumption and folly

William Blake

The quote above from Blake, is from the novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. For some reason it reminded me of the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, a novel I have such vivid memories of. Memories as though I had actually been there, watching the couple Frank and April. Strange how a page of words can project self constructed images that embed themselves as memory; memories that are often more vivid than what we do in our daily lives. Extraordinary really. Just words on a page. Meaningless as individual squiggles of ink on paper, carrying such weight as a whole. 

I read Revolutionary Road on my honeymoon, much to the concern of my wife. I knew the ending to the story, as did my wife, hence her concern. I read it as a cautionary tale of what I perceived at the time to be the lesson in the story; the dangers of complacency, conformity and fear. There was something in the two characters that spoke to me, especially the male character Frank. Frank was an idealist, a romantic I suppose, who having come back from the Second World War, found himself in a post-war America that felt alienating and shallow. 

Frank wakes up at the age of thirty and realises that, despite his and Aprils’ youthful intentions, they have become trapped in the vortex of the 1950’s version of the American Dream. Married with two children, in a large house, in a respectable suburb, both Frank and April feel asphyxiated by their coddled circumstances and the deadening effect this has on their spirit. Frank holds onto the notion, seeded from his time in Paris during the war, that life is happening elsewhere, and the people in these places are ‘truly alive, not like here’. It is April, who suggests they act on a long dormant fantasy of moving to Paris. 

Both Frank and April, surrounded by what they perceive as borish neighbours, always had a view of themselves as exceptional, as somehow special, separate from those who through time and habit they increasingly resembled. This idea of Paris, was a way of manifesting this specialness, a dramatic, grand gesture that would prove their exceptionalism, transforming them into those special people they imagined themselves to be. 

The grand gesture, whilst dramatic and often perceived as bold, is often the low road to transformation, a bypass of the difficult lived experience that is essential for the new sequence of habits that we call a new life. For years after reading Revolutionary Road I had always interpreted it as a tale warning against the moral cowardice exhibited by Frank. Whilst I think that cowardice plays a large part in the couples downfall, the real lesson here is the danger of self-deception. The couple believe, despite any supporting evidence, that they are somehow special, different, separate from those around them. 

The couples belief in their own exceptionalism is a fantasy they hold, whilst simultaneously tying themselves in knots through the daily commitments of their real, conventional life. They pull away and isolate themselves from those around them, bored by the pettiness of their friends. It is this idealism that leads to separation, which in turn creates a deeper emptiness, that is filled, momentarily, by their desire to go to Paris. It is this delusional, idealised view of themselves, and the resulting cowardice to live up to it that creates such dissonance within and between them. 

The problem is that this ideal of ‘specialness’ that they wish to live up to is amorphous and ill-defined, but nevertheless hangs over them as a torment. The torment is exacerbated by the fact that they are unable to take the action necessary to get what they want, as it is so ill-defined. Part of the difficulty in their definition of their ideal is that it is often done in opposition to others around them. Part of an individual’s definition of self stems from their opposition to that which they are not. However, a ‘not’ is an empty space that doesn’t allow for any further guidance on what ‘is’, what one should move toward. Frank and April’s resentment is driven by this opposition to the other people in their lives who reflect their own conventionality and ordinariness. This reflection creates a distance, an inauthenticity, between what they do and what they wish to be. Frank and April’s unhappiness stems in part from this inauthenticity, a misalignment between their values, and actions. 

The fear of Frank becomes evident as their dream of Paris, mostly driven and manifested by April, become a reality. Frank pictures himself, six months into their move, sitting on a bed in a dirty bathrobe, picking his nose, paralysed by inertia. The truth is that Frank’s cowardice isn’t just in response to the move to Paris, but has been with him all along, leading him to be trapped in this life he resents. With Paris drawing closer, Frank consciously and unconsciously sabotages their plans. He does better at work, accepting a promotion, believing that the new title and small raise means something. He also manages to get April pregnant a third time.

Frank’s life is one governed by mediocrity, and this mediocrity is magnified by his self-deception of being someone special, better than what he is. The idea of American Exceptionalism, of the great man, has been internalised by Frank and now eats away at him like a devil gnawing at his soul. The difficulty of American Exceptionalism then and today is that people are modelling themselves on edge cases of successful individuals who sit at the one percent or 0.01% of a population of three-hundred-million-plus people. A perfect combination of personality, temperament, luck, drive and talent needs to converge to become the feted ‘success’. The openness to life that Frank saw in Europe, is in complete opposition to this blinkered, ambition for individual glory that is vaunted so much in America. The American idea of success, the myth of the ‘self-made’, the doctrine of positive thinking, is the proverbial carrot tied in front of the Donkey. Unreachable for most, and certainly unreachable for him.

Frank’s cowardice is justified in a way. His dissociation between ideal and actions is the result of a confusion between what he wants, which is a greater openness to life. His belief in his own specialness and exceptionalism is actually something that works against this openness, creating the fear that sees him pull away from what he needs, to live in a way that is authentic. April, who appears far more brave than Frank, believes that their Paris trip will help them define and realise what Frank is searching for, believing that through changed actions, will come changed thoughts. Ultimately though, Frank is unwilling to let go of their comforts, and cowed by a fear of uncertainty his actions lead to a spiral of dishonesty and resentment that leads to a tragic conclusion. 

The tragedy of this story lies deeper than just Frank’s cowardice, it rests in the mental folly of self-deception and the inner conflict that results. It also speaks to the limits of self-improvement and how the message of the great man or woman can be toxic, a recipe for dissatisfaction in the face of impossible standards. The final, underpinning element is Frank’s lack of self-awareness and acceptance of himself. His cowardice springs from the two opposing depths of uncertainty relating to himself and to his unarticulated ideal of the future. Deep down, Frank knew that he would never be an artist, or musician or writer, he was too conventional for that, too much like his father. Ultimately Frank is a conventional man who saw exceptional things during the war in Europe. His fall of innocence that resulted from this experience, separated him from his prior conception of who he was, and he was never able to bridge that gap again. 

The ‘aliveness’ he perceives in Europe stems from a ‘freedom in their bondage’ attitude, driven by a self-aware acceptance of suffering and the rejection of an individualistic, blinkered approach to success. The spiritual deadness he observes in America stems from this myopia, this chasing of either comfort or glory. The removal of these blinkers, allows the whimsy of life to rush in. What Frank wants is an openness to life, but his bravery to pursue this didn’t need to extend to moving away to Europe. Bravery could have meant pushing away the comfort of conformity where he was and living in a way that was authentic to him. A tiny, shining example of a quiet life, lived on its own terms with full awareness.

Thrown into inequality

Image by Korhan Kalabak

We are shaped by time and place as much as by heredity. The collective outlook of each generation is moulded by the interweaving factors of the time and environment we are born into. History is alive in the lives it has helped to forge. The “Generations” that the media love to demarcate and critique, are manifestations of being thrown into this time. The German Philosopher Martin Heidigger referred to this as “Thrownness”, saying that we are at the mercy of the past, the time and place we are born. We are also at the mercy of the present, one which is characterised by our moods.

According to Heidigger, our being is always shaped by some mood or other. Mood is not a subjective veil that is draped over a “truer” objective world, but the essence of what it is to be in the world at all. Talk of being “in a mood”, rather than a “mood being in us” is an example of how each of us describes this sense of mental life being synonymous with life itself. This centrality of mood to experience explains how there can be a “public mood”, or a “mood of the crowd”. Examples of this include a crowd at a sporting event, a collective whose moods rises and fall with the fortunes of a team. A concert is a similar example, so is a political rally. People like to attend these events in person, rather than just watch them on TV, so they can share in the energy of a collective momentum, gyrating in response to a shared focal point. This is something that not only energises and provides catharsis, but also allows us to transcend our own individual experiences. 

The mood of a generation whilst more amorphous, follows in this vein. It is a vague collective feeling or outlook shaped by the time and place into which we are thrown at birth. The events of the last few weeks have been the flashing culmination of years of frustration against inequality that feels embedded and intractable. The tragic example of George Floyd is the tip of a centuries old problem of racial disenfranchisement that has its origin in early capitalism and colonialism. The mostly young protesters who have galvanised around the Black Lives Matter movement, have for years been burdened with expensive higher education, unreachable housing and employment uncertainty. Prior to COVID, this group of people consoled themselves with experiences, forming the basis of the ‘experience economy’. It is no surprise that the shutdown, the economic effect of which has removed this outlet and extinguished the employment that supports it, has led to this explosion of unrest. 

The sacrifice of the shutdown has been borne primarily by workers who have the least employment security, or those essential (i.e. low paid) workers who are putting their lives at risk so that the economy doesn’t completely collapse. These George Floyd and indigenous incarceration protests are a global movement of solidarity against racism, but they are also energised by a simmering resentment of growing inequality. 

The generation gap is always determined by chasms in time, chasms which result in difficult to understand attitudes and behaviours from one generation to the next. What those of older generations don’t understand when they criticise the protests is that they are beneficiaries of a system that is no longer working in the way that it worked for them. A lot of those who are protesting are doing so because they see in George Floyd and indigenous incarceration an inequality that is endemic and fundamental. 

Inequality’s natural mechanism is to compound itself. It compounds via the returns of wealth, but also in the regulations established by politicians to placate those with wealth. The validity of the Black Lives Matter protests is supported by the broader outcry against systemic inequality. The looting, vandalism and “defund the police” sloganeering is an excess that undermines the overall aims of the movement, but they don’t make the movement itself invalid.

The agony of acceptance

Cycle of Hercules by Francisco de Zurbaran (1634)

“It’s no good trying to get rid of your aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Why is acceptance so hard?

Part of the reason appears to be the uncertainty of what we should accept. We are often bound by the tension that exists between being grateful for what we have, and the desire to stretch beyond our current capacity. Acceptance isn’t about any particular situation at work or in life; it is coming to terms with who you are, and letting go of thoughts and behaviours that lead to self-sabotage

This kind of acceptance is recognising your frailties and flaws, whilst honouring your strengths. Ultimately, acceptance is self-awareness. Self-awareness can provide you with the confidence to act in accordance with your values, rather than being pulled by others expectations. Without understanding your own values, it is easy to fall for someone else’s. It is when we are pulled by a “should” that we descend into the morass of self-deception, and its resulting cynicism and resentment.

Acceptance is hard because it is uncomfortable. It is often confused with passivity, when in fact it is in direct opposition to passivity. Acceptance implies wrestling with uncertainty and contradiction; of accepting and coming to terms with uncomfortable truths. Through acceptance, there can still be change, however this change can only occur without being forced or pushed by fear. Fear of being inadequate, of not having enough, pushes us to distraction. This distraction manifests itself in the blind ambition and greed that tries to plug an emptiness that can never be filled, like Tantalus and his grapes. 

Acceptance appears to be a willingness to become who we wish to be, by having the willpower and patience to conform into who we think we should be. So much of how we think is determined by our social environment, and so we may not even realise that we are being led astray by the ‘Royal Should’. Putting up with the discomfort that arises from the resistance of ‘shoulds’, can open up the space needed to listen, examine and, let go. This process is uncomfortable because our thoughts and actions don’t exist in a bubble of isolation; it can be difficult to find the space needed to begin this process of uncovering. Indeed, we may even fear what lies underneath, instead choosing to distract ourselves with busyness, pushing away the pain that needs to be addressed.

Acceptance appears fundamental to the experience of the good life. It is also a key aspect of many psychotherapeutic techniques that are used to treat those struggling with mental suffering or illness. The difficulty of acceptance lies in its opposition to our intuition. Our mental life is so often focused on solving problems, moving from one to the next, that it can be very difficult to accept a problem, rather than trying to remove it. The problem that we rush to fix may only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of issues that we are unconscious of, and therefore unwilling to approach. Trying to fix problems without understanding their root cause is like cutting the head off a hydra. Acceptance starts with the psychological flexibility of making peace with contradiction and uncertainty. It can be the inflexibility and rigidness of our mental life that starves us of the vitality we crave.

Modern Sisyphus

Sisyphus, Antonio Zanchi (1631–1722)

How COVID-19 and remote working, demonstrated the inherent emptiness of corporate life and the unfairness of who gets paid.

So much of the meaning we get from work, comes from our interactions with each other in the office. The Coronavirus, whilst a boon for some, has brought into stark relief the meaninglessness of modern work for many. Triumphant forecasts of the demise of the office, may turn out to be true, which may only exacerbate the nihilism of white-collar professional life. Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, recently wrote a nostalgic paean to the office, noting, “The most important thing — which should make the office less an employer’s white elephant than its biggest bargain — is that it gives work meaning.” What this period has really driven home, is how once the comforts of office life are removed, what many of us are left with is the maddeningly dull and Sisyphean nature of our work.

Part of this is due to the narrow and restricted nature of so much of the professional services economy, what sociologist Max Weber referred to as the “iron cage” of bureaucratisation. The sticky web of rules and administrative procedures that are required to manage the sheer complexity of the modern economy. A complexity that has spawned what David Graeber calls the bullshit jobs of ‘make-work’. Graeber defines this make-work as well-paying jobs that create a veneer of success, but if stopped tomorrow wouldn’t make a difference to the world.

We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning.

This make-work is a result of the huge increase of professional services over the last century. With a significant amount of this increase being devoted to the administration of increasingly byzantine bureaucratic functions of corporations and governments. The inherent complexity of our global corporations and government functions, requires masses of people, with narrow skill sets to become well-paid cogs in the wheel, with little connection to the final output of their work. Often this lack of connection is due to there being no final output to be connected to, as strategies continually change, and projects are cancelled. This Hyperspecialisation of both industry, service and job, has become so narrow that many of us have lost any conception of how we actually make a difference in our work.

What made this dislocation bearable for much of the last century was the meaning that we got from one another when we were in the office. The ability to make friends (or lovers), share ideas, perform in front of our peers, develop the political rivalries and alliances that simultaneously infuriate and sustain us. We cloak ourselves in these peripheral pleasures of office life to drown out the tinnitus of existential dread that greets so many of us when we logon each morning. A dread that is likely to only increase as the professional emptiness of remote work becomes clearer.


The point of all this is that there is a greater evil underlying the banality of this professional nihilism. This is embodied by the cynicism of paying someone almost triple what a nurse gets paid, to stand around holding a traffic sign on government infrastructure projects, whilst these nurses risk their lives to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. A similar example in Australia of underfunded volunteer firefighting crews fighting apocalyptic bushfire conditions last summer is another testament to government fixation on the wrong things. This trend of rewarding bit players, in billion-dollar-white-elephant-projects, whilst undervaluing and ignoring, what is referred to now as “essential workers”, is generally appallingly. It is a function of the preference of governments to be seen to be ‘making progress’, ‘chasing growth’ or ‘balancing the budget’ at the expense of all else. Anything that is not within this framework of quantifiable progress, anything that involves community care or supporting actual people in the community, is equivalently priced as being worthless.

Post-Covid predictions like this one, have already become tiresome and will most likely be wrong. But what might stick is how many people may realise, after peering behind the curtain of their day-to-day professional existence, that there might be more to professional life. If this leads to a collective realisation, it might change our attitude toward how we reward our essential workers, softening the debate about deficit and surplus and move it forward to one of value and fairness. Perhaps we will wake up and realise that the nurse, school teacher and fireman deserve not just our applause and appreciation, but more of the spoils.

Moving away from the fatal shore

Artist: Kurun Warun

To deprive the Aborigines of their territory, therefore, was to condemn them to spiritual death – a destruction of their past, their future and their opportunities of transcendence.

Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding

We cling anxiously to the edge of this continent, terrified of what lurks within. A land of incomprehensible vastness and mystery, of lethal creatures, wilting heat and awe-inspiring weather. The ocean that we have collectively grasped toward since 1788, presents a symbol of potential salvation, promise of connection to the outside world, a respite from scorching sun and desolate dry, however even the ocean brings with it the threat of inundation along with apprehension of the other.

We are precariously placed on this rock, an experimental utopia with no anchor point either to the original people’s of this land, or to the people’s from which we are descended. It has been up to us to determine the values, dreams and myths that can unify us together and provide a guiding light, however these are still fledgling. By destroying the culture of the people that first called this place home, we have not only committed a spiritual murder of the indigenous population, we have also cut ourselves off from any sort of spiritual connection and knowledge of this place. By cutting ourselves off from the original people of this land we will never be free. We will always feel apprehensive, adrift and fearful, trembling in the face of imagined threats, of a foreign land that we do not really comprehend and often seems to us hostile and foreboding.

This anxious grip permeates our lives, driving us to seek control over whatever we can in order to reduce these existential feelings of isolation, loss and alienation. Without integrating the wisdom of the people who understand this land, without finally unifying around an inclusive, collective vision of Australia, we will always be a prisoner of our ignorance and resulting fear. To be a truly great nation we need to reconcile with our original sin, rehabilitating the spiritual essence and wisdom of one of the world’s oldest cultures into a collective and unifying vision of Australia, building a bridge to the past so that we can confidently navigate the future.

The shadow of luck

Image: Brett Whiteley, Bondi 1978
But their minds were always closed,
And their hearts were held in fast suburban chains.
- Cold Chisel, Khe Sahn

There is a complacency of mind in Australia. A complacent sense that what has worked in the past will continue working indefinitely into the future. There is a sort of trembling fear that pervades much of the national psyche, an anxiousness that all the time spent and sacrifices made in the pursuit of wealth, status and comfort maybe won’t be reflected in a sense of contentment, calm and delayed joy. So many people have been led to believe that the ‘Australian Dream’ is the paradise to which people should aspire, as though it were a final destination, a foretold promised land, where in truth it is more like a trap. Be mindful of politicians extolling the virtues of certain lifestyles!

In truth the Australian Dream is a way of tying people down and making them good little taxpayers. In the pursuit of security and comfort we sacrifice autonomy. When we sacrifice autonomy we stop manifesting potential, with time creaking into psychological stasis as our vision becomes blinkered by an arbitrary goal defined by others.

We are told to enjoy life when we are old, once we have retired from ‘doing our bit’, when the generative power of new ideas, people and places has lost its generative force, when they have become the pleasant distractions from the monotony of retirement. As Australians we cling in anxious fear to our possessions and houses, desperately reminding ourselves and others that we ‘have made it’ whilst being terrified to step off the treadmill and think for ourselves. 

Buy a house, sure. But do it with your eyes open and do it after experiencing the world and analysing all the possibilities, don’t do it just because everyone else is doing it. Make sure that in trying to attain security you don’t smother your potential by becoming chained by debt and societal expectation. Politicians do not want a mobile workforce, mobility means a lower tax base, so beware of their endlessly repeated prognostications of ‘The Australian Dream’. Keep your eyes open and think for yourself.

Don’t be fooled by groupthink that buying a house is the only asset to bother considering or that assets of monetary value are the only ones worth pursuing. Invest in yourself through the education of life; make mistakes, read, write, paint, try and understand why you think and act the way you do, understand what motivates you so that your values and goals are the product of your truth and not someone else’s.

Goodbye to Hong Kong

Photo taken of a shrine in Wan Chai dedicated to a protester who committed suicide during the protests

My view of Hong Kong is that it is a spectacular place on the surface, full of fun and excitement; but when you look at the city more closely all you see is an edifice, a facade constructed on a shifting sand of money, corruption and exploitation. Increasingly I look around me when I am out at night in the ‘expat part’ of Hong Kong and am repulsed by the unthinking swilling, gorging and cackling of the people around me, and of course by my own participation in this. It feels to me like we are in the middle of a decadent party, inside an enormous mansion, whilst the city outside is burning to the ground.” 

I wrote these words at the end of May of this year, just as the first mass protests had begun and a month before I left the city. The decision for my wife and I leaving was made weeks before the outbreak of the protests, however the synchronistic nature of our leaving and the protests commencing is still something that I think about each day. Whilst our decision to leave Hong Kong was independent of the protests that began to take place, they were related to some of the issues that the protesters are citing, although related from a completely different perspective.

The increasing “Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong was narrowing the options available to my wife and I, making it fairly clear that our professional future in Hong Kong, if we had stayed, would have been a fairly constrained one. One of the other difficulties was the social tension within the office and in the city as a whole which we could clearly feel soon after we had arrived. This tension and the deterioration of social harmony in the office I was a part of steadily became worse as time went on and was almost unbearable by the time we left in May 2019. This tension finally found it’s release when the government tried to force through it’s extradition law and the initial unrest against this has now morphed into a demand for self-determination, anger against deteriorating social conditions represented by inaccessibility to decent housing, schooling free from mainland influence and declining economic prospects for those outside of the international educated elite.  

Exploitation has been the modus operandi of Hong Kong since the British turned the barren island of fishing villages into a fortress of trade to interface with China. An exploitation that began with the British, has been perpetuated by the tycoons that now act as lords in a modern feudal enterprise. These tycoons, who have been blessed by the mainland Chinese Government to continue with their oligopolies have been conspicuously silent in their response to the protests, wary of upsetting Beijing or the Hong Kong citizens that they rely on to keep their money wheels turning. 

It is no wonder that all Hong Kong needed for this pressure to finally release was a spark, and in the end the hapless government would be the one to light it. The people of Hong Kong have seen the light of what a society based if not on western values than at least on western principles of free speech and separation of government powers can be, and they won’t be pulled into the abyss of an authoritarian system whose legitimacy is held up by the increasing wealth and material freedom of its citizens. How this ends is anyone’s guess, however the comparisons to the various suppressions of the Soviet Union and mainland China are probably inaccurate. Beijing’s hands are tied for multiple reasons; firstly, the risk of using force could actually re-ignite and fan the flames of a previously flickering pro-independence movement. Secondly, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which treats Hong Kong as a separate trading entity from the mainland is an enormous stick that the US is able to wield in the event of any escalation of China’s response. Thirdly, Beijing will not be able to ‘disappear’ the relevant agitators like they did after Tiananmen Square given the nature of relative openness of Hong Kong society in comparison to the mainland in 1989 as well as the fact that the Hong Kong legal system, despite its flaws, is not an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. 

I am hoping for a peaceful end to the protests and the concession of the government to the protesters demands for more self-determination and greater access to adequate housing and economic opportunities. Hong Kong was and always will be a part of China, however as demonstrated by the protests over the last three months, once people have been given a taste of freedom, they fight tooth and nail to maintain it, something that is likely to become more and more prevalent as the year 2047 looms closer on the horizon. For the protesters, who despite the limited prospect of success are risking life, limb and future prospects by bravely demonstrating their opposition to the direction Hong Kong is going in I wish godspeed and hope they can manifest their own philosophy of this “Water Revolution” by being “strong like ice, fluid like water, to gather like dew and disperse like mist.”