Before you decide whether or not to delve into the following passage, I should probably add some context. I’m a fairly big, but new, fan of Iain (sporadic M.) Banks. Mostly the Sci-Fi’s but also his other works. I read Stonemouth about a month ago, and slipped into the narrative were a couple of pages describing the protagonist’s views on humanity, while he’s drunk.
For me, it’s absolute gold. A writer’s ability to portray the character’s thoughts seemingly without effort is a beautiful thing. When they can portray what you yourself have thought within their character’s thinking it’s somewhat mind-blowing. Not to say this is by any means one of his best books (although it’s definitely worth a read), but in this dark collaboration of intoxicated words is a being that a hefty part of me frequently relates to, drunk or otherwise. Have a read:
Ah, I think. I’ve got this stage of drunkenness. Usually requires a lot of drink and just the right mix of other drugs, though I’m sure when I was younger it could be brought on with alcohol alone. It’s a feeling of encompassing, godlike scrutiny of mountaintop scope and reach, of eagle like inspection, though without quite the same eye to subsequent predation. And I don’t want to be noticed; it’s not, Behold me, wretches! It’s more, Fuck, behold you; what are you like?
Comes with a high degree of preparedness to use mightily broad-sweep judgements, applied with eye-watering rapidity to condemn or dismiss entire swathes of humanity and its collected wisdom, up to and including all of it. So, not for those deficient in sanctimony or lacking in self-righteousness; definitely not for the faint of smug.
I have stood in gatherings far more opulent and distinguished, more monied and glamorous, in London and elsewhere – though mostly in London – and felt something of the same corrupted disdain for those around me. It’s a fine, refreshingly cynical feeling in a way, and one that I know separates me from so many of my peers – in all this clasping, cloying pressure to accept and agree, a few of us will always pop out like pips, ejected by just those forces that seek to clamp us in – but much as I distrust it in principle and hate it for its unearned, faux-patrician snobbery, I relish it, almost worship it.
Oh, just look at you all. Self-satisfied but still desperate to get on, do better, complete, make more. And it’s okay, if that is the way everybody is, this is what everyone does, so there’s nothing to be gained by being any different. That’s the new orthodoxy, this is the new faith. There was never an end of history, just a perceived end of the need to teach it, remember it, draw any lessons from it. Because we know better, and this is a new paradigm, once more. I have a friend – again in London – who’s a libertarian. Actually I have a few, though they wouldn’t all call themselves such. In theory it’s a broad church with a decent left wing, but everyone I meet seems to be on the right: Rand fans. Idea appears to be that people just need to be encouraged to be a bit more selfish and all our problems will be sorted.
I don’t think I get this.
And it’s so unambitious, so weak, so default and mean-spirited, in a way so cowardly. Is that really the most we can look for in ourselves? Just give in and be selfish, settle for that because it’s what the last generation did and look how well it worked out for them? (Fuck subsequent ones, they can look after themselves.) Settle for that because it’s easy to find that core of childish greed within us, and so simple to measure the strength of it through power and money. Or, boiling it down a bit further, just with the money.
Really? I mean, seriously? This is the best we have to offer ourselves?
Fuck me, a bit of fucking ambition here, for the love of fuck.
Is it just me or does including the F-word three times in a sentence add precisely the right amount of oomph required? If it’s altogether too much oomph for you, then firstly, sorry for not translucently hiding multiple f*cks, and secondly, feel free to offer a belated slap on the wrist to Mr Banks, although I’d have to disagree with such chastisement. Honestly, I read that for the first time and my hairs were on end. After mostly concentrating on working out exactly where this novel was heading, this took me by surprise. He can do that.
Not only does he start off by describing an awkwardly regular, slightly inebriated pastime of mine in diamond-cut clarity; but he goes on scathingly to ridicule a vast proportion of the western world in the blink of an eye. If I were gay, and he were unmarried, inclined and still alive, that’d do it for me.
The fact is, referring to a lack of ambition and being steered towards greed may be an oversimplified version of current career pathways but it still rings true. It still causes you to see materialistic ideologies from a different perspective. For me, particularly, it resonates. Call me a naive, but while I’m young and free enough to have an agenda bigger than myself and my direct family, it seems apt that I call the shots in whatever direction I can to at least head towards Utopia. Even if I know full well that the likelihood of reaching that Olympus of a destination is effectively zilch.
Effectively zilch is however, not zilch.
Positivity. Considering how often I’ve referred to myself as cynical, it’s odd that I also consider myself an optimist. Not quite an oxymoron but still surely aberrant to the majority of hardcore cynics. I suppose if you’ve just used the phrase ‘head towards Utopia’, then it’s probably not a massive surprise to label oneself an optimist, but there you go.
It isn’t a terrible idea to finish whatever level of education you escape from and arrive at the conclusion that earning lots of money as quickly as possible is the only way forward. That is, unless you’ve long since realised that academia or the arts are your passion, in which case I salute you and wish you all the best. It’s simply that settling on the classic ‘Money = Happiness’ formula may not be the most sensible of pursuits.
Not to say that on the surface of it, having buckets full of money isn’t going to paste a jubilant grin on your face. But when you’re not frolicking around with the gloriously grandiose toys you’ve acquired with all that money you have, you may actually have to go about bringing home the bacon. Which is fine if you’re one of the minority who are ’emotionally connected’ with and actively enjoy their work, but if statistics and studies are to be believed, then 71% actively don’t like it. Of course 93% of statistics are made up on the spot but this one does seem to hold some validity according to the internet, and the internet never lies. With or without the backing of controversial number crunching the fact is that you should love your job, or at least like it. You should feel that it has some worth in society and isn’t just grinding out the most capital possible, probably at the expense of someone else.
As Mr Banks delightfully writes “[have] a bit of fucking ambition here”.