Thursday, 19 January 2017

France : « Une société de castes, où chaque groupe méprise l’autre et se sent méprisé »

Marion Fontaine, historienne
L’une des exigences les plus anciennes du mouvement ouvrier, à partir de sa formation au XIXe siècle, tient dans une question d’honneur, de dignité ou encore de fierté. Face à des essayistes qui ont longtemps vu le prolétariat des faubourgs comme un ensemble de barbares ou de sauvages, il s’est agi pour les ouvriers organisés d’affirmer leur rôle, la singularité de leur apport en tant que producteurs et leur valeur morale. Une grande partie du travail des représentants ouvriers, qu’ils soient syndicaux, intellectuels ou politiques, a été d’œuvrer à cette « dignification » du groupe.

C’est ce qu’affirme par exemple Jaurès en 1894, en insistant sur la dimension hautement morale du combat des ouvriers, qui ne luttent pas seulement pour eux-mêmes, mais pour l’avenir et la libération de l’ensemble de l’humanité. C’est tout le sens, si l’on veut prendre un autre exemple, des principales mesures du Front populaire, qui valent avant tout comme une reconnaissance de la place des ouvriers dans la cité et se veulent en même temps des moyens d’affermir la dignité ouvrière, au travail et hors travail. « Nous voulons, dit ainsi Léo Lagrange, que l’ouvrier, le paysan, le chômeur trouvent dans le loisir la joie de vivre et le sens de leur dignité. »

Cette expérience et cette ambition n’ont en réalité rien perdu de leur pertinence et de leur actualité. On sait à quel point les luttes pour la reconnaissance des identités (en matière de genre, d’identités culturelles, religieuses, sexuelles) et contre les différentes formes de stigmatisation qui peuvent y être associées traversent aujourd’hui l’espace public. Mais il faut aller plus loin que cette analogie souvent faite entre les luttes sociales d’antan et les luttes culturelles, sexuelles ou raciales d’aujourd’hui.

Qui observe en effet avec un peu d’attention la société française – et ce n’est sans doute pas le seul cas – ne peut qu’être frappé par le jeu pervers du mépris mutuel et des humiliations dans lequel elle semble entraînée. Au-delà de la division usée des élites et du peuple, on a parfois l’impression d’une société de castes, où chaque groupe méprise l’autre et se sent méprisé/incompris par lui, avec tous les blocages et les incompréhensions que cela entraîne.

Un sujet d’effroi

Cette dynamique de l’humiliation et du mépris atteint directement des classes populaires qui, comme c’était le cas au XIXe siècle, prennent de plein fouet les processus de stigmatisation sans qu’il y ait plus grand-chose pour y faire obstacle. Depuis les années 1980, elles sont au mieux un sujet comique (Les Deschiens de Canal+, la famille Groseille dans La vie est un long fleuve tranquille). Au pire, elles sont de nouveau un sujet d’effroi, que l’on dénonce les « barbares » des cités, en proie aux sirènes de l’islamisme, ou les « barbares » des champs et des périphéries urbaines, nouveaux soutiers de l’extrême droite et du racisme.

Le Front national, pour ce que l’on peut observer de lui à l’échelle locale, semble d’ailleurs avoir très bien compris comment tirer profit de ce genre de spirale. Il ne manque pas ainsi d’affirmer à ses sympathisants « qu’ils le valent bien », « qu’ils valent autant » que ces étrangers, ces Parisiens, ces intellectuels, ces politiques qui s’interrogent maintenant gravement sur eux, et auxquels désormais ils font peur.

Face à cela, les différentes gauches peinent à trouver les solutions adaptées et à retrouver le rôle d’instance de « dignification » qui avait longtemps été le leur. Les raisons de cette difficulté sont multiples. Elles tiennent sans doute, pour commencer, à la persistance de la vieille idée que seul l’économique compte – la croissance, la production, etc. –, voire parfois, si on pousse un peu plus loin, au renouveau de ce préjugé qui consiste à penser que les classes populaires se désintéressent au fond de l’action démocratique, de leur place dans la cité et ne réclament que l’efficacité et l’autorité de l’Etat.

Ni un mythe ni une essence

Il semble surtout que les gauches ne parviennent toujours pas à sortir du dilemme, lui aussi ancien, du misérabilisme et du populisme. Soit elles font des classes populaires – et cela se retrouve aussi chez des auteurs qui se revendiquent de la gauche radicale – une masse aliénée, perdue pour la cause, à moins qu’elle ne soit de nouveau guidée (même si on ne sait pas trop comment…). Soit on la voit osciller entre l’idéalisation des classes populaires d’antan et l’exaltation d’un improbable nouveau sujet révolutionnaire pour remplacer le prolétariat perdu.

L’historien reste à vrai dire stupéfait que, au début du XXIe siècle, beaucoup à gauche continuent à considérer le peuple, ou son substitut, comme un mythe, le diabolisant ou l’idéalisant, en faisant en tous les cas une série d’abstractions et d’essences, sans prendre garde à la pluralité des appartenances et des aspirations qui caractérisent aussi les classes populaires. On peut être descendant de migrant et se reconnaître dans la gauche républicaine ou radicale ; on peut avoir des parents issus de la « vieille » classe ouvrière blanche et s’être converti à l’islam ; on peut même n’avoir qu’indifférence pour tout cela…

Les classes populaires ne sont pas un mythe ni une essence, elles sont, comme le reste de la société, traversées par une profonde quête de reconnaissance, de fierté, même si celle-ci s’exprime de manière incroyablement éparpillée et fragmentée. Comment construire une politique de gauche qui y réponde ? Dans ce domaine des idées, des pensées circulent, même si elles ne sont pas toujours reprises : on pense ainsi à la thématique du « care » (soin, protection et bienveillance mutuelle), brièvement introduite il y a quelques années, avant de disparaître sans qu’on ait vraiment mesuré ce qu’elle pouvait recouvrir de fécond et de porteur.

Plusieurs directions importantes paraissent, dans cette perspective, devoir être soulignées. La première concerne la relation entre les politiques et les citoyens. Il s’agit moins de rêver là à une improbable fusion qu’à une relation qui écarte les mythes, comme les fantasmes de l’incarnation dans un seul individu, et qui travaille au contraire à une forme de grandeur démocratique : des représentants dignes, qui ne voient pas les citoyens, surtout ceux des classes populaires, seulement comme une clientèle, des assistés ou des protégés, mais comme les porteurs eux aussi de l’avenir, avec les obligations, pour les citoyens aussi, que comporte ce rôle.

Mettre fin à la spirale du mépris

Un autre enjeu majeur concernerait la capacité d’une politique de gauche à reconnaître les appartenances, les identités particulières, mais avant tout dans leur potentiel d’ouverture et d’universalité ; le défi tiendrait, en d’autres termes, dans l’aptitude à sortir du débat éculé entre assimilation et communautarisme.

Ainsi, il s’agirait de reconnaître l’apport des cultures ouvrières et migrantes (dont on rappellera en France à quel point elles furent mêlées), non dans ce qu’elles ont pu comporter d’exclusion, de repli, voire de violence, mais dans leur dynamique d’ouverture et d’invention. De saluer l’aptitude à exprimer la solidarité et l’identité dans des collectifs (associations, coopératives, mutuelles), la pratique ancienne des jardins ouvriers dans ce qu’elle comporte d’intérêt en matière de développement durable, la manière d’articuler les appartenances (professionnelles, politiques, culturelles, locales)…

L’enjeu serait de reconnaître aux individus et aux territoires l’importance de ces expériences, pour les ouvrir vers autre chose et en faire les graines de l’avenir. Il faudrait enfin – et c’est fondamental – démontrer que la dignité, comme le respect mutuel et la solidarité ne relèvent pas seulement de la proclamation ou de la caresse symbolique, mais peuvent constituer une préoccupation qui irrigue les normes juridiques et les politiques publiques, qu’elles soient fiscales, sociales ou encore éducatives.

On s’est gaussé – ou on s’est indigné, suivant les tempéraments – de la mise en avant ces dernières années de la bienveillance au sein du système scolaire. On peut pourtant penser que mettre fin à la spirale du mépris et de l’humiliation commencerait sans doute là et qu’amplifier encore l’effort de démocratisation et de bienveillance à l’école ne ferait sans doute pas de mal à ce pays, au contraire.

On a bien conscience de décrire là une très longue tâche, que n’épuise pas une seule échéance électorale et qui ne peut être circonscrite à la seule sphère politique au sens étroit du terme. Il y aurait pourtant du courage, et du sens, à commencer au moins à s’y atteler.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The graceful one-handed backhand

Simon Barnes
The picture had been chosen for its utterly gratuitous depiction of female beauty. It showed Justine Henin, the Belgian tennis player who won seven grand-slam singles titles between 2003 and 2007. She was fully dressed for tennis. The gratuitous beauty came from the shot she was playing. It was a single-handed backhand.
Henin was five foot six and so slim she had to run round and round in the shower to get wet. She didn’t look capable of hitting the top off a dandelion. But that backhand regularly devastated opponents, fizzing down the line with astonishing power — where did that come from? — or howling across court at a quite preposterous angle.

But now, as we enter the Australian Open, the first grand-slam tournament of the year, it’s clear that the single-handed backhand is becoming extinct. Practically all the women and a clear majority of the men prefer to put both hands on their rackets and take a great meaty axe-murderer swipe at the ball.
Roger Federer still plays the single–fister, and does so as beautifully as he plays every other shot, including patting the ball back to the ballboy. But Federer is 33 and in decline, and the shot is declining with him.

Stan Wawrinka, another Swiss player, also plays the one-hander and it has taken him to the highest levels of the sport. But he has few imitators. The New York Times worked out that there are only three women in the top 100 with a single-handed backhand, and 24 in the men’s — most at the wrong end of a career.

This is a sad thing because it’s a lovely shot to watch. There is an aesthetic pleasure in watching all sports — why else do we have goal-of-the-month competitions? People purr about Moeen Ali’s cover drive (when it works) and David Gower is still celebrated for the loveliness of his batting style.
Federer at his peak was loved for the way he seemed to transform sport into art. His sweet backhand was a vital part of this beauty, this love. There always seems to be an element of magic involved. It doesn’t look physically possible to hit the ball hard with the racket on the wrong side of our body. You’d imagine that the best you could hope for is to block the ball back in court and hope the next shot arrives on your natural ball-whacking side — which is precisely how the game is played at the duffers’ level.

But Federer and Henin and the other great single-fisters play the shot with speed and power and spin and accuracy. It’s not about muscularity, as Henin’s physique makes clear: instead it’s all in the mysteries of timing. Remember John McEnroe? He was no Mr Universe, but his backhand went like hell — and right there you find the aesthetic appeal of the shot.

It looks like something for nothing: as if gravity and the laws of physics have been suspended for the specific benefit of the ball-striker: in the manner of a Lionel Messi dribble, a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal or the Gower flick-pull.

The one-handed backhand has some serious advantages to the user. You can reach further, so it’s a great help in what tennis players call a ‘get’. You can generate great slice, or underspin. And best of all, you can find some devastating angles.

The greatest volleyer of them all, Pete Sampras, converted from a double to a single-fisted backhand. The backhand volley when he came in behind his monster serve was a form of assassination: first the bludgeon, then the rapier.

But modern players prefer the double-fister. It’s easier, and it has great power. These are days of powerful, muscular players with lightweight hi-tech rackets. A single-handed backhand, it’s believed, can be overwhelmed, for attacking the backhand is the most elementary tactic in the game.

The double-fister is also easier to coach. It brings a player gratification a lot quicker. It can take years to get a single-fister working reliably; much easier to coach the double. Most players will never even consider the advantages that a gorgeous and well-crafted single-handed backhand can supply.
Players are faster and stronger in all sports. These days every single part of life is an aspect of training and preparation. Equipment changes. The great champions of the very recent past would have had no chance against the players of today.

And sport is all about seeking and holding an advantage. If you play better than your opponent, you win and you’re happy. If you don’t, you lose and you’re miserable. It follows, then, that no tennis player in the world is going to work on a shot because you happen to find it pretty.

Sport is often pretty — often enough sublimely beautiful — but never, ever on purpose. Sport can only be incidentally beautiful. Dancing Brave may have been the loveliest horse that ever printed his proud hooves in the receiving earth, but he was bred for speed, not beauty. There were no marks on offer for artistic impression when he won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 1986.

Gower didn’t play those beautiful shots to please the eyes of those watching. He once showed me — we were doing a gig for the excellent charity the World Land Trust — the flick-pull in slow motion and it looked even less possible than it did at full speed. ‘You just feel the ball on the bat…’ and it was beautiful all right. But he played it because it was the best way he knew to score runs for his team — a comparatively sordid notion, but central to the sporting life.

Sport follows the brutal logic of natural selection. If something works, it proliferates, while old-schoolers can only make futile complaints. Ski-jumping purists hated the ‘flying V’ technique — but it gets you further down the hill and it’s now ubiquitous. The reverse sweep in cricket was deplored as an affectation, but it’s now standard. People said that the shorter forms of the game would kill the loveliness of spin bowling, but here the reverse has happened. That’s because spin bowling works in the modern context.

When Dick Fosbury went over the high-jump backwards, people thought he was a nutcase. As his technique, the Fosbury flop, gained acceptance, people mourned the passing of the straddle and the western roll. Andy Murray will be out at the Aussie Open playing his double-fister with all the power and control that took him to the world’s no. 1 spot.

Alas, poor single-fister. But what can we spectators do? It’s what happens out in the middle that matters. That’s where you find the crucible of sporting evolution.

Experts are no substitute for hard thinking

Fraser Nelson
Michael Gove never intended to make his most famous remark. In an interview during the EU referen-dum campaign, the then justice secretary was told that the leaders of the IFS, CBI, NHS and TUC all disagreed with him about Brexit. He had tried to reply that people have ‘had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong’. But he was picked up mid-sentence by his appalled interviewer. ‘Had enough of experts? Had enough of experts?’ Gove’s partial quote was held up to ridicule, as if it embodied Trump-style populist rage; the battle of emotion against reason.

As it turned out, the experts were all wrong — or, at least, everyone who predicted a instant and immediate recession after the referendum ended up feasting on humble pie. The Bank of England cut interest rates and printed money in response to an economic slowdown that now turns out to have been imaginary. Indeed, economic growth seems to have accelerated after the vote. Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, recently spoke about the economics profession having had its ‘Michael Fish moment’ — a reputation-shredding failure of prediction. Economists, he said, are now ‘to some degree in crisis’.

They’re in good company. Look at political scientists: on the eve of the US election, Princeton University academics calculated that Hillary Clinton had a 99 per cent chance of victory. This finding mattered, they said, because activists should know that they would be wasting their time campaigning for her and should help a Democrat congressman instead. The bookmakers gave Donald Trump a 20 per cent chance, and a Brexit victory only 11 per cent. Their error was based on opinion pollsters, who were confounded. A cartoon in The Spectator summed it up. It depicted three homeless men, each with a placard. They read: ‘ex-bookie’, ‘ex-pollster’, and ‘ex-pert’.
p21-breadline-cartoon
Economists are not clairvoyants, which is why none of them saw the 2007 crash coming, nor the extraordinary British employment boom, nor the immigration rise, nor the spending splurge that followed the Brexit vote. But a recent Financial Times poll of 120 economists showed they do not feel they were proved wrong about Brexit, even though two thirds of them were wrong about the aftermath of the vote. By revering experts as Romans once did augurs, certain politicians had come to see the actual voting as a formality. On election night, Hillary Clinton didn’t even switch on her television until eight states had declared their results. She signed a celebratory issue of Time magazine, printed to commemorate her victory. (That copy would be worth rather a lot of money now.) She should have known better: Mark Penn, her pollster, famously subdivided America into dozens of categories of people (soccer moms, etc) and worked out who to target in order to win her the 2008 nomination. But then along came Barack Obama with an inspirational message that appealed to everyone.

The fault doesn’t lie with the data scientists, but with the politicians who wrongly treat them as prophets. David Cameron, for example, notoriously hired the pollster Andrew Cooper as his chief strategist, an appointment that seemed to be like putting a weather-vane where a compass needle should be. But Cameron had faith in ‘the data’ and would scrap policies if the polls looked inauspicious. After a while Cooper returned to Populus, his polling company, and came up with the ‘predictor’, which calculated the likelihoods for the 2015 election. It gave a 0.5 per cent chance of a Tory victory. The ever-forgiving Cameron then appointed Cooper as the Remain campaign’s pollster: on polling day, Populus predicted a ten-point victory for Remain.

It’s not surprising, or new, for opinion pollsters to get things wrong. What’s new is how quickly they’re forgiven, then trusted again by politicians. The explosion of data has made the temptation worse, because there have never been more ways to divide, analyse and model society. Faith in data, computer models and prediction lay behind the 2007 crash: speculators believed the new algorithms could predict the future and made massive wrong bets. The same hubris emerged with the rise of the political class; young men who went from Oxbridge to Westminster and knew they were out of touch with working-class voters. So they sought out polls and focus groups to tell them what the C2D voters were thinking — underestimating what a blunt tool this has always been.

The best economists do stress uncertainty, and emphasise that a guess ending in a decimal point is still a guess. Robert Chote, who runs the Office for Budget Responsibility, is a case in point. He was once invited on to BBC Newsnight and told that his forecasts for tax and spending could be wrong. Of course they’re wrong, he replied: economic forecasts usually are. They’re a bunch of assumptions plugged into a computer. Get one wrong, and the whole thing is rendered useless.

This is the point politicians had forgotten — or wilfully ignored. In recent years, a narrative has emerged of elections being contests between the educated and the knuckle-draggers, the ‘post-fact’ loons. This has led to the musings of experts being presented as fact, and to the rise of the argument-without-argument: X is correct because experts say so. And if you disbelieve X, you’re a post-truth Flat Earther. The Remain campaign tried this method: the fake dossiers, celebrity endorsements and multi-signatured letters to newspapers. It sought to say: don’t try to work Brexit out for yourselves, dear voters. The intellectuals have excogitated the problem, and their conclusion is unanimous.

Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth on the end of experts


The strategy was stunningly ineffective. You don’t need a PhD to notice the gap where argument and a postive case for membership ought to have been. And to wonder why, if economists all failed to predict the 2007 crash, they should be right about a post-referendum crash. Being proved utterly wrong tends not to deter public intellectuals. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer once put it, ‘one of the surprising privileges of intellectuals is that they are free to be scandalously asinine without harming their reputation’. Professor David Blanchflower, a labour market expert, predicted that a million jobs would be lost as a result of Tory austerity. When two million jobs were created instead, he lost none of his hauteur or enthusiasm for offering advice. In 2015, after David Cameron’s austerity programme, we were told by no less an authority than Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, that inequality had ‘gotten much worse’ in Britain. Instead, as it emerged this week, income inequality has been falling and now stands at a 30-year low. An incredible, historic achievement — but who predicted it?

Professors Blanchflower and Stiglitz are men of fearsome intelligence and ability. But there is what Thomas Carlyle called ‘unwise intellect’: smart people can believe in daft notions. One of the groups of Americans identified by Mr Penn for Hillary Clinton was the ‘impressionable elite’ — people who consider themselves empiricists yet who are driven by emotion and personal bias. How many economists, trade experts or diplomats might fall into that category? Of those, how many would admit it?

The people of Britain have not really had enough of experts: scientists and number-crunchers are still respected, valued and needed — in their fields. But their ability to foresee the future has been thrown into question, and their predictions sought a bit less as a result. When Theresa May decided to govern without the services of a pollster, she was settling down to life in a post-expert political world. She hasn’t yet won an election. But as she will have noticed, the people who do so tend to be those who realise that the algorithm for human nature has not yet been invented — and that there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned politics.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz: The thinking (wo)man's mystic-poet philosopher

BBC
Daniel Ladinsky is a poet and interpreter of mystical poetry

Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz (c. 1320-1389) is one of the most beloved poets of the Persians, and is considered by many – from different cultures – to be one of the seven literary wonders of the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe both agreed. As Emerson said of Hafiz: "He fears nothing. He sees too far, he sees throughout; such is the only man I wish to see or be." And Emerson gave Hafiz that grand and famous compliment, "Hafiz is a poet for poets."

Both Goethe and Emerson translated Hafiz. And after Geothe's deep study of him, simply – though remarkably – stated, "Hafiz has no peer."

Hafiz poems were also admired by such diverse notables as Nietzsche and Arthur Conan Doyle, whose wonderful character Sherlock Holmes quotes Hafiz. Garcia Lorca praised the Sufi poet. Johannes Brahms was so touched by his verse he used several in his compositions. And even Queen Victoria was said to have consulted Hafiz in times of need – which has been a custom in the Middle East for centuries.  The Fal-e Hafiz, is an ancient tradition in which a reader asks Hafiz for advice when facing a difficulty or at an important juncture in their life – treating his books as an oracle and opening them with a deep wish from their soul for guidance.

The range of Hafiz is indeed stunning and provocative at times:
I am a hole in a flute that the Christ's breathmoves through – listen to this music.

Then this, from another poem,
Look at the smile on the Earth's lips thismorning, she laid again with me last night!

I feel Hafiz is a rare master of  ‘the utility of light’ – or ‘the sun’. And ‘the utility of art’. His poetry bestows its benevolence and ability to comfort, enliven and enrich those in need. Art should be a lover; it should radiate and allow you to warm yourself if in any way cold. Art can quench inner thirst and hunger.  And in studying the lives – and working with the poetry – of Rumi, Michelangelo, St Francis, Kabir, Mira and Hafiz, and several of the other great poet-seers, East and West, I came to learn that there was a wonderful common denominator in their work. They helped me form a three-word definition of art, which I then felt was a true gauge for success of any of poems or writings I ever become involved with, including my own. As Emerson saw Hafiz as a genuine measure of himself in all of his interactions, I too try to keep Hafiz before me when dealing with another person – or animal, creature or even plant. As water is poured through a cloth to collect impurities, I try and pour myself through the poems of Hafiz, and my images of him.

In the moment
Those three words that Hafiz exemplifies, that came to me in studying the lives and works of those greats I just mentioned are an important definition and goal of art, and a standard I hold myself to: engage and give.

Illustration from a 19th-Century Divan of Hafiz
An illustration from a 19th-Century collection of Hafiz’s poems shows the poet offering his work to a patron

Perhaps one of the greatest attributes and values of art is to capture and exploit another person's attention. For when beauty does that the witness, or audience, always benefits. As Hafiz says:

The mountain's face lifted me higher than itself.
A song's wink aligned me with joy. And atune paradise hums I came to know.
The forest, letting me walk amongst its nakedlimbs, had me on my knees again in silenceshouting yes, yes my holy friend, let yoursplendour devour me.

To be engaged by a true teacher like Hafiz is to have lasting ingredients put into your mind, that when cooked through contemplation help us lead a better life. Inherentin engaging someone's interest is to make them present. And with so many suffering the tyranny of some past event or anxieties about the future, what a gift being in the moment can be, especially then if a jewel can be slipped into your pocket by some magi'sbrush stroke, writings, sculpture, instrument, or ballet step. Hafiz helps us inherit a treasure that is already ours, decreed at birth; and he speaks directly about that in some of his poems – how to file your claim!

Wine-tasting of the sky
I have published around 700 Hafiz rendering-poems in six books. And the impetus behind every single line of Hafiz I ever wrote is to help light a candle in your heart, to assist our perennial need to have fun, laugh and dance, "to lift the corners of your mouth." The weight that can be on us in an hour or a day, Hafiz is there to lighten.  His love for us is time tested and keeps encouraging and can inspire. He helps us to forgive those we have yet to forgive. And honour those we have yet to honour. And his herculean strength, his enlightenment, will rub off on you so that you too wish (and discover yourself more able) never to harm another via sound or movement. Hafiz became incapable of an unkind act, it is said.

In hundreds of ways Hafiz addresses what impedes us from living a more fulfilled life. With unique, charming metaphors that he seems able to rain from the ground up, he longs to help the highest aspects in us lead all the other parts to a place where we can breathe easier and kick back more and say: "Ahhhh, this world isn’t so bad, as a matter of fact – it is amazing!"

Hafiz says:            
If your knees have not buckled in ecstasy while standingwhen a veil parts.         
If a cherished tear of gratitude has not sung leaping fromyour eye.
If anything your palm does touch cannot help reveal the
Beloved.

My words are full of golden secrets that are not too hardto crack, and will remedy one hundred fears and ills.

So, so many of Hafiz’s poems are precisely about unfettering the senses and refining the will, so that we do more “wine-tasting of the sky”, and more tenderly holding – in thought or with arms – the things we most love and know as precious nourishment. He unsares our “emerald wings”.

Tales of the master
Two stories of Hafiz come to mind that my own teacher told me, and here again, these show the great range of Hafiz, and to me his rather incredible ability to never bore. To constantly engage and give. And so creatively lead.

The first story goes:
Once a young woman came to Hafiz and said,"What is the sign of someone knowing God?"
And Hafiz became very quiet, and stood in silencefor nearly a minute... lovingly looking deep into theyoung woman's eye, then softly spoke,
"My dear, they have dropped the knife. The personwho knows God has dropped the cruel knife mostso often use upon their tender self and others."

The second story echoes a sensuousness, that is so much a part of the human dynamic, and that Hafiz fully embraces, and often uses as a springboard to heaven – as the body and its desires can be. It goes:

A rather serious maybe too serious universitystudent from another country came to Hafiz topersonally ask for his permission to translate someof Hafiz's poems into a little book.
And he said to Hafiz, "What is the essentialquality in your poems that I need to incorporate inmy translations to make them abiding and authentic?"
And Hafiz smiled, and placed his arms on the man'sshoulders, then said, "Do you really want to know?"
And the young man said, "Of course."
"Well, well then," Hafiz began and continued,
"My poems lift the corners of the mouth the soul'smouth, the heart's mouth. And can effect any openingthat can make love."

Like the wondrous life the sun and earth give in their miraculous utility, so can the artist sometimes share in that,and any human being who is full of buoyant passion – or willing to die for some great cause, or sublime ideals.

So can the mind that knows all forms are part of an ultimate Self, and treats everything with respect. And a sacred hand reaches out from Hafiz's profound compassion and wisdom. A gentle embrace is there from his perhaps omnipresent spirit. The mosaic of illumined consciousness in his poems lead us to a greater self-awareness, empowerment and freedom. His wild onslaught of playful genius is a gold mine. And a beautiful romance can begin with all who hold dearly his books.     

Saturday, 7 January 2017

* Gene genius Siddhartha Mukherjee on why ‘doctors shouldn’t be gods’

Jo Ellison
Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer geneticist, stem cell biologist, physician and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. A Rhodes scholar, who graduated from Stanford University, the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. His recent follow-up, The Gene: An Intimate History, also received exceptional reviews.

All things considered, he makes for a rather daunting lunch companion. So I open our meeting with a devastatingly considered question: where do you get your jeans? Thankfully, the spry 45-year-old wearing a spriggy floral-print shirt, beard and rock-star quiff is not as intimidating as his CV might suggest. “A local tailor in India stitched them,” he says. “His name (really!) is Atul Jeans”.

We are eating at Dishoom, in London’s once derelict and now gentrified King’s Cross. It serves small plates of Indian classics in an atmosphere designed to recapture the spirited mood of the cafés founded by Zoroastrian immigrants in Mumbai in the 1960s. It has the strange, slightly discombobulating feel of a period-drama film set. Mukherjee, who left New Delhi at the age of 18 to study at Stanford University is already a fan. So I charge him with the order. “Are you vegetarian?” he asks. No. “Nor am I. How’s your spice tolerance? Medium?”

I tell him I can take the heat. “People make a mistake about Indian food, they confuse spicy with hot,” he corrects me. “Spicy means having spices.” So is it true I ask, that coriander tastes unpleasant to some people because they are genetically built to find it tastes like soapy water? “It depends on whether you’ve got the seed or the leaf,” he says as we each order a glass of champagne. “In New York, I only go to one store to buy leaf. I’m very particular about the leaf.”

Mukherjee is very particular about lots of things. He speaks in carefully modulated sentences, auto-correcting his meaning and adding qualifying clauses before committing anything to a full stop. He is also famously particular about his chosen specialisms. When he finished The Emperor of All Maladies, he thought he had nothing left “to tell.” But in the months that followed, he reviewed that opinion. If cancer was the end of everything then what about the beginning of it all? Or, as he writes in The Gene: “If cancer, to twist the description from Beowulf, ‘is the distorted version of our normal selves,’ then what generates the undistorted variants of our normal selves?” Hence The Gene became a story “of the search for normalcy, identity, variation, and heredity. It is a prequel to Emperor’s sequel.”

The Gene is a book of many stories. Its early chapters deal with the gene’s beginnings as a philosophical riddle, an abstract concept with no shape or form, as discussed by Pythagoras and Aristotle. It grew as a more fully realised concept through the work of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century monk and autodidact who first identified “carriers of hereditary information” in his studies of pea shoots in Brno. It found physical form via James Watson and Francis Crick (and the lesser-credited Rosalind Franklin), who built the first model of DNA as a double-helix structure in their Cambridge labs in 1953. In the main, the history of the gene’s discovery was built on the obsession of a few extraordinary individuals, many of whom were very, very quiet, and some downright peculiar. Which of them would have made a good lunch date? “Franklin, definitely,” says Mukherjee of the stern, outspoken “brilliant” scientist who used X-ray photography to capture the structure of DNA and died cruelly young.

In the latter part of the book, Mukherjee turns to the bigger questions: how will the gene change our future; what can genetic testing tell us, and what will be the consequences? “Here is the question,” he explains as a plate of mini naan breads and raita is placed before us along with the lamb chops which, despite their heavy coriander seasoning, are quite delicious.

“If I said to you, there’s a whole family of things that you could screen for — potentially rare, but dangerous predispositions to diseases — would you want to know that information?”
Not really, I reply. What would be the point of living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head?

“Because, for our children, and increasingly for our generation, that option will be available. Potentially even before implantation, if you’re doing in vitro fertilisation. More importantly, it will be available for a price, and so we are looking at a society where one class can afford prenatal genetic testing, and another class cannot.”

My worry, I tell him, is that in editing out unpleasant features of our genome we will be, in effect, editing the society we live in. Saying no to things, and human lives, without any certainty of things becoming manifest. “Correct,” says Mukherjee. “Although of course, that’s the same logic as medicine. Medicine is trying to tell you what your future probabilities of illness are as well.”

Mukherjee has never mapped his own genome. “Because, for the illness I’m most interested in my family — schizophrenia — there are many genes. And we don’t know what they are. Or which ones confer higher risk versus lower risk. So I would get that information, and it would be for the most part unusable. It would be like reading a novel in which you only understand every fifth word. You could read the completely wrong novel.”

Right now in gene research even knowable things are hard to predict. “The [tumour-suppressing] genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, and some genes that increase the risk of having Alzheimer’s disease are knowable,” he tells me. “But even those are knowable in probabilities, and that’s a tiny fraction of what’s known. But, on the other hand, every year, as we learn to sequence the genomes of unborn foetuses, we will discover more and more about that. So things that I now consider are unknowable will become known and knowable.”

It’s tempting to think, as science continues to unlock the secrets of our existence, that DNA has become the new religion. “I think there’s certainly a trope in popular culture that DNA determines everything,” says Mukherjee, as he extracts a grilled prawn from its shell. “That, somehow or other, once we decipher genes, we’ll all of a sudden decode a human being. And it’s really worthwhile reminding ourselves that’s not true.” Why not? “We know [from twin studies] that even things that share a powerful genetic determinant are only manifest 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the time in the other twin. So there’s clearly something [else], whether it be chance, whether it be the environment. Or something that triggers a chain of reactions that change our genetic behaviour.”

Mukherjee has a terrific gift for making sense of seemingly impossible ideas. “Genes are set up in cascades,” he says. “One commands the other. They build a finger. They build a hand. They co-operate with each other. Although genes are known, and the code can be known, the process remains a little mysterious. It’s important to emphasise it’s a process.”

Do his studies or research give him cause for comfort or concern? “Both,” he replies. “I’m a cancer doctor. Every day, every week, we understand cancer in a new way, in a deeper way. The genetic technology has already transformed the way we treat cancer.”

The outcomes of cancer are improving, too, although Mukherjee prefers to talk about “decreased mortality rates” rather than “survival rates”, because “if you diagnose cancer earlier, you can falsely believe that people are surviving longer. And that’s a fallacy. But based on studies on the US, we’ve begun to see a significant decline in [age-adjusted mortality rates] of about 1 per cent or 2 per cent every year.”

Those are the positives. What about the negatives? “Is it worth it in terms of the cost for the quality of life?” he replies. “You can ask deeper and deeper questions. But we need to have the vocabulary to ask the right kind of questions.”

We take a pause, during which I realise I have eaten a bigger share of the sharing plates than Mukherjee, who has only eaten a few prawns and a bit of lamb. The rice is untouched. I polish off a black bean dal and consider it might have been hotter — and spicier.

Gene research is astonishing: wonderful in its ambition, and humbling in its reach. But it doesn’t get around the fact that we’re still going to die. I wonder if unlocking the genome has made us any more able to face our own mortality, — or just served to chase it further away.

“I think we still need to rethink some fundamental things about dying,” says Mukherjee, who, like physician and fellow New Yorker writer Atul Gawande, daily treats people facing end-of-life care. “And one of the things which I know, as a doctor, is that even when you’ve made a global peace with the idea of mortality, the process of getting from being sick to dying is still very turbulent.”

“It’s not death that worries us,” he continues. “It’s dying. The questions people ask — will there be pain? What will I feel like? They’re not asking what will it be like to be dead. They’re asking you what is the process like? We’re culturally bereft in that sphere still. And I think we have become even more so. Our rituals of dying have decreased. And when you remove some of the traditional rituals around dying we need to replace them with other things . . . that allow a good death.”

As a physician in an increasingly secular society, Mukherjee is often elevated to a role akin to a confessor or priest by his patients. “There’s obviously some power there,” he shrugs. “Even today, there’s a shamanistic quality about medicine. And if you’re a doctor, you will be imbued [with that], whether you like it or not. So it’s important to try to defuse that. I don’t think that doctors should be gods. It ultimately becomes an intrusion. It erects a set of boundaries and walls.”

Does Mukherjee believe in God? “Mostly no,” he says. “I’m mostly agnostic. I can imagine powers that are beyond comprehension, and therefore necessitate a spiritual moment with that idea. But I don’t believe in a person who lives in another space who has dicta to give us.” Neither does he believe in life after death.

The waiter comes to take away our plates and offers us a dessert. We agree to share a chilli ice cream, which Mukherjee is curious to try and which turns out to be quite fiery. Now, he’s dealt with cancer and the genome, he is thinking about his next field of inquiry. He has a deep fear in life of being “creatively stuck” and feels a “compulsive” need to ask questions. Moreover, he sees writing as a way of taking a “side exit” from the highly competitive world of purely scientific research.

“I’ve become very interested in the future of medicine. And what it will look like 10, 20, 100 years from now. What if we could take the untapped universe of molecules in our brains and bodies and start imagining them as the targets of drugs? We’re working in medicine in a tiny corner of the universe... What if that began to widen?”

In the future, Mukherjee says, medicine will be more targeted, while stem cell technologies will allow us to “re-engineer immune systems”. He’s growing cartilage in his lab. “Because cartilage, as you know, is one of the organs that degenerates and never comes back. Half the world is bent over, not because of their bones, but because their cartilage is gone. There was a controversial report out recently that says we might live until we are 115 years old. But not all parts of our body will survive until we’re 115. In future, we’ll be able to re-engineer parts of the body.”

Which sounds great but, as my grandmother would say: who the hell wants to live till 115 anyway?
Mukherjee is carrying with him a very small suitcase; “a 10-day bag”, as he describes it. Later this afternoon he will fly to India, before returning to his wife, the sculptor Sarah Sze, and their two daughters in New York. Before that, however, he will go to Google’s London offices to discuss the use of artificial intelligence in the future of medicine. Will robots one day be our doctors? Mukherjee is not against using them as a diagnostic agent, but is cautious of a medical system in which we have lost a “humanistic quality. Physicians don’t even touch their patients these days,” he says. “And there’s something terribly lost . . . When someone comes in and they’re desperately sick, you should be able to tell. You don’t need a test.”

As we finish the ice cream, I wonder that Mukherjee’s genetic gifts may have been somewhat overgenerous. The Rhodes scholarship, stunning scientific record and insatiable curiosity are fine. But then to go and win a Pulitzer Prize for writing seems a little greedy. Is he unbearably driven?
“Actually, I’m not a very competitive person,” he says. “People find it unfathomable, and you’d have to ask my wife, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I think it’s helpful to have goals and then be immensely flexible about them,” he concedes. “But yes, my genetic flaws are many. I have so many flaws I can hardly count on my fingers. I get very easily disappointed with projects, and then I start suffering through them. I have a very binary relationship with tenacity. I’m hopeless at anything that requires hand-eye co-ordination of any sort. Ping-pong: I smash the bat in my face. I’m terrible at handiwork. I can’t fix things. Oh, and here’s a good one, I have absolutely no sense of direction.”

Now an American citizen, Mukherjee despairs of the politics of the president-elect, Donald Trump, and “his steadfast failure, or refusal, to believe in science. He’s said things about climate change that make no sense.” Populist ideas have proven very dangerous in the history of the gene, where the spectre of eugenics still casts a dark shadow, and Mukherjee worries about his research being misused for political means. “The Gene has a huge and very contentious chapter on race,” he says. “There’s a deep trend emerging [in politics] about racial determinism. And no matter what you say, no matter what you write, the racial determinists will contort your writing to make it seem as if you’re saying what they want you to say. It’s astonishing.”

Mukherjee’s meeting awaits. He signs a copy of The Gene and he’s off, wheeling his bag urgently towards the Google complex. So far as I can tell, he’s heading in the right direction.