Narcissism

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Have we entered the age of narcissism? It may seem ironic when the hallmark of the 21st century is ‘social media’ and ‘sharing’ but most of this sharing is about ‘look at me’ and ‘share MY pain.’

Selfies cover the universe in self-aggrandising wallpaper — look at me laugh or cry, look at me be sexy, even look at me with bears. Some have even suggested that selfies are an early symptom of narcissism and body image disorders. Some say this is nonsense.

I tend to side with the latter. People have been taking selfies ever since the camera was invented. There is nothing new about selfies — I can remember taking a few with regular film cameras long before anyone had a cell phone.

And before the camera we had self-portraits. Done mostly I’m sure by artists who couldn’t afford to hire a model (or who had run out of friends who would do it for free).

There is nothing new about narcissism — how could there be? The very word is derived from a Greek legend dating back at least 3000 years.

It is odd that we war with this issue of the self. We worry about teens with low self-esteem, all the while we rail against arrogant bastards who think they are better than everyone else.

This is the burden of consciousness. Bees are social creatures — more social than we but the bee never worries about standing out from the crowd. The only unique bee is the queen and even she is quite replaceable. Because bees are not self-aware they never take selfies. Or have issues with self-esteem.

But we are aware of our own individuality — no matter how communal a society we live in. It is constantly there in the I and the me, always distinct from the other. Yet we are also social; it is doubtful that we would even exist if not for the social and linguistic relationships we have with others.

So narcissism is natural — which doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing (Remember arsenic is natural too).

Narcissism leads us to strange places. It fools liberals into thinking that the rational individual — or clusters of them — can change the world. Tear it all down and build a new one. But that didn’t work. At least if the French revolution is any measure. We need to reform not revolutionize. We need a new enlightenment built on social rather than individual precepts.

And then there is the narcissism of religion — the belief that some all-powerful god cares about the minutiae of individual behavior. What a strange idea — that we are the centre of god’s attention rather than a mere flicker at the edge of his vision. (If there was a god — but that’s another matter.)

It is this narcissism at the heart of most (though not all) religions that leads people to think that their version of religion is the Truth (solely because they hold it). From there, gunning down innocent children is a far easier step than you might think.

But that’s ten minutes.

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Blue

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Blue. Blue when worn by a witness in court inspires trust. Blue is the colour of truth. Blue skies are a symbol of good fortune. It is also a part of the imaginative process. We blue skied until we came up with an idea or a solution.

Yet we also have the blues. We feel blue. It is the colour of depression and sadness. Picasso had his blue period. Was he depressed, seeking the truth, freeing his imagination to find better times?

Or did he just get a deal on blue paint? Don’t laugh. I know lots of artists who do exactly that. The availability of materials driving the creative process.

That’s the nice thing about writing. Words are always there for you; picking the right ones is the hard part. As for ideas — well, we get our ideas from CostCo by the job lot. No shortage there. Ideas are cheap as borsch. So the next time you tell a writer that you have a great idea for a book, don’t be surprised if he snorts in derision. Maybe even turns his back on you with an elaborate shrug. Ideas I got millions of them; books not so much.

But back to blue.

I was struck by the power of blue as a pure experience while visiting the modern art museum in Paris (the Pompidou Centre). There was a painting of monochromatic blue at the tail end of an exhibit of post WWII artists. The artist, who was also a chemist of sorts, had made the paint himself. It was so pure that it only reflected a single frequency of light. Blue light. That’s right; paint is not the colour it appears, it is the colour it reflects. Twist your head around that — everything you look at is really the spectral opposite of what you see.

In any case this painting was so blue that my digital camera couldn’t focus on it. Couldn’t actually capture its purity, the photos simply weren’t right. But they were beautiful. At least I think so.

So I quite often look at them. Especially when I’m feeling blue. They remind me of better times both behind me and ahead. They generate ideas. They make me feel as if some larger truth is there waiting to be discovered. These pure colours — that are mere reflections (to reflect= to think deeply on something) of something else, make me think that life is beautiful.

Blue skies…. and it is.

And that is ten minutes.

Men in Uniform

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The vote to send Canadian planes and support staff to combat ISIL in Iraq and Syria was passed in the House last night. It split mostly along party lines. With a few minor exceptions. One Liberal abstained because he was supportive of the “responsibility to protect” but felt the government was unable to make a sufficient case. Other than that and one Green party member (a former New Democrat) who voted with the government, it was a split along partisan lines. Or so the government would have us believe. It may well have been a split along the lines of differing values.

Quite apart from the contrasting views of conservatives and progressives in this country — and quite different splits in other countries — I have noticed a peculiar fascination by politicians of all stripes — though especially of conservative ones — for ‘men in uniform.’ I’m not suggesting any schoolyard crushes here but rather the desire of some political figures to identify themselves with military values and supposed military virtues.

The latter seems slightly doubtful to me but that’s not surprising coming from someone who prefers to question authority rather than blindly obey it and who generally rejects violence as a solution to problems. All violence succeeds in doing is giving you different problems. And I come by it honestly. My father served in World War II and claimed to have never fired his gun in anger or, for that matter, where he was likely to hit someone. He also made Sergeant — three times.

It always amuses me however when I see certain politicians in the garb of soldiers. It is, to use a geek term, ‘cosplay for statesmen.’ We all remember George Bush in the flak jacket declaring victory (some years before the US actually got out of Iraq the first time). At least he had an excuse, he was commander in chief (as is Obama and there is a nice picture (likely photo-shopped) of him similarly clad on last week’s cover of the Economist) and did have a military career, even though it was decidedly undistinguished.

But what is the story for Stephen Harper? He loves to put on the trappings of a soldier though as far as I know he wasn’t even in cadets while in high school. (And he’s not the Commander in Chief — that is the Queen.) It’s not just when he goes to visit the troops in a war zone. I’ve seen pictures of him in Khaki at military bases here in Canada and even in quasi-military garb at Conservative party and other public functions. Wrapping yourself in the flag for partisan reasons seems like the lowest of political tricks.

But I could be wrong. Maybe he really does love a man in uniform. His narcissist self.

But that’s ten minutes.

Camera Obscura

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While I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, my digital SLR stopped working. One minute it was fine, the next the digital display was nothing but a pattern of black jagged lines on a white background. Sort of like an Apple ad. The camera still worked in a way, it would click and record data but I couldn’t see what I was taking right away. It was just like the old days, when you couldn’t see your pictures until after they were developed.

How retro. Of course the real problem was that I couldn’t meaningfully change the settings, turn the flash on or off, change the film speed and so on. Most frustrating. I was left with a couple of android smart phones (more useful sometimes as cameras than as actual talking devices) and a point and shoot digital. They did an okay job for some things — basically anything more than two feet and less than ten feet away. After that, the resolution and focusing is a bit off.

I also happened to have my forty year old Olympus OM-1 and a couple of rolls of film. I’ve been hauling this baby around for years. It was the first of the real light weight SLRs brought out in the seventies. Very low shutter vibration, easy to change lenses (actually easier than my brand-new Sony). Very nice lens resolution as well. But of course, it costs a lot of money to operate — about 50 cents a picture — so you have to approach picture taking in an entirely different way.

No more of just hold it up and shoot and shoot and shoot. Never mind if the picture is properly framed or composed, never mind if the light or exposure are right. If this one doesn’t work, I can always take another. And with instant feedback, I know right away whether I have to.

As a result, you spend your whole life looking at the world through the lens or on the screen of a camera. With film, you have to look at the world, really stare at it; you have to discern the patterns of surprise or beauty. You have to know the world before you can film it.

A lesson learned — the high tech digital camera is the real camera obscura, hiding the truth of things behind instant gratification. Am I now determined to give up my digital life for a more analog one, revert to film instead of pixels? Not bloody likely. Digital is too convenient, it is too cheap. But that doesn’t mean it has to cheapen my experience.

What I’ve actually decided to do — after I get that expensive display replaced or, just as likely, buy a brand new digital (that’s right it is almost as cheap to buy a new one as fix an old one) — I’ll treat the world as it deserves to be treated. With observation and thought and consideration of what it is I’m actually seeing.

And that’s ten minutes.