Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Victorians loved the notion of 'improvement'. They sought to improve themselves morally and intellectually; to improve the lot of the poor and unfortunate (well, the less unsavoury ones) through philanthropy; to improve the world by, er, killing lots of them and telling them to be more Christian. Ah well, their hearts were in the right place.

I've always shared the Victorians' fondness for the idea of a self-made man. It seems at odds with the modern world, where one is positively discouraged from doing things for oneself, where the first response to any misfortune, from alcoholism to catastrophic weather conditions, is to blame the government. I like to make things myself where practical, something my contemporaries find alien and bizarre - I remember the incredulous reactions to my learning to knit, and the astonishment that I'd actually knitted clothing I could wear - and I prefer to define myself.

Sartre called facticity the past events, gender roles, cultural expectations and other baggage that men allow, through what he called 'bad faith', to define them. It pissed him off no end. Grumpy man, Sartre. The Victorians would have been no better in his eyes, their self-improvement obsessions fuelled by an exterior notion of what was good and moral and proper.

Actually, it gets on my nerves too. Darth Vader is an evil bastard, that is enough: trying to create an excuse for it in the prequels was just silly. It's akin to calling young criminals 'vulnerable' or 'troubled' - they're not troubled, they're just arseholes. They have a choice, always. The implication that all we do is somehow somebody else's fault, under someone else's control, is childish in the extreme. All my life female friends have asked for me to explain why their boyfriend has committed some egregious sin: "you're a man," they say, "what's that all about?"... The answer is always the same: he isn't doing it because he's male, he's doing it because he chooses to. His gender is facticity: it does not define his choices any more than his hair colour does, or his taste in cufflinks. Hold him responsible, not the coin-toss of his chromosomes.

I'm not an existentialist, though I would have liked to have met Sartre for a coffee and a croque-madame, if only to see how he could actually solve this problem of self-definition. To generate a self requires something to go on, after all: to dismiss every influence as facticity leaves a void one can fill with creativity, but where does that come from?

Anyway, New Year's Resolutions. (Oh look, the point)

I have some, of course, which I will take very seriously. I believe in self-improvement. Last year's main resolution was the sorting out of my wardrobe, which went well and let to many unexpectedly positive outcomes: this year is more about getting what's underneath the suits into better working order, namely body and mind. I've started lifting weights seriously again, added swimming to my running, taken my diet by the scruff of the neck and shaken all the crap out, and learned the value of sensible supplementation. At some point I will need to figure out how to drink more effectively - I don't drink often, but when I do I tend to drink too fast: I don't puke but I do forget things, sometimes so completely that it's reminiscent of time travel. Must see to that.

Most important of all my resolutions, though, is this: stop being so bloody old. I look younger than I am, but have made it a lifelong habit to act ten years older, something that is becoming less and less convincing, paradoxically, the older I get. When you're young, everything is possible: when you're older, you become bogged down in facticity and forget how to improve.

Life's too short to get old. One can't let mere numbers determine what one is. Longevity must fuel betterment, not limit it.

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