Trains of Thought
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V. 19/02-25/02/17; Van Gogh was agile

Schumpeter saw capitalism as a “process of industrial mutation… that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” In Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital Carlota Perez writes that Schumpeter “remained attached to market equilibrium forces…”And why not? Everyone needs a reference point. If the premise is that everything is unstable, how would you be able to define terms and think clearly?

This carriage in the 365506 smells of washing detergent. Two rows in front of me a man’s hair looks wet, his hair oozes with gel. Bunches of hair are stuck together. It looks like an experiment gone awry.

The shiny black shoes belong to a man wearing a waistcoat. Small unrimmed glasses, his head resting on a stiff collar, sleeping. Very poor air quality. A sudden smell of food, someone’s lunchbox? It’s a nauseating ride this morning. A lot of coughing. Tempted to open the window, but I’d have to reach over. I’m sure some people find this moist, rotten atmosphere homely. Fresh air would disrupt that. Someone would feel cold and complain.

A man with a dirty jacket and muddied white shoes sits on the floor by the door with headphones on his head. His phone rings loudly but it takes him a while to  pick up. He speaks into the phone but can’t hear the response. He unplugs his headphones. “I’m on the train.” He turns the music back on, but the phone is still switched to loudspeaker output. He manages to plug his headphones back in. It’s quiet again. Except now the hoodie next to me has begun to breathe heavily building up to a snore. His shoulders twitch. In his dreams perhaps he is chasing rabbits in a field.

Pin striped trousers and shiny black shoes now stand next to me. An expensive umbrella hangs from an arm. Silk handkerchief in coat pocket.

Robert de Montesquiou by Giovanni Boldini

A few moments later the woman who looks like Paxman passes me on the platform. She looks the same as last week, dressed for the outdoors. A yellow flower is stuck to her large handbag.

When you feel the temptation to change and improve a situation that cannot be improved, think about the larger picture. Let things develop at their own pace, observe, nudge the direction a bit here and there, find a perch and face south. Humility and curiosity: not much else matters.

Monday morning is a phase transition and the change in speed requires a shift in emotional energy. What does the shift consist of? Time is chained up again so perhaps there’s an excess of energy: the energy that was previously required to shape a Sunday is now released. Or perhaps there’s a sudden influx of nervous energy that requires an outlet. Or it could be the other way around: there’s a lack of energy and writing is like fusion power. Loose, unfocused, unenergetic thoughts are brought together here, fused and this creates the energy necessary to make a Monday morning possible.

The Shard disappears into mist, or low cloud cover, eclipsed (from the perspective of a passenger in a train at Blackfriars station) by the chimney of the Tate.

No. 15 in D major is like a home. Pastorals are homely.

It’s not easy to reconcile with a wasted day. There’s the frustration of the day itself; a sort of resentment against the whole scheme of things. Then there’s second order disappointment. For example, you could have tried harder to salvage the day by coming up with (or re-affirming) the kind of knowledge that can only be distilled from frustration.

The manifest versus the scientific image of things: when the gap becomes too large, schemes, plans, models are stress-tested.

George Saunders: “If you imagine Nebraska, you come up with a wheat field or something. Prose doesn’t like that actually. It wants specificity and as you revise the specificity it revises you towards precision which I think actually is a form of affection. If I really want to get to know you and I get all your details, that’s a form of love. The fictional form does that. I like doing that every day, training yourself first of all to identify your projections and then critiquing them, getting that rigour. But if you do that to actual people there’s a risk of it becoming a tick.”

Juergen Osterhammel sets out to write a set of mini-histories, each with its own, local time. For example: in France in 1800 there was little awareness of the “new century.” 1792 was the reference point. The first of January 1801 was the eleventh day of the snow-month (Nivose) of year nine. In the Muslim calendar it was a normal day in the eighth month of 1215, counting from the hijra of Muhammed to Medina on the sixteenth of July 622. In Siam and other Buddhist countries it was the year 2343, in the Jewish calendar it was 5561. The Chinese count was most complicated, and in a way most like the French way of counting. At the time, the reference point was the peaceful transition of power from Qianlong (who had ruled for sixty years) to his fifth son Yongyan (as an emperor he styled himself under the name Jiaqing) on 9th February 1796. The Baha’i calendar seems most logical: 19 months with 19 days.

Perhaps one could try to trace the evolution of society to its present state and into the future by the progression from an ordinal to a nominal to an interval to a ratio system of time keeping. We can’t define 0 yet. A ratio system will only be possible when we fully understand what time is.

In retrospect, resistance is usually futile. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth resisting. Resistance can spark productivity. Resistance gives events shape and flavour and the story becomes more interesting to tell when you’ve resisted the default flow of events.

By now I can recognise about two people per journey. The person next to me has been my neighbour before. He is difficult to describe. Everything about him is in-between. Medium ears, hair is half grey, half black. He is in an intermediate state of wakefulness, struggling to stay awake and he keeps raising his eyebrows. Hand in pocket, hand out of pocket, check watch. The only remarkable feature is that he has patches of wide pored skin in places. He is the second person to stand up and move to the doors, 7 minutes too early.

Woman around 50 in a red coat, a splash of colour. Blonde grey hair. Four large veins show through the skin on her right hand. The colourful bag or rucksack is out of place. A black handbag would be consistent. But actual life is more interesting.

A man emerges from the first class. His shirt collar has slipped under his jacket collar and is wedged there. He notices and re-arranges himself.

In Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude the narrator wanders around the house depressed feeling that he has lost touch with what he is writing. He chances upon words from a letter by Van Gogh. The words are: “Like everyone else, I feel the need of family and friendship, affection and friendly intercourse. I am not made of stone or iron like a hydrant or a lamp post.” And then Auster writes: “Perhaps this is what really counts: to arrive at the core of human feeling in spite of the evidence.”

In his essay The Production of the World John Berger arrives at Van Gogh from a similar starting point. He is attending a conference, but his heart isn’t in it. “My exhaustion, if I may so put it, was as much metaphysical as physical. I could no longer hold meanings together. The mere thought of making connections filled me with anguish… the connection between words and what they signified had been broken… All was dissolution…” Berger goes to the Van Gogh museum. He also quotes from a Van Gogh letter.

It seems to me not impossible that cholera, gravel, consumption may be celestial means of transport just as steamships, buses, railways, are means of transport on this earth. To die quietly of old age would be like going on foot.

He looks at The Potato Eaters, The Cornfield with a Lark, The Ploughed Field at Auvers, The Pear Tree. “Within two minutes I was calm, reassured. Reality had been confirmed.”

Van Gogh's letters: The artist speaks

Detail from The Sower

Berger links his own experience to Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s Letters of a Traveller Come Home (Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten). The narrator of the Briefnovelle is an Austrian businessman returning to Europe after an expatriate life. He feels disconnected from his homeland: nothing feels right.

Etwas Unfrommes ist in dem ganzen Tun und Treiben – ich weiß kein anderes Wort. Bin ich vielleicht selber ein frommer Mensch? Nein. Aber es gibt auch eine Frömmigkeit des Lebens, und die steckt in einem harten, kargen, geizigen Bauern, und in einem ruchlosen Desperado von Pferdedieb noch kann sie stecken, und im letzten Matrosen steckt sie, und noch mit der letzten Ruchlosigkeit ist sie verträglich, und der Glaube an die Gin-Flasche kann noch eine Art von Glaube sein. Aber hier, unter den gebildeten und besitzenden Deutschen, hier kann mir nicht wohl werden. Immer erschien mir die kleine Fabel albern, und nun verstehe ich sie mit einem Schlag: von dem Waldmenschen, den schauderte, und der in seinen Wald entfloh, als er den Bauern kalt und warm, eins ums andere, aus seinem Munde blasen sah, als wenn dies weiter nichts wäre. Auch mich kommt mehr als einmal ein solcher Schauder an. Aber wo ist mein Wald, in dem ich zu Hause wäre?

He begins to question his memory, then he questions everything. On his way to a business conference in Amsterdam he passes a small art gallery. He is drawn into the gallery and his life changes. The gallery is showing works by Van Gogh. The businessman’s fragmented life is reflected back to him. He is re-vitalised by the art.

How am I to tell you half of what these paintings said to me? They were a total justification of my strange and yet profound feelings. Here suddenly I was in front of something, a mere glimpse of which had previously, in my state of torpor, been too much for me. I had been haunted by that glimpse. Now a total stranger was offering me — with incredible authority — a reply — an entire world in the form of a reply.

Translating freely: “How can I help you to understand that every element of these paintings, every tree, every fence, cup, every path and field raised itself as if born afresh out of the terrible chaos of nothingness and I knew that all of these things had been born out of profound doubt to cover the void. My uncertainty was confronted with an answer. I felt like someone who has been thrown about by a storm and suddenly finds himself standing on solid ground again. I was able to feel the relations and connections; colours alive through contrast. And I became a master over my life again, a master over my strengths, my reason and I felt time passing: 20 minutes, 10, 5 and then I went outside, called a car and drove to the conference.

It was the type of conference in which numbers are chosen to appeal to the imagination; where a variety of forces ebb and flow; a conference where you have to see the whole. A conference like that is not decided by intelligence, but by a certain kind of strength. This strength sometimes sits with the party that is sharper, wittier, but not always. Well in this hour, the strength was with me like never before. I was able to achieve more than the directors had forecasted in their most optimistic scenario. I was able to achieve this in the way in which, during a dream, one is able to pick flowers from a barren wall. I felt unusually close to the faces of my counterparts. I could tell you a lot about those faces, a lot of things that have nothing to do with the business conducted that day. And I notice now that a large weight has been lifted from me.”

Berger again:

Reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held — I am tempted to say salvaged… Reality however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.

We know from his [Van Gogh’s] letters how intensely he was aware of the screen. His whole life story is one of an endless yearning for reality. This yearning was intensified by the crises he suffered when he felt that he was failing to salvage any reality at all… their content… was a vision of reality consuming itself like a phoenix… He believed that reality could best be approached through work, precisely because reality itself was a form of production.

Van Gogh's letters

Small pear tree in blossom

A man with a moustache, well-groomed, brown leather boots, Charles Tyrwhitt  purple and white shirt (I have the same one) reading the Times on his iPad. A slight excess of belly fat flowing over his belt. Interrupted by a ticket inspection, he shifts to sit over the side of the seat and crosses his legs and puts the glasses on top of his head. Very tired eyes, bulbous nose. He gets off at Harringay.

The train moves slowly and a passenger speculates that the driver must have forgotten to take the handbrake off.

Where do you draw the line with someone (including yourself) you think is not acting acceptably. How do you define ‘acceptable’. What is beyond the pale? What are the criteria for ‘forgiveness’ (including forgiveness of yourself).

Let’s use a modern set of clichés: what would an agile theory of morality look like? You could start by thinking of Morality as a kind of software in your  operating system, under constant incremental development.

Exhibit 1: “Agile approaches emphasize working directly with end users and continually soliciting their feedback.”

Exhibit 2 (Quoting Jim Highsmith): “In the final analysis, the critical success factor for any method—Agile or otherwise—remains whether or not it helps deliver customer value.”

(It’s amusing to read books on software development practices while replacing the word “customer,” “end-user,” etc. with “someone else.”)

Does morality have a “customer”? Does it need one?

Perhaps van Gogh’s approach to work and art holds the answer. What is a programmer or scrum master trying to achieve with a modern customer-focused development methodology? The same as van Gogh: the aim is to break through the screen of intermediaries and clichés. The imperative: “deliver customer value” translates as “connect to reality.”

Proust was a Neuroscientist, Van Gogh was agile.

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