Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolute random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form. Iris Murdoch ‘On the Way to the Fen, Ethical and Aesthetic Quandaries Arise’

Not sure what led me to looking up ‘Iris Murdoch’ on Libby. It might have been The Mindfield podcast or In Our Time. Whatever the seed, it was an enjoyable experience to listen to Richard E. Grant’s reading of The Sea, The Sea.

The novel revolves around retired theatre director, Charles Arrowby, who has moved to Shruff End, a small coastal town, to escape London. He is in search of space and distance to write his memoir. However, things unravel, as his past keeps on popping up again and again, both mentally and physically. In particular, he discovers that by chance a love interest from his youth, Hartley, lives in the same town. His life unravels from there.

The Sea, The Sea is a strange book. On one level, it seems somewhat straightforward, a fictitious memoir. Whether it be reflections on a young romance, seeing a dragon or dreaming a death, I found it one of those books where I always felt real, where I knew what was happening or could confidently imagine the world portrayed. However, I often wondered afterwards if it was all true or if there was in fact so much more going on. Even the very nature of the narrative, where characters seem to come on and off the stage like it were a play with a script, or how Arrowby’s memory distorts time, I was left thinking of the world ignored or overlooked. This is something Arrowby touches on himself in the text:

Emotions really exist at the bottom of the personality or at the top. In the middle they are acted. This is why all the world is a stage, and why the theatre is always popular and indeed why it exists: why it is like life, and it is like life even though it is also the most vulgar and outrageously factitious of all the arts. Even a middling novelist can tell quite a lot of truth. His humble medium is on the side of truth. Whereas the theatre, even at its most ‘realistic’, is connected with the level at which, and the methods by which, we tell our everyday lies.

Source: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

All in all, there is always something seemingly unreliable in Arrowby decisions and reflections that always seems to leave things one step away from disaster. However, as John Pistelli suggests, the constant throughout is the sea.

Through it all, the sea sounds and resounds as a reminder of the transience, violence, and grandeur that is our native element.

Source: Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea by John Pistelli

As a reader, it sometimes felt like we are placed on the stage, asked our thoughts and judgments on Arrowby’s various acts, especially when he locks Hartley up for her own good. We are left to ponder at which point he over-steps or was deluding himself. It is easy to judge him for this, but in judging it feels like we are somehow being judged in return. Asked how we might act? As Murdoch suggested elsewhere:

Good art reveals what we are usually too selfish and too timid to recognize, the minute and absolute random detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of unity and form

Source: On the Way to the Fen, Ethical and Aesthetic Quandaries Arise by Iris Murdoch, qtd. in Genese Grill

Or as Sarah Churchwell concludes in her review of the novel, all we can do is try.

All of her novels explore the contest between love and art as conduits to truth, and the ways in which contingency contends against form. Does art redeem? Does love? Or do we keep confusing our misunderstandings with metaphysics? Contingency is frightening, as all Murdoch’s characters know, capricious, unpredictable; but it is in the hazards of the fortuitous that life reveals itself. Love is also contingent, unpredictable, hazardous. Good art, Murdoch also said, is “the highest wisest voice of morality, it’s something spiritual – without good art a society dies. It’s like religion really – it’s our best speech and our best understanding – it’s a proof of the greatness and goodness which is in us.” Although Murdoch parses the grammar and traces the limits of love, she never stops believing in its moral force, or the spiritual potential of art. Art is impossible, so is love. And the only possible moral choice is to continue trying to achieve both, knowing that they are impossible.

Source: The Sea, the Sea – Sarah Churchwell on the making of a monster by Sarah Churchwell

The Sea, The Sea was a hard book to move on from. I actually felt that I could not start another book straight away, I wanted it to wash over me a little longer. Cheryl Bove argues that it stresses the necessity for acting with humility.

This novel stresses the interconnectedness of all things, the consequences of actions, and the necessity for acting with humility.

Source: Understanding Iris Murdoch by Cheryl Bove

I wonder if this is what left me thinking and reflecting?

Alternatively, it had me wondering more about Murdoch’s philosophical ideas, such as “unselfing” and “the fat, relentless ego”, and how these may relate to the book.

Iris Murdoch, for instance, once described looking out her window “in an anxious and resentful state of mind … brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige”. When suddenly, she observes a kestrel hovering on the currents of the air. “In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.” Without going anywhere, contemplating the figure of the kestrel permits Murdoch to move from resentful isolation to contemplation — thereby enacting what she calls a process of “unselfing”, a certain diminishment of “the fat, relentless ego” in the face of a moral reality outside of ourselves.

Source: Ramadan — the discipline of solitude – ABC listen by Scott Stephens

All in all, it is one of those novels that I feel will stay with me for a while.

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Life is a massive balancing act from the molecules inside our cells, to our heart and arteries, to our immune system, our digestive system, our lungs, our kidneys and our brains. This set of balances, as you now well know, is called homeostasis. Give our bodies a bit of a push, then like a punching bag clown, our body bounces back upright, ready for the next punch. Too many punches, the bag starts to lean at an angle, and later it might deflate entirely. The battering has shifted the balance – the homeostasis – and that’s how we lose our youth. Dr Norman Swan ‘So You Want To Live Younger Longer?’

So many things have bounced back now that COVID is magically no longer a thing. However, one thing that remains in my life is the presence of Dr Norman Swan (and Tegan Taylor) via the What’s That Rash podcast. For me, TISM’s ode to Dr Norman Swan sums it up best:

Voice beautiful, despite its gloom
The Scots heard still, the vague
Whose resolute, calm, patient tone
Will guide us through a plague”
Data remains a plural noun”
“Some things, when lost, are gone”
Thus guarded must calm reason be
So we thank you, Doctor Swan
Some – quiet, strong
Spend all their lives waiting until they’re found
When feckless us in panic need
Those recondite but sound
Scream on, you Sky News buffoons who
With toddlers rage assert
Truth’s needlе should deflected bе
Because its sting may hurt
For soft and clear, his voice remains
When yours – futile – declines
He tells us what we need, not want
Truth is beauty… sometimes

Source: TISM – Dr Norman Swan

I remember during the pandemic hearing Swan talk about this life and books as a part of the Conversations podcast. I was therefore intrigued to dive into one of his books, especially as it was read by the author himself. I am always a sucker for a book read by the author. I therefore decided to dive into So You Want To Live Younger Longer?

I wondered if Swan’s passion for the theatre might somehow come through in his reading of the book. Sadly, the reading of the book was sometimes patchy as it tried to combine a series of after edits, which is always challenging with the human voice (speaking from experience.) However, I really enjoyed Swan’s writing style. He has a knack of bouncing between the hip granddad, with all his slang and hashtags, and the serious voice when required. (I am assuming that he might possibly say that the hippocampus can only tolerate so much lecturing?)

The book itself is broken up into ten parts:

  1. Sweat the big stuff
  2. Eating – not fasting – holds the secret
  3. Which pill and why
  4. Outrunning the clock – staying young with exercise
  5. Bugs, bowels and hormones
  6. It’s not so back to change what’s on the outside
  7. While you’re waiting on the magic pill of youth
  8. Does the mind matter?
  9. Here’s what you can do at any age
  10. The air we breathe

Each part is then broken up into further sub-parts, beginning with a short summary and a hashtag. Overall, there is a lot of intentional repetition, used to highlight particular key points. For example, I kept hearing Teagan Taylor’s gong every time Swan mentioned the ‘Mediterranean Diet‘. In some ways, it actually felt like an extended episode of the What’s That Rash? podcast as many of the topics delved into in podcast are covered in the book, such as botox, suduko, red wine and skin care.

For me, the book sometimes felt like a meditation on living a healthy life, as much as an explicit guide, in that there is no clear straightforward solution for how to live younger longer. Yes, Part Nine provides a summary of all the different things that you can do at each particular age and is probably the place to go if you want to get straight to the point, but as Swan continually touches on, this is all something of a continuum. For example, if you never smoked, you are obviously going to have a longer life expectancy than someone who does. However, this is not to say that there are not benefits for anyone at any age to kick the habit.

What I enjoyed about this book is that it tells you all the things that you can do knowing that nobody is going to necessarily enforce them all in one hit as that would be unrealistic.

The goal of this book regardless of your age is to help you get to your 90s and beyond in the body and with the brain of someone much younger. As you’ll discover, it needs a bit of work. So if you’ve picked up this book in the shop looking for an easy answer, don’t buy it. Get one that promises something simple and unbelievable.

Source: So You Want To Live Younger Longer? by Dr Norman Swan

What I found particular intriguing, beyond the endless discussion of the Mediterranean Diet, was the benefit of education on health. Swan explains that those educated often have more money to spend on health and make more informed choices.

So what is it about women’s education that makes the difference? Well, this is what the Taliban do know.

Caldwell and others concluded that a lot of it has to do with the increased autonomy that women get when they can read and write, learn maths and proceed to higher education if it’s available. Family income goes up and demand for basic healthcare does too.

Source: So You Want To Live Younger Longer? by Dr Norman Swan

The other thing that I found helpful was Swan’s reference to different points of measurement. Personally, I always get exhausted by BMI scale, and felt that his reference to ‘Size 34’ pants a more tangible measurement.

Basically, if you’re male, regardless of your race, if you take a size 34 in jeans then you’re significantly more likely to be in better shape and have a longer life than the guy next to you at the rack who’s trying on a size 40.

Source: So You Want To Live Younger Longer? by Dr Norman Swan

Overall, with the final part, the book felt like one of those novels whose closing chapter changes everything that happened before. Swan turns his attention to the seismic impacts on our health that impact our health, such as global warming and the alleviation of poverty.

Most of the solutions require political will more than technological innovation. Fossil fuel burning – the cause of climate change – causes millions of years of lost life each year, equating to 4.2 million people dying prematurely every year – at least. Those are lives which could be saved, disabilities prevented and climate change mitigated all at the same time by rapidly moving to renewable energy sources. We’ll live younger longer on a planet that will see less catastrophic change.

Poverty alleviation, sustainable agriculture, economic development and access to high value primary healthcare will continue to reduce family size, improve health and damage the environment less. If that’s tied to high quality education, then that will even further enhance the reductions in poverty and improvements in health, wellbeing and longevity.

Source: So You Want To Live Younger Longer? by Dr Norman Swan

This touches on a comment Swan made in an interview in 2021 that Coronavirus was largely a ‘political pandemic’.

Interestingly, with all the discussions of medical drugs and the potential, there was no mention of ozempic. I am assuming that this highlights how things that ebb and change in only a few years.

All in all, I think that this is one of those books that will sit in the back of my mind as a reminder that there is always something more I could be doing with regards to my health.

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