Madness and being human (from The Hindu)

As the archetypes of myth make a comeback to books, they seem to capture a world that has changed little since the days of Zeus

The gods of Mount Olympus are still with us. Their tales, myths and tragedies are intertwined with our days. When we gaze in the mirror for too long and see Narcissus, when a son is too close to his mother like Oedipus, when a daughter is obsessed with her father like Elektra, the Greek tragedies are there. When there’s a murder in the family like a Clytemnestra stabbing her Agamemnon, the tragedies from the epics are still with us.

The Greek gods may have long been buried, chased from the realm of theology and temples of worship to be corralled into museums and libraries, frozen in mawkish statues and in theatre plays, but they are still with us along with their tragedies. And more so this literary season.

It may just be remarkable coincidence, but there have been three intense recent novels all reinterpreting Greek tragedies — Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman obsessing with patricide; Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire reimagining an Antigone among Islamic State fighters; and Colm Toíbín’s House of Names, adapting contemporary language and family relationships to the matricide of Clytemnestra.

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Fragile divinity

How and why did we get to the 21st century still reworking the same old plots, still gazing at the same old gods we thought had vanished to the distant planets we named after them?

The Iliad and the Odyssey are considered the origins of Western literature. Greek tragedians took Homer’s characters and created plots of their own, just like today’s novels integrate myths with contemporary language. Once reworked by Euripides, Aeschylus’s Oresteia strayed so much from the original that some consider it the real birth of fiction. ‘Based on a true myth,’ I presume the book would warn readers were it printed today.

This literary trend didn’t fade when Greece was crushed by Rome. Latin poet Horace put it plainly in his epistles: “Greece, in fact, conquered us by bringing her arts into rustic Latium.” The victims’ culture seeped into Roman values through the Hellenisation of literature and art.

Latin poet Virgil was the pioneer; his Aeneid is a sequel to the Iliad, and tells of Aeneas escaping from the charred ruins of Troy and reaching Italian shores, the mythological representation of the cultural thread joining Greece to Rome. Then, the Empire brought Greek myths to an invaded Europe. Later, Western colonisation spread these myths to the Americas and beyond.

Throughout the following millennia, Greek polytheistic myth experienced moments of fortune but also of oblivion. Greek gods continued their metamorphosis, not only from Zeus to Jupiter, but from divine to oh-so-human. But the gods have always been keen on metamorphosis — once, shape-shifting Zeus even trickled down through a roof as golden rain to impregnate a lady. Yet, in Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno, Torquato Tasso or Cervantes, the gods began to take on very humanly fragile dimensions, while mortals were increasingly invigorated by divine qualities. These authors created a new mythology by fusing Greco-Roman with Christian themes.

Mount Olympus experienced a prolific revival of its allegories during the Renaissance and the Baroque. Ovid became a major influence for poets and artists. Enlightenment, led by Voltaire, only made parodies of what it perceived as obscurantist legends. And Romanticism seemed mostly interested in individual countries’ national pasts rather than in the archetypes of southern Europe. But the gods of Mount Olympus just wouldn’t die.

Why, then, did the 20th century rediscover Ancient Greece?

The birth of psychoanalysis has its part. The Oedipus complex, Narcissism, the Elektra complex: a now somewhat discredited Sigmund Freud borrowed from myth to explain mental conditions. In literature, Tolkien and Rowling, but before them James Joyce, Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso all dipped their pens into the cornucopia.

March of folly

In the 20s, the Fascists discovered a renewed pride in the remote past of Roman imperialism by poking awake the sleeping deities. In the U.S., in 1931, Eugene O’Neill would set his famous interpretation of the Oresteia in the smoky battlefields of the American Civil War. In the following decades, existentialists obsessed with the Sisyphus myth as representing the frustration of modernity. What an appropriate image to represent the endlessness of the often mechanised efforts and frustrations created by the industrialised enslavement of millions of workers. Or to portray the vain struggle of an individual in pursuit of knowledge.

In his 1942 essay, Camus imagined that Sisyphus must be happy as the “struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” — a rather dharmic interpretation.

It is only when Sisyphus accepts the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate that he is he freed to realise the absurdity of his predicament and reaches a state of contentedness. Or santosha. Sartre rejected what he saw as the classical pessimism and disillusionment of Camus, which caused a most notorious rift between the two. Existentialists also realised that Greek tragedies were often centred on the importance of choice and the role choice has in connecting a person to her social destiny.

Everyone knows what Joyce did with Ulysses, few know how French dramatist Jean Anouilh reworked Antigone into a clearer symbol against totalitarianism, turning it into an anti-Fascist tale, worthy of the merciless pen of exiled poet Bertolt Brecht, who would set the tragedy in the Second World War and paint Creon, the ruler of Thebes, into a Nazi-style dictator.

And as Europe began to realise the advantages of unification, the elites again became obsessed with the greco-latin Greco-Latin heredity. The matrix of its culture is inscribed in its name, Europa, after a Phoenician princess who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a white bull.

More recently, Margaret Atwood retold the Odyssey from its hero’s wife’s point of view in the feminist Penelopiad, and Madeleine Miller repainted the relationship between Patroclus and his star-warrior companion in The Song of Achilles.

As the myths make another comeback in contemporary literature, is it a symptom of our confusion and lack of direction, a need to go back to something familiar? Or is it also because of a need to make sense of the massacres, the slow war between flawed democracies and their nemesis?

The very concept of the perception of truth has been altered, so it is possible that reaching into the myth through fiction will actually bring a sharper sense of veracity, as paradoxical as this may sound.

Superimposing the archetype of a Greek tragedy on the nightmarish summer massacres of Europe in subways and promenades, or over the senseless gau rakshak lynchings, or over the bloody scenes of Syrian cities collapsing under dusty clouds of bombs can allow writer and reader to feel that in this madness, in this “march of folly,” as historian Barbara Tuchman would call it, literature is the only way to gain some comfort in the realisation that history repeats itself. Or at least that it rhymes, as Mark Twain said.

DNA patterns

Or it may be the only way to understand that the pointless wars, the beheadings, betrayals and mayhem, the stuff of Greek tragedies, are what best describes and makes us understand the world we are living in now. Because it’s all happened before. The patterns may be in our DNA, they may be in our culture, they may, sadly, be part of what a human being is. Feral, ferocious, ambitious, vengeful, but capable of noble acts, of love and self-sacrifice.

Mythological archetypes may be an oversimplification of the nuances of the present. And yet this is what history does, clearing away the fuzzy noise, outlining a crisper image of how things really went. Creating an acceptable story with a beginning and an end — with meaning.

Pamuk does it by identifying not only the personal tension between fathers and sons, but also between the citizen and the state. Toíbín takes on the Oresteiaand makes us realise how the ancient family’s implosive dynamics are similar, if not the same, as our own. As the author said in The Guardian: “I was writing, after all, in the time of Islamic State, a time when images of violence and hatred seemed to appear natural or at least prevalent…”

Ode to Apollo

The most impactful attempt to bring back Greek tragedy to make us understand contemporary events comes from the youngest and most promising voice, that of British writer Kamila Shamsie. In Home Fire, she grapples with many of the central questions of political migration and integration in today’s West versus East and North versus South dynamics, while adapting them to the matrix of Antigone. Not only is the ancient world brought closer, but there’s also a clearer understanding of our world, seen through the prism of the original tragedy.

Home Fire is sprinkled with brilliant and biting contemporary one-liners like this question from a British young man of Pakistani descent to a woman acquaintance wearing a sort of turban: “Cancer or Islam — which is the greater affliction?”

Shamsie’s book freely adapts the structure of Antigone to tell us about the Lones, a successful family integrated in the British paradigm, so much so that its patriarch becomes Home Secretary, repudiating his own Muslim community. And about the Pashas, a family attempting to integrate, but whose patriarch was a jihadi killed on his way to Guantánamo and whose youngest son, Parvaiz, is recruited to work for the Islamic State. I’ll share no more spoilers.

But why use myth to eviscerate the contradictions of integration, migration and radicalisation? Or juxtapose it on internecine regional conflicts as in Northern Ireland? Or to contemplate the power of emerging strongmen muscling at the walls of Europe and Asia?

The simplicity of the archetypal human tragedy survives the precociously announced death of the novel, post-modern literature, non-fiction, reality fiction. Why? Because it captures a universal humanity which seems to have changed little since the days of Apollo. Whether this can be a reassurance that nothing changes, or a disappointment in humanity’s lack of progress, is better left to readers to decide. May the gods of the Olympus inspire their choice.

Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory.

His most recent book is The Edge of an Era.

The article appeared originally in The Hindu Literary Review and can also be read at The Hindu website by clicking here.

What robotisation can offer to the future of work in India  (op ed The Hindu)

As we ask ourselves how employment is threatened by technology, we should look at how labour has changed in recent decades. Before we get so attached to the current job market, and feel we must defend it from an eventual robot takeover, we should examine how unfair the labour system has become and how robotics could contribute to change that.

If properly managed, the robotic revolution could be a chance to free millions of people from a system of exploitation of labour which is unprecedentedly inhumane. Or not.

In ancient Rome, a slave worked a maximum of six hours a day. A third of the year was spent in festivities. European workers in the Middle Ages had a six-hour work day and spent 150 days in religious celebrations — almost half the entire year off!

Nothing close to the 13 to 14 hours put in by the average, always-on entrepreneur of our times. Or the 10 hours a regular employee often clocks in, which explains why overwork is causing so many deaths across Asia.

The Industrial Revolution and the continuous automation of work have morphed us into becoming increasingly less human workers. This is the central premise before looking into what robotisation can offer to the future of work in India.

 

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On the left the original photo, on the right The Hindu artist’s rendition – a hindu-ised version of the author.

Is there also a continuing percolation, in India, from the agricultural sector, through urbanisation and its consequences, into the service and manufacturing sectors? Certainly.

Could this happen in a more humane way, as easily automated jobs are slowly stolen by robots? Is farming also destined to be substituted by Artificial Intelligence (AI)? Could we then envision a future of a widely urbanised class with more leisure time thanks to robots? Utopia.

But there may be a way to go in that direction, if we think about the advantages of robotisation being equally distributed among those who will lose their jobs.

A socially sensitive policy should consider this a chance for the government to gather advantages from higher robotisation and distribute them to the work force by creating job alternatives. Or by providing subsidies and employment systems with less working hours — such as part-time and work from home. Finally, robotised work should distribute earnings to those who will permanently lose their jobs. And this could be done in very specific ways.

A kind of exploitation

First, we should consider how to capitalise from the current market. The premise for doing so requires a radical change of perspective.

When we read that in a town in Andhra Pradesh, an AI company hires women and youth and spends some of its profit on education and drinking water for the community, we should not be humbly thankful. We should be worried.

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But what is passed for bringing employment to underdeveloped areas is neo-colonial exploitation at its best. Workers are paid peanuts to build the very same AI that will render them obsolete. This is not explained to them. So they are thankful for an extra little water and infrastructure, in exchange.

This trick is fooling Western underprivileged people as well. To refine conversation skills, a digital AI assistant needs to be told over and over when it has failed. There are plenty of American college students spending 10 to 30 hours a week, for $10 an hour, on phones or computers as AI supervisors, evaluating search results and chats through sites such as Clickworker. If they understood the ramifications of their work, they might demand to be paid much more.

This is policy recommendation number one: enforce a high international minimum wage for all data-entry and data-supervision workers. Help people who are “feeding the machine” be better paid for contributing to coding reality into its virtual version.

There is a more serious issue in the Indian job market. In 1810, the agricultural sector was 90% of the U.S. economy. In 1910, it was down to 30%. In 2010, it was 2%.

Is this what’s in store for India, where agriculture is still occupying half of the work force? Will it happen faster here? How do we retrain farmers? And where are they to relocate?

What will happen to “the rejected” as Pope Francis called them, “the forgotten,” as U.S. President Donald Trump labelled them during his campaign?

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A new era

More interestingly, will we move into a “humanistic intelligence” era in which we transform our workers, first with wearable computers (smartwatches and Google glasses are a beginning, the new smartphones operating according to moods, gaze and gestures are the next step), and then with deeper integration, like the Swedish company Biohax, implanting chips under the skin of their employees’ wrists?

It is called “shortening the chain of command”— from the smart screen era, to the cyborg era.

At first, technology might not immediately take all our jobs, it will take over our bodies. Of course, it’s already doing that. For example, I wear a hearing aid. Would I wear a bionic eye for sensory and visual augmentation, or for, say, drone operation? Maybe.

Is this how humans will compete with robots in an intermediary phase? What does it mean for society and its sense of identity, our relationship to our bodies?

There might be a lot of jobs for our new cyborg selves out there, in what is called the aug-mediated reality. Humans, some argue, are not to be defended, but expanded. So, will we be become transhumanistic, pimped-up cyborgs, with mechanical elements expanding our physical limitations? Isn’t this already happening? Is this the Nietzschean Übermensch we are supposed to become? Shouldn’t policy regulate that as well?

The focal question here is: as labour is being transformed at its roots, should economic forces be the only thing that matters? Aren’t we in front of an ethical and political, rather than an economic, question? And what if the answer is simply that everyone must benefit from the capital generated by robotisation?

Shouldn’t we begin to think of an alternative form of ownership of the robots? Shouldn’t they be public property, since they are objects that occupy and operate on public grounds, impacting public economy and nation-wide employment?

Shouldn’t they be owned by everyone? Should India consider nationalising robots? As ludicrous and anachronistic as it may sound in the post-neoliberal zeitgeist, it is something at least worth opening up for reflection.

Or could robots owned by private companies be allowed to operate only by purchasing a costly state licence, benefitting society at large or, specifically, displaced workers, thus funding unemployment?

Is it conceivable to create “job permits for robots” so that 30% of the revenue they raise with their work goes directly to finance the pension funds of the workers made redundant by robotisation?

This may not be the specific solution, but discussion should begin on these topics, as one of the ways to avoid famine and death possibly brought on by massive unemployment in a relatively short time.

Carlo Pizzati is an author and professor of communication theory. This text is part of his contribution to the “Technology Foresight Group on the Future of Work in India,” a collaboration between Tandem Research and the International Labour Organisation

This opinion piece originally appeared in “The Hindu” newspaper editorial pages and can be read also clicking here.