A friend told me a very interesting thing yesterday; she said that every time she got into the kind of conversation where a heavy subject matter was being discussed, she’d get this mysterious urge to smoke. The kinds of conversations she meant was the kind where it was late at night and you and another person – perhaps a close friend, perhaps someone with whom you share a sexual tension – ponder about the things in life.

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When I see other people smoke, it’s to blow off steam, or when they can’t be dealing with the tension. It’s a temporary break, and I can understand the appeal of that. But my own position on smoking is pretty hostile; sometimes I feel like my immediate rejection, the almost disgusted face I automatically pull when I smell smoke or if someone mentions their addiction to/dependence on it ostracises people. It’s not a pretty face, that’s for sure.

Stress has recently really been a thing – and I’m sure that’s something many people have in common. It’s a hot topic, one that all ostensibly caring welfare agencies/ads/workers express concern about. It’s an ‘issue’.

There is such strength in some people, in the way they deal with hardship. As sad as it sounds, I think every single person who doesn’t turn to some chemical form of rest or respite (e.g. drugs, including tobacco and alchohol) should be celebrated.

Some social theorists think that in modern (capitalist) life, lots of people can’t really see any way to express themselves other than by buying things. Maybe it’s the capitalist system that causes this consumerist desire, or maybe it’s the fact that this desire existed already that the system came to be; chicken or egg? I don’t remember whether it was the Frankfurt School theorists or Kant who thought this, but according to one of them (or someone else entirely, my memory’s terrible), art is an alternative way in which human beings can express themselves.

People who choose not to see the world beyond their little blinkered bubbles, the ones who – whether due to their upbringing, social position, social history or otherwise – do not allow their considerations to transcend beyond their own very limited conception of the world, unfortunately don’t possess the capacity to see that art is the perfect way to express yourselves.

As naively optimistic as it sounds, I staunchly believe that everyone has the capacity to be creative, and to transcend in the way I described above. I believe everyone has taste, but this differs, and people sometimes have trouble reaching their true potential and truly realise their taste. I believe that everyone has the ability to express themselves in the ‘purer’ way that Kant or the Frankfurt School outlined, one that didn’t depend on the perpetually unattainable, consumerist promise that money represents.

The point I’m trying to get at, is that I think engaging with art, and the beauty of the aesthetic form, whether that’s in the form of music, theatre, literature, film, dance, fine art, photography, whatever! is the best way to deal with stress, or the weary loads that life sometimes lays on you.

I feel like engaging with that sort of brain activity is almost the abstract solution to everything; it’s a stress reliever, and it works by building up your enjoyment of something without necessarily comparing your performance to others (that’s only if you’re doing this for enjoyment, and not for a living, obviously). It helps you to gain a better sense of self, a better of self-confidence, and anchor you to your present situation. It’s at the same time a kind of distraction, but a distraction that allows you to directly address the root of your problems, it’s running away from something by heading straight for the culprit.

This is something I’ve come to realise lately. I’m at a period where I feel like my permanent self-confidence and self-security has been lower than it ever has been, because I have stakes in somebody now, and I’ve started to compare myself to every single person I see; I never used to do that.

So put some time aside for an artistic activity that you enjoy, or be brave and try to get into something new – something good, something you can connect with on a deeper level. If you manage to get over any mental blocks you might have, you won’t regret it.

Disclaimer: This is not a piece about the happy kind of tears. Far from it. Also, all artwork below is mine – please don’t use without my permission.

Sum Sze Tam tears in filigree bed catatonic

Crying, in all interpretations of the word, is an inherently human action. A baby’s first cry is the first breath of a healthy child; contemporary cinematography use close-up tears as an emotive tool; and the heartbroken wail of a man or a woman is something that grips you when you hear it, or when you see the face that personifies that wail.

Maybe too many tears in popular media have made those lucky enough not to have encountered true sorrow immune to this display of emotion, such that even if you are gripped by the expression of a heartbroken wail, your own ensuing response to it (perhaps a few reciprocal tears or sobs of your own) is shallow and artificially induced. But then these people are pulled into the big wide world; and something may be there to show them what the world is truly like.

Tears are cathartic, undoubtedly. It numbs your feelings, for a while, in yielding to despair. Perhaps in your tear-streaked haze you’ll become strangely calmly entranced by the smallest visual patterns; the repetition of a small action or gesture, or you may suddenly find that you’ve been staring at nothing for long time while the mind behind the busy tear ducts has been grinding away. The numbness slows you down, forces you to not think about the masses of worries and stresses and hassles and abuses and pressures that never seem to leave you; in tears, they temporarily leave you in their pencilled-out, definite form and just register as an abstract blob in the clouds.

But in some situations, the tears are only a temporary respite, and eventually becomes something you can’t help but keep returning to over and over again. Because the situation won’t have gone away, or resolved itself after a few tears, as it might have done when you were a child and your parents were either desperate to appease you and conceded, or had known how to discipline children and just left you to cry yourself out.

From my brief stint at psychology during the IB, I learnt that emotions are a complicated process, whether you take a cognitive, biological or other approach to it. But leaving the debate to those actually qualified to argue it, I am left to contemplate the way in which crying quite physically feels like the abstract emotion you’re going through.

Throat – constricted. There’s a funny lump in the roof of your mouth, as well as just above your larynx. Your chest feels a little tight, but you’re not sure how much of that is in your mind. You almost aren’t fully aware, or sensitive of your tactile abilities – if anything, you are at your least sensitive. If you try to hold it in, and somebody notices or does something that tips your topsy-turvy emotional scale back the wrong way up, it makes it almost unbearable to hold in. Sobbing sets in and your lungs feel as if it were being jerked by the strings of a heavy-handed puppetmaster; but it’s such a relief to have somebody else, anybody, even if it’s just another part of you, take control of a part of your life for the moment.

Then the statements come in, the statements that are so good at triggering round after round of sobs; statements like you’re not good enough, you’re a selfish git for crying when others suffer far worse, you’re weak, you’re stupid, you should be grateful for the things you have rather than wasting other people’s time and space. And the worst thing is, you actually care about what these statements mean.

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But lately, I’ve become worried that crying, because of how cathartic it is and how strong a reaction it gets from other people, is going to become a drug that can be depended on. If that is the case, then what makes the person who cries any better than somebody who is willing to guilt-trip others? What happens when you reach the stage where crying is adopted as social manipulation, or seen as such?

At that point, I’ll be deprived of even the right to cry.

The arbitrary age for a person to become an adult is eighteen, but when you read historical accounts people came of age when they were far younger – as early as thirteen. Could you imagine being called a mature adult at that age? I’d only just begun to explore my own sense of self.

Does the fact that the critical point where a person becomes an adult has shifted upwards mean that society’s gone backwards – that we can’t educate our children to the same degree of maturity in the same amount of time? Or hadn’t the ‘adults’ of ages gone by been sufficiently mature? Like most safe academic answers, the answer probably lies somewhere in between, and includes the use of a phrase that can be used to sound intelligent for any difficult question: ‘it depends’.

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In my case, though I’ve just turned twenty it doesn’t seem so long ago that I was turning sixteen, and before that, twelve. Year on year, birthdays don’t seem to track a great deal of growth, but you really start to see the difference as they gather, if only in retrospect. Then you get periods of your life where you feel like you get maturity spurts. Perhaps you’ll have gone through a life-changing experience, you’ve had to adapt to a new and unknown environment, or you met someone who changed your life (for better or worse).

Even with one or two of aforementioned maturity spurts, I still don’t feel old enough to truly be an adult. I couldn’t call myself a woman, though there are many younger than I who have had that title foisted upon them in the past, and even perhaps today. Maybe such titles are self-fulfilling prophecies; I’ve not been able to call myself a woman because very few people have treated me as though I was one.

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This is a baby beauty pageant competitor. A child sure ain’t an adult, however much she may look like one.

But that would be placing your identity as a person entirely in the hands of those around you – I want my own say in this!

I think education helps a lot with personal agency, because when you start to learn how to think, and have your viewpoint broadened massively, it allows you to make better decisions. When you start to care about how the whole world works, rather than just how the little bubble of a space around you works, is when I think you start to become smart. I met a French man on my travels to the French Alps this week, who said something very succinctly: “I think if you do not travel, you will become dumb in the head.”

So is an adult someone who’s well-traveled, someone who cares about the economy, society, and politics? It’s a sound argument, but limited to those who get the opportunity to do such things i.e. those who are rich enough. Let’s return to those maturity spurts, because they may be a little less class-specific: perhaps an adult is someone who has gone through, and at least tried to overcome, a severe hardship. The assumption is that this person knows more about the world, and the way it may work against all idealistic notions – completely demolish them.

Perhaps that brings the discussion to the cynic – is someone who can only see the negative things in the world truly an adult, or just a broken person? The kind of experience that warrants the kind of maturity spurt I mentioned should enable the person to see that there are better things. The most profound kind of happiness can only be appreciated when one truly knows what sadness is.

I read a blog post about a year back, which actually comes from a dating site – but it talked about what really made a man. The most striking, and nuanced, point the article made was that a grown-up man plans for the future. An adult, therefore, is someone who can see the long-term game and not just the short term. This is a pretty handy definition, because it links to the ‘caring about the whole world’ definition of adulthood in that you need to have a the propensity for foresight in order to really care about such macro, unrelatable and impersonal subjects such as economics, politics and sociology.

Here’s somebody you’d never think wasn’t an adult: the parent. For one, and maybe this is a weirdly trivial and taboo point to make, they’ve got to have knowledge of what sexual intercourse is (is that where the ‘adult’ genre comes from, maybe?). More importantly, parents have been given the responsibility of another human being’s life, and the amount of pressure that comes with it: the slightest action they take in the early years can have a profound effect on how their child turns out when they get older.

I’ve exhausted my meagre bank of different meanings and definitions of adulthood, and as someone who doesn’t comfortable identify as one perhaps I’m not the most comprehensive source. I’d be grateful for any outside opinions (this is the part where you comment below and tell me what you think please please please).

It’s odd, but having thought about it, and having spent a year and a half in a foreign country with a foreign culture, sometimes I wonder if some people who are supposedly adults never truly become adults. I’m not talking about somebody who was biologically programmed to never grow up, physiologically or physically. I’m talking about the adults I see behaving in a way that shows they don’t care for the future, or other people, or for anything other than themselves. Is an adult then, in the simplest terms, just somebody who has reached a more profound and sophisticated level of unselfishness?

This is totally going to sound like something that came out of the ‘guidance’ section of an educational website. But for the youngster, being in education is such a large part of our lives that I’d argue that this kind of thing can be classed as a ‘lifestyle’ article. Hah.

Some students genuinely don’t see any point in writing assessed essays – both in secondary and tertiary level education. I can’t say that this applies to all subjects, but for the arts, humanities, and social sciences, I think essays are the best way for a person to learn about a particular topic in extreme depth – and to learn how to develop a coherent argument. You’ll be an expert, and because you’ve had to reformulate what other people have said about the subject; you’ll know what Distinguished Others have said about it and have formulated your own opinion on top of all that.

Next time you do one, examine yourself pre- and post-essay. If you’ve done it well, you’ll find that you’ll be able to hold an entire conversation with other interested, intelligent people on the subject at length. You’ll have yourself sound smarter, and – le gasp! – you might actually have become smarter in the process.

All in all, essays are just a really good way of learning. Try and become interested, get your head into the argument and really try to structure one with conviction. It’ll pay off.

Here’s a girl in a winter parka, fyi.

On Blurred Lines, let’s just get this out on the table: I don’t believe that the lyrics in this song are a danger to people, nor do I believe that it promotes rape culture. It’s pretty intimate, and pretty sexy, and the issue of non-consent is argued in such a forced manner by feminetizens. The power balance disadvantages women, sure, but it’s meant to be seductive and shouldn’t have warranted the reaction it’s gotten. Just look at the countless other songs in the pop music cloud out there, who’ve been way more explicit about what the (male) protagonist wants to do to his woman.

My issue, really, is with the practically naked female models. If you remove the influence of the socially constructed controversy that the song brought on, if you asked my opinion of Blurred Lines right after I watched it for the first time, I would tell you that I have a deep, gut-fuelled dislike for the music video. I don’t understand how having very, very beautiful women prancing around with 95% of their skin bared is that much different from artistic pornography; maybe what little coverage there is on the Blurred Lines ladies is in the form of thongs and sneakers?

There are people saying that women can do whatever the hell they want with their bodies, because complete control over ourselves is the ultimate form of empowerment. But the point here is that the models here didn’t do whatever they wanted with their bodies for the sake of it – they did it because they were asked to by a casting agent, or somebody involved with the production of Robin Thicke’s music video. If you wanted to argue that it might be the intention of the directors/producers of Robin Thicke’s music video to send a message to the masses about womens’ control over their bodies, then I’d like to point to the inherently hypocritical irony in saying “By telling B what to do, A is telling other people that B is independent”. I’m pretty sure the nudity factor was just a gimmick to get more views – and boy did they get them!

Let’s say, for the moment, that I took the above feminist argument to be relevant. If the end goal was to show the world that you were a powerful, self-assured individual despite the adversity women are faced by in society, why do it by violating another, completely irrelevant societal norm? Why do it in the vocabulary of what is basically exhibitionist, softcore porn, with porn arguably being the absolute ultimate form of the oppression of women?

I guess the next question is to ask whether porn is really an oppression of women. I didn’t take the Gender and Media module on my course this year, so I’m clearly no expert on the academic arguments; but the arguments I have heard (like the one mentioned above) seem pretty contrived to me. My most honest and natural thoughts on porn are that it’s sexy and a good stimulant, yes, and as long as it doesn’t do any psychological harm to anyone I think it’s a good idea. But it’s one hundred percent something to keep to the privacy of one’s bedroom.

I suppose I’m one of those people who can’t separate sex from intimacy, love, and feelings – and perhaps that just shows my naivete, or my conservatism. But to see the female body (and only the female body, in this case) paraded around for the sake of monetary profit is deeply disturbing to me, because I don’t think the female body is something that should be used for that. It just seems so wrong.

(Please feel free to disagree with me in the comments – all I ask is that you do so politely and not begin to make ad hominem attacks because everybody knows that those are mean and have nothing to do with the argument)

I think it’s very easy for a blog to become all about the writer and make the person come off as more than a little bit selfish. And I can see why; for somebody who’s not used to writing for themselves, not being set a particular topic to write about is almost too much freedom, and the first reaction they’ll have is similar to the reaction most first years at university have to their new-found independence  – waste time, space, and resources on selfish endeavours.

So, I’ll try not to write about myself explicitly (unless it’s relevant in the wider scheme of things), just to reduce the hefty number of times the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ appear on the page. That’s not to say my opinion won’t feature in my writing, because that’s what blogs are – inflated, wordy, versions of what goes on in people’s heads – but I don’t want to go back to the good old days where my blog mainly consisted of lots of bitching. This, ladies and gentlemen, is my manifesto.

But on to the topic at hand: I came across a very, very interesting man today. Actually, I’d come across him before, but this particularly interesting aspect to him hadn’t made itself known to me until I decided to Google him.

The person I am speaking of is André Gorz, social theorist and journalist. His real name was Gerhart Horst, and he was born in Austria, though throughout his life he migrated all over Europe. All of his famous academic works were published under the name André Gorz. His Wikipedia page is filed in under this pen name, which means he will probably only be remembered by this name in the future (Wikipedia is mighty powerful, come to think of it). I’d come across him in some of my sociology lectures before, and he seemed like a pretty cool guy – well-respected, was influenced by Marxism, etc etc. I Googled him to today to look up anything else he’d written that might help me with my revision.

That’s when Google’s ‘Images for André Gorz’ panel showed up, and three absolutely beautiful pictures grabbed my attention like nothing else. Here they are:

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 The photos said so much more about this man than The Critique of Economic Reason, one of his most famous works, did, such that I was immediately compelled to look up his Wikipedia page for more on what looked like a very intriguing story. The fact that this woman appeared in so many of the image results that came up under his name suggested that his public personality was seen to be based around this mysterious woman.

The internet revealed to me that this woman was Dorine/Doreen, the love of Gorz/Horst’s life – so much so that the two couldn’t bear to outlast the other in life, and when Dorine was on her deathbed with a terminal illness (caused by the agent lipiodol), Gorz took his own life too. Gorz wrote a beautiful book for her in Doreen’s last days, called Lettre à D. Histoire d’un amour (Letter to D: A History of Love in English), which became a bestseller following their suicide.

It’s so jarringly dissonant to try to imagine this extremely intelligent man being so completely and tenderheartedly romantic, so dedicated to another person in his life that he believed there was no life without her. My head just can’t wrap itself around the fact that the one and same man is capable of writing in such vastly differing vernacular: the objective, cold and incisive writings of an academic, and the passionate, heart-wrenching last song of a man in love with a dying woman. I’d love to get my hands on the English translation of that book (and it’s less than £4 on Amazon, I might yet), because I’m wildly curious to see the inner workings of his mind – by all accounts, the book is an amazing read.

The thing that makes this whole incident so interesting is that this representation of love is just so much purer than anything I’ve ever seen, and it’s real. It existed, and will continue to exist in Letter to D. Hollywood – okay, maybe just attributing it to Hollywood is a bit harsh, so I should really include the mass media as a whole – has so successfully sold the Romantic Dream to us, especially women, that sometimes girls have a wholly unrealistic expectation of what real relationships are like. It’s a commonly accepted notion that teenage girls (usually from the Twilight fandom) who hurl themselves into a romantic relationship are inevitably led to a quick disillusionment. You hear adults middle-aged adults talk about it all the time: those teens, they get gobsmacked by the cold hand of reality.

On the flipside, it also leaves lots of girls painfully aware of how impossible the Romantic Dream is, and some settle for somebody who might not be right for them, because it’s better than being alone. It perpetuates very little hope for happiness by always showing you a happiness you can never have (which is how advertising works, I guess). Real stories like that penned in Letter to D show us that these miracles can happen, that it is possible, albeit not easy to attain and very much dependent on chance.

Perhaps the problem isn’t as simple as all that, though. Yes, the Romantic Dream is ridiculous, but that’s because it has to be constructed with a beginning, a middle, and an end – all stories have to be structured this way for it to be possible to communicate to others, after all. The Romantic Dream is based on a formula that producers and audiences have tangled themselves up into via a poorly communicated system of trial and error. Producers take their cue from successful films, and the naive, inexperienced part of the audience take from these films what they think to be love, which affects the kinds of movies that do well, and so on, and so forth. It’s a botched cycle.

That’s my theory anyway – but more than that, I don’t think the validity of the Romantic Dream is so set in black and white. I think there are aspects of the wonderful narratives we see on-screen that do exist in real-life relationships, but they don’t happen as often as a film might portray them to be, because a film selectively chooses which moments to show.

I think what’s most important to realise is that real-life relationships are even better than what the movies tell us.

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I know I said I would try hard not to talk about myself, and breaking that rule in the first entry of this blog seems to set a terrible precedent, but I think this is something worth sharing. Until about half a year ago, I’d never been in love, whereas now, I am. It’s been a funny year, and I feel like my boyfriend and I have been through a lot together already; I can’t imagine myself ever being with anybody else.

But that’s beside the point. My point is, one day I revisited the soundtrack of Edges: A Song Cycle by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (I’m a huge musical theatre fan) and the meaning and the force of those lyrics hit me, bang-on, with the force of three elephants and a container truck. For the first time in my life, I could really feel the gravity of what they were saying, I’d been through a few ups and downs by then, I’d felt some of the pain, I understood it all.

What I’m trying to say that the above anecdote is this: we probably shouldn’t dismiss all media products as ridiculous, nor their makers as evil conspirators, trying to sell us on a very convoluted vision of romantic love as powerful as the American Dream. Maybe films, plays, literature, and other fictional works do reflect a lot of our emotional reality.