Tomorrow’s my birthday and I wish The Secret History became a movie.

Wouldn’t that be one of the most magnificent birthday gifts? Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a literary gem, a genuine Modern Classic. It is one of the most aesthetically pleasing books I have ever read, not only because of its countless references to the philosophical concept of the Sublime and the beauty that can be found in terror, but also because it affected me more than almost any other book I have read. Tartt is incredible, a literary genius if ever there was one.

Alas, The Secret History never became a movie for various rather complicated reasons. And perhaps also because the story has such clear links to Tartt’s own life at Bennington College.

As a movie or TV show, The Secret History might have looked like this short video I recently found. It’s a fan-made compilation of short clips from other movies and TV shows like Indignation, Kill Your Darlings, and From Dusk Till Dawn. I think it’s beautiful and well-made.

“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so?” he said, looking round the table. “Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”

Donna Tartt, The Secret History, p.35

The Queen’s Gambit is an ode to unconventionality, ambition, and passion.

This is a rather short post. Originally, I wanted to write something about Talleyrand and this very interesting book about his life, but I’m in a different mood right now.

Just recently, I was thinking about The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone around me seemed to rave about. It’s a Netflix original miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel that came out in October of last year. So I caved and watched it a few months ago. The series follows the life of Beth Harmon, an orphan who eventually transforms into a competitive young woman fueled by the ambition of becoming the world’s greatest chess player. Watching it, I noticed that I could oddly relate to the protagonist.

I tend to be very choosy when it comes to TV shows. They are always a time-consuming commitment, so watching something mediocre seems like a waste of time to me. I’d rather just read engrossing works of literature, biographies and books about classical antiquity.

Queen’s Gambit, however, was definitely an immersive and highly enjoyable TV series. Its pacing is slow enough to force you to pay a modicum of attention if you want to understand the protagonist’s relationships with other characters alongside the storyline. The show also offers and intricate and authentic depiction of 1960s aesthetics in all sorts of objects, buildings and clothes, without delving too much into the stereotypical.

It’s portrayal of the Soviet Union is also surprisingly neutral. Or to be more precise, I found that the show’s focus was on the non-political aspects of culture and everyday life in the Sovet Union, somewhat disentangled from overly intrusive ideological depictions. The manner in which chess is depicted (something that everyone plays in all sorts of places, the very young and the very old) is one such example. I found this rather interesting and peculiar, as Western TV shows generally depict life in Eastern Bloc countries more antagonistically.

For the sake of historical accuracy, it’s not entirely non-political, of course. As I’ve found out, Gary Kasparov was one of the show’s advisers. Apparently, he recommended that Viktor Borgov should be seen with KGB agents anytime he was abroad and outside the Eastern Bloc, as this is what would have happen to prevent defections.

The interesting story and its depictions make it worthwhile to watch the series, but it also had a greater emotional impact on me than I expected. 

In some odd and intangible way, I found that I could relate to Beth Harmon. Perhaps it’s because she is always that one girl amidst a sea of nerdy guys, in an environment where it’s rare to see any woman at all. That was clearly the case for chess in the 1960s (and still today), and this is an environment I’m very familiar during university and until today, to varying degrees: my interest in (classical liberal) political philosophy led me to join student organizations and travel around the world to organize academic conferences, seminars, and similar events. For various reasons, it’s still quite rare to be a woman with such… rather nich-y and academic interests, I suppose, so I was invariably one of the few women surrounded by a sea of overly intellectual nerdy men, just like Beth Harmon was. In a way, Harmon’s chess circle, which became her social circle, looked like my political/philosophical circle, which also became my social circle. And more so, Beth Harmon never felt uncomfortable because of her gender in these social settings and friendship constellations, and neither do I. There’s something about her being so profoundly blasé when it comes to social voncentions, paired with her relentless intellectual ambition that seemed to have sparked a feeling of familiarity. Coming back to this post’s title, Harmon conveyed this combination of unconventionality, ambition, and passion that almost always inspires sympathetic appreciation within me.

How Downton Abbey’s fashion evolved in the 20th century

Downton Abbey is probably my favourite TV series, of all time. I enjoy rewatching certain scenes of the series occasionally, especially those of season 2.

It’s a slow-paced historical drama television series that depicts the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants throughout the early 20th century. The series manages to depict how societal attitudes towards class and hierarchy change between the years of 1912 and 1926, inevitably spurred by events like WWI, the Spanish influenza epidemic and the Irish War of Independence.

Season 2 begins right after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and viewers see intricately how the Crawley family’s manor house transforms into a war-time convalescent home for soldiers to house the recovering wounded.

I could write so much more about this series and how Julien Fellowes manages to create a compelling storyline with characters displaying enormous psychological depth, making it oddly easy to relate to them, whether they are aristocrats or servants.

Since the original trailer for the first season does not quite capture the essence of the TV show, this short clip might suffice. It’s my favourite scene of the series I believe, and well, Mary Crawley has always been my favourite character. Some people don’t like her because she isn’t the most agreeable person on earth, but I believe she’s mainly just misunderstood.

What I’ve always loved about this series, besides its story, is the manner in which fashion was incorporated, representing the political and societal changes of the early 20th century. Period dramas naturally feature clothes that resemble their respective era’s fashion, but Downton Abbey has put a very special emphasis on this aspect. There are meticulous depictions of how certain dresses, jewelry and hair styles are worn – often relying on elaborate techniques deployed by the servants, especially when it comes to fitting dresses and styling hair.

These depictions change over time, alongside the popular fashion of the time. Starting with the Edwardian era, the dresses worn by the Crawley sisters during the first season are probably the most authentic depiction of late Edwardian fashion that I’ve seen on TV. Around 1912, silhouettes became flatter and much less “S-curved” than just a few years earlier. These were the last year of the corsets for women.

Clothes would be changed several times during the day. There were morning, afternoon and evening dresses, with the latter being the most elaborate ones.

By comparison, clothes in season 2 were far simpler, with looser cuts. World War I was going on, so there was just not much time for fussiness.

More and more, viewers can see how major societal changes are reflected in popular fashion styles of the early 1920s in season 3: Following the war, the women’s suffrage movement becomes more influential, women are joining the workforce in more significant positions. Alongside this, their clothes are now simpler, looser and more comfortable.

We are slowly transitioned into modernity, or to be more precise – our currently known, latest concept of modernity through the angle of fashion. The 1920s continue in seasons 4, 5 and 6, in the vein of typical flapper-fashion: Shorter skirts, flat busts and more skin.

Mary Crawley decides to get a bob cut typical for this era as well. Just a few years earlier, it would have been shocking for a woman to have such short hair. (sidenote for those who are interested: Even though my hair is long right now, I used to have such a haircut a few years ago!)

So, what is the point of this blog post? I suppose I found it fascinating how clothes represent an important element to depict attitudes on (the transformation of) class, etiquette and customs in the series. Overall and in far more nuances than I’ve managed to depict here, we see how the history of the early 20th century and the concept of modernity unfolds by looking at the clothes of Downton Abbey.

Can an aesthetic preference form a (social) movement?

Perhaps this title is a bit confusing.

For some while now, I’ve been fascinated with the aesthetic around dark academia. A fan-made online encyclopedia describes it as “a popular academic aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning.”

To illustrate this aesthetic, one can think about the movie Dead Poets Society and even more about the book The Secret History.

More specifically, one should imagine antique books, art pertaining to ancient Greece, boarding school-related environments, and historical university campuses.

Other associations that might help: forests and rainy weather, castles, anything that seems to awaken associations with scholarly and academic issues. Some sort of Néo-Grec style in conjunction with Neoromantic aesthetics is likely what it boils down to.

Dark academia, as the name implies, is not just linked to scholarly topics or self-expression in a positive sense; Donna Tartt’s The Secret History likely really is the quintessential work that established this whole genre, movement, preference of dark academia. Existentialism, profound experiences of grief, love, and friendship, the veneration of wisdom in all its aspects, embracing one’s Jungian shadow – all these things are paramount for understanding the allure behind dark academia.

Isn’t it peculiar that something of a proper movement has formed among young people, between the ages of 18-30 or so, that is solely based on aesthetics? It is a relatively recent phenomenon, and I find it interesting that such a group could form around the aesthetic principles of Ancient Greece and early 20th-century Oxford-style university environments.

I will write more about these aspects and my own interest in this aesthetic later on because right now, I’m getting too tired. I suppose it was time to update this blog, though.

Beware of the utilitarian trap

I know a lot of people who do not have any real interests or hobbies.

Looking back, this seems to be somewhat of a recent trend, at least within the environments that I grew up in. During my high school years, for instance, many of my classmates were involved in various forms of sports clubs – soccer, volleyball, gymnastics and such. In fact, Vereine of this sort have always been popular in Germany.

Then, life happened, I suppose. University. Work. One had to learn the intricacies of time-management now, all alone and without the overzealous help of helicopter parents. That’s what it means to grow up. Around that time – I remember vividly how in 2011, when I was 16-17, Twitter was still seen as this novel and strange experiment among some people in my school – social media took off. And with that, many people my age stopped to pursue any sort of interest or hobby.

They spent their leisure time scrolling through various social media websites like Facebook and Twitter instead. I suppose there wouldn’t be so many drawbacks associated with this if it were just a fleeting activity to pass the boredom of waiting for the bus to school or work. But people in my age bracket seem to spend a lot of time starring at their screens: If you have an iPhone, you can easily check out just how much time you spend being glued to your phone.

This article mentions the results of research that indicates an average time of 3 hours and 15 minutes, with the top 20% spending upwards of four and a half hours. I know of people who sometimes even spend around 10 hours on their phones. (I know this for sure because I was once annoyed that a friend of mine kept scrolling through social media incessantly, so I took a look at that friend’s screen time recorded in the iPhone settings – with permission, of course.)

Some people believe that concern about this tendency to spend countless hours glued to screens, often becoming addicted to the vitriolic and divisive altercations on social media is akin to embracing a form of neo-luddism. As someone who is very enthusiastic about technological innovation, I have always found this line of thinking ridiculous. One can criticise potentially harmful aspects of a technology, while still acknowledging its benefits, such as the possibility of connection and collaboration with interesting people around the world. I don’t even know how someone can seriously create such an artificial dichotomy in the vein of “either you believe that everything about social media and technology, in general, is invariably laudable, or you are an archaic Luddite, perhaps like those people in the 18th century who made a fuss about fiction novels – a newly emerging medium at that time.”

This is a ridiculous dichotomy, but actually not the focus of my post. Or not entirely.

One thing that I am concerned about is the fact that many of those rather useless hours spent scrolling around could be spent in the pursuit of really any activity that gives people joy, something they love to immerse themselves in, something to temporarily forget about deadlines, being productive, work and all these utilitarian aspects of life.

Which leads me to my main point: So many people seem to shy away from doing something that is only fun. Something that for once does not have any practical purpose, related to one’s career or anything in that matter. Just pure and innocently useless joy; leisure in its truest form. But spending some time, perhaps a few hours a week, for something that fills one with complete joy and simultaneously rids oneself of practical and utilitarian for a short while is absolutely essential.

There really is enough room to ponder about the practicalities of life for most people anyway – we spend most of our lives rummaging about those questions, young people especially: Thinking about our education, careers, future professional goals, and so on. Stepping out of this all-encompassing utilitarian mindset, at least for a while, clears and recharges the mind.

This is why it is rather detrimental to spend all of one’s leisure time reading practical self-help books, or books related to one’s professional aspirations. Books of this kind are certainly useful, but due to their inherently utilitarian nature, reading them does not really count as true leisure. One should always spend a substantial time reading books solely for the sake of enjoying them, without looking for any use derived from them. At least, that is what I believe.

And as much as I love reading books, all sorts of high literature, for the most part, I believe it is worth to pursue additional hobbies and activities in the outside world. Many of us spend most of our time working in front of computer screens, so using our senses for fulfilling activities is quite a beneficial compensation to that. I started practicing archery when I was in St Andrews, for instance, and it shortly became my favourite sport, for it required a soothing combination of concentration and calmness. Oh and I do recommend playing video games, especially those with complex and immersive settings.

Basically, everyone should do some “useless” stuff from time to time. I believe that doing so makes people more content and paradoxically, more productive than neurotically pursuing activities for the sake of endless self-optimisation

Francis Heylighen – Gifted people and their problems

Out of all social media platforms, I like Quora the most. Unlike Facebook, it’s more than just a rather bland echo-chamber full of people within your own intellectual or political bubble and unlike Twitter, the focus is not on creating mass outrage.

Rather, it’s just full of interesting questions about a multitude of different fields, from analytical philosophy to behavioural economics, to psychology, to history, entrepreneurship, the arts, and any sort of constellations between different fields one could fathom. Basically, if you are an intellectually curious person and you have a question about anything that might be of some relevance in this universe, you can publish your question on Quora. After a while, people with a certain level of expertise in whatever area your question falls into will provide you with some answers, and the best ones will be upvoted.

I find this atmosphere of curiosity and openness for new insights more fruitful than what I often see on Twitter or Facebook, so I try to spend comparatively more time on Quora. People who score high in the Big 5 trait of openness should enjoy Quora for similar reasons, I believe.

Two days ago or so, I stumbled upon an interesting paper written by Francis Heylighen on giftedness. Heylighen is mostly known for his work in cybernetics: He focuses on the emergence and evolution of intelligent organisation and on related topics, such as the idea that the internet is a global brain. To a lesser extentt, he has also written about giftedness and some of the characteristics displayed by gifted people.

His paper, Gifted People and their Problems, piqued my interest because it seems to be a succinct summary of several research papers that point out the characteristics of giftedness. This included an above-average IQ, but also some other characteristics linked to this, such as vivid creativity and the ability to completely immerse and focus on something perceived as interesting. (This is probably linked to the psychological concept of flow developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.) The paper also discusses how giftedness in women might be perceived differently than giftedness in men.

I think it’s worth reading for anyone who is tangentially interested in the psychological concepts of intelligence, giftedness, and creativity. I’ve included the link within the paragraph above, but here it is again: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/GiftedProblems.pdf

The futility of aiming for serendipity, or why I’m starting this blog

Is aiming for serendipity always bound to be a futile attempt, given that the latter thrives on chaos, spontaneity, and that sort of happenstance characteristic of life itself? It seems so; the very concept of serendipity stands in stark contrast to any teleologisms.

But still, I hope to write down, organize, and perhaps even discover serendipitous ideas by finally starting a blog. Entries here will not adhere to specific formats, and I don’t how often I’ll publish something here. I am mostly doing this to organize my thinking and to write down ideas that might suddenly arise rather fleetingly before I forget about them.

There is a value, I think, in externalizing one’s thoughts. I have a myriad of different interests in all sorts of areas – philosophy, economics, psychology, history, and the arts.

Writing down my thoughts, opinions, and sentiments about such issues might aid me in delving deeper into these interests of mine; perhaps sort of overcoming the general shallowness that seems to have afflicted so many young people of my generation, in an age where the next cheap dopamine hit is merely one click away on social media.

I’m an avid reader, so I expect that many of the blog articles here will be either discussing or referencing something I’m currently reading. I’ve become more interested in the history of the Cold War after watching The Americans, so I’m reading a book about Sergei Tretyakov, a former KGB/SVR officer who decided to defect to the United States. (Comrade J by Peter Earley). I’m also reading more of Roger Scruton’s work on aesthetics. There is no real thematic connection between those two books: Aesthetics is a subdomain of philosophy, although it’s technically possible to focus on the aesthetics of Soviet propaganda art, which would establish such a connection… but I digress.

I might write some German articles from time to time. I am from Germany after all, but I went to university in the UK for my Master’s degree, my undergraduate degree was completed in English as well, and I’ve lived in the US (Washington D.C) for a while. I’ve interacted with lots of Americans throughout my life, so my level of English is more or less equal to my German right now. Because I’ve been around so many Americans (and some Brits) throughout my studies, my posts will be read by more people when I write them in English, so English will likely be the predominant language of this blog.

I suppose I will need to add a short About section here soon as well. My posts will likely be read by people who somewhat know me, or who have heard of me, though, so I can keep it rather brief for now: I’m 25 years old (turning 26 this October), I have an undergrad degree in philosophy from the KU Leuven and a graduate degree in philosophy from the University of St Andrews. I worked as a Research Associate in Washington D.C for a while and also did similar work in Berlin prior to starting my Master’s degree. I’m doing all sorts of freelance writing at the moment, and I’m working on a business venture of mine, and I’m looking forward to writing more about that too here.

And yes, I’m interested in politics, I have written about it, but I don’t like to confine myself into one specific political identity. Turning your political views into your personal identity is, I believe, problematic for all sorts of reasons. If I had to describe my general views though, I am rather socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

I’m also thinking about not just publishing my own voice here. I have come to know some extraordinarily talented and intelligent people during all sorts of conferences and events I’ve attended – in Europe and the US – and I believe it would be quite enriching to have their views published here occasionally, as guest posts or so. But that is just a tentative idea for now.

Thanks to everyone who has read this post in its entirety – there will be more content about my life, my interests, and the books I’m currently reading, all of which (hopefully) will come across as less rambling than this initial entry.