They have no lot in our labour.

Image result for english remembrance service

Each year on remembrance Sunday all over England, and throughout the former British Colonies, services are held for the fallen.  People sport the poppy they bought to support military families in times of need.  They recite the words of a dirge written in 1914 by Laurence Binyon, who was born on this day in 1869.

The words people always remember are the line “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”.  You can understand the power of this line for those who saw their colleagues die on the field of battle.  Each year they return for the service and each year another one of their old mates has passed away, and they lurch towards the grave under the weight of age and infirmity.

It is a sentiment captured in “The Green Fields of France” lyrics:

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind,
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined,
And though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen

Today though I am moved by another line in this poem : they have no lot in our labour of the day-time.  Some people might read this line as meaning “Lucky them to have escaped the drudgery of the working round – they got off.”

Not me.

I read this line through the Marxist lens that we are what we do.

If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”  Marx, Reflections of a Young Man (1835)

At the core of Marxism is the tenet that we should own our labour.  Capitalism is a system designed to wrest resources from the weak and accumulate them for the strong.  Capitalists appropriate your productivity for their enrichment.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the field of battle.  The rich men of the world use their power to bend politics to their will.  When this results in war it is the small, the weak, the uneducated who are sent to the front lines.  The small man has nothing to gain from war and everything to lose.  By risking his life in battle he risks all the coming years of his working life, all the output of that work, all the benefit for his spouse, his children, his grandchildren.  They have no lot in our labour of the day-time.  War is the sharp end of the capitalist system.

 

For the Fallen; by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
there is music in the midst of desolation
and a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
they fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old:
age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
we will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
they sit no more at familiar tables of home;
they have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
they sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
to the innermost heart of their own land they are known
as the stars are known to the Night;

as the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
as the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
to the end, to the end, they remain.

À la recherche du temps perdu*

Madeleine

Involuntary memory is the serendipitous recollection of past events through an unexpected stimulus.  In Proust’s novel* it is famously the eating of a Madeline dipped in tea which triggers the protagonist’s memory.

Current thinking on the structure of the brain is that it operates somewhat like a watershed.  Instead of rain falling on hills, carving a stream which becomes a river and flows to a meeting with the sea, we have a set of stimuli which react in the brain, following established links and connections to come to a certain conclusion.

When we have a particularly happy event, our levels of neurotransmitters are high.  Patterns are laid down by Dopamine, Seratonin and Norepinephrine in our brain.  These patterns are associated with a pleasurable experience (or sometimes with a traumatic one).

The patterns act like the watershed of a river.  A little rain falls on one side of a hill in County Cavan, and it will flow to the sea via the Shannon River.  With a small gust of wind that rain falls on the other side of the hill.  The water will enter Lough Erne and reach the sea at Sligo bay.  Once the watershed is established that rain can go nowhere else but down the established flow.

In the same way the smell of cookies in the oven may trigger memories of your grandmother.  A particular floor polish smell may bring back the memory of visiting your father at work.  A certain taste combination may open up a memory of a very special night of moonlight and romance.  One neurotransmitter sets off another and another in sequence until the memory is fully formed.

Involuntary memory is as good as it gets!

Sonnet XXX; by William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Happy Singles Day!

Singlesday

Today in the Far East, especially in China, millions of dollars are being spent on self-gifting.

In the West we observe November 11th as remembrance day.  The Great War (1914-18) ended on the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month.  We bow our heads in solemn contemplation of the lives lost on battlefields by generations of young men who answered the call for reasons they did not understand.  There is a brisk business in the symbols of remembrance, poppies in Britain and the Commonwealth and Cornflowers in France but if you move outside of these countries traditions change, celebrations differ, symbols are not so prominent.

In China the alignment of 4 1’s in the date (11/11) have come to symbolise the self.  Each 1 stands for the single person, and this is the day of the year with the most occurrences of the number one.  It is a day for celebrating the self, and in particular a celebration of single status.  Singles day is the antidote to Valentines day.

Pioneered by the Alibaba website the day has become a huge commercial celebration in China, and is starting to spread.  For young people this is an occasion that is exciting and relevant and fun.   Who wants to stand in the cold looking at paper poppies and people crying while they listen to mournful music when they could be having fun with their friends deciding how to treat themselves this year.

Self-gifting is a really interesting form of consumption.  Much of the pioneering research in this field was carried out by David Glen Mick of the University of Virginia.  You can access a number of his journal papers here:   http://gates.comm.virginia.edu/dgm9t/research.html  It is a rich source of revenue that has barely been addressed in the West, but has been seized upon in the East.  Why should we not celebrate ourselves and our achievements?  Who best to know exactly what gift I want but me?  All I need is the excuse to reward myself, and not look too selfish!

Retailers would do well to understand the mind of the self-gifter.  How can you set up a display or communicate a product so that it says “you deserve it, now take it”?  Mick established three important dimensions of the self-gifting process that the retailer must understand.

1.  Communication:  This object/experience communicates something about you.

2.  Exchange:  You deserve this, it is a personal self-validation that you are GREAT.

3.  Specialness:  This object/experience is almost a sacred/ritual element that will complete who and what you are, because it is special and you are special and together you are unique.

Gift-giving is a ritual cycle.  I have written previously about the importance of ritual to human society.  Every retailer is aware of the power of gifting occasions to stimulate purchase.  Mothers day, Valentines day, Christmas, Birthdays, Retirement, Birth, Marriage etc.  If you can validate self-gifting for a person then it also becomes a ritual.  Singles day was established in China to embed self-gifting in young adults.  It establishes a habit of self-gifting which is likely to remain with people for the rest of their lives.

When you get married, why should you stop giving yourself a gift on singles day?

I predict that in 10 years, or less, 11/11 will be singles day in the West.  A lot of grumpy old soldiers will stand around the Cenotaph and moan about the erosion of values and crass consumerism.  They may as well try to stem the tide.

If You Forget Me; by Pablo Neruda

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists,
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats
that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

Remembrance

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À la recherche du temps perdu is a novel by Marcel Proust, often translated as ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or more literally ‘Searching for lost time’.  It is famous for the exploration of the theme of involuntary memory.  When the author dips a Madeleine in tea and eats it, he is transported psychologically to the time of his childhood, when he shared the same food with his aunt.  In the process his mind unlocks memories that were long forgotten.

The memory of the taste of Madeleine dipped in tea is a trigger to the memories stored when he was familiar with the taste.
Proust was contemporaneous with Freud, but there is no evidence that one read the other.  Each, in his own way, was exploring the power of the unconscious and pre-conscious mind.  Each was examining triggers to unlock suppressed or hidden memories.

My own work in Market Research has made frequent forays into the realms of pre-conscious thought.  I have worked with a clinical psychologist who is a proponent of the work of Jacques Lacan.  Lacan is a revisionist Freudian who explored language as a seat of meaning.  In the modern, consumerist, paradigm language as a seat of meaning has extended to brands, logos and products.  Product consumption constellations are a blueprint for understanding self-identity.

The point of this post, if any of my blog posts have a point, is to comment on self-identity and remembrance in the context of Remembrance Day, which is tomorrow.  The WW1 armistice  on the 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month gives us the anniversary upon which we remember those who fell in battle.

For us here in Ireland the wearing of the poppy is a foreign and rejected symbol.  It celebrated those who fell defending Great Britain.  After the Easter Rising in 1916 those Irish fighting in France found themselves on the wrong side.  They wore the Khaki of the British Imperialist oppressor rather than the Green of the Irish Volunteers.  Sadly, they were ‘unremembered’ by Ireland for 100 years.  Now, at last, we begin to recognise their right to remembrance.

An important step on this journey was the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland.  She laid a poppy wreath in the war memorial garden in Islandbridge.  For many Irish people it was the first time that they were aware that we even had a monument dedicated to the Irish soldiers who fell in WW1.

However, I do not think the poppy will ever gain widespread acceptance in Ireland.  Already in England there is increasing rejection of the symbol.  For many it is increasingly seen as a celebration of military violence rather than a memoir of heroic sacrifice.

Conscientious objectors who choose not to wear the symbol are vilified by the bully boy tactics of proponents of the poppy.  This further reinforces the aggressive nature of the symbol.  Tune into British TV at this time of year and you quickly draw the conclusion that someone in the wings is pinning the things on everyone, regardless of their sympathies.

Two of my father’s grand-uncles wore Khaki in Gallipoli.  My grandfather wore the Green in the War of Independence.  If I choose to remember them it will be with the far older symbol of a sprig of Rosemary.  Like Proust’s tea-dipped Madeleine, the Greeks believed that the Rosemary herb improved memory.  So it became a symbol of remembrance.  Ophelia calls it such in Hamlet.  Poppies as symbols of remembrance are far more recent, and are accredited to the John McCrae poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.