Posts Tagged ‘russian’

Image1I found this little Raketa alarm clock at the weekend. It was on a junk stall,and the seller wanted £1.50 for it. It’s an old clockwork model, and wasn’t running. You can buy a new alarm clock, pretty much like this one for a couple of quid these days, a modern battery version – so £1.50 for a broken clock might not seem much of a bargain, but I like stripping and cleaning old clocks and seeing if I can get them going. Human beings aren’t always logical creatures and our emotional drivers are usually too complex to explain to others. Indeed, if we have to explain them at all, we’re probably wasting our breath and better finding someone else to talk to.

Like broken human beings, what old clocks and watches like this are mostly suffering from is neglect. This one was simply gummed up with decades old 3 in 1 oil, and it responded well to a bit of TLC. I dismantled it, cleaned it up in white spirit, then reassembled and sparingly oiled the jewels with proper watch oil. It was very satisfying to see it come to life.

The unassuming exterior of the Raketa hides a very fine 19 jewel movement, originally designed for a pocket-watch, but adapted to take a nicely engineered timer and striker mechanism. By contrast the modern alarm clock is not designed to come apart much, other than to change a battery. They are not intended for repair. If it broke, you’d throw it away. This is the natural evolution of Capital, to make something deliberately beyond economic repair from the outset.

With an occasional service by a watchmaker, the Raketa will last a hundred years, but at forty quid a service who’s going to pay that? There’ll be no watchmakers in a hundred years, only tinkerers like me. Clocks and watches like this are to be our natural inheritance, also the reasons why we bother in the first place.

The Raketa was built in Soviet era Russia, a period when east-west tensions had us all talking about Nuclear Armageddon, a period that taught me there was no surviving such a thing, that the lucky ones would be those sitting under the first bombs as they fell – at least in Europe where the population density is high and the targeted cities are insufficiently far apart to provide safe havens in between. In a nuclear war, there are no safe havens, you see? You either die fast or you die slow – and the former is obviously preferable. What you cannot do is survive. And those weapons haven’t gone away, we managed to pretend for a while they had, but now we’re talking about them again, talking up the likelihoood of a nuclear war.

Imagine the other side have launched their nukes (Russia, North Korea). You’re going to die one way or the other. What would you do? Launch yours as well, simply to ensure the other side is wiped out along with you? Imagine you have a potential leader who says they wouldn’t hesitate to do it, that their readiness to do it is in fact our best defence. Or you have another potential leader who says they’d not launch under any circumstances, that it was immoral. Who would you vote for? And what kind of civilisation would be asking such questions in the first place?

But we were talking about clocks.

Time-pieces interest me on many levels. On the scientific and engineering level it’s a question of how you design a device to accurately shadow the movement of the earth with respect to the sun and provide a globally synchronised reference for conducting human affairs, so for example sixteen hundred hours on the twelfth of January 2027 means the same to everyone. But we can also think in more philosophical and existential terms, a time-piece being then a construct that maps our place in time, the hands sweeping up the history of our lives as they circle.

I prefer mechanical timepieces, even though they are less accurate. There’s something about analogue mechanisms being themselves a metaphor of life – each piece visible, open to scrutiny and doing its bit, responding to the rhythm of life, its function being to assist in recording the history of its greater self.

My little Raketa has known a great deal of modern history – it’s perhaps thirty or forty years old. It’s known the ending of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. But I’m not sure how long its been asleep, and what it’s missed – a couple of gulf wars perhaps, the Syrian civil war, Libya,the European refugee crisis? What it will witness in the future one can only guess – the breakup of the European Union seems likely, also Scottish independence, the forced reunification of Ireland, and perhaps a new American war with North Korea?

Perhaps I’d’ve been better leaving it on the shelf. Some things I’m sure, like me, it would rather not know about. I’m reminded that I retire in 2020, that alarm clocks will then no longer be necessary, though I could make a decent hobby out of tinkering with old clocks and watches – and writing of course. A question for myself then: do I build a writing cabin in the back garden, or a nuclear bunker?

It has to be a writing cabin. The nuclear bunker is a waste of time, though I notice they are very much back in vogue.

Duck and cover?

Yea right!


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P D Ouspenski – 1878-1947

Ivan Osokin is a man in his middle twenties; he is feckless, undisciplined and broke. He’s had many chances to make good in life, but has squandered them all; he’s even let the love of his life ride off into the sunset without him and now receives news of her engagement to some boring old stiff-ass who’s plainly not worthy of her. No surprises there – he’s been on a course of disappointment and self inflicted disaster his whole life, and he just can’t help it.

He tells a magician of his woes, longs to begin his life over again, then he can change things for the better. The magician assures him things will be no different, but grants him his wish anyway and sends him back twelve years. Thus, Osokin arrives once more in the latter part of his childhood, just before the time he was expelled from school for being a prankster and a sluggard. And, just as the magician predicted, even though, second time around, Osokin knows he’s been this way before and he’d better pull his socks up, he’s unable to do so. Life presents him with the same choices, and the choices he makes are more like instinctive reactions than considered decisions. Once again he just can’t help himself; the groove of his life is simply too deep to escape.

Written around 1905, when Ouspenski was in his middle twenties (a bit like Osokin!) the “strange life” uses the idea of eternal recurrence, that we possess a kind of immortality, one in which no sooner are our lives over than we begin again, exactly as before. The more optimistic supporters of this system tell us that with skill and awareness we can feel when a choice we’re about to make is wrong, because last time it ended badly for us, so we make another choice, fine tuning our lives through successive incarnations, until we finally make the best of the circumstances into which we are born. The more pessimistic however, tell us that we are unable to change our ways, that, like poor Osokin, man is sleepwalking, an automaton, that eternal recurrence is actually a prison from which few escape, because they simply don’t know how. And that’s why the world is incurably mad.

Until 1915 Ouspenski was known as a philosopher, journalist and author of several influential works: The Fourth Dimension, Tertium Organum, and a New Model of the Universe. The new science of quantum mechanics had created a buzz, revealing a very strange universe, which cleared the way for a brief renaissance of mystical thinking that electrified the cultured classes. And at their centre were thinkers like Ouspenski.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin is an exploration of the possible reality of a fourth dimension, and the search for a deeper meaning to life. By 1915, when the story was published, the Russian Empire Ouspenski had grown up in was descending into the turmoil of revolution, while the rest of Europe was blasting itself to bits in the trenches of the first world war. All of mankind’s fine ideas seemed to have brought only ruin. Ouspenski was searching for a new way to overcome in man what seemed stupid and mechanical, and the search was urgent because, in the struggle between barbarism and civilisation, barbarism was definitely winning.


Osokin finally catches up with himself, second time around, and the magician says that he told him so. Osokin is appalled by how helpless he had been in avoiding ruin again, that even knowing his mistakes ahead of time, he was unable to avoid repeating any of them. Then the magician gives him a way out. He says Osokin can change his life next time around, but only by making significant changes within himself. But there’s a catch: Osokin cannot do this alone; he requires the help of an all-wise charismatic guru type – i.e. the magician – to whom he must first sell his soul for a very long apprenticeship.

The story reflects events in Ouspenski’s own life. In 1915, he met a charismatic magician in the mysterious Greek-Armenian, George Gurdjieff, to whom he hitched his brilliance and spent the next 9 years or so immersed in Gurdjieff’s bizarrely eclectic teachings. Of Gurdjieff, opinions vary depending on who you read. Some describe him as a genius, a sage, a magus, others as a madman and an outrageous charlatan who would have remained forever obscure, had it not been for the shield of Ouspenski’s reputation among European intellectuals.

But Gurdjieff is another story.

We leave Osokin contemplating whether or not to hand himself over into the care of his magician – as Ouspenski was perhaps also doing in 1915. For Ouspenski though, things didn’t work out particularly well with the magician. As early as 1918 he was having serious doubts about Gurdjieff’s methods but it wasn’t until until 1924, he finally announced his return to a more independent line of thought. Some would say however, that his best work was over by this time – some would even say it was over the day he met Gurdjieff. He died in England, in 1947, a source of great inspiration to many, both in his own time and in the succeeding generations who have discovered him anew. But he never found what he was looking for. Ouspenski’s story, and his search for meaning through some of the most turbulent events in history is a remarkable one, and his failure is  all the more poignant for its heroism.

I find the idea of an eternal recurrence an interesting one. It makes a kind of intellectual sense out of life, whether you take the optimistic or the pessimistic track. It may be that many of the decisions we make are indeed unconscious – but I also think the biggest mistake we can make is to hand over responsibility for personal change to someone else. The right choice is the one for which we can fully accept responsibility for our actions, while remaining mindful of their consequences, both practically and emotionally, for ourselves and others. Without such a grounding, no magician is ever going to make a ha’porth of difference to our lives. But maybe that’s just my conservative nature, and my own trap.

In the Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I would not have handed my fate over to that smug and quite possibly insane magician, submitted myself to his teachings – which I admit I’m unable to penetrate at all, and which at times seem quite silly. Better for me to have got on the train and followed the love of my life, begged her not to marry the other guy. We would have married and had kids, and I would have settled down to look for the answer to the meaning of my life elsewhere, between the demands of a banal dayjob, and changing poopy diapers. I would have looked for it in books, and in the ideas of others, looked for connections in the muddle of world thought that others had perhaps missed.

I would not have found the meaning of my life in my choice of life, but Ouspenski didn’t find it either and if he couldn’t, I don’t rate anyone else’s chances very much, at least not on this side of the fourth dimension. Maybe he would have done it, had he not fallen under Gurdjieff’s remarkable spell.

I don’t know; maybe he’ll work it out, next time around, and next time I read The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, I’ll realise where I’ve been going wrong too.

The strange life of Ivan Osokin

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