Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

Proud to be human

April 15, 2019

I regularly reflect on what it is that makes us humans different from other species – not necessarily superior, but different – and feel it is our capacity for reason, and our self-awareness. We have astonishingly complex brains, and when we use them sensibly, they are capable of incredible things; consciously we can hand our knowledge down through the generations, building on what has gone before. People have sought to know, to find out, to understand the workings of the world and the cosmos, and, because of our individual mortality and our awareness of this, have wondered about whether there is an ultimate cause or creator, and whether there is any other state of existence awaiting us after the end of this one that we know. It is possible that in our need for this reassurance, we have invented those very things… “Everyone is the first person to die,” the king is told in Ionesco’s masterpiece, Le Roi Se Meurt.

I can know of our human past and what we have achieved as a species – the good and the evil – because it has already happened and we have historical records of much of it; many of these achievements contribute to what I suppose is a sense of pride in our species: there have been great thinkers, scientists, inventors, writers, musicians… Our future is unknown because it hasn’t happened yet; some of it I will get to see in my remaining time, and an enormous amount of it I will not. And because I have an imagination, I know that there are things I would dearly like to see in my lifetime – a human landing on Mars, contact with other intelligences elsewhere in the universe, solutions to our problems (self-inflicted, I know) such as climate change; I wouldn’t mind a socialist utopia, either. On the other hand, I have no wish to live through war and ecological disaster, and sometimes fear for my descendants because of our lack of intelligence as a species.

There is a science fiction tour-de-force, written during the Second World War, I think, by Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men, in which he imagines the future of humanity into the incredibly far future, through a number of different incarnations, wrestling with enormous epochs of time – billions of years – as humanity moves to other planets, evolves new capacities, far outshines what we are currently achieving. And yet, there is the awareness that eventually we must die out. Various incarnations of humanity pass on, along with geological ages, and it’s with a pang that, quite near the beginning of the novel, our variant homo sapiens, First Man, and all our physical and intellectual achievements vanish as though they had never been… such a waste, it feels, in an unfeeling universe. And yet, surely, that is how it must be, however we comfort ourselves with other possibilities.

But one thing is for sure: life will outlive me. There is an Arabic saying I came across a few years ago which I love: one day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one. To me, that seems a thing to aspire to.

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Books that changed my life

August 9, 2018

A fellow-blogger recently posted about books that had changed her life, and I realised I’d never thought about my reading in those terms. Turning to my bookshelves to remind me of such books wasn’t very helpful: I’m a lot older than my fellow blogger, and I realised that I’d actually got rid of a lot of the books that had changed my life, precisely because they had changed me, and I therefore didn’t need them any more… so it became a thinking exercise instead.

41wLBBhi15L._AC_US218_Gordon Rattray Taylor: The Doomsday Book

I’ve always been interested in environmental issues, ever since I bought and read this book when came out in the early 1970s: the first book I ever came across that provided detailed evidence of a pollution crisis that was changing the planet. Since then, of course, we’ve had the greenhouse effect, global warming, plastic pollution, CFCs, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and I don’t know what else; we’re still filthying our own nest and denying it. I’ve always thought that small changes collectively make big differences, so I do what I can and preach when I can.

51C7lWT946L._AC_US218_James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This was an A-level set book. It was also about a young man growing up and rejecting the shackles of the Catholic church at the same time as I was growing up and questioning that faith, which I’d also been brought up in. It was about someone who was faced with all sorts of hard choices, and found the courage to take the leap. I was in awe of someone who could decide, in one fell swoop, to leave family, faith and country behind, because he felt they limited and restricted him…

51WlQxTGLFL._AC_US218_Jean-Paul Sartre: Roads to Freedom

This was an incredibly influential trilogy for many in my generation: existentialism (so out of fashion nowadays!) and a stunning BBC television dramatisation that for some unaccountable reason has never been shown again. You are responsible for your life, and the choices you make create your existence, so do something, be something, get on with it. Political engagement was the thing, and though I’ve always been political, I’ve never had much faith in politicians or political parties, I’m afraid.

317RC0nV1EL._AC_US218_Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

The personal is political, said the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies, and that chimed in with what I was realising about my life and the choices I was making about it. I pick this novel as representative of the numerous feminist texts and novels by women I read at this time and which influenced me in different ways. It’s a feminist science-fiction novel and feminist utopia, too, which pulls no punches.

51K2ncM1zsL._AC_US218_Jack Kerouac: On The Road

I was also a hippy in those days, and Kerouac’s book was our bible: self-discovery through travel. I never got to hitch-hike across the USA, but this book inspired me to do lots of travelling around Britain and Europe using the power of the thumb. Thousands of miles a year, many practical – as in saving money while a relatively poor student – and also many on holiday in Europe. France was always a bugger, usually because of drivers’ insurance rules; Germany and the Low Countries were a lot friendlier, as was Switzerland, although every Swiss person who gave me a lift emphasised how bourgeois and unfriendly their nation was, while treating me very kindly… I met lots of really interesting people, too. Sadly, by the time I got a car of my own, hitchikers had largely disappeared, due to cheaper bus and train travel, and Thatcherism.

51ZOka6wyzL._AC_US218_W Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge

Another of my reads as a teenager, this was about the need to explore one’s spiritual impulses, featuring characters in the nineteen-thirties who travelled widely, including to India, which was where many went much later in search of enlightenment. It opened my eyes to possibilities, which I have never lost sight of completely, though I may have been temporarily sidetracked.

51d-U+XeXPL._AC_US218_Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund

Every hippy and many students read Hesse in the seventies; most of his books still grace my bookshelves, though the appeal has narrowed itself down to this single volume to which I have returned nostalgically a number of times. Set in mediaeval times it focuses on two friends’ life journeys. One fixes himself in a monastery and devotes himself to contemplation and the spiritual life, the other goes out into the world to make a life and a living. Their paths cross and re-cross for a lifetime as they both seek and find satisfaction, and are thwarted by the frustrations of their choices. To me, that is life. I love this book.

41CD6F0HV7L._AC_US218_Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life

Only one book has joined the list of influential ones in my middle years. This quietist novel, written in the aftermath of the Great War when everyone was sickened by what it said about us as a species, seeks rest in isolation, and satisfaction with little in material terms, focussing on the inner life and looking for where contentment may be found. I like it very much, because it came along at a certain point in my life when I was beginning to realise the need to slow down, and accept that I’d ‘ambitioned’ enough, as it were; it was time to become more reflective about what I had achieved, and contemplate the next, and different, stage of life.

It was an interesting exercise, putting this list and summary together. I think I’d say that all the books I’ve mentioned changed the way I looked at the world and the way I think about it, or the ways I look at myself, and so have, in various, often indiscernible ways, changed my life.

 

August favourites #7: detective fiction

August 7, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_

I’ll come to my hero Sherlock Holmes in a few days’ time: he’s in a class of his own. And although I have a soft spot for the melancholy Czech detective Lieutenant Boruvka, created by one of my favourite writers, Josef Skvorecky, my award has to go to a writer who paid the greatest tribute possible to Holmes in his creation of the monk William of Baskerville, who puts his observational powers to work, assisted by his young novice Adso of Melk, against a background of monastical murder and the inquisition in the early fourteenth century. I’m referring to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, which, as well as being a marvellous detective story, is also full of history and philosophy and relgion, as well as a poignant consideration of the nature of human love. In a way, the plot centres around a curious question: did Jesus ever laugh? It’s one of my top three novels of the twentieth century.

Alexandra David-Neel: With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet

June 18, 2018

41JaZMmXl6L._AC_US218_It was a bit of a surprise to come across and eighty year-old cerise Penguin that clearly hadn’t ever been read: there were some uncut pages near the beginning. I’ve come across quite a few references to Alexandra David-Neel, who travelled widely in the far east and Tibet a century or so ago, and was greatly interested in Buddhism of all kinds, in various travel journals I’ve read, and so was quite looking forward to reading something by her. But this was the wrong book: there is another, which is more generally about her travels, and which I haven’t acquired yet, whereas this was about all sorts of esoteric aspects of Buddhist practice, which (a) I’m not wildly interested in and (b) I found incredibly far-fetched, as well as tedious.

I was mildly interested in how an educated Westerner could come to understand and practise such arcane aspects of the religion, and I was impressed by her genuine interest, curiosity and commitment to further knowledge through lengthy learning and practice.

But I did also find myself wondering if there were ever a traveller from an Eastern land to the West, who had been wowed, for instance, by the Catholic Church, its ceremonies, rites and rituals, monasteries and cathedrals, and the city of Rome itself in such a way… or is this a very early example of a Westerner seeking enlightenment in the East having not found it at home, finding a lack of meaning in Christianity, an emptiness? In which case, what is it that Christianity lacks, that, for instance, Buddhism offers? The book didn’t offer anything here.

A picture of the great primitiveness of Tibet at that time – relatively speaking – comes across in the few passages where she writes about her travels through northern India, the Chinese borderlands, and Tibet itself. Her experiences of various meditation techniques and practices were very interesting, but I’m afraid that much of her description of rites and rituals did make a good deal of Buddhist practice seem pointless, meaningless, even irrational, in the same way that an outsider viewing much of Catholic ritual might fail to see the point. It’s not that I’m anti-religion, for I’m not, but I’m interested in seeing behind the superficial, and understanding what people are really looking for, and have the impression that ritual gets in the way, or obscures. A frustrating skim-read in the end, though I will still look out for her other book.

On literature and religion

May 27, 2018

I’ve written before about the connections I’ve found when thinking about literature and religion, and also about science fiction and religion (here and here, if not elsewhere!). Recently I found myself back with the theme…

It’s possible to see religion as something human beings have evolved or developed as a way of coming to terms with our own eventual mortality, a knowledge we have because of our powers of perception, reasoning and understanding, and a knowledge which might otherwise blight our existence. We are here, briefly, conscious of what goes on around us, we live, experience, remember things and cannot really understand it all coming to a stop, even though before we existed, everything was going on fine without us…

If there were no god, no heaven, no afterlife, then, nevertheless there are still impulses in us (some of us?) that take us away from the purely material plane onto one which has been called spiritual, acknowledging an aspect of how our minds work. I say some of us, because I know there are people who do not seem to be bothered by thoughts of this kind, or else deal with them in a different way from me, and appear to get on quite happily with their lives… the world is surely large enough for all of us. But some of us do experience a need or a drive to make sense of it all.

So for me, and others like me, religion is a way of addressing those spiritual impulses or leanings; for us there are very real issues that we engage with, that take us onto different levels of awareness or consciousness, that address our existential angst, I suppose.

Then I turned my thoughts to a novel I’ve always rated highly, for lots of different reasons: A for Andromeda, by Ivan Yefremov. It’s a Soviet utopia, set a thousand or so years in the future after the inevitable triumph of socialism has transformed the whole planet, and humans are turned towards the cosmos and other worlds. No religion of any kind is mentioned; clearly it has died out under conditions of actually existing socialism, though it is referred to as an aspect of humankind’s primitive past. Yefremov nevertheless allows his characters to be awed by the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and the natural beauty of the world, too, in ways which today we might call spiritual. But he is the only SF writer I know to have imagined the end of religion.

Olaf Stapledon‘s epic Last and First Men is different altogether. If humans cannot cope with the prospect of disappearance and individual annihilation, we are offered another picture, of our race evolving, mutating and moving to other planets in the solar system over geological time periods, during which we (?) become totally different species. And with a pang we realise that pretty early on in his imagined cycle, our particular humanity and its civilisations and achievements vanish, obliterated by the vastness of time and geological change, with absolutely no trace left behind…not just individual, but collective death.

Many less ambitious writers have written post-apocalyptic novels, and it’s a marvel that one of the few objects that usually survives the cataclysm that starts the novel is a copy of the Bible, so that humanity can safely ‘rediscover’ God, often in an even more warped version than many believers seem to find attractive today. John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids is a good example: post-disaster mutants are an abomination in His sight and must be hunted down and destroyed. No change there then. But for me the saddest of all is Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, where, after a nuclear holocaust, monks are again the repositories of knowledge and learning, carefully salvaging the knowledge of our past; eventually, thanks to their efforts, ‘civilisation’ re-emerges after hundreds of years, only to travel down exactly the same pathway to another nuclear war…

I’m not really sure where this has led me, sceptical about much religion and the miseries it has caused (though I don’t only blame religion for human misery) and yet, from my own upbringing inevitably drawn to the spiritual that I find in myself and others, and all around me. None of this balances the knowledge that I only have a tiny amount of time to enjoy what our world offers.

Diarmaid MacCulloch: All Things Made New

January 10, 2018

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_I think the blurb on this book is deliberately somewhat vague and misleading; the book isn’t a book so much as a collection of diverse essays and book reviews MacCulloch has written over quite a period of time, all linked in some way by Reformation themes. Having said that – and shame on Penguin Books for their marketing – it is a very good collection of pieces, as one would expect from the author.

His introduction is challenging, and reminds us of his magisterial scope, taking in Luther‘s profound pessimism about human beings and his seeing their salvation as completely dependent on God (I can’t help seeing such a god as a kind of gigantic, slightly sadistic, computer-game player), underlining the profound religious differences that exist between the United States and Europe, which are not usually understood or taken into account, and reminding us that during sixteenth century, if toleration existed, it was in Eastern Europe – Poland and Romania – rather than in the West… He never shies away from pointing out clearly the contradictions, contortions and illogicalities of both Protestant and Catholic beliefs.

There are sections on the Reformation generally, but a good deal of the book is taken up with the English Reformation more specifically. I didn’t know, for instance, that one of the primary financial motives behind the dissolution and destruction of our monasteries was to raise cash to build coastal fortifications against a possible French invasion. One of the lengthier and most interesting chapters explores and charts the complexities of the characters, beliefs and infighting during the reign of Henry VIII which ultimately permitted a successful reformation in this country, along with the attendant cultural vandalism. MacCulloch is also fascinating on the development of the Book of Common Prayer.

I particularly liked his description of the ‘theological schizophrenia’ of the Church of England… the more I read, the more confusing and confused the entire establishment and development of the English Church appears, and MacCulloch does nothing to dissipate this impression. He tackles the inaccurate, falsified and plain biased accounts of the English Reformation over the years, and also provides an interesting and helpful survey of a range of historians of the Reformation from various perspectives.

The book concludes with two rather long and to be honest, slightly tiresome essays, one on Hooker and the other on a forger of documents who deceived historians for over a century; though I was expecting (and enjoyed) an academic book, these two pieces seemed just a bit too specialised, really.

A useful read if you are seriously into history and religion; a good read because anything by MacCulloch has been, so far, in my experience.

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