Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

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.

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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.

Stefan Zweig: Montaigne

January 1, 2018

The more I find out about Stefan Zweig, the more he interests me. A curious character, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of time and place, but not in the same way as his contemporary Joseph Roth… an essayist, biographer, story-teller and novelist so distraught at the way Europe turned in the 1930s that he eventually took his own life, in exile in Brazil. He’s little-known or read in England, much better known in Europe.

This little book on Montaigne reflects its author, who, late in life came to know and love the sixteenth century French writer and philosopher as a kindred spirit, one who loved intellectual liberty and personal liberty and strove to hold on to it in incredibly difficult times, one who valued his mind and what it allowed him to do… a paean to a certain kind of human being in rather short supply in both centuries.

I’m sure there’s nothing new in the book, in terms of biographical detail, for Zweig takes us through Montaigne’s life and career after a fashion, his years of public life, personal retreat from the world, travels and so on. He recognises a kindred spirit, evaluates his achievement and pays tribute to him.

I love the idea of the ‘pensée vagabonde’ (roaming thought) which he attributes to Montaigne; in some ways, I’m sure both men speak to my condition… It’s an enjoyable little book for anyone who has read and enjoyed Montaigne’s Essays.

On avoiding Marx

December 15, 2017

51OL0gW4-wL._AC_US218_Although I’ve always been on the left in terms of politics, I’ve managed to avoid engaging with Marx for most of my life. I may have read The Communist Manifesto at some point in my student days, but I can’t remember. I did have to read some chapters that Marx wrote about literature when studying for my MA, and we also grappled with some other Marxist critics such as Lukacs, but I remember very little of what they had to say on the subject. Marx is difficult, and the doorstep tomes are off-putting.

And yet, I’ve always been drawn to what I’ve known and understood of Marx’s analysis of economics and history, because what I have known of it has seemed to make sense, and because some over-arching theory of how our world works is needed in order to help us to change it, if that is what we want to do. I’ve been interested, throughout my adult life, in sexual politics, and also environmental politics, but also aware of the Marxist notion that the class struggle is the primary one, and all the others are sidetracks, which get in the way of changing things, and which, of course, the dominant class is very happy for us to get sidetracked down: those energies that might be used in demolishing the system are dissipated…

This has come to seem ever more true to me in recent years, as the world has appeared, over the course of my lifetime, to have become ever more stuck; I am struck by our inability to learn from our horrendous past, by our ability to destroy our environment without a thought, by our ability to be seduced by consumer trash, by our acceptance of politicians’ and economists’ lies….

A few years back I came across the writings of David Harvey, who has been teaching Marx for about forty years or so; his book The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism provided a useful introduction, and then I discovered that a series of his lectures on the first volume of Marx’s Capital was available for download (here). I’ve recently discovered that lectures on the second volume are available too…

It’s taken me a while to get round to listening to them. They were recorded, not very professionally, in actual lectures, so the sound quality isn’t brilliant – there are frequent pauses and he rambles at times as lecturers do, and students’ questions are largely inaudible – but Harvey takes you through what Marx is saying in detail, explaining and clarifying, pointing out the salient points of the analysis, and most helpfully, relating them to the present day economic situation. It’s not easy listening, and I did find myself zoning out at various points, but I saw how Marx’s analysis fitted together and made sense, and I saw the totality of its scope. I found myself thinking not, ‘here is the answer, Marx says it all and this is what we need to do’, but ‘this is a clear and comprehensive analysis which makes sense as a whole, and is better and clearer than anything else I’ve heard or read… here is a template for viewing and understanding the world’.

What comes across is the inter-relatedness of everything, and the enormous difficulty of changing things. There are more questions than answers, it seems to me. Is democracy the best form of government, for a start? Because if you want to get on with making the world different, it will certainly take more than the maximum five-year time-frame of democracy. And perhaps democracy is only a bourgeois concept anyway, actually serving the interests of relatively few people? Maybe the Chinese, who can take the longer-term perspective, will have greater success in addressing the challenges the planet faces… What do you do with the small groups of vested interests who will fight tooth and nail to retain their power and privilege, even if outvoted in a ‘democratic’ election? Though I do not for one minute approve, I can understand why the Bolsheviks behaved as they did… HG Wells imagined world government, and surely change would have to be planet-wide to address humanity’s problems, but I see no signs of that happening…

Currently then, I’m still stuck with my feeling that we are not a very intelligent species and that there is probably no way, at the moment anyway, of us all coming together to build a better world, without a great deal of violence… and that is a contradiction in terms. But Marx’s analysis makes sense to me, and until someone does better, it’s the best we have…

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

On war

May 25, 2017

I bought another of Nobel award-winning Svetlana Alexievich‘s books recently: this one is about women’s experience of war. And I’ve found myself thinking: why do I read so much about war – novels, history and so on, why do I visit so many historical sites connected with wars? You have only to look back through the archives of this blog: isn’t there something slightly obsessive, unhealthy about this? I do wonder, sometimes.

We know there have been wars ever since humans have existed on the planet: somewhere I read once that in the last two or three thousand years of history there have only been about a hundred and fifty years where the world has been at peace – whatever that means.

Reading about war has shown me what an utterly vile species we are in terms of how we are prepared to treat each other. And yet, I have also come across countless accounts of astonishing acts of bravery and altruism. One might rather crassly argue that these two extremes cancel each other out; equally I might argue that without war, neither would occur, and that would surely be better for us.

Reading about war has made me profoundly grateful that I’ve never been called on to be tested in any of the ways I have read about; even more, I recognise how very fortunate I am to have grown up in a time of peace (at least, in the sense that my country has not been involved in a war which means attacks on our territory putting me and my family at risk… actually, writing a sentence like that one so as to be completely correct and accurate is impossible, but I’m sure you get my drift).

Having grown up during the ‘Cold War‘ (don’t politicians and the military love euphemisms!) made me realise at quite a young age that a war between Britain as a member of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘our’ side would be attacking countries where member of my family lived, and that ‘their’ side would be likewise attempting to kill us… and made me decide that I would never take part in such craziness. As I said above, I’m very grateful never to have been put to the test.

The more I’ve read and thought, the more I have come to think how utterly utopian it is to expect that things will ever be any different. I don’t think that war can be eliminated from our world without some kind of world government, and somehow I don’t see that happening in the near future. Neither can war be eliminated while the capitalist system persists, and I don’t foresee any end to that in short order. And the human ingenuity that has invented all sorts of gruesome weapons will continue, too, and what has been invented cannot be uninvented…

To look at today’s world briefly: many in the West are alarmed at the numbers of refugees flocking to our shores: it seems blindingly obvious to me that one way to address this would be to stop destroying their countries in the first place! We are very good at fighting proxy wars everywhere, and war is really good for business; although ISIS and Al-Qaeda have sprung from the fundamentalist Saudi Arabian variety of Islam, our leaders continue to buy enormous amounts of oil from that country and to sell it phenomenal amounts of weapons. And our leaders and businessmen are much safer from the random acts of terrorism that continue to afflict us, than ordinary people are.

Back to my first thought about being obsessed by war: I think it’s part of my quest to understand why the world is as it is, and to imagine how it might be different – one day, perhaps, long after I’ve left it…

Ibn Tufayl: L’Éveillé

May 3, 2017

In some ways this is an astonishing little book: an Arab writer in the twelfth century prefigures Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It’s a little more complicated than that, however.

We are told the story of a child who grows up from birth entirely alone on an island; either he was spontaneously generated, or else washed up onshore having been set adrift by his mother after his birth (echoes of Moses in the bullrushes here), and is initially fed by a gazelle (!). He grows up and learns about his environment, how to feed himself, how to hunt and shelter himself. Alone, he has all the time in the world to think, to reflect, to contemplate and to figure things out. And he works out the differences between animal, vegetable and mineral, experiments to find out where life resides in living creatures, and eventually comes to reflecting on cause and effect, which leads him to the prime mover and the idea of God.

Having attained enlightenment, towards the end of the story he meets another human being, a man who moves to his island to become a hermit. The two of them return to the main island to offer their message of enlightenment to everyone and are rejected, and so decide to return to their peaceful isolation and contemplation.

It’s obviously fiction, and with a didactic purpose: man as a rational creature should be able to deduce the idea of a creator and offer due veneration. It’s a tale of a man alone on an island, and apparently Defoe had read an English translation which appeared towards the end of the seventeenth century, so about thirty years before Robinson Crusoe was published. It doesn’t really read like a novel, though: obviously it comes from a completely different literary tradition which does not need to be judged against or compared with western standards, and anyway was written some six centuries before the novel developed in the west. If anything it reminded me of tales like Rasselas or Candide, which aren’t really novels either; they are fiction as in made-up, but the message the author wishes to communicate to the reader is far more foregrounded than any other aspect such as plot or character. We are on the way to the novel, but not there yet, by any means.

I found it an interesting read, though over-philosophical in places, and it was another reminder of the wealth of learning, knowledge and speculation that developed in the Arab world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

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