Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

May 8, 2021

     Revisiting this astonishing novel, which was second entry in this blog nearly eleven years ago… and only got a short write-up back then. It’s a fictionalisation – though backed by some careful historical research – of the story of the Ismaili sect of the hashishin or assassins which sowed chaos and wrecked the Seljuk rule in Persia at the end of the eleventh century. It’s also a study of power, and the uses of power, and is perhaps significant for being written in Slovenia in the late 1930s, a time when the heavy hand of absolute power lay over much of Europe.

Girls are bought and trained to become houris – the virgins who welcome male martyrs to paradise. Boys are trained in blind obedience to become fedayin, martyrs for the cause. And then via the use of hashish and trickery the boys are taken to visit paradise for a night, and then told that this will be their reward when they die for the cause.

Among all this there is much astute political reflection by Hassan, the leader of Alamut, the impregnable rocky mountain fortress of the assassins. How much can one actually know? Ultimate knowledge is impossible, for our senses lie to us. So, if we can know nothing then everything is permissible: power is the only thing that matters and that works, and the European leaders of the 1930s seemed well-versed in this. And the masses are afraid of uncertainty, and can be deluded with stories of other-worldly paradise after they die, to make up for the suffering in this world…

So is Hassan, the commander of Alamut, an evil genius? Power-crazed? He certainly understands how to trick and deceive, to manipulate, to achieve and maintain power. Yet, even as he succeeds and the rule of the Seljuks begins to crumble under his carefully-crafted attacks, even as he becomes master of worldly power, things do not go smoothly. Problems emerge with lovers and relationships, with friendships, with family, and all of these must give way to the remorseless logic of power; Hassan seems inhuman at times, and yet a deeper reflection belies this: the power of friendships, loyalty, values and integrity still speak out.

In the end, this time round, I experienced a much more powerful novel. At the same time as the achievement of ultimate power there emerged the question of, yes, but what for? There is no God, it is clear, who is interested in us and who will save us from ourselves – and this I found interesting given the novel’s background and setting in the Islamic world. Behind the politics and the religion is a really good and gripping and well-written novel, with many interesting and carefully-drawn characters; it’s no roman à thèse.

Hassan’s icy harshness, cruelty and iron discipline are chilling, and yet in his spirit of enquiry into meaning, he adopts and frees the feday who would have assassinated him, and sends him out into the world to continue the quest. He is enigmatic to the end, not completely understood even by those closest to him, even as they admire his success. And somewhere, behind it all, from the depths and darkness of the 1930s, Bartol has a message about his own times and its leaders…

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

March 16, 2021

     I’ve wrestled a couple of times with this ancient Chinese wisdom text and felt I’d not really got anywhere: I know it’s partly a cultural thing, in the sense of how my mind has been trained/ trained itself to think over many years, and not finding it easy to tune into the elusive, enigmatic and contradictory ways that eastern sages present their ideas. So, when I discovered that Ursula Le Guin had done a version, I thought perhaps she might succeed where other translators had failed, as far as I’m concerned.

I found her version – and she’s careful to make clear it’s a version, not a translation – more readable, less archaic and arcane in language, and therefore somewhat more accessible, and she provides helpful glosses and explanatory notes on the page as you read, as well as more detailed information at the end.

And yet, as I read through, I still found myself with questions: how, exactly, am I meant to be reading this text? Through from start to finish? Much more slowly? Chapter by chapter? This isn’t by way of a complaint, more of a realisation that I don’t (yet) have a frame of reference from which to access the book.

Some chapters are much more accessible – I think – than others. I have the impression of an ideal being put forward, which is not attainable though to be striven for, but then at other points I’m reading common-sense, practical hints on how to face life. So what, exactly, is the purpose of the book? At the moment, it seems, the intention is to have the reader slow down, and reflect on their life, how they live it and what they get from it, as well as what they offer others.

Having found Le Guin’s approach more accessible, I shall continue with the Tao, alongside other ancient works of wisdom that have in different ways supported my reflections on life: Socrates many years ago made the point I’ve always cherished, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And the one thing I took away from this reading was something of a revelation about my life and career as a teacher, à propos of Lao Tzu’s point about not hoarding: teaching for me was always about giving and sharing the amazing stuff I’d learnt…

Daphne Hampson: After Christianity

February 11, 2021

     Feminist theology is not part of my normal reading agenda, but I think it was Richard Holloway’s recent book that pointed me at Daphne Hampson’s very difficult and challenging read. Her approach, as one might expect, is very radical: is Christianity truthful? is it ethical? Hampson repeatedly emphasises that she does not consider herself a Christian, and at times her manner seems aggressive or angry, as well as inevitably reflecting a rationalist approach to spiritual matters which necessarily must completely exclude the notion of faith.

She structures her arguments and presents her case very clearly and logically, in the manner of a Spinoza or a Robert Barclay, which is helpful; she spends considerable time debunking the ‘specialness’ or particularity of the ‘Christ event’ as she calls it, as well as locating the significance and importance of feminist theory for the future of theology as she understands it. I repeat, it was not an easy read, although I was very glad I persevered. There is a good deal of dense psychoanalytical and structuralist theory (in the manner of Lacan and Derrida) and at times I felt we had lost sight of religion, spirituality and Christianity. However, the centuries of structuring and conditioning which all feminists are challenging must be acknowledged, and her case is cogently presented and convincing, as well as connecting with what has gone before in fields other than theology. She establishes her parameters, and then sets about demolishing. As a feminist she rejects the submissiveness required in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; her lengthy unpicking of the implications of Abraham’s agreement to sacrifice Isaac is quite shocking. She shows how the Trinitarian God as male in all three aspects sidelines, marginalises, excludes or seeks to annex women.

So much of this work is about defining the terms of the debate and unpicking implications which have been intentionally and unintentionally glossed over through the ages, and I found this very refreshing. When the actual meaning of the Creed and the Trinity are laid bare, so much does seem utterly defiant of logic and common-sense: true Christian believers will of course speak of their faith, as they have the right to do, whereas I found myself following her argument and thinking, do we actually need all/ any of this? I had thought of myself as pretty liberal in matters spiritual – deluded male that I am – until I read this eye-opening book. Her arguments about the nature of God draw much from an 18th century German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, of whom I’d never heard, but who is now on my ‘interested’ list. I suppose what I have really derived from this book is much matter for further reflection and contemplation, as well as what feels like a long-needed shaking-up of complacency.

But, for all her constant urging and wishing for a new, feminist, individual-centred spirituality which acknowledges one’s autonomy and the idea that God lies within, I found the concluding chapter curiously empty and unsatisfying; what is not satisfactory is very clear indeed, what must come to replace it, not so much…

Hermann Hesse, continued

February 6, 2021

    .         The recurring themes of Hermann Hesse’s writings become clearer as one works one’s way through his novels: difficulties in personal and marital relationships, close personal bonds of friendships between males, and the search for real meaning in life… so plenty to keep a reader thinking as they go.

Rosshalde is a better novel than the three earlier ones I wrote about here, as there’s a real story, and development of more sympathetic characters. The painter Veraguth endures a broken relationship with his wife and she with him; for him it’s all about his hopes for his relationship with his younger child; he is completely estranged from his elder son. We also gain some insight into the source of an artist’s inspiration. The relationship with his wife is difficult, distant, tormented, the one with his boy is fantasy and wishful thinking. Into all this comes a lifelong male friend whose business is in the Far East and who urges Veraguth to give up on this miserable life and join him in the East

Strong bonds of friendship between men are more successful than marriages – what is Hesse telling us, perhaps about himself, here? Veraguth discovers a new decisiveness as he plans to leave his wife for good, but his future must be totally alone, as his young son dies horribly from meningitis before the departure to the East. Everything has disintegrated, and yet the artist looks forward to new inspiration and creativity abroad. Ultimately every human is alone, and must find and sustain her/himself from inner resources.

Knulp is a set of three short stories about a man who is a lifelong, happy and light-hearted vagabond, with friends and acquaintances wherever he goes. He seems to accept the transience of happiness. Everyone he encounters thinks that, in conventional terms he could have ‘made more’ of his life had he put his mind to it; it’s only in the last story where he is in his forties and dying of tuberculosis that we learn of his disappointment in his first love, which seems to have turned his whole life…

Again, those he is closest to are men. He returns to his hometown to die in familiar surroundings and converses with his God, finding a sense of satisfaction in his existence as it comes to an end. It’s a powerful and moving story, in which we find that Hesse has lost the somewhat lumpen dialogue of the earlier novels, and also has something clear to say: yes, everyone is ultimately alone, and yet, despite disappointments and setbacks, can live a life which has meaning and brings contentment. The road is hard, but this is all we have.

Demian is regarded as a minor masterpiece; I’m not really convinced. Here is another oppressed and miserable schoolboy, and his associate male friends and influences. In this novel, it becomes clearer to the reader, even if not to the hero, that the attraction or desire he feels towards Demian, his mentor, is sexual… For me the story was too laden-down with heavily significant dreams of a Jungian nature. Nevertheless, dreams are important in our lives, and what comes across more strongly as Hesse’s novels develop is the importance of the question of self-discovery and self-actualisation: others cannot lead you, they can only help, accompany, point out possible paths; you have to find and make that journey, which is only yours, yourself, and alone.

The novel was written in apocalyptic times – at the start of the Great War – and resolution is found, in a rather trite way, on the battlefield.

Being something of an obsessive, I have kept a log of every book I’ve read for nearly half a century; just the date I finished a book written in pencil on the last page. I note with interest that I read and then re-read all these books in 1974-75. When I get to the end of this Hesse-binge, I shall try and reflect more fully on what this all meant way back then.

Richard Holloway: Stories We Tell Ourselves

January 2, 2021

     I’m not sure what it was that prompted me, last year, to read Richard Holloway’s autobiography, Leaving Alexandria, which tells the story of how a Scottish episcopalian, who rose to become Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus of Scotland, eventually found himself unable to believe in God any longer, and consequently laid down those high offices. But I found his story, and his thinkings on all sorts of questions, both very thought-provoking and also very helpful.

This, his latest book, is basically his exploration of God as a human construct, and the stories we have told ourselves since the dawn of ages, about a higher being, and our need for one: the idea that we construct God in our own image, rather than the biblical trope of God creating Man in His image (upper-case deliberate there).

Holloway writes about the flawed nature of us humans, and our therefore necessarily flawed knowledge and understanding of what we ‘know’. There is no easy answer to the question of existence or non-existence of a deity, no universal or all-encompassing answer, especially one that any group or organisation has a right to force on others. Equally, there are dangers in accepting or welcoming the ready-made, neat answers of others as solutions to our, or the world’s problems. At this point I felt I was reading a book which offered nothing new, other than a great deal of common sense, all gathered together in one place, satisfying enough. But it got better.

He struck a chord with me when he referred in some depth to a book I remember from many years ago as an important insight into the world of my youth, Theodore Roszak’s The Making of A Counterculture, and I wished I’d retained my copy to refer back to it.

Clarity is here: Holloway’s disagreement is with the organised, structured, regulating church rather than the religious or spiritual impulses within us, and he is honest enough to admit that someone like himself, steeped lifelong in religion, as it were, even when he works his way to a clearer understanding such as the one he is presenting us in this book, nevertheless is drawn to what he knew and what used to sustain him… He writes of a ‘general tendency in subsequent generations to over-define and concretise the original revelation’, and suggests that ‘gods always fail: they are us absolutised, enlarged with our own worst nightmares’.

In the later chapters, he moves on to considering a world in which a supposedly loving God allows so much suffering, which he rightly thinks poses a major ethical problem for any believer who thinks. He then comes on to consider what sense can be made of Jesus, and his life and teaching, nowadays. He outlines his own position, which he links back to earlier philosophers, and particularly to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is that we ought to act ‘etsi deus non daretur’ – as if there were no God: to strive to be good and do the good that religion enjoins us to anyway, out of a love for our fellow- creatures. I found a powerful and intriguing link there with Philip Pullman’s conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy: that it’s up to us to build the Republic of Heaven ourselves, here on earth.

After Leaving Alexandria, it was astonishing just to read an account of this man’s spiritual journey, a very personal affair at one level, offered to all: here is someone who thinks, and reflects, continually; the quest never ends. As I mentioned earlier, at one level there’s a lot of the pretty obvious to many here, but to accompany someone working it all out for himself, as I strive regularly to do myself, I found very liberating: here was someone who spoke to my condition.

I was very tempted to go straight back to the beginning and start a re-read immediately, but thought better of the impulse, and decided it would be helpful to wait a little while. But return I shall.

Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

On service, duty and selfishness

December 5, 2020

Somehow the words ‘duty’ and ‘service’ have an old-fashioned ring to them; they do not seem to sit with our world. And yet, they are words I often find myself reflecting on.

Service conjures up something enforced – against our will – like military service, or ill-paid drudgery, like domestic service. And yet, I think the concept is a much wider one, and we ought to be able to see that many of the professions essential in our world are a form of service to the wider community or the nation, even though they are paid, salaried rather than undertaken for nothing or for love. To work in medicine serves the greater good of society, as does working in education: how are citizens of the future to be raised and kept in good health? To work in what seem much more menial jobs perhaps – street-cleaning, waste disposal – is also service to society, though it is less well-paid and perhaps also less sought-after work. The police and the military also serve society, although I may well have quarrels with the kind of tasks they perform at times.

To me, service is about doing necessary work, as opposed to other forms of work which do not have the same vital or necessary function in society. Shops where we can purchase the necessities of life are useful, but do not serve in the same sense: they are almost all out to make a profit for someone. Banks may be useful in certain ways, but are a bane in many others. And I’m afraid I utterly fail to see the point of investment bankers, stockbrokers, hedge-fund managers and their ilk…

I also feel there is a growing culture of disparagement of those whose work serves society in the ways I’ve outlined above. They are generally not as well-paid as workers in other comparable sectors of the economy, and they are easy whipping-boys whenever mistakes are made or inadequacies identified. In the past, lower wages and salaries were compensated by reasonable pension arrangements, hard-won rights fought for by trades unions over the years: these are now envied by others and consequently being dismantled piecemeal. The politics of envy is cheaper and easier than deciding to provide decent conditions for everyone; the idea that workers might band together in solidarity to strive for better wages and conditions has been made to seem quaint and old-fashioned…

Duty is an even more difficult idea to engage with in our world, where we are increasingly taught to view ourselves as isolated individuals with rights and entitlements, which we often demand vociferously, but with no corresponding expectations of us in return: we don’t seem to think we also have duties towards our fellow-citizens. I can’t help feeling there is something wrong here. A society surely involves mutual obligations and duties: we give, and receive in return, according to our need, and this idea fosters the thought that in some ways we should care about our fellow human beings. Once everything is reduced to cost and value, profit and self-interest, we are on a slippery slope, as well as much more easily exploited and taken advantage of.

I’m old enough to date a sea-change in our society triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s government, telling people that there was no such thing as society, and elevating the idea of the private individual as the most important, entitled ruthlessly to ignore or push out of the way anyone who impeded one’s rush to money and profit. She entrenched the notion that paying taxes that were used to further public good is a bad thing: we should be able to keep ‘our’ money. Look where that has got us and our public services over the past decades.

Selfishness is an interesting word, often frowned on, especially by churches, as a moral failing. It’s more complicated than that: selfishness in terms of looking after and caring for oneself so that one has something to live for, and to offer others, is not a bad thing; selfishness as “me, me, me, I’m all that matters and I’m not bothered about what that means for you”, destroys the bonds which should knit us together.

I hope that the pendulum will eventually swing back again, and look forward to that day…

On the meaning of it all…

November 21, 2020

Logically, life – being alive – cannot have a meaning or a purpose, because it is something that happens to us unrequested, as it were, through the volition (or not) of other people, with varying intentions or none. And then, here we are: get over it or get on with it, as they say. But, what to do with it remains a question that has vexed and perplexed minds over the ages. I’m no different.

Biologically, the purpose of life is to ensure that there is more life created; most of us ensure this happens, at which point our usefulness and purpose is over.

And we are here, and to make sense of it if we can. Many people pass through life, being and doing, without very much thought at all; it feel dismissive and patronising to observe that, and yet there are times when I briefly feel envious of them, until I recall Socrates’ point that the unexamined life is worthless. And I come back to what I feel is the most amazing part of me: my mind, my brain, my ability to perceive, reflect, think about myself and my time here. Whether it’s God-given or a product of millennia of evolution is neither here nor there, really: either way, it astonishes me.

I’ve always loved staring at the night sky and the stars and planets. I’m no astronomer: I can identify some of what I see up there. It’s the effect on my head of looking up, and realising the awesomeness of what is out there. I’ve read science fiction since I was a child, and this has enhanced my imagination: what might be out there, that we will never know about. How small we are, and our world. I’ve said before that the first moon landing was the most exciting day in my life; I’d love to live to see humans land on Mars; I’d love to be around when we make contact with an intelligence form another world. And that will never be – me being around, I mean.

So, there’s my infinitesimal space in the entire scheme of things, and my tiny allotted amount of time here: what to do with it all?

Much of that time fills itself with the mundanities of growing up, learning, living and working, raising a family, growing old; the time is used up without a lot of effort. Once I was young, had dreams, had fun; there was a lot of work and life and now I’m much older. Where did it all go?

But then there’s the reflection: what is the point? What makes it worthwhile? Back to meaning. Obviously, this is where deities and religions come in, as humans over the ages have striven to come to terms with the fact that it all does come to an end one day. We are the only species with a consciousness, an awareness of that, and for many of us, it drives our reflections and our desires. If we can believe – if we can have faith – then there is an anchor in the idea that there is something – maybe better – which comes after this life. It is harder if we cannot. We were once undistributed atoms in the cosmos and ultimately that is where we will return, but I have to say that so far I do not find that very much comfort.

To do something useful with our life may help; to live a good life, where we help our fellows, we serve our community, we help our world move gradually to ever better things. And yet, this is very vague. We do it, some may notice it, although that ought not to be our motivation, and then we are gone, with our efforts. One day, you will only be a story: make sure it is a good one, says the old Arabic proverb. I like this, it comforts me as much as anything else does or can: that people who remember me, for a generation or two, will have a good memory of me. I won’t know about it, and that will be that. I will have had my brief moment in the sun…

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

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