Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now": Book Review


Think of Aristotle's "flourishing" as our human fulfillment. That aligns well with Steven Pinker's argument addressing "people who care about arguments." Impatient with both the claims of traditional religious systems and of New Age "magical thinking," he elaborates on the critique made last year by Kurt Anderson in "Fantasyland" about the decline in rational thinking across the political spectrum in America. Defending "mainstream intellectual culture," this Harvard professor of psychology expands on his "The Better Angels of Our Nature" to prove--by about 85 charts over hundreds of pages--that progress and the goals of the Enlightenment matter most for our recognition of human progress and critical thinking.

He begins by noting the Axial Age as spun into motion by the "energy capture" of more calories from agriculture to 20,000 a day in various forms. This growth in sophisticated thinking and social organization was enhanced by language, "the original memory app." Countering entropy, information and evolution allow people to overcome a naturally "illiterate and innumerate" existence, while battling the specters of "blind justice" and sky-gods.

Part 2 looks at progress. He translates data into drama, as when after a chart of declining infant mortality 1751-2013 he eloquently reminds us of the tragedy and hope behind such dry measurements, within so many families past and present. He turns to the nuclear threat and finds it exaggerated; the Doomsday Clock's a "propaganda stunt." Pinker assures us that most terrorists are "bumbling schlemieles." and that "nuclear scare tactics" blind us to the success post-1945 of treaties and commonsense. As for the 45th President, Pinker eschews over-estimating any apocalyptic outbreak and he puts such a leader in place as spawned by a current blip in "authoritarian populism." He emphasizes the advances overall in our stability and success due to "systematic forces" over centuries, and cautions us against "dystopian rhetoric" about passing politicians amidst media hype. He notes that the "alt-right" comprises 50,000 in the U.S., 0.02 of the population.

The warning about media frenzy continues through the lengthy part 3, where reason, science, and humanism through a variety of fields and short chapters scan considerable ground across not only the sciences but some of the humanities. Pinker may have, for all his erudition, stretched himself here beyond his expertise but this is a popular book, meant to "defy any simple narrative" and to encourage reflective analyses. He's encouraged by curricula promoting critical skills to thwart an endemic polarization in beliefs expressing "identity-protective cognition." That is, when humans can't let go of opinions long held for the outmoded likes of tribal glory and one's personally elevated status within the in-crowd. This leftover default reaction we all inherit has weakened our ability to engage in rational public discourse. He suggests that the media depoliticize issues, distinguish facts from claims, and detach news coverage from an imitation of extreme sports coverage by pundits when it comes to observing and promoting the political scene through journalism. Quixotic as this may be, it's encouraging to hear this sensible proposal.

He draws on work by his partner, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, to bolster his refutation of theist proofs. He avers our ancestors were not always trustworthy, and that "dunce-cap history" dumbs down the plain fact that religion is not a source of morality, and that scientists and philosophers might be, after all the myth and the mystical, right about the fundamental questions of existence. He shrugs away any notion that this universe is fine-tuned by a Creator, and reckons we're lucky to have won the equivalent of the cosmic jackpot, in our good fortune to live as and where we do.

I did find, for all my amateur status as a lay reader, some places where the assertions flew by without necessary verification. For instance, early on Pinker asserts that IQ scores prove that we're smarter than our ancestors by "two standard deviation points." But in a paragraph where other information has documentation in end-notes, this particular point does not. I wanted to know who determined this finding, and over how long had it been determined. If we're "smarter by 30 points than our ancestors," has this been due to schooling and literacy, or to other factors? This kind of reasoning exhibits the foundations upon which Pinker's broad thesis rests, so one expects that each iota of detail supports his general assessment.

"Enlightenment Now" displays a bit of welcome wit and a sharp intellect at work. As Pinker reiterates, romantic reactions and reactionary ideologies will not assist our survival. Our health increases, our longevity lengthens, our liberty broadens, and our happiness rises. Pinker's no Pangloss or Pollyanna, but he hammers home the evidence amassed and displayed that any problems with our predicament remain inevitable on the upward trajectory, if "defying any simple narrative." 450 closely printed pages of text elucidating this and 75 pages of documentation display how no catch phrases or naive platitudes can capture the considerable and ever-increasing complexity of how humans continue to move forward.

(This was distributed to me in an advance reading copy by the publisher, and that does not effect my review in any way. Thanks for reading it.) Posted with slight changes to Amazon US 2/13/18.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thomas Laqueur's "The Work of the Dead": Book Review



  • Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, October 2015. 736 pages. $39.95. Hardcover. ISBN 9780691157788.
 For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

This tome counters the wish of Diogenes the Cynic, who wanted his corpse to be tossed over a wall to be devoured by beasts. Berkeley historian Thomas W. Laqueur, whose earlier books compiled cultural surveys of the body and gender from the Greeks to Freud, and of masturbation, turns to another intimate subject: “What death leaves behind through the dead body” (xiv) takes the reader chronologically through four in-depth phases of “why the dead body matters” (1).

Laqueur applies the longue durée approach of the French Annales school to prehistoric and ancient times. Respect for the corpse, acknowledgement of its occupation at the borders of nature and culture, placement of the death of one within the social order, and how the dead “help make” our modern world comprise part 1. However, the bulk of Laqueur’s evidence derives from 1680-2000, within the purview of his expertise in English, Western European, and North American settings. This imbalance qualifies the breadth of his subtitle, but it enables a very detailed account of the post-Enlightenment gradual transition from churchyard and ecclesiastical supervision to cemetery and secular commemoration. Laqueur plumbs archives.

Documenting this shift from a space where the dead count within a weakened clerical presence, in slow pivot to a twentieth-century emphasis upon names and who the dead were, structures parts 2 and 3. Laqueur ends with what the dead consist of, when the radical revival of cremation represents a rejection of the bodily resurrection of the hallowed cadaver.

This arc spans vast accumulations of material, physical and spiritual, intellectual and religious. The enchantment and re-enchantment of the living towards the dead offers “the greatest possible history of the imagination” (17). Having despaired of extracting the testimonies of those dying, Laqueur asks instead what the living “did with and through real dead bodies,” by analyzing “what their acts meant and mean to them” (18). Relics, idolatry, aura, fakery, and necromancy display early human attempts to deal with this mortal predicament. Revenants, souls, and spirits share varieties of “persistence of being” as a “shared community” within a “complex of meanings” in his second chapter. Here, the power the dead exert over our own minds encompasses erudite reactions from Epicurus and Calvinists through Milan Kundera and Slavoj Žižek.

This collective effort of caring for what is left of the departed dwells within a “gap between what they are and what we take them to be” (81). Religion, art, politics, and poetry, in this scholar’s estimation, would not exist otherwise. This grand statement may give pause, as it may elude verification. It attests to Laqueur’s ambitious attempt to add the particular to the cosmic.

In such sweeping claims, this book leaves its most powerful impact. The granular accumulation of proof will assist academics, for it gathers arcane studies and diligent interpretations into a valuable volume. Yet as hundreds of pages demonstrate, these particulars pile up as densely as did effluvia and bones in dank churchyards that archeologists have unearthed and gravediggers had lamented. The “regime of the dead” presses down indelibly. Laqueur calculates the ratio (miniscule) between the remnants left by bones and fluids in comparison to the amount (considerable) excreted by the living within an industrialized city. Victorian reformers demanded hygiene. Their false claims of the danger of the rank corpse accelerated the trend away from crammed churchyards to planned meadows. There, increasing ranks of the dead did not wait for Judgment Day in elegiac and venerable plots where families had long relegated their village departed. In cemeteries, picnickers and strollers could enjoy their visits, where the “new regime” created “a novel and luxuriantly protean space” (212). 

Romantic-era notions of pastoral slumber presaged communal creation of the funeral industry and the bureaucratic register. Dramatizing memory, venerating preservation, admitting finitude, and defying salvation, modern habits of paying respect to the departed superseded ecclesiastical rites.

Burial plots and fancy funerals appealed as the poor imitated their betters. Exhumations exemplified the rationales for artistic, legal, criminal, medical, and clerical examinations. Again, Laqueur totes up intricate processes, which counted on the assurance that all the dead, in peace or especially in war, were accounted for, regulated, and tallied up neatly.

Naming the disembodied embeds them as a “reinscription of loss, one of its poor avatars, a substitute, a placeholder, a trace of a trace” (366). Laqueur may move his readers in such pauses from his scrutiny. He displays the “unprecedented scale” of technical, political, and emotional means by which recent mourners, brokers, claimants, and heirs collude to ensure post-mortem precision. Less than a third of twenty-six billion people born between 1500 and 2010 are known to us. Mormon genealogists labor to baptize all dead. Obituaries proclaimed public notice as newspapers expanded literacy and popularized devotions. These ceremonial practices generate a “commemorative culture” from the Civil War on, one which left thousands of memorials, modest or monumental, to the “absent but present dead,” among which were many vanished or irretrievable casualties of the Great War.

The author rarely admits the personal, but an aside merits mention. His father’s 1929 alma mater, a Hamburg gymnasium, lists those who died “fighting for Germany” together with those “as victims of the Holocaust” (423). Technological and emotional imperatives combine in massive records of both world wars, which made “knowing both possible and necessary” (466).

Cremation demoted death “to its physiological basis,” says Laqueur (509). Protestants interpreted the restoration of the body at the Last Judgment as metaphorical. The need to rest a body in sacred ground dwindled. Body, memory, and locale nevertheless persist today as obligations. Continuity in The Work of the Dead, Laqueur concludes, endures even as medical progress prevents acceptance of mortality among desperate families who seek, inevitably, miracles.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017

About the Author
Thomas W. Laqueur is the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud and Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.

Reading Religion (1/4/18)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

John Lennox's "God's Undertaker": Book Review

Front Cover
I read this right after David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That formidable study in an endnote directed me to the somewhat (until the math and biology kicked in halfway) more accessible God's Undertaker investigating if religious inquiries trump materialist dogma as to if an intelligence (steady there--as agency or impetus rather than design per se?) might be discerned. John Lennox, as a professor of mathematics and fellow in the philosophy of science at Oxford, handles data confidently, adroitly, and commendably with modesty tempered from both and all sides. I did enjoy his witty analogies summing up the various ways science itself calculates the immense odds against our being here at all. And it's not merely the Anthropic Principle all over again.

He nods often to a bete noire of the New Agnostics, Michael Behe. I admit this straightaway, as this will already cause many to write off Lennox. He credits Behe's 'edge of evolution' imagery supporting an originator outside time and space generating evolution as "less random that is often supposed." He denies, however, this is the God of the Gaps yet again. You can read far more context than I can sum up at exactly the halfway point of the book (I refer to my Kindle page 320/638).

A bit later on (61% 391/638), Lennox repeats a helpful analogy that "the message is not derivable" on a printed page "from the physics and chemistry of paper and ink." These are deep waters, but he's discussing that the DNA code sequence's "order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page." The vexing predicament of how to solve "biogenesis" by "a simple-minded appear to Darwinian-like processes" comes down to how the mutating replicator modelled by Dawkins could "even get going in the absence of life" and set in motion natural selection. At 56% 358/638, Lennox quotes Stephen Meyer: 'What needs to be explained is not the origin of order... but the origin of information." This sets up his main focus.

It got a bit easier, and more memorable for me, after his curated array of those witty analogies. The typing monkey argument dating back to Huxley vs. Wilberforce in 1860 Oxford asked whether random apes would eventually peck out one of Shakespeare's poems--or even an entire tome. Lennox avers this is unlikely the provenance as not until 1874 did typewriters hit the market--typical of the author's attentive eye! Regardless, a simulator since 2003's generating a monkey every second hitting a key, with 100 original chimps doubling every few days adds up (in the book's 2009 revision) to the then-current record of "24 consecutive letters from Shakespeare's Henry IV produced in 10^40 monkey years (the age of the universe is estimated at less than 10^11 years)." (68% 438/638)

Other memorable comparisons: the odds of us being here as is=a coin being hit by a shot from across the 20 billion light years "halo"; if coins stacked up across the American continent (or is the nation?) as high as the moon, and this was repeated on a billion more continents, what if a red-marked coin was placed by you at random? And if your friend found it first go when you challenged her, that'd be the odds of what some (if not in this book, curiously) call our own "Goldilocks" just-right universe.

Three-quarters of the way (484/638), Lennox wonders why scientists are able to accept, say, alien presence if SETI received a sequence of signalled prime numbers, yet they deny intelligent agency when it comes to similar deductions gathered in this book from a wide variety of academic experts. "We instinctively infer 'upwards' to an ultimately intelligent causation rather than 'downwards' to chance and necessity." He mentions that in the film Expelled, even Richard Dawkins appears to "have moved his ground towards admitting that design is something that, in principle, could be recognized by science." I looked this up and apparently he and fellow atheists claimed they were duped into appearing in this 2007 documentary. I'd add that Lennox relying on the supposed conversion of Anthony Flew very late in his long life has similarly been criticized for believers taking advantage.

[I am between a 4 and 5 star {on Amazon} but given the Flew incident already happened prior to the revision, this influences my rating down; I am unsure if this revision came before or after the post-Expelled disclaimer by Dawkins and other scientists, so Lennox gets the benefit of the doubt there.]

This is a diligently and incredibly complex summation of the debate about whether "science has buried God." John Lennox stays honest, recognizing his and his colleagues' limitations alongside their expansion of what reason and care have discovered, by the wonder of mathematics and physics. He concludes that "far from science having buried God, not only do the results of science point towards his existence, but the scientific enterprise itself is validated by his existence." (87% 560/638)

I approached this with no preconceptions. I've studied the big names from the opposition of late, and I've (as with Hart and Francis Collins) balanced religious adherents who've accounted for themselves in these debates. The analogies for me sparked my imagination most, but those with more ability in the maths and sciences will want to turn to the data Lennox sifts and scrutinizes. He keeps an approachable tone through dense discussion, he quotes liberally and helpfully for the greater public, and he evaluates evidence and methods from all comers. Worth your attention. (Amazon US 1/23/18)

P.S.This first pdf is a simple outline of the book. This second pdf sums up the documentation, quotation, and summarization page by page. This third pdf is the entire 2009 revised edition.
P.P.S. In Steven Pinker's forthcoming Enlightenment Now, he offers an unanswerable riposte to fine-tuning, which has occurred to me often. What if we're the Powerball lottery winner, and that's enough? We should count our luck instead of our blessings, that we beat the odds against us.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The March of Time

Mortality

Today, my wife's marching for a second year downtown with hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, mostly women, with fewer children, dogs, and men. I reflect on the past year and more, but often since the last election, I prefer to retreat into my books, whether Kindle or print, to read reflectively.

Rather than research for my "professional development" or reviews of new titles, this aims at not an external but an interior goal. The Benedictines called it lectio divina. Catholic schools when I attended may have called it spiritual reading. Whatever the post-Catholic varietal, I need this "safe space." But it's not that. It's one where I confront hopes and fears, anxieties as well as contemplation.

My wife and friends would doubtless interject this, when I am not spewing what they regard as a jumble of reactionary-neofascist elitist populism leaning towards left-libertarianism more than conventional (!) anarchism, that I am in this natural state unless roused by work, meals, or chores.

I am choosing as the hunches move me. Julian Barnes' harrowing Nothing to Be Frightened Of was peddled a baker's dozen years ago as the first "post-Dawkins" take on mortality and our fears of death. Not sure about that, but despite or on account of his avuncular (albeit when he wrote this he was about four years older than I am now) digressions and erudite detours, his rambling ruminations and his Francophone excursions, I found his audio rendition so engrossing, listening to it in the dark before sleep, that I purchased a copy of the book. I liked the Canadian and British covers, with various Tarot/ chapbook depictions of Le Mort more fitting than the American version, which had his stereotypically featured English countenance, as Barnes (as myself if in a somewhat more Irish if also elongated physiognomy, I have been told by colleagues) looks exactly like a reader would expect.

Then I turned to my e-book public library's "if you liked this, then" options and browsed. The past year, since I discovered at last that the system had finally synched with Kindle, I've been borrowing audio and print (?) titles diligently, and I save 200 more as treats on my ever-changing moods wishlist. It's fun to preview samples, and like the bookstores where I have spent so long a part of my past life I am overwhelmed with tomes around where I type, and terribile dictu in the disarray of my garage, it's an efficient if frustrating (for there as in brick-and-mortal realm, so much is not where you want it electronically or physically--what you search for in vain only whets your appetite) pursuit.

I dutifully filled notes with many highlights of the next suggested title, the restive, grouchy (if not as acerbic as sensitive-plant critics had averred) David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That formidable study (my review linked quotes extensively from Hart's dense analysis, rewarding if rambling) in an endnote directed me to the somewhat (until math and biology kicked in halfway) easier God's Undertaker investigating if religious inquiries trump materialist dogma as to if an intelligence (steady there--as agency or impetus rather than design per se?) might be discerned. Lennox as an informed scientist handles data confidently, adroitly. and commendably with modesty tempered from both and all sides, and I did enjoy his witty analogies summing up the various ways science itself calculates the immense odds against our being here at all. And it's not merely the Anthropic Principle all over again. He marshals detailed arguments and documents them.

Both Lennox and Hart share a commendable connection with Barnes and the author I will mention next. They all expect a sophisticated audience (Hart perhaps too much as his volume, the only one from a university press, expects philosophers whereas a lot of "laypeople" are curious sorts who want to know precisely where his quest aims) and they reward by upending some of our pet hobbyhorses.

Somehow I wound up no idea how (maybe one of the previous three authors quoted him) with G.K. Chesterton's 1908 Orthodoxy. Not the best title as he admitted, but he answered his foes who challenged him, after he took on the chattering classes' champions in Heretics, to respond in turn with his own metaphysical riposte. So this blend of blurred autobiography (shades of Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, I wonder?) and theological assertion of the necessity of paradox as the manner in which people grasp feebly the shards of the divine presence and plan in what seem contradictory fashion served as the prolific (too much, that) pundit's foray into theological discourse for the rest of us. Many admire GKC's aplomb. Fewer admit he can exhaust one's patience with his relentless reversals.

Maisie Ward's early biography of her friend, who was published by the firm of Sheed & Ward she co-founded, has been relegated as a "hagiography" in Garry Wills' first book on GKC which for all its acumen does smack as he'd admit now of the eager grad student more than the sagacious scholar he became. Apropos of saint-hailing, the blogger "Innocent Smith" offers a needed reminder that if the fringes alone claim GKC and his circle for their own cause only, this bodes not well for all.

Ward too takes pains now and then to call GKC to task, for after his conversion to the Church finally occurred in 1921, his compulsive, frenetic graphomania on top of a regular lecture circuit far and wide rendered a lot of his various genres into padded, rumbustious postures which seemed, at least to Wills, to have been set when GKC was barely in his twenties. Ward offers a nuanced portrait.

But she concurs that the quality suffered and the workload did him in, hastening his relatively premature demise. Still, late in her enjoyable consideration (if as she warns you may not want to learn all about his brother Cecil's entanglement in the Marconi case, which rivals Bleak House in its interminable litigation), she cites (anyone writing on GKC finds this necessity more than the usual subject may violate the standard 2:1 ratio I enforce for student assignments of originality to secondary material) him as usual, generously. In his talk in 1931 but perhaps printed in 1927, "Culture and the Common Peril," I found a pleasing echo of Hart's conclusion advising skillful contemplation, and Aldous Huxley's 1962 lecture to the Tavistock Institute, which I will quote after.

"The coming peril is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic overproduction, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the wellbeing of contemporary civilisation. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves." GKC castigates the flood of information-but-not-knowledge, while Hart and current critics warn of our data overload empty of wisdom sifted from this inundation which a century on churns that flood into a tsunami.

About three decades after GKC's death, after more war, more automation, more standardization, Huxley reflected on his Brave New World Fordist scenario. The ultimate transformation, he opines, applies a subtler form of control than neural injections or tinkering with our bags of skin and water. Situated on the cusp of the counterculture, this speaker has been, a search of sites shows, linked by those where the far right meets the far left, and accused of conspiratorial aims. I will leave that surmise aside as I do rumors of reptilian overlords and ZOG machinations, but from the transcript: 

"There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” It's intriguing, if aesthetically maddening considering the manner in which dodgy websites present Huxley's less, uh, assigned musings, to find then Alan Watts' further reflections. (That is, I think it's him. This infuriatingly font-crazed resource credits an Alan Watt speech, 2006.) A drawback for the inquirer persists in that so many less mainstream sources simmer on suspicious blogs and addled archives which, to say the least, fail to meet tenured types' muster.

Stick around among the formerly mocked pop cultural fans, all the same, and at least safely employed academics may come to elevate what they once cast aside, as this next author proves. I thought of another prediction when I read GKC just after quoting that Huxley passage on FB. Philip K. Dick's exponentially closer to Huxley than Chesterton (although the latter has been credited by Adam Gopnik--drawing on previous judgments I suspect--as the "pivot" between Lewis Carroll/ Edward Lear and Kafka/ Borges. Anyone familiar with the Argentine Anglophone knows his admiration for Chesterton. I'd been thrown off, three decades ago, by The Man Who Was Thursday. I want to return to it without spoilers, having vaguely remembered the ending as extremely odd even by post-Victorian experimentation in the company of H.G, Wells, one of GKC's dear foils-as-friends. I speculate if PKD might have been directed, in his own late-life Gnostic virtual reality simulation, deep in his soul by tales subsuming spiritual as well as spectral confabulations, in a steampunk age.

PKD mused not long before his own untimely demise, in of all places a dreary Santa Ana condo: "Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups... So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” Re: his Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974 SF novel.) He became agoraphobic but made sure to stay within walking distance of the post office and Trader Joe's, where he purchased frozen dinners and roast beef sandwiches. GKC, renowned for breadth and width, would've chuckled loud over his fellow fabulist.

PKD and I share a Californian (although he like another nearish neighbor Huxley I regard as blow-ins) curiosity about what's out there and within us. Huxley intrigues me far less as a popularizer of perennialism than as a skewed satirist; despite what many who see me think, inside lurks a touch of humor, albeit inappropriate invariably in these perpetually "outraged" and "scandalous" times these poetasters preached about all too accurately. GKC plays a shell game with rhetoric, entertaining as he instructs, but he can weary with his relentlessly paradoxical phrasing. Yet he pleases me for his "little England" outlook congenial with Tolkien and a scholar of these two men, Joseph Pearce and "distributism." Pearce and I are exact contemporaries, coming of age as exurbs paved over our childhood haunts. I anticipate naysayers of idealists and dreamers who will bring up Eric Gill (similar to Jefferson, we lecture others on their sins and not their successes) by advising a reread of John 8:7.

The Ball and the Cross, I figured, might be easier to start with, but I gave up the audio halfway in. Although Gildart Jackson tries his best to dramatize the madcap pursuits, I felt as if Heckle and Jeckle, or more precisely Tom and Jerry were bashing away at each other. You can see the warm-up for Orthodoxy: Brits landing on an island that perplexes them, lunatic asylums, lunatics, and an apocalyptic conclusion that again does not jibe with the main plot, but feels tacked on before and after, without surprise or suspense. I long for theological thrillers, a sadly neglected sub-genre I have tried to suss out from Goodreads and web inquiries but finding nearly nothing of note I have not noted. But GKC promotes a dour Scot, worse yet a humor-challenged Highland Catholic recusant, as his hero, while naturally the other Scot, an atheist bookseller, gets a few sputters of wit for his lot. I scanned the rest myself, but found it slapdash, meandering even for a brief novel, and a fusty curio.

I tried Sherlock Holmes a couple of years ago, figuring I'd delight in the Victorian London which captivates me. If I could go back in history, I'd enter the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. To my letdown, although I liked re-reading A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, the stories did not grab me. Mysteries haven't done much for me. But talking to a close friend, I related how GKC forays led me to his favorite fictional character, James Bond, by a circuitous route through Maisie's friend Caryll Houselander, evidently a troubled type who saw visions and dreamed dreams as a Catholic convert turned mystic. She'd been left in the lurch by none other than "Sidney Reilly" (born a Rosenblum in the Tsarist pale) the "Ace of Spies" who inspired Ian Fleming's inventive 007.

My friend praised The Man Who Was Thursday as a story he'd returned to over and over with joy. Although no believer himself in what another friend of mine likes to relegate to "priestcraft," he likewise recommended the Father Brown mysteries of GKC. I've previewed online Michael Hurley's Penguin introduction and his explanation of their weird assumptions and wily craft suggests they may blend better for me than Sherlock in evoking GKC's unsettlement behind such searches for "truth." Michael Newton approves a recent BBC series, contrasting the priest with the deerstalker detective.

I have no profound wrap-up but I set down my jottings as a reminder to myself that the wanderings of whatever mind, spirit, soul and/or brain generates within me, set into type, mark wherever I'm at today. I don't call my orientation by any label or denomination or philosophy, and I leave that to academics who strive to categorize our irreducibly, incorrigible yearnings. As for me, I look ahead. Similar to Barnes, I deeply fear what may come. Like Hart, I inform myself on what others scoff at as metaphysics; as with Lennox, I try to keep up if lagging far behind with physics, if as it is for poets.

How I drift from book to book, quoteworthy utterance to dusty volume (even if digitized; public domain combined with a Kindle frees me of shelf-space guilt), remains explainable maybe to a scientist, but might a sage add a nod? As always, I ruminate. I wonder what and/or who's guiding me.

(photo credit)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

David Bentley Hart's "The Experience of God": Book Review

December | 2013 | "Sublunary Sublime"
I found out about David Bentley Hart from a review of his 2018 translation into blunt English of the clunky Greek often expressed in the New Testament. His acerbic reputation against "The New Atheists" as well as other thinkers who cross his sylvan path intrigued rather than dissuaded me, and I checked this out. This 2013 book is not a work of apolegetics, and not a defense of the proofs of God's existence. Instead, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss applies what the Hindu labeled as sat, chit, and ananda to assert the non-contingent, ultimate, and transcendant force that many call one God. He encourages skeptics and naysayers to at least take seriously the truth of what a God outside of as well as permeating all creation means, as opposed to the childish notions of a fussy judge noting what's naughty or nice, or an addled fundamentalist's blinkered creationism.

Beginning each part with a moving, eloquent analogy of a dreamer imagining what occurs parallel to what's actually happening outside his sleep, which is filtered into his sensorium as transformed, sets up a main text demanding attention, widening one's vocabulary, and presuming philosophical insight.

Therefore it may prove daunting to many, believer, seeker, denier, or wanderer. It could have been shorter. The "pleonastic fallacy" Hart often decries in his opponents' claims--too many words--enters these three-hundred-plus pages frequently, as the author shares this weakness. He digresses, and then catches himself over and over. Much of this resembles a sage's ruminations to an erudite fellowship.

I wonder who's the target demographic for this Yale UP publication. It'll never get the notoriety of bestsellers by his detractors, nor will it entice many believers unable to handle his dense forays into the history of ideas and the shape of theology which have enriched and warped this perennial theme.

I come to this matter as a fence-sitter, and I aver it's rewarding to hear out both sides in this long debate. How it may be settled may defy the evolutionary biology Hart detests, and the defections of many of the formerly faithful, or, who knows, the final secret may be found, against all logic or odds. Hart counters that God outside of the cosmos, the sole non-contigent presence in the universe, can never be satisfactorily understood by the nature of our limitations within our human mind and body.

However, Hart dismisses the "Just-So Stories" of the adherents to a reductionist materialism in a manner which tempts a mirror image of a empiricist who wonders how God can be grasped if essentially and existentially beyond the reach of human comprehension, as equally (?) intangible.
I am unsure how this argument will convince any who reject the simpler notions of a creator God similar to the "watchmaker" metaphor, or how "magic" ex nihilo which is never "quite" nothing itself can substitute for the discarded divinity, for "naturism" might be swapped for "belief" in crude terms.

Yet the value of the notes, and the help of his annotated list of further reading is welcome. He praises the atheist J.K. Mackie's work as a worthy foil; he recommends John Lennox's God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? as a primer to many topics overlapping with his own deeper examination.

I share some highlights, for in such a challenging project, Hart's own words deserve their place rather than paraphrase or summary which may distort his patterns of inquiry or dilute his concentrated prose. At its best, it will inspire many bookmarks and times for an attentive reader to reflect upon. Its shortcomings remain, and will be countered surely by his eager rivals, but it's a valuable investment in one's time, and I found myself staying up more than one night, curious about what came next.

"The human longing for God or the transcendent runs very deep—perhaps far too deep to be trusted, but also too deep to treat as mere primitive folly—and it has produced much good and much evil in human history. It lies at the heart of all human culture. All civilizations to this point have grown up around one or another sacred vision of the cosmos, which has provided a spiritual environment and a vital impulse for the arts, philosophy, law, public institutions, cultural revolutions, and so on. Whether there will ever be such a thing as a genuinely secular civilization—not a mere secular society, but a true civilization, entirely founded upon secular principles—is yet to be seen. What is certain is that, to this point, most of the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth. Only a thoughtless person can possibly imagine that the vast majority of those responsible for such achievements have all clung pathetically to an understanding of the transcendent as barbarously absurd as the one casually presumed in the current texts of popular unbelief. We really ought to put such things away and discuss these matters like adults." What may escape notice is that Hart never tries to use his theories to prove a particular God or religious revelation. It's refreshing to find a non-Christocentric approach. He admits that God after all may not be founded on what we surmise as outside our sensorium, too. This appears to challenge his thesis, to say the least, but I may have missed some sly subtlety here.

"From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves." Hart likes to go at the cosmologists who reckon that the quantum foam and random wave fluctuations from a vacuum spontaneously coming in and out of reality have always been there, prior to the Big Bang. He hammers home the simple denial that these are still created. I wondered why an eternal, recurring universe or set of such might be calmly suggested. But although Hart nods briefly to Buddhist contexts, he does not delve into their supposition. I was also disappointed that other Eastern concepts such as Dao did not enter this endeavor. He makes an aside early on that they may apply, but he will not incorporate or remove them from his central emphasis.

"And my final reason for using precisely these three words {of the subtitle} is that, so it seems to me, they perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism without considerable contortions of reasoning and valiant revisions of common sense. They name essential and perennial mysteries that, no matter how we may try to reduce them to purely natural phenomena, resolutely resist our efforts to do so, and continue to point beyond themselves to what is 'more than nature.' Hart here shows his opposition to naturalism.

"Even if one could conceivably prove, as is occasionally suggested these days, that cosmic information is somehow ceaselessly generated out of quantum states, this still would not have decided the issue of causality in favor of the naturalist position. As a brilliant physicist friend of mine often and somewhat tiresomely likes to insist, 'chaos' could not produce laws unless it were already governed by laws." Mentioned above, this estimation refuses to accept any "eternal" possibility.

"To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its 'what it is') with a unique existence (its 'that it is'), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming." The "how" of the universe may be ascertained, but not the "why." That remains inaccessible to any discovery or test made by science.

Likewise, Hart gives no credence to the "strategy of avoiding the word 'God' only by periphrastically substituting the word 'universe.' In the end, ontological necessity is not a property that can intelligibly attach to any nature other than God’s. If one wishes to view the physical universe as the ultimate reality—whether one imagines it as having no beginning or as having a beginning without cause—then one must also accept that it is still an entirely contingent reality, one which somehow just happens to be there: an 'absolute contingency,' to use an unavoidable oxymoron. It may be an absurd picture of things—certainly there seems to be no argument against it more potent than its own perfectly self-evident incoherence—but it seems to me to be an absurdity that one can quite blamelessly embrace so long as one is willing to grasp the nettle and accept that this just-there-ness is logically indistinguishable from magic. Everyone needs a little magic in life now and then." Surprise!

"God is the infinite 'ocean of being' while creatures are finite vessels containing existence only in limited measure." Hart holds this is a frequently used image in spiritual works, but it's new to me.

"At that uncrossable intellectual threshold, religions fall back upon inscrutable doctrines, philosophers upon inadequate concepts, and mystics upon silence. 'Si comprehendis, non est deus,' as Augustine says: 'If you comprehend it, it is not God.'" So, what surpasses commonsense or speculation therefore comprises that which we cannot comprehend, but nonetheless, we by our senses say this? This reminds me of Thomas Aquinas' bow to mysticism, for all his texts were but "straw."

"The first-person perspective is not dissoluble into a third-person narrative of reality; consciousness cannot be satisfactorily reduced to physics without subtracting something." Hart doggedly insists that we can never get outside our own heads to truly explore the mystery of what our consciousness "is."

"What, precisely, did nature select for survival, and at what point was the qualitative difference between brute physical causality and unified intentional subjectivity vanquished? And how can that transition fail to have been an essentially magical one?" He nags at the biologists who aver that evolution can account fully for these leaps from animal to human within the evidence of the record.

"My claim throughout these pages is that the grammar for our thinking about the transcendent is given to us in the immanent, in the most humbly ordinary and familiar experiences of reality; in the case of our experience of consciousness, however, the familiarity can easily overwhelm our sense of the essential mystery. There is no meaningful distinction between the subject and the object of experience here, and so the mystery is hidden by its own ubiquity." God surrounds, if to us routine?

"If one is to exclude the supernatural absolutely from one’s picture of reality, one must not only ignore the mystery of being but also refuse to grant that consciousness could possibly be what it self-evidently is." Tricky. I guess that he reiterates the hard fact that we cannot figure out our own mind.

"The vanishing point of the mind’s inner coherence and simplicity is met by the vanishing point of the world’s highest values; the gaze of the apperceptive 'I' within is turned toward a transcendental 'that' forever beyond; and mental experience, of the self or of the world outside the self, takes shape in the relation between these two 'supernatural' poles." Within the book, this passage gains support. Maybe, that horizon is where God lurks, and where morals and what we yearn for rests by design.

"God is the one act of being, consciousness, and bliss in whom everything lives and moves and has its being; and so the only way to know the truth of things is, necessarily, the way of bliss." Late in the book, Hart tells us that without God, neither good nor evil would be present among us. I admit I remained unclear about this bold statement. Perhaps it's that God generates all that "matters" even if as conceived as mental constructions (aesthetics, love, truth, goodness?) rather than evolution itself?
Sometimes I felt as if Hart was hacking his way into thickets determined to strike down the biologists who advance the primacy of these "moral" conceptions as generated from our inner workings. He kept cutting down Daniel Dennett, for instance, but I wished he'd given his foe more of a fair hearing.

"Whether God is indeed to be found in these dimensions of experience, that is where he has traditionally been sought, as the unconditioned and transcendent reality who sustains all things in being, the one in whom all that nature cannot contain but upon which nature depends has its simple and infinite actuality." Hart encapsulates the central gist of his formidable repetition of this verity.

"We cannot encounter the world without encountering at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order." Hart repeats his immaterial worldview.

So "much of what passes for debate between theist and atheist factions today is really only a disagreement between differing perspectives within a single post-Christian and effectively atheist understanding of the universe. Nature for most of us now is merely an immense machine, either produced by a demiurge (a cosmic magician) or somehow just existing of itself, as an independent contingency (a magical cosmos)." Back to that magic he mocks in the materialists as the only fallback they have for the evolutionary leaps. A bit of the "god of the gaps" inverted against the fact-checkers.

"It is rather as if a dispute over the question of Tolstoy’s existence were to be prosecuted by various factions trying to find him among the characters in Anna Karenina, and arguing about which chapters might contain evidence of his agency (all the while contemptuously ignoring anyone making the preposterous or meaningless assertion that Tolstoy does not exist at all as a discrete object or agent within the world of the novel, not even at the very beginning of the plot, and yet is wholly present in its every part as the source and rationale of its existence)."" I liked this all the more as I just finished that novel. It assists those of us who at this rarified level of cogitation wait for an easier sussed idea.

He turns Marx inside out a bit next. "In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys." He's getting warmed up at the conclusion, encouraging contemplation to get beyond all this mental exertion, and warning us that without such committed endeavor, these distractions will dull us, and we will fail to make the necessary attempt to turn from the shadows and leave Plato's screened cave.

"If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some 'experimental' or 'empirical' demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray."

"Late modernity is, after all, a remarkably shrill and glaring reality, a dazzling chaos of the beguilingly trivial and terrifyingly atrocious, a world of ubiquitous mass media and constant interruption, a ceaseless storm of artificial sensations and appetites, an interminable spectacle whose only unifying theme is the imperative to acquire and spend. It is scarcely surprising, in such a world, amid so many distractions, and so many distractions from distraction, that we should have little time to reflect upon the mystery that manifests itself not as a thing among other things, but as the silent event of being itself. Human beings have never before lived lives so remote from nature, or been more insensible to the enigma it embodies. For late modern peoples, God has become ever more a myth, but so in a sense has the world; and there probably is no way of living in real communion with one but not the other." Preaching to me, a disenchanted and disaffected member of the late capitalist choir, this concludes Hart's spirited counter-cultural turn, where he encourages us to stay still. Few of us may have the privilege he does to live in hilly woods, but we can seek a better place to reflect.
(Amazon US 1/5/18 in much shorter form)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Robert Coover's "The Origin of the Brunists": Book Review

The Origin of Brunists (ebook) by Robert Coover ...
I'd always relegated Robert Coover to the ranks of John Barth and Donald Barthelme, as briefly influential arch peddlers of irony, lust, and erudition to the counterculture and its academic cheerleaders. But I remembered, all the way back to high school, finding in a remaindered anthology of writers recommending titles that'd fallen through the shelves by the late 70s. Among them was a take on religious fanaticism in a coal-mining burg somewhere between the East and the Midwest.

Finding this as an e-book from my library, despite the nearly 600 pages, I sampled the start and signed on. Fifty-plus years after it appeared in 1966, parts of it hold up, and some does not. The louche {lad}y-hound Justin Miller turns into the anti-hero who runs the West Condon newspaper and investigates and infiltrates the cult he names the Brunists after their founder. He's not monikered Giordano, but Giovanni Bruno's bent clearly aligns with the heretics and fringe criers out of visions.

After a convincingly depicted, richly detailed immersion into the mines and their miners, and the disaster taking ninety-seven of them away, the novel settles in for a long, long stretch. Layered, we get to know by slow accretion the stratified levels of class, mentality, and promiscuity which occupy the inhabitants of the dismal town. Coover gradually introduces a large cast of characters, who take up sides for and mostly against the Brunists who gather to concoct their odd doctrines and incantations. Coover channels the New Age rants of Eleanor Norton, the fundamentalist counter from the Baxters, and the mathematically obsessed theories of the local lawyer. These overlap as Miller uses the circle of First Followers to pursue yet another dame, the sultry sister of Giovanni, Marcella.

Familiar scenes distort. A high school basketball match seen as if an occult ritual, or a chess match. A Joycean parody of a newspaperman's turn to the bottle if not the broads. Prose that early on breaks into fragments as the disaster below gets rendered into not sentences but panic, as exploded dialogue.

However, halfway on, Coover cannot resist the type of mockery that so many of his peers indulged in. As if abandoned ramblings from Mark Twain's satires on heavenly kitsch and biblical fables, we get a Borscht Belt shtick for the remainder of the plot, on and off stand-up riffs on the Last Judgment. A little goes a long way. It's as if Coover tired of sustaining the tension he'd built up, and he had to deflate his study of belief and its discontents to give more room for louche Lotharios and sullen sluts.

We get it. The hillbillies and the Babbitts, hypocrites and the defeated mobs. We don't need so many. This novel could have lost a considerable chunk and streamlined some of the too-easy targets and heavy breathing couplings out of John Updike, managed just fine. But it's from the Sixties, granted. Four-letter words shocked more in respectable print then, and the effect, as with these worn-out epithets, has dulled over the intervening half-century as what was low-class banter turns normal chat.

This all ends, without quite giving away the ending, in a Day of the Locust type of showdown. Coover, we realize as the novel lopes along and refuses closure, integrates a spin on Judas, Jesus, and the apostles, before and after the Resurrection. Some of this stays clever, but West Condon's human frailty and its woebegone Winesburg, Ohio-meets Main Street cast of misfits and opportunists resists the novel's final pages. No wonder, nearly five decades on, we find a sequel, twice as long as this. (Amazon US 11/17/17; excerpt to Spectrum Culture favorite books read by staff in 2017 as my pick)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"The Stone Reader": Book Review


Neither op-ed pieces nor arcane articles (at least in editorial theory), these appeared sponsored by the New York Times circa 2010-15. The contributors attempt to connect current issues with moral treatments, as well as take on philosophical contentions, to explain them to their educated readership.

The results prove mixed, as tying big issues to the passing headlines leaves many pieces already dated rather than relevant, although the larger ethical concerns may remain appropriately applied; other writers dive into deep debates within academia, about gender and racial bias, or claims peddled by colleagues or rivals. Certain essays churn out as dutiful term papers, or earnest self-promotion, introspective ruminations from diaries, or niggling hairsplitting about (to me) self-evident points.

Co-editor Peter Catapano quotes his editing partner Simon Critchley: "Philosophy assesses and presses public opinion by asking essential questions: 'What is knowledge?' 'What is justice?' 'What is love?' He continues: "The hope that drives this activity is that the considerations to which such universal questions give rise can, through inquiry and argumentation, have an educative or even emancipatory effect. Philosophy, as the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell puts it, is the education of grown-ups." (loc. 364) Costica Bratigan, early in the first part which explores the pursuit of wisdom, reminds us that the "ultimate testing of philosophy takes place not in the sphere of strictly rational procedures (writing, teaching, lecturing) but elsewhere in the fierce confrontation with death of the animal we are." (27) She challenges the reader to deal with one's fear of annihilation, so she can tell you about which approach suits your attitude best. She links this to philosophers who have died in testament to their convictions. "Dying for an idea" may seem less strange, I aver, when we testify to this principle in patriotism and commemoration in memorials of those named heroes by us.

Critchley listens to Socrates and Phaedrus to place this endeavor into a less morbid expression, when "we have to meet the other on their ground and in their own terms and try and bring them around. slowly, cautiously, and with good humor." (55) His writing keeps lively, and he offers sufficient  background for us to keep up, a feature not always shared by his contributors. Adam Etinson puts Montaigne's "On Cannibals" into an ethnocentric realm, and he warns that if we'd been born maybe down the block or certainly across the planet, we'd hold different of our "deepest-held beliefs," and this fact "should disconcert us, make us more open to the likelihood of our own error, and spur us to rigorously evaluate our beliefs and practices against alternatives, but it need not disillusion." (86)

Peimin Ni applies this well by encouraging the lack of labels rather than their proliferation to bring in disparate legacies, fresh texts, ignored values, and global perspectives. Yet the persistent slant of this volume, speaking of bias in academia, shows in its presumption that its audience fully supports the progressive mindset the NYT and the Stone blog articulate. This may be inevitable, but incorporating other flavors of diversity, ideological and intellectual, could have enriched too-homogenous a flavor.
Even traditional thinker Roger Scruton echoes the previous critic, Slavoj Zizek, suspecting reformers.
Overall, more gadflies buzzing would have stirred up the status quo perpetuated by the NYT as here.

So Gordon Marina's sharp innovation blending pugilism with philosophy stimulates."While Aristotle is able to define courage, the study and practice of boxing can enable us not only to comprehend courage, but 'to have and use' it. By getting into the ring with our fears, we will be less likely to succumb to trepidation when doing the right thing demands taking a hit," he concludes. (218)

The editors open part 2 musing "whether it makes any sense to talk about that which comes after or beyond nature. Is everything explicable through science?" (237) This section delves deep into biology, neuroscience and psychology. Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson champions multiple over kin selection vigorously, warning that to "yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots--students of insects call them ants."(273) He's adroit at conveying data, better than many of the scientists among whom he offers a second vigorous entry. He compares our "campsite-anchored prehumans" with our "immense memory banks," while arguing how our abilities to figure out alliances and rivalries, bonding and deception galore in the past, present, and future links to our instinctual "delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage." (395) Out of this process, we've evolved the humanities, creative arts, and political theory--ethics too.

Winding up an eloquent paean to faith, from his non-Christian point-of-view, Critchley testifies to its "enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power."(421) One so-called faithless along with those affirming creeds, he reckons, can affirm.

Another unbeliever, Louise Antony, aligns in her thoughtful peek back at her childhood Catholicism. She reflects: "Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant. I think just the opposite--they would become surprisingly important."(486) Well stated, but for balance I'd have liked it if adherents of religion found a place, to contend with or to agree with the dissenters.

Joel Marks narrates another shift from youthful to mature ideal. He abandons moral labels. He pragmatically addresses situations and perspectives. No god, no supernatural law, not even his conscience will convince him of an ethical obligation. "Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it."(508) This spirited attitude refreshes, amidst duller articles.

Scruton, himself an object of attack by many who'd favor this book and nearly every one of its liberal pundits, chooses hope rather than truth as a counter to dangerous "collective enthusiasm" and those optimists goading on the more tentative and thoughtful to social engineering and geopolitical folly with sometimes fatal results, as the past and present century show. "People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-spirited bigots." (613) What bridges Scruton to Zizek across a supposed divide: lessons from those feted by the left who wind up as corrupt as those they toppled, as totalitarian impulses remain.

Nancy Bauer ends her look at Lady Gaga within feminist thought with another glance at the gap between idea and action, ambition and hypocrisy. "It remains to be seen whether philosophers will be able to pick up the gauntlet that's still lying on the ground more than half a century after Beauvoir passed it down: whether we can sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one." (635) Frequently, Gary Gutting appears, more aware than many academics herein that he seeks to get across arcana to those outside the ivory tower (or in it four years at best).

Weary of the "outrage" every time a racial incident is publicized and polarized, he prefers "serious discussions about economic justice," and if our capitalist system is "inevitably unjust."(Some attempt was made three years after he wrote this, in the 2016 Democratic campaign, as an instructive example of Gutting's advice playing out in the media and among the populace.) How might the current set-up be reformed or replaced? "If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?" (657) Although many essays involve the Trayvon Martin case, the better ones demonstrate that truly salient issues outlast the tweets, memes, and soundbites. Reports of racial tensions in Cuba and immigration clashes in France, too, expand what is overwhelmingly an American-centered NYT compendium.

Perhaps a few those preached to in this liberal choir may harbor hesitation at particularly rarified or idealistic nostrums. Todd May tackles whether nonviolence in America could triumph. He as many of these professors cites Kant's imperative, not to treat others "simply as a means but also as ends in themselves." (700) He makes a concerted case, pondering as others within the sly 2nd Amendment.

Jamieson Webster joins Critchley late on in a sharp rejoinder to hipster commodification and preening postures. They confront the reader to scrutinize what he or she surrounds life with--is it ironic or loved? Why ape ugly, louche poses and pursue the cult of this selfishly acquisitive mindset? "Is the prosperous self the only God in which we believe in a radically inauthentic world"? (732) This message resonates with many, hipster or not, I suspect, and at its best, the core of the morals that persists in these pages, from Aristotle and Plato down to our contentious and fragmented global spirit.
(Amazon US 12/8/17)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tim Crane's "The Meaning of Belief": Book Review


The "New Atheists" get it wrong about religious perpetuation, argues this philosopher, an atheist himself. Tim Crane rejects basing opposition to faith claims and belief systems primarily on bald evidence of their irrationality. This default stance characterizes non-believers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, and Daniel Dennett who aver that if mass ignorance and dogmas were corrected by science and logic, these newly enlightened billions would, dazzled by the glow of reason, disavow delusion. For, if 8 out of 10 among us affirm a God or gods, why in this advanced era have not more been convinced of the error of their benighted, superstitious, and unverifiable suppositions?

So Crane begins this brief book, The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist's Point of View. Based on his 2007 lecture which failed to sway his London academic audience away from a rote response centered on what Crane regards as an over-exaggeration of blaming the world's problems on religion as the root cause for every evil, this professor ten years later has refined his subtle message that tolerance better addresses religion today, and that this denotes neither its approval nor its affirmation.

He counters New Atheist objections with two observations. Religion combines much more than a system grounded in a cosmological construction of a powerful deity ruling the universe. It embeds two crucial needs which many humans have long sought and will continue to seek. First, the impulse for "more to it all than just this" motivates a religious quest. Second, this search offers inspirational enrichment in the historical legacy of a faith, expressed through ritual and tradition. Crane defines religion four ways. It's systematic, practical, a search for meaning, and an appeal to the transcendent.

Religion aligns humans with "a collection of ideas and practices" designed to match a particular worldview. Over six billion believers in Crane's estimation do not grovel before supernatural agents as their predominant concern. Rather, religion in their quotidian routines connects one's practice with a stable and supportive community. This is central, not peripheral, contrasted with a New Atheist critique which elevates the supernatural as if this occupies the majority of a believer's daily devotion.

Crane warns that his inversion of categories does not presume their truth. He strives to show how religion contains content which atheists tend to demote in their rush to convince duped believers. Given the faithful have not been swayed in significant numbers by the New Atheists, Crane asserts that believers do not recognize themselves within those depictions popularized by their detractors.

Delving deeper into impulse, Crane determines that people long for a meaning which will outlast their own mortality. This rests in a divine presence. Pessimists, of which Crane is one, admit if tacitly that if an "unseen power" (using William James' formulation from his pioneering work in the classification of experiences) could be verified, that disenchantment and meaninglessness would be replaced; the foes would become comrades in faith. Optimists dismiss enchantment itself as possible.

They reject "even the possibility that God's existence could give the world meaning." Crane, speaking for the former faction, considers the persistence of a "religious temperament" without one's belief. This is balanced by adherents who, as do many Christians and Jews nowadays, may participate in actions and rites without a temperament inclined towards any faith itself. This does beg the question whether secular mores are accelerating this lack of a temperament, or whether those who formerly had to play along despite their true preferences may more freely express disbelief now. The challenge remains that belief by definition eludes our "full cognitive grasp" in words or images. This relates to theodicy--how a good God can exist alongside bad things--and the puzzle of creation by an eternal Creator, to name two venerable examples of puzzles which believers may confess they can't solve.

Scientific explanations rest on mathematics and laboratories; ordinary believers (not theologians) may lack education, or if they have it, Crane reminds us, few will pursue the higher study of what can be arcane knowledge and difficult data. They simply lack, again, any technical inclination. Their tolerance for "mystery and ignorance" is greater than a scientist's. They don't demand hypotheses or proofs. Not certainty so much as "continued struggle" occupies the mindset of many sophisticated believers more often than naysayers may imagine. Crane quotes Francis Spufford here in wise support. Facing the unknown and inexplicable, these faithful attempt to reconcile the explicit with that which cannot be explained in tangible form or clear articulation, but which nevertheless endures.

Identification with the wider system within which this impulse persists incorporates many situations not based on belief itself. Crane appears to find wiggle room here, but he tallies how but one of the Five Pillars of Islam and the Ten Commandments respectively state a cosmological claim of God's existence and dominance. Rather, pilgrimage, dietary rules, or circumcision exemplify the granular means by which a religious community continues. Crane cites Emile Durkheim's reminder that believers belong to a larger polity. This collective figures out who will be a member and how, and invents rituals to incorporate believers and sustain the system which codifies faith-claims tangibly.

For those who balk at this argument, Crane notes how without religion, a believer would indulge in only magic, which lacks any church. Akin somewhat to nationality, ethnicity, patriotism, family, and clan, humans establish manifestations of their common values and ties to their terrain and to one another. These endure; we belong to these categories without entering them by our rational choice.

Therefore, religion cannot be excised from our social order without leaving but a slight scar. Crane judges that the academy for scientists themselves reifies a similar set-up. Those who are convinced gather together to repeat cherished actions and to find solidarity in sophisticated networks and ranks.

The concept of the sacred connects impulse with identification. Objects possess an external significance in worship, but they also emanate an internal meaning directed towards transcendence. Illogical as a funeral rite may be when weighed against utility, Crane reflects, even an atheist might be moved by that moment. There's no logic why we place wreaths on a grave, but we bow to ritual.

The penultimate section of this text turns to the way pain and violence intrude upon everyday life. Religious institutions and groups of believers cause atrocities, Crane agrees. But he rejects the claim that they "have been in some way uniquely responsible for the worst horrors and evils of the human race." For "Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism appeal to no spiritual agencies." He at some length, granted this short text, confronts those who would equate political ideologies with religious functions.

"Beliefs about God" do not align exactly with social uses or abuses of religion, Crane explains. Many supposedly religious conflicts "have little do to with any of the theological ideas that may have been responsible for the religious schism in the first place." This careful admission deserves attention. Crane cleanly cancels the canard promoted by both Dawkins and Hitchens which blames the conflict in the North of Ireland on ecclesiastical debates. The Croats and Serbs two decades ago were not fighting over the "filioque" clause about the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son which led to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Such lofty disputes played no role. On the other hand, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence against Salman Rushdie, this documents the precise cause and effect of a doctrine and a harm.

In Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and even the Thirty Years War, ethnic and territorial allegiances entangled with denominational affiliation and princely power plays subsumed any distinctively religious content, Crane determines. This little work could have generated more space to this matter, for it's key in rhetoric repeated by leading atheists and secularists, but he retreats to a philosophical consideration of "theoretical rationality, or reasons for belief," which displays his scholarly bent. He shows that without religion, as recent events verify, human irrationality endures apart from any faith.

Yet, as the revival of religions within contemporary China reveals, nationhood gathered up within faith systems confirms this pair as the "main drivers behind world events," rather than what the last century assumed, as the battles between "principles about state ownership and the economy." This statement elides the economic roles religion promotes, generates, and perpetuates, but Crane in his final chapter clears room for non-political analysis. He explains that his last pages will elucidate instead the logic behind a personal advocacy of tolerance by atheists towards religion. This is not an agreement with faith-claims or ritual actions. It does not capitulate to the "non-starter" of "anything goes" relativism, or a "wishy-washy respect" for all faiths (one conjures up apparitions of the post-9/11 "Co-Exist" bumper sticker ubiquitous in enclaves of the bien-pensant liberal constituency) which glosses over pain and cruelty exacted by the perpetuation of barbaric and nonsensical codes.

For disapproval may follow frequently wherever atheists live among believers. Not necessarily due to differing opinions or actions, Crane assures, but out of a moral imperative for a far more fundamental expression of mutual respect: that for each other as human. Non-believers may respect believers, while strenuously rejecting their views and their actions. Crane's first principle presents a common cause through a dignified expression of humanity, neither churlish nor condescending, towards faith. The Meaning of Belief prefers calm logic to bold catchphrases. It likely will not attract the attention given by supporters or detractors of the New Atheists' shelf of screeds, but it invites poised reaction.

Tim Crane wraps up this swift study (too much so in one parenthetical moment when Muhammad is said to have lived "around 600 BC") by repeating that his colleagues, the New Atheists, are too optimistic. That is, by their idealism that with the imposition of reason, faith will ebb away smoothly. As a realist and a pessimist, he reckons neither secularism nor religion will disappear anytime soon.
(PopMatters 12/5/17 in slightly ed. form; Amazon US 12/5/17)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Johnny Rogan's "Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance": Book Review

Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by [Rogan, Johnny]
Twenty years after this first appeared, this diligent chronicler returns to the book that made him famous. Johnny Rogan incited Morrissey into barbed jabs against this joint account which, as he notes in the new introduction, revealed only that his subject had not yet read it. This is much more detailed than all but a Smiths fanatic will wish, and like Rogan's book on Ray Davies (which I reviewed), you get such trivia as who Rough Trade's Geoff Travis dated, as well as seemingly half the classmates Morrissey ever entertained or angered. (The subsequent autobiography by Morrissey serves as a neat balance, as M. evokes powerfully his Mancunian-Irish childhood; Rogan to his credit provides historical context for the wave of post-war Irish immigration which all four Smiths shared in recent family trees.) Despite the massive amounts of data early on, for Morrissey at least, a reader understands the Sixties pop and English culture which made such an impact on his formative years.

For Johnny Marr, far less background is included, and by comparison bare-bones looks at Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. This, however, demonstrates as so much of this dense book does in numbing proof (a feature echoed by Morrissey's vitriolic attack in his autobiography on the drummer's lawsuit for lost wages) of how little the rhythm section would share in the Smiths, in terms of credit and power.

Astutely, Rogan explains: "As in the Jagger/Richards axis, Maher [soon to go by Marr] was content to allow his partner to become the public face while he imperceptibly and effortlessly won the accolades for his virtuosity. It was a perfectly conceived musical partnership." Even if it needed four.

"What the group shared was a quest for the subliminal magic moment in pop. It was there in Morrissey’s unearthly vocal yelping; in Marr’s experimental open tunings; in Rourke’s ability to create 'a song within a song' through his imaginative bass lines; and in Joyce’s tendency to alter the timing to unorthodox but spectacular effect." Rogan takes us through the standard high points and most of the recordings, in helpful illustrations of lyrical and musical influence, and exacting manner.

As with Morrissey's self-portrait in print, the downside after the first two LPs comes and after that, it's never as fun. "Pop at its epochal best provides an almost frightening expectation and exhilarating sense of instant history in the making. The all too familiar alternative is a depressing anticlimax, akin to the disillusionment produced by a soured love affair." The crowds grow, the concerts get louder, and the band gets tougher in its attitude on stage and off. Magnified in this is, of course, the frontman.

Bouquets are thrown and hugs attempted of M. But as Rogan knows, it's tricky. "The overt politeness and irrational benignity with which some people treat nuns, negroes, priests, mental patients, royalty, foreigners, the disabled and the deformed, were bestowed upon Morrissey with alarming regularity. Whether intentional or not, he had the power to make people extremely wary of causing offence."

It's sad to learn of Rourke's addictions and Joyce's taciturnity, for they sustained the fabled alliance. Its unraveling comes as the "jingle-jangle" wears down Marr, limiting his creativity. Like Rourke, his funky side had to be suppressed in the Smiths, and he yearned for release, and he forced his hand. The punk energy of Joyce worked to boost the band on stage to new heights, but behind the scenes, squabbling, drugs, and drink led to the separation of the three musicians from their songwriter. "The Smiths projected a semblance of pop group solidarity and camaraderie, but all the power and influence lay with Morrissey/Marr. Beyond that dynamic was the increasingly incandescent spectacle of Morrissey the media star, burning up fame in blazes of publicity and rent-a-quote accessibility." So, too soon, the saga ends in lassitude and the band fades. A sobering tale. (Amazon US 12/3/17)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Philip Larkin "The Complete Poems": Book Review

The Complete Poems | Philip Larkin | Macmillan
Reading an advance copy of Martin Amis' The Rub of Time (collected essays and journalism), his insights into his father's friendship with and his son's childhood memories of Philip Larkin kindled my checking out Archie Burnett's 2013 edition and commentary. Whereas Amis judiciously chose his pick among the hundred-plus poems published in Larkin's lifetime, Burnett shovels them all in.

Certainly for scholars it's welcome to have it all with detailed commentary and textual apparatus. Burnett combs the letters, novels, and reflections Larkin himself and some of his critics and biographers have aligned to the poetry. Aptly, Burnett cites his Boston U. colleague Christopher Ricks: to distinguish "between what went into the making of the poem and what went into the meaning of the poem." (xxvii) Ricks wrote this over two decades before about T.S. Eliot's similarly posthumous and more minor work collected as Inventions of the March Hare but it applies, with some overlap as Burnett asserts, to Larkin. I've always been intrigued by such minutiae when it comes to my favorite creators in any genre, but I've also been overwhelmed, as when the six-disc box set offers not only the remastered version of the great LP, but demos, live tracks, and innumerable outtakes and studio noodlings. This sort of assembly of all parts is Complete Poems, Larkin style.

Amis was correct to call out as it were his subject's early attempts as not quite on target compared to the best, mostly from The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974). But he also reminds us that, rare for a poet of postwar renown, all four of Larkin's slim volumes still enjoy print, attesting to their demand and their quality. So, why the box set package here? Academically inclined as I am, I admit that the meticulous editing, very necessary given faults of past compilers of Larkin, is probably too much of more of a good thing than the general reader, who liked seeing the f-word in the first line of "This Be the Verse," or chuckled once at finding the Fab Four sparking "Annus Mirabilis" about 1963, expects or needs. I'd judge Amis is enough. He leans towards the later, certainly a wise choice.

Still, surveying the whole of Burnett's diligence, moments early on and off the printed record now and then merit mention. The North Ship (1945) features a series of mostly untitled poems headed in Roman numerals. I like this, for like listing "track 7" it keeps the focus on content revealed rather than following a reductive or encompassing title. "It is not love you find:/ You have no limbs/ Crying for stillness/ You have no mind/ Trembling with seraphim,/ You have no death to come." (XIII. p. 11, last stanza). The elegance of the fifth line settling into the gentle remonstration, or assurance, of grim mortality conveys Larkin's signature theme early on. All of XXVI condenses what many false starts and abandoned marathons in the uncollected, unpublished sections demonstrate as Larkin fumbling and experimenting; whereas most of the published contents of the four collections show his control.

"This is the first thing/ I have understood:/ Time is the echo of an axe/ In the wood." (p. 19)

Here Larkin gets it right: he presents the metaphor, frames it in imperious (would we call it "humblebrag" if Twittered?) or humbled persona, and leaves it there. Enough, no need for more.

By the time of The Less Deceived (1955), more inclusions begin to call out for attention. "Next, Please" channels the maritime theme of his first volume neatly into another (of so many) reflections on mortality, as the ship of doom comes each of our separate paths but shared destination of nothing. The end of "Church Going" eloquently lets a longer Larkin tell us that although, as many of us, his belief in the old ways withers, he acknowledges and respects the dead and their place of gravitas.

"This is the future furthest childhood saw" alliteratively captures the limits of our past perception, within "Triple Time." (p. 40, line 7) What has slipped away, what suggests itself ahead, and what passes as the moment we keep grasping as future turns to memory: this again Larkin expresses here.

The whole of "Water" as the essence of whatever faith Larkin might be called on in such a distant realm perhaps to conjure should be a corrective to the secular harshness which dominates his poems. Sure, it's imaginary, but like "Church Going" (a multilayered title), it offers humanist audiences of the later 20th c. onward a composed consideration of the solace which devotion has given many before.

No, Larkin's no dupe. The surreal "Essential Beauty" turns billboards of all things into a dazzling and disturbing contrast of what we see peddled around us, heedless of the real landscape and its sufferers. The "Whitsun" title entry depicts an English rush of wedding parties onto and away from trains, which Stanley Spencer might have depicted on canvas in elongated whirl. "An Arundel Tomb" with dignity notices the clasped hands of the venerable couple dissolved under its statutory tribute. This concludes his third volume with impressive grace, while never doting on the poet's own perspective.

His final collection works best when keeping to similar topics of balance and sangfroid amid death. "High Windows" swoops up in its last stanza from the f-word, the diaphragm, combine harvesters and "like free bloody birds" into contemplation where no words suffice, only thoughts before a vision of nowhere as everywhere. Set to music in one's mind may be the only correlative for this depth of focus. Given this collection was written around the time of his fifties, the expectation of his own termination was premature (he stopped his production officially more or less as he judged correctly that his talent was on the decline; would so many musicians and singers do the same these days).

But he prepared for it. "The Old Fools" wonders what goes on in the heads of the addled aged. "The peak that stays in view wherever we go/ For them is rising ground." (p. 82, ll. 43-4) The next one, "Going Going," and one after the next in High Windows, "The Building," depress as they document the decline of whatever beauty is left to the countryside as squalor and suburbia consume delicacy, and the sinister aspect of Hull's Kingston Hospital where some visitors may spark the tagline for American ad adepts of a Roach Motel where the inmates once they check in will never check out.

"I listen to money singing," the speaker in "Money" sighs, comparing it as probably nobody ever had before to looking down on a provincial town from french windows, saddened by slums and churches.
Yet, "Show Saturday" in detail equal to a Bruegel painting shows folks at their summer folly and fun. May it endure, the poet hopes, despite the fate of every one of its attendees, as a seasonal renewal.

Others in the published uncollected chapter, besides the deservedly much-anthologized standout "Aubade," number few. Larkin in letters seemed a fair adjudicator about the value of his odds and ends. He knows the arch and strained "Breadfruit" languishes within the subpar, but it's somewhat clever. (Too much of the castoffs resemble, as Larkin well knew first, Auden and Eliot inter alia.)

More hospitalized anguish fills "Heads in the Women's Ward," but after "Old Fools," merely switching genders and hairstyles seems superficial, and Larkin smartly let this one fall out of line. The tenderness of "The Mower" might have made my cut, as its composure when men destroy the natural and the fragile unknowingly resonates with the everyday threatened landscapes of "Going Going." Human encroachment upon the wild and the inarticulate reveals the agony when we play god. In the last batch, the scraps and drafts and failures, "To A Friend" keeps poise, "The Conscientious Objector" scorn, and for the veterans of "The Returned," care. None of these, including these three, meet the standards Larkin set, but they have moments of insight, if a sub-Auden slant.

A couple more would have broadened the scope of the oeuvre we know. "Compline" may not be needed given the reflections on religion already applauded, but it concludes with a nod to ritual and the trust this instills in the faithful which Larkin lets happen, free of either critique or platitude. It's a style that today's barbed wits tearing apart the "moth-eaten brocade" of religious certainty ("Aubade") might pause before, as an example of how their betters got there first, and how they found their foil.

Jazz captivated Larkin and created a whole other role he played, in essays and reviews. Little finds its way into his works and even in the fragments and rejections, there's less than I expected about music. "Two Guitar Pieces" is a bit of a lark, as the poet imagines life down South a romanticized time ago and an ocean away from Hull, and the library employing him. But it's lighter in tone and for that, fine.

I'm glad I perused this edition. It's overflowing when most readers will be content with a sampling. These definitive gatherings of the gifted artists around us keep us reverent, and also respectful of how much may lay on the studio cutting room floor, or the poet's wastebasket, before our digital erasures.
(Amazon US 11/25/17)

P.S.  Here's fifteen "Greatest Hits" from the poet. Like any such compilation, I'd make some change, but it's a starter. Same with this "Top Ten."