Wednesday, September 30, 2009

All The Living by CE Morgan


All The Living is a slowly unfolding, melancholic story of southern living, suffused with traditional southern spirit. Set in the present, it could, with its old-time preachers and fundamentalist morality and strict work ethic, have taken place any time in the past hundred years or more. It follows a young, orphaned woman Aloma, who moves in with tobacco farmer Orren in the aftermath of an accident which is often mentioned but little described, but which has killed Orren’s entire family. Together, the couple try to fashion a relationship, while struggling with a drought which threatens their tobacco harvest and with small-scale farming difficulties made more difficult by the lack of available hands, by Aloma’s unproficiency at country living and by Orren’s increasing inability to ask for help. There is, throughout, a sense of claustrophobia, of people enclosed in their small lives, unable not only to escape but even to comprehend that there might be the concept of escape.

The novel begins after the car accident, with Aloma moving in with Orren on his Kentucky farm. They do not, however, move into the new farm house in which Orren and his deceased family had lived, but the older, original farm house, which is running to disrepair and is redolent with – to Aloma – challenging memories of the family’s ancestry. Orren is reluctant to do anything with the new house, or even to visit it; clearly, there is too much emotional weight bearing on it, and the first portents of the difficulties this young couple might encounter are exposed. Gradually, tensions arise. Aloma tries to settle into farm life, teaching herself to cook, helping when she can, but she is not naturally suited to farm life and her frustrations grow. She is a talented pianist, apparently trained to a high standard, but the piano in their house has been neglected beyond repair. She enquires at the local church whether they require a pianist and, although initially rebuffed, she quickly has a chance to show her ability and is engaged on a regular basis. This allows her the opportunity to practice whenever she wants, as long as the minister, Bell, is present, and Aloma relieves the frustrations of her life with the uncommunicative Orren by returning to her first love of playing piano.

What follows, in terms of plot, is slight and somewhat predictable. Her relationship with Orren becomes ever more tense; that with the preacher Bell begins to develop. We are being shepherded to a climax, which we know will come when Aloma’s relationship with Orren, which she has hidden from Bell, is exposed, and this is, indeed, what duly happens. That isn’t to say the novel is without interest, for although there is a grim inevitability about the unfolding events, CE Morgan’s prose is so beautiful, and her pacing – deliberately, deliciously slow – captures the mood perfectly. (That said, there is an archness about the way she turns nouns into verbs, and the Cormac McCarthyesque lack of punctuation for dialogue is tiresome.)

There is, throughout, a strong religious undercurrent here. Morgan is a Divinity graduate, and she is following in the long tradition of religiously-inflected southern writing. There is no grotesquery here, however; the characters are, perhaps, stock, but they are not caricatured, and their actions feel like the actions of characters following their God, rather than a Haze Motes or a Tarwater following their author’s following of her God. These are not O’Connorish puppets. There is no redemption at the end of the novel, and only a prospect of grace. Matters are resolved – of a fashion – but ambiguity and uncertainty remain as potent at the conclusion as they were at the beginning. For that, Morgan deserves respect: she clearly has her view of the spiritual, but she does not force it on her characters. It makes her message all the more powerful. All The Living is a very fine novel.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lessing's Briefing as gnosticism?

I've written a fuller review of Doris Lessing's Briefing for a Descent Into Hell a few posts below, but I am also curious about the specific point of whether or not it is gnostic, so I want to explore that a bit further.

Robert Galbreath identifies it as ‘significantly gnostic’, making use of traditional gnostic features such as ‘the alien messenger, the prison-house of existence, sleep and awakening as metaphors of the human condition.’ The gnosticism presented here, however, is not that of early gnostic texts, he argues. Rather, the gnosis is ‘problematic’: this, then, is gnosis as the presentation of alienation, the corrupt state of modernity.

He further argues that, in modern gnosticism, where transcendence has been replaced by immanence, the gnostic prison house which embodies the alienation of mankind is no longer located in the cosmos, but in the mind, ‘where the polar opposites function as categories for states of consciousness and degrees of knowledge: ignorance/knowledge, sleep/awakening, forgetting/remembering, alienation/enlightenment (gnosis).’ Thus, this modern gnosticism could be seen as essentially psychological, something Lessing herself acknowledges when she calls her novel a work of ‘inner space. For there is never anywhere to go but in.’

One can certainly see these motifs throughout the novel. Watkins consistently describes existence in terms of bondage. He reminisces about his childhood, before the ‘prison shades’ descended and ‘the trap had shut.’ Elsewhere, children are ‘creatures about to be trapped and corrupted by what trapped and corrupted [the adults].’ People are bound by chains of ‘terrible bondage’, enduring the ‘dreadful breath of cold, of grief.’

Thus, we have humanity entrapped. It is enduring, in the words of RD Laing, whose work was a signficant influence on Lessing’s novel, ‘the condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind.’ And so, by the end of the novel, Watkins is clear that ‘People don’t know it but it is as if they are living in a poisoned air. They are not awake.’ This is classic gnostic despair, and as Watkins explains in the novel, ‘The advocates humanity has found to argue on the side of despair have always been more powerful than those other small voices.’

But the most gnostic element of the novel comes in the form of Watkins himself, who can be seen to be a gnostic messenger from the gods, descending to Earth to warn mankind of its imminent demise. A plot strand in the novel sees a character, presumably an incarnation of Watkins, receiving his briefing from the gods before a descent to Earth to save humanity. Clearly, however, this mission is not the first. He is told: ‘When the time comes, it will be our task to wake up those of us who have forgotten what they went for; as well as to recruit suitable inhabitants of Earth – those, that is, who have kept a potential for evolving into rational beings.’ Thus we have pneumatics already on Earth with, unknown to them, the seed of knowledge inside them, waiting to be awakened. And what is stopping them? The Archons, of course. In Briefing, the three Doctors (and, particularly, Doctor X, whom Watkins can’t even see) can clearly be identified as Archons, trying their best to keep man in a state of darkness and ignorance. Watkins attempts, throughout the novel, to find the knowledge he feels is there, but is consistently foiled by the medical men. And in the end, of course, he accepts their advice and takes the electro-therapy treatment which reverts him to his previous state of blissful ignorance: the Archons win, mankind stays in its prison house of the mind.

All of this can clearly be interpreted as gnostic in the modern sense of reacting against modernity. But in one respect, Lessing’s novel is very different. Lessing, of course, is an atheist, and for her the gnosis that man has lost and must somehow recover is not a theistic one, but a natural one. She quotes Rachel Carson at the beginning of the novel – Silent Spring would have only been a few years old when Briefing was published – and an ecopastoral message is clearly evident in it. The messengers are told in their briefing:

‘Now the Permanent staff on Earth have always had one main task, which is to keep alive, in any way possible, the knowledge that humanity, with its fellow creatures, the animals and plants, make up a whole, are a unity, have a function in the whole system as an organ or organism... Human beings... have not yet evolved into an understanding of their individual selves as merely parts of a whole, first of all humanity, their own species, let alone achieving a conscious knowledge of humanity as part of Nature, plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, all these together making a small chord in the Cosmic Harmony.’

James Lovelock first formulated his Gaia hypothesis in the sixties, while working for NASA, but he didn’t begin to publish his work until the early seventies, around the time Briefing was published (1971). There is a striking similarity between the holistic idea here of Earth as a single organism and Lovelock’s thesis. This link between humanity and nature is stressed throughout the novel. Human consciousness and that of the cosmos are internlinked. We are told:

There is nothing on Earth, or near it, that does not have its own consciousness, Stone, or Tree, of Dog, or Man. Looking into a mirror or into the glossy side of a toppling wave, or a water-smoothed shining stone like glass, we see shapes of flesh, flesh in time.

Man and animal are one, part of a wider connection of all matter. ‘It was the mind of humanity that I saw,’ Watkins tells us, ‘but this was not at all to be separated from the animal mind which married and fused with it everywhere.’

And this begins to take us to the message of the novel. If it is gnostic, it is a distinct flavour of gnosticism. The knowledge that we need to be awakened to is an ecopastoral one. We have founded societies based on materialism:

The chief thought was that our society was dominated by things, artefacts, possessions, machines, objects, and that we judged previous societies by artefacts – things. There is no way of knowing an ancient society’s ideas ecept through the barrier of our own.

And there is, by extension, no way of knowing our own inner space and inner knowledge without being able to connect to something more elemental, less materialistic. It is the community of ‘we’ and not the ascendency of ‘I’; and that ‘we’ must encompass more than simply human nature, because human nature – acquisitive, aspiring, solipsistic – is not enough. This is the gnostic message that Lessing is imparting: we must break through the alienation of the modern world; we must awaken to the values of the world around us. For me, it is a striking message. I do not share her pessimism about humanity, and I have strong reservations about the elevation of animals and even minerals to the status of human beings (for here we are in the territory of McCarthy’s ‘optical democracy’) but it is a powerful battlecry for progress through understanding. Ultimately, I do not think this is a gnostic novel, despite the starkness of its ending. That ending, for me, is admonitory, but we should not take it literally. There is, in Lessing’s world, unlike that of other so-called gnostic writers, some possibility of gaining the knowledge.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Assynt

There was an excellent programme on British TV tonight about Assynt, in the north of Scotland. This is a remote crofting area where the living is extremely harsh. There was a big fuss about it in the early nineties because the laird decided he was going to sell the land on the open market. The advertising brochure for the sale described the indigenous peoples, in a quote that could come from McCarthy himself, as 'aliens in the landscape'. The crofters set up an international appeal for funding and bought the land themselves.

There is a long and troubled relationship between the peoples of these areas of Scotland and their land. They were, of course, cleared in the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to make way for sheep and hunting. Their feudal lairds have ruled over them and, while they could be said to have maintained their estates and the land, as an observer pointed out in the programme, often this has been done for the benefit of 'nature, not people'.

Now that they own their land, the locals still have difficulties to overcome, most notably with the environmental lobby who are, in the eyes of the crofters, 'the new empire builders' who are no longer content with nature reserves but wish to turn the entire highlands into a managed reserve, with no thought for the wishes of the people who are the ancestors and inheritors of this land.

All of which made me think of Norman MacCaig (who I was amazed was not mentioned in the programme) and his brilliant poem 'A Man in Assynt'. 'Who owns the landscape?' he asks:

Who owns this landscape? —
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? —
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?


But, immediately, he rebukes himself for the impertinence of the question:

False questions, for
this landscape is
masterless
and intractable in any terms
that are human.


He carries on:

Or has it come to this,
that this dying landscape belongs
to the dead, the crofters and fighters
and fishermen whose larochs
sink into the bracken
by Loch Assynt and Loch Crocach? —
to men trampled under the hoofs of sheep
and driven by deer to
the ends of the earth — to men whose loyalty
was so great it accepted their own betrayal
by their own chiefs and whose descendants now
are kept in their place
by English businessmen and the indifference
of a remote and ignorant government.


There is undoubted anger here - this is an unusually political poem from MacCaig - but in some respects his initial question is not rhetorical. Yes, the land - dying or otherwise - does belong to the dead. But only in as much as the dead also belong to the living and we to them. It is really only in these remote places where the connections of generations - to the people and to the land that nourished them - still hold strong. This means these people have something uniquely powerful, a shared culture, a collective memory, a connection that is unbroken.

Sorley Maclean describes this best in that other piece of Scottish genius, Hallaig.

If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the Sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.

They are still in Hallaig,
MacLeans and MacLeods,
all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
the dead have been seen alive.

The men lying on the green
at the end of every house that was,
the girls a wood of birches,
straight their backs, bent their heads.


This weaving of the living and the dead, and the humans and their landscape, is mesmerising. Throughout the poem, Maclean gives life to the lands by naming them, and by naming the people who inhabited them. He describes an almost symbiotic relationship, but he recognises the fragility of that relationship. For yes, indeed, these remote places are the last in which the connections between the past and present, the people and the land, can still be seen and felt, but even here those connections are loosening. Time moves. Generations shift. Memories evaporate.

The poem ends beautifully. Time, symbolised in the poem's epigraph as a deer, is struck down by a 'vehement bullet' that comes from 'the gun of love'. And so those memories will disappear. The connection will be lost. But not, says Maclean, while there are still writers writing and historians recording history. 'His blood will not be traced while I live,' he concludes. The connection will remain.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Banned Books Week

Today is the start of Banned Books Week. The purpose of Banned Books Week, taken from their website, is:

Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities. People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups--or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore the latest problems to classic and beloved works of American literature.

During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events.


In 2008, the most challenged books in the US were:


And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group

His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence

TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence

Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group

Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group

The website lists a number of events taking place to mark the week. Perhaps you could participate: check the above titles in your local library and if there are any which are not in stock anywhere in the system, place a reservation for them, to encourage the library to buy them. I shall be doing so on Monday.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Most influential novel of the past 25 years

According to a new survey, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is the most influential novel of the past twenty-five years. Really?

I read this probably in about 1982 and it blew me away, particularly the last three pages, which I remember I had to read while pacing around the room because I was so excited. Even now, I would probably place it in my top three or five favourite books of all time (Gunther Grass, The Tin Drum number one). But I haven't looked at it in a long time, and I'm very wary of doing so, because I am fairly certain it will not have the same impact any more.

If the precise question asked was 'what novel has most influenced world writing over the past quarter-century?', then it is difficult to argue the case for 100 Years. Back in the early eighties it looked like magic realism was going to sweep the world, and that it was going to be the dominant force in world literature. But that isn't the case any more. If anything, it is now a bit tired. I seem to recall Louis de Bernieres, whose first three novels were magic realist, saying he got frustrated with it because if you got stuck you could just bring a character back to life. I think that lack of challenge has affected magic realism, and I don't particularly feel that it is a major force in current literature.

The sample survey was very small - 25 - and 100 years was, in fact, the only novel to receive more than one vote, so it is a highly unreliable poll. But it's an interesting question. Raymond Carver is on the list and, for good or ill, that may be right: his pared-down, stark style has had an enormous influence in the past 25 years, much more than Marquez. That may now be waning, of course, but that's the nature of things. Looking more widely than just literature, it would be hard to argue against the Satanic Verses.

But what else? Can any novel or novelist be said to have had a truly significant influence on the world of literature in the past 25 years?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing


Charles Watkins – or somebody who seems to be Charles Watkins – is an amnesiac patient in some form of mental hospital, where he hallucinates, or remembers, or participates in (certainly mentally, perhaps even physically) disturbing, savage, dangerous, highly significant, real and mythical events. He is a traveller from another world; or he is a gnostic messenger seeking to awaken himself from the mundane reality in which he is imprisoned; or he is a lunatic; or perhaps he is simply a genuine amnesiac, struggling to make sense of the memories and feelings and fears which are being fired from his consciousness. Meanwhile, he is attended by two doctors who cannot agree on his symptoms, or on the appropriate treatment, or even on the patient’s response to that treatment. In this haze of confusion and terror, both patient and reader are borne on a wild adventure encompassing outer space and inner space, taking in a fantastic, genocidal war which may be occurring at the start or the end of our civilisation, a tragic story from the Second World War, an eternity adrift on a liferaft in the ocean, a mission from the gods to awaken mankind and more; all the while focusing on the nature of our understanding (and, largely, lack of understanding) of what drives the human consciousness. Briefing for a Descent Into Hell is at once a novel of ideas and a novel of action. It is daringly experimental and challenging. It is fascinating and thought-provoking but, ultimately, it falls short of its own lofty goals.

Initially we know nothing of this man, Charles Watkins, and nor can we know anything. He is an enigma, a man who has completely lost his memory and who does not respond to any medical treatment. We are taken into his mind as he tries, himself, to uncover the key to his existence, but all is confusion. We are told a series of stories, all seemingly his own reminisences, all plausible, all concerning this character, and yet this character is not the Charles Watkins the doctors think he is. Or perhaps he is. Or perhaps he is, but he is someone or something else as well. This, a study of madness and alienation, takes up the first half of the novel.

Gradually, as the second half unfolds, the doctors investigate his background and make contact with people from his known past – his wife, his lover, a wartime companion, work colleagues – and each shed light on different attributes of someone who emerges as a difficult man. He is not easily likeable, we find out, but he can be charming, even seductive. He is highly intelligent, a Classics professor, but he is reduced now to helplessness. Throughout, he seems to be struggling to understand something greater than himself, aiming for something higher – redemption perhaps, or human happiness, or a deeper, greater truth, a knowledge. The novel ends with him making a dramatic decision, wholly unexpected, and with highly significant consequences, not only for him but, by extension, for us all. Is this it? might be the summary. Where is madness and where is sanity?

In all of this, Lessing’s theme is the consciousness which defines our reality and, more importantly, the narrow way our civilised minds tend to interpret both consciousness and reality. In our society, insanity is something to be feared, locked out of sight, talked of only in the passive. But, Lessing is showing us, the visions and notions of the mentally ill are not – or at least, not necessarily or not completely – pointless raving or rambling. They may, she argues, connect to another reality, or another view of life: ‘If you have shaped in your mind an eight-legged monster with saucer eyes, then if there is such a creature in the sea you will not see anything less, or more – that is what you are set to see.’ The events of the initial sections of the novel are clearly in some sense happening to Charles Watkins. But they make no sense to us. They are contradictory. Yet still, one feels, there may be a kernel of truth – knowledge – in there, which Watkins is struggling to reach.

Some commentators suggest Lessing draws heavily on the theories of RD Laing in her study of madness and alienation. For Laing, the state of mankind was ‘the condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one’s mind.’ Each of these is an accurate description of the various responses of Charles Watkins to his dilemma in the novel. Lessing’s argument appears to begin from the view that man is increasingly alienated from himself and his environment. ‘There is nothing on Earth or near it,’ we are told ‘that does not have its own consciousness, Stone, or Tree, of Dog, or Man.’ This is reminiscent of, for example, the Aboriginal Australian concept of Dreamtime, in which the wholeness of the world, in both space and time, is made clear and men have a direct connection with everything around them, animal vegetable and mineral, and past and present. But modern man has lost touch with the old truths. Instead, ‘[t]he chief thought was that our society was dominated by things, artefacts, possessions, machines, objects, and that we judged previous societies by artefacts – things. There was no way of knowing an ancient society’s ideas except through the barrier of our own.’

And so the character of Charles Watkins, unable to reconcile his inner and outer spaces, is symbolic of, in Douglass Bolling’s description, ‘the loss (perhaps irreversible) of psychic wholeness by modern-day Western man.’ We have, perhaps, lost our mythologies and, in so doing, some of our selves. Rationalism has taken the role of mythology, science is only ‘the most recent religion’. This is something with which religious anthropologists such as Karen Armstrong would agree.

This tension between rationality and dreams or mythology takes us back to a debate I have held consistently on this blog recently: in a rational world, there should be no place for the irrational, and yet it is there, and it impacts on us all whether we wish it to or not, and it invades both our outer and inner spaces whether we are aware of it or not; thus, to dismiss the irrational is, ironically enough, irrational. Judith Stitzel provides a fascinating quote from Lessing on the subject, from which the following is taken:

It's very hard to be part of that complicated idea . . . that you are a rationalist and atheist and you don't believe and everything is already cut and dried and you already know everything and suddenly start throwing all that out the window and start thinking again.

Lessing advances the rational/irrational argument a stage further in this novel. It is not simply a question of reason versus unreason, because essentially that is a binary concept and where one stands on the stratuum is relatively straightforward. What Lessing forces us to consider is the nature of belief itself, and the way, in our modern society, we are driven towards certain flavours of belief, be they religious, agnostic or atheist. Within each, however, there are certain truths which appear to be unarguable, and with which no dissent is allowable. Whither the dissenter in such a world? is Lessing’s question. Citing the end of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, in which, on the face of it, Lessing appears to suggest that mankind, with its focus on science and reason, has lost its opportunity to find happiness, Stitzel argues that, rather, this is a ‘request for tolerance, for suspension, not of disbelief, but of too quick judgement.’ In the current climate, with the stridency of debate between creationists in one corner and Richard Dawkins’ band of atheists in the other, each spouting their own form of dogma and proving unable to listen to any voice but their own, this request seems well placed. But the concern, with this novel, is that in seeking to think again, Lessing may be going too far in accommodating an alternative view: scepticism may be taken to extremes. Michael Magie, for one, takes issue with Lessing’s scepticism about rationality and her tendency to eulogise mysticism and irrationality. One can certainly see, in this novel, what Magie means. Lessing suggests at one point, for example: ‘Better mad, if the price for not being mad is to be a lump of lethargy that will use any kind of strategem so as to remain a lump, remain nonperceptive and heavy.’ The novel’s conclusion, too, could be argued to suggest a similar premise.

Judith Stitzel, however, disagrees with Magie’s contention, arguing that Lessing stimulates in the reader ‘mental processes which allow us to move beyond where we are to stances less comfortable, but by no means necessarily less sane.’ Lessing, then, is allowing both herself and her reader the luxury of examining the world from a different viewpoint. And this, surely, should be the purpose of good fiction?

What does seem true is that we are losing something in our modern world – a sense of wonder, a delight in discovery, an inner space in which the arts, culture, education, love, nurture, the environment, the nature of being itself, combine to form some sort of experience of humanity. Whether this is expressed as spiritual in the religious sense is irrelevant, indeed it is a red herring. There is a feeling that, in our increasingly pressurised world, full of shallow relationships and frantic experiences, we are missing something that previous generations experienced. This sense of alienation, of course, is the essence of modernism, and while I have limited interest in pursuing humanity across the Waste Land towards The Waves or The Road, I can recognise some truth in it. There is something impoverished in our relations with the world around us. Earth ‘is far from grace.’ Man has become disconnected from his natural environment. We are ‘living in a poisoned air.’

But ultimately, for all the debate about rationalism, it must be a question not of man and god, good and evil, but of man and man, inner and outer – that is, how a man reconciles his inner thoughts and beliefs and desires, full of self-interest and even solipsism, with the nature of community and the collective responsibility of society. In a telling passage in the novel, Lessing notes:

Some sort of divorce there has been somewhere along the long path of this race of man between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’, some sort of a terrible falling away… so that ever since most have said I, I, I, I, I, I, I and cannot, save for a few, say We.

This, to me, gets to the heart of the novel. All the debate about consciousness and madness and rationality and alienation resolves into this single point, that of basic humanity, and whether humanity can work together to survive modernism and the modern world. That is the fundamental debate. Lessing’s novel points to the question but, in the end, it shirks the answer.

Or maybe there is no answer, except time. And that is the one thing we cannot control.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Education

A small but lovely quote from Doris Lessing:

‘Education means only this – that the lively alert fearless curiosity of children must be fed, must be kept alive. That is education.’


That is what it is, or what it should be. However, in the conclusion to her novel, Briefing for a Descent Into Hell, she suggests a reality of education that is instantly recognisable to anyone interested in education:

one has to be particularly trained to believe that to put a label on a feeling, a state of mind, a thing; to find a set of words or a phrase; in short, to describe it; is the same as understanding and experiencing it. Such a training is the education obligatory in our schools, the larger part of which education is devoted to teaching children how to use labels, to choose words, to define.

Written in 1971 this, depressingly, is suggesting much the same thing as John Stuart Mill did one hundred and two years earlier, when he lamented that universities were failing because they did not train students to question, but rather to accept the status quo. They did not ‘make thinkers or enquirers, but disciples.’ These disciples learned by rote the words and labels and preconceived notions about things around them. Plus ca change.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Irving Kristol , 1920-2009


Irving Kristol, one of the founders of neoconservatism, has died. Neoconservatism, with its free-market focus on economic growth, dislike of big government, obsession with traditional morality and uncompromising approach to foreign affairs was, of course, the predominant political force in the US throughout the Dubya years and, although happily the neocons have been thrown out of power, they are still doggedly pursuing their agenda, notably in the current health debate. It is important, then, that their message continues to be discredited.

Writing on the neocons’ policy of cutting taxes in order to stimulate economic growth, Kristol wrote:

The cost of this emphasis on economic growth has been an attitude toward public finance that is far less risk averse than is the case among more traditional conservatives. Neocons would prefer not to have large budget deficits, but it is in the nature of democracy--because it seems to be in the nature of human nature--that political demagogy will frequently result in economic recklessness, so that one sometimes must shoulder budgetary deficits as the cost (temporary, one hopes) of pursuing economic growth.

One wonders, in the current financial climate, how great a public debt Kristol would consider acceptable. But at least it’s temporary – they ‘hope’... Is ‘hope’ really a sound basis for establishing an economic platform? Kristol seeks to further justify himself by suggesting:

It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning.

An assumption based on what, exactly? This is precisely the sort of wishy-washy, flimsy thinking they criticise liberals for. They believe it, so it must be true. Except the reality of the current financial situation pretty much shows that it isn’t. Trickle down economics just don’t trickle down the way it's supposed to.

But it’s on issues of morality that the neocons really get excited. They remind me of the presbyterian killjoys of my Scottish childhood, forever looking for evidence of somebody enjoying themselves so they can stamp it out. Kristol wrote:

The steady decline in our democratic culture, sinking to new levels of vulgarity, does unite neocons with traditional conservatives--though not with those libertarian conservatives who are conservative in economics but unmindful of the culture. The upshot is a quite unexpected alliance between neocons, who include a fair proportion of secular intellectuals, and religious traditionalists. They are united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government's attention. And since the Republican party now has a substantial base among the religious, this gives neocons a certain influence and even power. Because religious conservatism is so feeble in Europe, the neoconservative potential there is correspondingly weak.

The sheer hypocrisy of this position is remarkable. Kristol seeks to suggest that neocons are more accepting of the growth of the state than traditional conservatives, but to a large extent this seems to be limited to a prissy determination to use big government to enforce a moral straitjacket on its feckless populace. Neocons call for smaller government and less regulation, but only in areas of economics or business or health; intervention in the moral life of the people is not only acceptable but essential. This invocation of a partnership between ‘secular intellectuals’ and the religious right is a deeply worrying one and, even now, with their access to the levers of power greatly diminished, it should be regarded with dismay.

On the subject of foreign policy, Kristol tried to suggest that there is ‘no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy, only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience.’ These ‘attitudes’ can be summed up as ‘patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions’, ‘world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny’, and ‘statesmen should … have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies’. I’m sure there is a semantic difference between ‘beliefs’ and the ‘attitudes’ Kristol explains here, but I can’t see it. Patriotism may be a useful tool, but its over-zealous application has done much to tarnish the reputation of the US across the world, which is a deplorable state of affairs. In the entrenchment after 9/11, a jingoistic and militaristic response to every perceived threat became the norm.

And, equally worryingly, foreign and homeland policy became inextricably interwoven. For example, the neocon thinktank, the Project for the New American Century, which was uncomfortably close to the government of George W. Bush, observed that the aim was to ‘maintain American security and advance American interests in the new century.’ Note how the two things are conflated. It was a useful simplification. In this dumbed-down way the neocons created an enemy which had to be defeated. They turned a complex global problem into a straightforward, but spurious ‘us versus them’. And in so doing they alienated not only those states which were already hostile to the US, but a great many states whose natural sympathies ought to lie with them. They did a great deal of harm to the US, and the world is a better place today for the simple reason of their exclusion from power. Long may that continue.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The false values of Blood Meridian

I've written before about my difficulties with Cormac McCarthy, how I think he dwells on the evil that man is capable of and is unable to discern any ameliorating qualities. This is why I think he is such a deeply flawed writer. I came across this quote from Erich Heller on Oswald Spengler, and it could just as easily stand for my views on McCarthy:

Spengler's history is untrue because the mind which has conceived it is, despite its learning and seeming subtlety, a crude and wicked mind. The image of man which lurks behind Spengler's vast historical canvas is perverted, and could only be accepted by a hopelessly perverted age. For Spengler has no idea of the true stature of the problem of human freedom. Therefore his historical vision is lacking in depth as well as in love, pity and pathos. It is a worthless and deeply untruthful sort of history which lacks these qualities, for they are the proper tools of human understanding.

If Spengler's men were real men, his Culture-Souls real souls, and his Destiny really destiny; if, in other words, Spengler had realized the full pathos of human freedom under the shadow of necessity, his historical plot would move us with the force of tragedy. As it is, there is no terror and no pity in his acceptance of Destiny, but merely a conscious decision for the false values, and this is the classical definition of sin and wickedness.

What McCarthy has done is to re-imagine Zarathustra as judge Holden, but as only half a man, a man without humanity. Love, pity and pathos are stunted things in McCarthy's world.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The cost of a pint of Guinness in 1904

A good interview with William Boyd (a very much under-rated writer) in today's Guardian contains this quote, relating to the research that he does for his novels:

Researching a novel calls for "a magpie instinct for facts that do a lot of work. There's a great bit in Ulysses where Bloom goes into a pub and orders a glass of claret and a gorgonzola sandwich. Suddenly pubs in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century come alive for you in a way that the price of a pint of Guinness wouldn't deliver."


Just so. There are writers out there who feel compelled to throw in every damned scrap of research they've done, just so you can feel how authentic it is. The result is that is reads as totally inauthentic.

And, in novels with a contemporary setting, he avoids wherever possible specific references to real events/people and so on. They cause 'built-in obsolescence', he suggests. I don't know I quite agree with that. It is going to an extreme, surely. But I suppose the difficulty is knowing which people/brands/events will still be remembered in ten years time and which are the Sarah Palins, about whom future generations will scratch their heads and ask 'who?'

Stanley Robertson and Jim Couza

I've just read that Stanley Robertson died on the 2nd of August. Stanley was one of the last of the Scottish Travellers, and a singer and storyteller. His family were important bearers of the tradition, and included the singers Lizzie Higgins and Jeannie Robertson and, as well as his stories and ballads, Stanley played an important role in preserving the tradition with his work for Aberdeen University on Travellers' culture. Duncan Williamson died last year, and now Stanley has died. Both of them had the stories of their culture in their memories, true carriers of an oral tradition. They were the last links to that way of life, and it is sad to think it is all but gone.

There is a small clip of Stanley speaking and singing here, with his wonderful Aiberdeen accent. It takes me right back to the eighties when I lived there.

Also on the 2nd of August, the American hammered dulcimer player, Jim Couza, died. He was a brilliant player with a distinctive style and he had a fine, resonant singing voice. I mentioned the Lockerbie Folk Aid concert in another post a couple of weeks ago, and Jim played at that as well. I seem to recall that as well as playing the dulcimer he sang a stunning song which sent shivers down the spine. This is him playing on a BBC lunchtime show, some time in the eighties, judging by the age of Paul Coia, the interviewer.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Waterhouse at the Royal Academy


Been to London for a couple of days to see some exhibitions that are due to end soon. Firstly, the JW Waterhouse at the Royal Academy, which was a good show. He's not really my cup of tea, to be honest, but it's a very good exhibition and you can certainly admire his ability. As ever, seeing the paintings in the flesh makes an enormous difference. No matter how good the reproductions, they can never quite get the colours right and you miss the depth of the work; they always seem flat, somehow. This picture, for example, Circe offering the cup to Ulysses, is just remarkable. There is a sense of power - sexual, physical, mental - emanating from this woman that is quite palpable in the real painting. An extraordinary work.

But what really struck me with the exhibition was how, although he was a superb painter, Waterhouse changed so little in his career. With most retrospectives you can go through the work and see a progression in the artist, either stylistically or thematically or both. This isn't the case with Waterhouse, who was still painting the same material, in much the same way, at the end of his career as he was at the start. And even at the start, one has to say he was already somewhat anachronistic. He was a Pre-Raphaelite born too late. And so, by the time he died in 1917, his work seems distinctly odd. This was three years into the horror of World War One, remember. Modernism had begun. Picasso was already painting, changing the art world for ever, and yet Waterhouse was still painting the Lady of Shalott. It's difficult to say whether such remarkable single-mindedness is to be admired for its focus on the artist's vision, or criticised for a lack of ambition. Probably a bit of both.


The exhibition finishes this weekend, so if you're in London and have an hour or so to spare, it's worth going to have a look.

Secondly, we went to the National for its exhibition of nineteenth century landscapes, From Corot to Monet. This was fascinating. It uses materials almost exclusively in the National's own collection, but including works which rarely get seen. There were some wonderful pieces, including several by artists I've never heard of. It does make you wonder how much of art appreciation is down to fad and favour and fashion: possibly an art expert could say why Simon Denis, for example, is not as well known as Corot or others, but I wouldn't be able to discern any difference in quality. The exhibition shows the development of landscape painting in the open air, as it slowly developed through the early and mid-nineteenth century until it was taken on by Monet and his ilk and the impressionist movement began. You can certainly see the range of influences at work on the impressionists, even from the likes of John Constable, who we now think of as staid (another victim of fashion) and particularly Boudin, but ultimately their work exploded into a new style entirely of its own, taking elements of the works of previous painters but making it unique. Again, this show ends soon, but you still have a chance to see it until September 20th.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Carver

This will be interesting. The Library of America has published Carver: Collected Stories, containing his entire output of short stories and including the early, pre-Lish versions of all 17 stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

The NY Times article I link to above also has a link to a pdf by William Stull and Maureen Carroll which compares a couple of the pre- and post-Lish texts. I've seen one before, the ending of One More Thing, which shows that Lish provided a particularly brutal piece of editing.

I'm not sure about Carver. Actually, I want to dislike the post-Lish stories, because I think he went too far and excised all the emotion as well, but there's something about them. They work. The ending of One More Thing is very good. A touch manufactured, perhaps, but it works. The original doesn't.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The folk song tradition

This is Maurice Lindsay, from his biography of Robert Burns:

Nowadays in Scotland there are no peasants; and ours is not a singing age. The tradition in which Burns wrought died out in the Lowlands during the latter part of the nineteenth century, lingered out a brief decadence in the form of the Bothy Ballad in the relative seclusion of the North-East, and is now gone for ever. We cannot make folk-songs any more:

The laurels are all cut
The bowers are full of bay
That once the Muses wore.




Folk traditions such as these are, I guess, close relatives of the myth tradition that I've mentioned in recent posts, their secular, human cousin. I don't think it is misty-eyed romanticism to lament the loss of the folk traditions. Where I come from, there was a very strong Travellers' tradition, with storytellers like Duncan Williamson and singers like the Robertsons of Blair, who kept alive the history of their people through the folk tales and songs they remembered and recited. These people, often reviled by the rest of the population, kept alive a grand form of humanism, and the tradition of song and story that built up among small communities helped to keep them together. Our modern world has wonderful advantages, and I wouldn't swap this time for any other, but nonetheless I'm aware of what we've lost.

Death Valley

With the start of the Second World War much in thought at the moment, here is a beautiful poem by Sorley Maclean:


Death Valley


Some Nazi or other has said that the Fuehrer had restored to German manhood the
‘right and joy of dying in battle’.


Sitting dead in ‘Death Valley’
below the Ruweisat Ridge,
a boy with his forelock down about his cheek
and his face slate-grey;

I thought of the right and the joy
that he got from his Fuehrer,
of falling in the field of slaughter
to rise no more;

of the pomp and the fame
that he had, not alone,
though he was the most piteous to see
in a valley gone to seed

with flies about grey corpses
on a dun sand
dirty yellow and full of the rubbish
and fragments of battle.

Was the boy of the band
who abused the Jews
and Communists, or of the greater
band of those

led, from the beginning of generations,
unwillingly to the trial
and mad delirium of every war
for the sake of rulers?

Whatever his desire or mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Unashamed anthropocentrism

I’ve been discussing with Donigan this conflict between rationalism and supernaturalism. While we both agree that rationalism is the only sensible approach in our modern age, I have been pondering whether we can, in fact, wholly relinquish the hold that supernaturalism has over us. The debate was provoked by a quote from Eric Voegelin suggesting that, with the secularisation of life since the Enlightenment and since Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, political religions such as National Socialism have grown and will continue to grow in that place where religion used to dominate. Voegelin also suggested:

...the world finds itself in a severe crisis [in 1938], in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience.

This, in itself, is not a new thought. Nietzsche held that the aims of the French Revolution – equality and liberty – were merely secular interpretations of Christian thought and saw the revolution as the beginning of a new historical period of religion without God. Before him, de Tocqueville said much the same thing. What we have then, it seems, is a change in society wrought by the enlightenment and the age of reason which has created in man a new rationalism, but left a spiritual void which, unconsciously, he seeks to fill with something else. It is an interesting argument, and it links in with Richard Dawkins’ suggestion, on the basis of evolutionary psychology, that there may be something in our evolutionary make-up, some mis-firing gene, that predisposes human beings to seek a supernatural order of things.

The state of crisis that Voegelin rightly saw in 1938 seems scarcely to have diminished in the following seven decades. Indeed, there seems to exist, in the current climate, a whiff of fin de siecle, a millenarianist mood reminiscent of that described by Norman Cohn in his study of fifteenth century religious madness, The Pursuit of the Millennium. Whether or not one subscribes to Huntington’s clash of civilizations theory – and in truth Huntington establishes a confrontational thesis and then casts around for apparent proofs to justify it – there seems to be some crisis in the world at present. Our financial systems have failed, our geo-political management has gone awry, religious and cultural tensions have been allowed to proliferate. Society is changing. Could Voegelin be right and all this tension is down to a lack of a spiritual base in our lives? Could Dawkins’ view that we unconsciously seek a god figure still be obstructing our progress? As a rationalist, I would hope not.

Principally, however, this seems to me to be only a side-issue of the key question. For that, we must look not at gods, but at man himself and, more specifically, man’s place in the cosmos, because where we place ourselves gives a pretty good indication of how we see ourselves. Our place, of course, is ever-shifting, embracing traditional religion, Copernican science, questions of immanence and transcendence and the nature of what it is to be human. Even so, by now it should all be quite straightforward; we live in a rational age, we should be comfortable with ourselves and our place in the scheme of things, and yet for some reason that isn’t the case. We still seem to hanker after the comfort and security of our ancient mythologies; we still seem beholden to a religion based on the assumption of original sin and the hope of supernatural redemption; and, even in those areas where a supposed secularism exists, instead of man assuming a place at the centre of things we are again being shunted off to the side, in deference to our new religions, be they Voegelin’s political religions or the new earth religions of deep ecology and radical environmentalism. Let’s look at each in turn.

Reinforcing the suggestion that some spiritual dimension has been lost in our lives, people like Karen Armstrong (whose work does a good job in popularising the more academic research of Mircea Eliade), promote the importance of myth. Myth is the conscious expression of a spritual dimension in our lives; thus, in all cultures there are creation myths and paradise myths, depicting a time when life was better and humanity and divinity co-existed, and suggesting a way in which we should conduct our lives. These myths formed a link between the mundane and the transcendent, between the sacred and profane, between spirit and matter. For Armstong, ‘perhaps the most significant… result of [westernised civilisation] was the death of mythology. Western modernity was the child of logos.’ In other words, reason ruled, and the vital links highlighted by Armstrong were lost, and in its place our modern society was created. She explains:

...the West developed an economy that seemed, potentially, to be indefinitely renewable. Intead of looking back to the past and conserving what had been achieved, as had been the habit of premodern civilisations, Western people began to look forward. The long process of modernisation, which took Europe some three centuries, involved a series of profound changes: industrialisation, the transformation of agriculture, political and social revolutions to reorganise society to meet the new conditions, and an intellectual ‘enlightenment’ that denegrated myth as useless, false and outmoded.

That, I suppose, is one interpretation, and it clearly links to Voegelin’s contention or, even, Nietzsche’s view of the French Revolution, but behind it there appears to be this belief that things were better with the old ways. There is a touch of Rousseau’s noble savage about it, and even Rousseau realised that pining for the old days in this way was futile. So Armstrong’s contention is not wholly plausible. Nietzsche suggests an alternative view, when he points out that:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

This argument, too, has merit. What begins as a reflection of innocent spirituality becomes bound, in time, to the prevailing rule of the age. Natural law becomes moral law, and moral law is reckoned by those who dispense it to be universal; this is denounced by Nietzsche as a slave state which seeks to justify itself by refusing to acknowledge the validity of any different approach. It is not, he says, a belief system based on positive morality so much as on negation of any opposition. The original myth, and any truths held within it, become bastardised. They are subsumed by religion. Any light or truth they once held are lost. We are left with negatives, with a philosophy based on fear and failure. Take this, from Blaise Pascal, for example:

When I see the blind and wretched state of men, when I survey the whole universe its deadness, and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, or what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost, with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.

Or we could look at St Augustine, the father of modern Christianity, who suggests:

Many [people] perished in all sorts of gruesome ways. Even if one must bemoan this, it is still the common lot of all who are born into this life. As far as I know, no one died who would not have had to die sometime anyway.

So that’s alright then. They had it coming to them. The mythology, and the religious truths held within that mythology, are translated into action, and that action becomes a perverse negation of the humanity that was at the root of the whole process. And, in establishing this transcendent God, man’s place in the cosmos is firmly fixed, mundane and sinning and waiting, praying for redemption. This was what we sought to destroy with the death of God and yet, somehow, it hasn’t happened. Why not?

Somewhere along the line there seems to have been a failure of nerve. This may be the process that Dawkins identifies coming into play – man subconsciously seeking a supernatural order on which to base his daily discourse. Further, though, it may be argued that our focus has shifted so that, while we accept secularism, and while we reject religion, we elevate secular notions to the realm of religion. Again, this may refer to Voegelin’s political religions. Also, though, it could attain to the new cult of ecology which is coming to dominate public debate in the current era. It even has a name – Gaia, the earth goddess – although James Lovelock did not coin the term himself (William Golding did) and he would eschew any notion of the earth being a literal god. Nonetheless, an radical ecology has taken hold, to the extent that we now appear to think more of the planet than we do of ourselves, which is a nonsensically unsustainable state of affairs. Naturally, not looking after the planet is a foolish, indeed suicidal thing to do, but there is a fanaticism to some of the discourse which is eerily reminiscent of religious dogma. People like Aldo Leopold, who holds that humans are ‘plain members of the biotic community’, or Arne Naess, whose conception of deep ecology sees man as merely playing a part in the ecospheric whole, are taking the wise work of Lovelock and others and pursuing it to untenable lengths. What is happening as a result is that nature is being elevated in importance alongside humanity, which is no longer allowed to claim dominion over it: a radical anti-anthropocentrism is taking hold. And in this way poor old mankind, having booted its sky gods out of the picture and claimed centre stage for itself on account of its reason and intellect, is suddenly thrust back into the wings again, subservient to the new god nature.

Bearing this in mind, I was pleased to read a recent article by John Lukacs which touches on the very subject. Lukacs is someone I approach warily: some of his ideas on liberal democracy against populism are worthwhile, and his interpretation of Nazi Germany strikes me as highly persuasive and his dismissive treatment of David Irving exemplary, but nonetheless his Catholic social policy is not something I subscribe to. Nor do I agree with his Rousseauian view of the depravity of the modern world or with the dangers of the permissive society: truths can be stretched to become dogma. However, his latest article, which has the feeling of a valedictory about it, touches on useful material. He discusses the idea of knowledge in our scientific age, and how it impacts on our understanding of history. He asks:

Did — does — matter exist independent of the human mind? It did and it does; but, without the human mind, matter’s existence is meaningless—indeed, without the human mind, we cannot think of its existence at all. In this sense it may even be argued that mind preceded and may precede matter (or what we see and then call “matter”).


This is important. It begins to place man where he should be, at the centre of things, man as master of natural science. Without man to interpret it, to seek to understand it, the whole natural process on earth would still be there in its glory, certainly, but it would cease to be beautiful or worthwhile: beauty relies on both the observed and the observer, while worth can only be determined through interpretation. And only mankind, with its intellect, is capable of this.

Nonetheless, the nature of scientific advance, particularly quantum physics, makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to understand what is happening around us. Moreover, Lukacs observes that what is now undeniable is that ‘for the first time in the history of mankind, men have acquired the power to destroy much of the earth and much of mankind, potentially even most of it.’ Lukacs, of course, is of a pessimistic bent and I try to remain positive, but he is quite right. We have at our disposal truly astounding capabilities, which bring with them enormous risks. Lukacs’ response, however, is not pessimistic. ‘We must rethink the very idea and meaning of “progress,’ he tells us:

We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.

This places a huge responsibility on us, he concludes:

This insistence on the centrality and uniqueness of human beings is a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.

We and the earth on and in which we live are again at the center of the universe—a universe that is, unavoidably, an anthropocentric and geocentric one.

This is where I began, and where I end. Time and again, it seems to me, man has had a habit of removing himself from the centre of the cosmos where he belongs. If it is not religion relegating us, it is a well-intentioned environmentalism, skewed at times to a degree which is almost post-humanist. Enough, Lukacs says. Without the human mind, without our intervention, existence would be meaningless, so let us embrace the primacy of mankind. It is a fine starting point for a new debate. He could perhaps usefully have moved further by overcoming his pessimism about society and expanding on the notion of the human community as a means of progress. Not to do so runs the risk, in Keith Ansell-Pearson’s neat formulation, of accepting Nietzsche’s ‘amoral solipsism of the overman.’ In all this debate, throughout the uniqueness of the human experience, there must remain at its heart a community. Nietzsche is wrong to equate community with the herd, or to express ‘common’ as a pejorative term. ‘All things in common’ was a great Diggers’ cry, and it resonates still.

And so we have it: a human community, a world that is viewed through the prism of humanity, where humanity is at the centre of everything we believe in and aspire to. It is best summed up for me by that man of contradictions, Nietzsche, who defined the self-affirmation required to overcome the resentment which roots us in a destructive cycle of history:

Anyone who manages to experience the history of humanity as a whole as his own history will feel in an enormously generalized way all the grief of an invalid who thinks of health, of an old man who contemplates the dreams of his youth, of a lover deprived of his beloved, of the martyr whose ideal is perishing, of the hero on the evening after a battle that has decided nothing but brought him wounds and the loss of a friend. But if one endured, if one could endure this immense sum of grief of all kinds while yet being the hero who, as the second day of battle breaks, welcomes the dawn and his fortune, being a person whose horizon encompasses thousands of years past and future, being the heir of all the nobility of all past spirit – an heir with a sense of obligation, the most aristocratic of old nobles and at the same time the first of a new nobility – the like of which no age has yet seen or dreamed of; if one could burden one’s soul with all of this – the oldest, the newest, losses, hopes, conquests, and the victories of humanity; if one could finally contain all this in one soul and crowd it into a single feeling – this would surely have to result in a happiness that humanity has not known so far: the happiness of a god full of power and love, full of tears and laughter, a happiness that, like the sun in the evening, continually bestows its inexhaustible riches, pouring them into the sea, feeling richest, as the sun does, only when even the poorest fisherman is still rowing with golden oars! This godlike feeling would then be called – humaneness.

Humaneness. Indeed.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

70 years ago


Today marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. As the generation that witnessed that calamity begins to die out, we who remain must ensure we do not forget. Fascism must never be allowed to seed again.

This picture shows Hitler with his troops as they advanced on Warsaw on September 1st 1939.