Wednesday, 29 February 2012

40BFL 6: Mythologies

Intelligent journalism. Now that would be a thing. There is of course the reliably amusing school boy Charlie Brooker - though he does get a bit repetitive while 10 o’clock live’s on - and his counterpart Hadley Freeman who is to be commended for her devotion to Zoolander.

Then there’s Simon Hoggart who makes Westminster politics actually seem amusing and interesting. Larry Elliott is a good writer but he’s rather reverted into a prophet of doom role that just seems a bit bleak. I haven’t so far found a Times journalist I really enjoy. Ann Treneman has potential and to be fair their editorial is far superior to the Guardian’s, and then of course the Times does have its piece de resistance in Caitlin Moran’s Celebrity Watch. There are a couple of FT (weekend) writers who I like - Tim Harford and Robert Shrimsley particularly - and the best journalist at the moment is certainly Simon Kuper. But I think there is a great art in producing a short piece of writing that genuinely tells you something; changes how you see something. Sermons of course attempt this - as do blogs - but a writer with a real eye for this is something to be treasured.

Mythologies is a wonderful collection of short observations. Barthes purpose is really one of demythologising - of taking instances from every day life and showing where something cultural is paraded as natural, where familiarity has stopped us seeing the world as it is. Taking in all parts of culture - from wrestling to wine, Roman haircuts to toys, striptease to soap adverts, he needles out the little lies that cloud the way we see the world.

There is a telling piece on Elle that Roaring would no doubt approve of. It describes an article on women novelists that notes each woman by how many novels she havs written and how many children she has had - presumably in a sort of “woo! You can have it all, ladies” maneuver. Barthes ironically celebrates, “Women, be therefore courageous, free; play at being men, write like them; but never get far from them; live under their gaze, compensate for your books by your children; enjoy a free rein for a while, but quickly come back to your condition. One novel, one child, a little feminism, a little connubiality.” The world of Elle is “a world without men, but entirely constituted by the gaze of man”.

And each of the pieces adds a little observation - ways in which something is romanticized in order to sell it or slip it past you. It is an expose of conservatism - undermining the easiness of the nostalgic and quaint, to see the injustice that is perpetrated unnoticed. God knows what he’d have made of the Church of England!

What he sees is that there is a persistent thread running through history that attempts to make you think, “it was ever thus” - and it’s really tempting because change is exhausting and it threatens your security. The idea that you can say anything is eternal is immensely appealing and gets you out of all the contradictions of your historical situation. The church of course celebrates this as a virtue. It is the only institution that would comfortably say “well we’ve been doing this for two thousand years so why change now?” A friend in fact said that to me just last week in defense of his refusal to support gay marriage or blessing civil partnerships. It’s not that slavery, sexism, exploitation of colonies, the working class, anti-semitism, homophobia, witch hunts, crusades, various popes, Henry VIII, &c. had passed him by, but the appeal to tradition does rather exonerate you from thinking.

The book is pretty polemical and you should immediately read Ricoeur afterwards who reminds us that myth is communication as well as distortion, and that ideology is what gives us our place in the world as well as politically bullying us. Still the book is a reminder that observation is imperative and that thinking clearly and writing well are gifts to society that unlock its own truths. More writers like this are needed! His conclusion, which is set in a realist view of the world that recognizes the essential role of the imagination, summarizes the task neatly: “this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.”

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

40BFL 5: I and Thou

This little book is simply the best written work of philosophy or theology I have read. It is literally poetry for the soul. It gives a wonderfully simple account of transcendence and the divine and it is the only work of philosophy I know that gives a properly convincing defense of a personal God. The beauty of it is that the whole work is premised on an incredibly simple idea - essentially that there are two ways of being in the world, either in an I - It relationship or an I - Thou relationship. The former is concerned with utility and experience, it's understanding is set in the past, and it fundamentally treats the world as a collection of objects. The latter does not separate the world into objects, but knows only present relationship understood as mutual, connected love. But it doesn’t turn this into a preachy binary. I - It relationships are important, but it is through I - Thou relationships, with God, other people and the world that we experience transcendence: ‘without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man’.

Anyone who has read T. S. Eliot’s later poetry and plays will feel the resonance strongly. But in a sense culture is full of this kind of philosophy - whether it’s Gaga’s You and I, Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, and We are the World, the Source’s You Got the Love. Obviously half the time the principle is expressed in totally sentimental ways, or becomes simply about a feeling rather than relationship, but the fundamental human ability to experience transcendence in a relationship with God, other people or the natural world is basic and recognised by many who would not think of themselves as particularly religious or philosophical.

What it also recognizes is the precarious nature of transcendence. Like Schleiermacher (coming later), and like we had earlier with Mackinnon, transcendence is not something that can be systematically figured out and described, nor is it bottled within institutions (though systematic approaches and institutions are necessary), but it is something that needs to be continually sought and refound, as Eliot said ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’; or for Buber, ‘It is not possible to live in the bare present’ - ‘God, the eternal presence, does not permit himself to be held. Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God!’

The work also has a persuasive ethical side to it that remains relevant. So when he talks about society, the ‘mechanical state’ has its place but not without also ‘living mutual relation with a living centre [and] with one another’. True community must be a ‘community of love’, just as true marriage is only sustained by ‘the revealing by two people of the Thou to one another’.

There is so much more that could be said about this wonderful little book. Written by a Jewish philosopher, it is a landmark work of Christian theology - which is not to usurp it but to find in it a basis for dialogue and inclusivity. It is written with wisdom and poetry which is all any of us can really hope for, and it is ethically demanding - both in terms of our practical love of others and how that is related to our vocation and salvation; the fear being that:

‘the continually growing world of It overruns him and robs him of the reality of his own I, till the incubus over him and the ghost within him whisper to one another the confession of their non-salvation’.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

40BFL 4: Matilda

So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.

No, not that Matilda. This one. The Matilda who voraciously read, whose family didn't understand her, whose unused intelligence enabled her to do magic, who fell in love with her primary school teacher (didn't you?). How many hours I sat, concentrating on pencils, willing them to rise in the air. Sadly, they never did, but I felt less alone knowing Matilda was reading outside the 5-8 section too ("I'm wondering what to read next." Matilda said. "I've finished all the children's books").

Also: Danny DeVito, I love your work!

What I learned? Books will take you anywhere and everywhere, clever and angry girls will always beat bad grown-ups, and if you really need to, you can make your own family.

Matilda said, "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable..." 

Friday, 24 February 2012

40BFL: 3. The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Men [sic] have always had to choose between their subjection to nature or the subjection of nature to the Self. With the extension of the bourgeois commodity economy, the dark horizon of myth is illumined by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose cold rays the seed of the new barbarism grows to fruition.

This is a book that everyone ought to read at around the age of twenty. The quality of the writing is such that - for those who persist and read the whole - the result is almost certainly going to be conversion. It is the philosophical equivalent of the Christian Union for the lonely undergraduate. Its literary equivalent is nothing short of the Harry Potter series.
And this is a good analogy because its goal is to make you believe the story it is telling - a very convincing story. The story is that the entirety of human history can be read as a escalating series of attempts to gain mastery over the natural world. This begins with myth and primitive religion - attempts at basic natural science and magical appeals to trees, spirits, the weather &c. - before extending through more and more transcendent religions to the joy of science. The ultimate goal presumably is the atomic bomb where we can blow the whole thing to shit if we want. Along the way anything that harks back to our nature has to be suppressed and purged. So today religion harks back to superstition, just as witches used to; women generally with all their ickiness and bodily fluids need to be kept out of the way, anything that we’ve stomped on on our way to the top of the tree (preferably a metal tree house), the mad, the sick, less developed cultures, needs squishing and keeping out of the way.
Essentially it’s the story of someone who’s really insecure doing everything they can repress their primal fears.
These sorts of metanarratives are always charming. People like Freud and Marx of course wrote convincingly and had loads of people follow along behind - the principle of declaring that all history is really just about one thing is bound to make for good reading because it simplifies the world for a minute isolating what’s really important. This sort of thing still happens today, usually with more qualifications, but Charles Taylor and John Milbank attempt the same sort of genealogical historiographies.
You need to read this book when you’re twenty then because you need to see that ideas can change the world - to gain that passion for believing that thinking and writing matter. And this is a great book because it’s a powerful invective against the will to domination. It propels the reader to seek out the underdog, the unwritten history, to question authority and self-certainty: ‘In the general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men [sic] from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant’.
The truth is history is more complicated. There is plenty of evidence of how various religions, including present day religions, actually draw people back into their natural embodiment, return people to the mythical ille tempore. Equally science is not purely about the control and subjugation of nature. The Enlightenment itself moved humanity on in leaps and bounds to unmasking the domination humans practice on one another. History is not about one thing, and while sometimes being reductive brings to the foreground something worth fighting - or investigating - it can also mask a whole lot of other stuff.
Like Harry Potter this book is worth falling in love with, but then you have to move on. Otherwise you’ll be left fighting shadows in the dark, paralysed with insecurity, or going on and on about the same old thing, denouncing everybody and everything as ‘right wing’ or ‘imperialist’, bitching that Anne of Green Gables is "like so bourgeois", like a broken record.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

40 Books for Lent: 2. Anne of Green Gables

Mrs. Cadbury: Tell me, what you know about yourself.
Anne Shirley: Well, it really isn't worth telling, Mrs. Cadbury... but if you let me tell you what I imagine about myself you'd find it a lot more interesting. 

 As a child, I had three literary heroines. Jo from the Chalet School, Jo March, and Anne Shirley.

All three had ambitions to be writers; they were tomboyish and blunt, they were forever getting into scrapes, they thought boys a waste of time, they wrote plays and let their imaginations run wild and they all had fierce mothers/ big sisters/ adoptive aunts who pushed them to become great women. They were my icons.

Anne, with her 'carroty' hair, temper, and flair for the dramatic, was possibly my favourite (though I still have a hankering to call my first child Josephine).

I was talking to a red-headed 12-year-old girl recently, and she was telling me about how much she likes Nicola Roberts, who made last year's best pop album (fact). She made her feel less isolated.
It was really important to me, as it still is, to have relateable icons whether in print or the media.

Anyway, the Anne books are full of cheesy, homespun wisdom, but they emphasize the importance of family, faith ("Mrs. Hammond told me that God made my hair red on purpose and I've never cared for Him since"), and in doing things for yourself even if you are just a girl, a girl with red hair. When you're being called names in school, it's a good thing to remember that someone has already broken a slate over the boy's head. (I dreamed of being brave enough to do that throughout my schooldays - still do, sometimes.)

It is the books that I read before I was ten that probably have had the greatest impact on me, and I will never depart too far from their philosophy. Remember when you dreamed you could be anything? Well, I had a kindred spirit who taught me it was true.

40 Books for Lent: 1. The Problem of Metaphysics

Ramping and Roaring has given up television. Part of the reasoning was that this would allow R&R more time to read - novels, theology whatever - something more constructive than Cougar Town, Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. I spoke to Roaring earlier though and it seems on this first tv-less night she spent most of her time skipping about the internet. I, on the other hand, picked up Alex Preston’s recent The Revelations. I read a review in the FT while tipsy and immediately purchased it on Amazon along with another book I’ll probably never read. The Revelations though has immediate entertainment value. It looks basically like an amusing take on the Alpha Course with lots of psycho-sexual drama. Rofl.

All this is by the by though. Given this new attention to reading, Ramping and Roaring through Lent is going to bring you its top 40 books-that-have-changed-the-way-we-think. It’s a good chance to think through the ideas that have shaped the way you think and if I can persuade Roaring not just to do twenty different reviews of Gone with the Wind, we might discover some interesting, little known works…

So my first book, my number one book, is Don Mackinnon’s The Problem of Metaphysics. A bit heavy to start with but I really think that more than any book this one resonated with me and changed the way I saw the world. It came out of his Gifford lectures and so is relatively short and readable. I remember hearing an amusing story about him, where his wife went into the bedroom one day to find his trousers lying on the bed. She thought ‘oh hell’ to herself ‘he’s finally lost his marbles and gone out without his trousers on’. Turned out he had just gone out and bought a new pair. For all his reputed skattiness though and despite not actually publishing a huge amount (part of the last generation who weren’t continually harried to publish or perish), reading between the lines, he has influenced the main voices in contemporary theology as much as anyone.

Essentially, The Problem of Metaphysics gives a really convincing account of metaphysics, teasing out the relationship between transcendence and language. What is so splendid is the way he pulls it all together with such a wide array of anecdotes and examples from history, literature and art. He speaks authoritatively on Plato, Aristotle and Kant, as might be expected, but is just as lucid and impressive on Shakespeare, Sophocles and Cezanne. More than anything, it is a work that is convincing at a human level - it is one of the rare works of philosophical theology than genuinely conveys a sense of wisdom. My supervisor once explained that he understood God as a sort of matrix for understanding reality. In these terms this book was incredibly helpful to me in explaining God.

I have never been much interested in the specialist. It is not within me and I would never make it as a footnote precise academic. The people I find interesting then are always polymaths - those who can illuminate an area of life and keep it tied to all sorts of other areas, but most of all retain the ability of speak to everyday life. Mackinnon does this here better than anywhere else I’ve found. His analysis of the Good Samaritan and the Raising of Lazarus are exemplary as homily, philosophy and ethics. His development of parables, tragedy and presence are masterful. It is the only work of theology I’ve read twice cover to cover and it deserves at least this. It is to philosophical theology what Madonna is to pop music, having influenced an entire new generation of theology while yet remaining unique and fascinating in itself. Go buy a copy.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Celebrate Natural Beauty!

Dear Dominic Mohan,

I love youth and freshness.

And if I knew what it was, in a world of photoshop and make-up and very good lighting, I'd probably love Natural Beauty too.

And in a difficult financial climate, where we're all a bit depressed and wondering what it means to be British, an 'innocuous British institution' might be the thing to help us realise we're all in it together.*

So please can we start having pictures of half naked, natural, young, fresh, British men on Page 3 as well? David Beckham might be a good start, although sadly he isn't 16.

That would be delightful.

Warm wishes,


* fresh, young, natural, British? Sounds like a locally-sourced yoghurt.

Monday, 6 February 2012

She's sexy and she knows it.

Look at that body... she works out:

Post-nipplegate, Pop has returned to the Superbowl, and Madonna to our hearts.

New song Give Me All Your Luvin' sounds quite good, the inclusion of Nicki Minaj (so hot) and M.I.A. (who has now instigated middle-finger-gate) telling us something about hip hop/R&B's ongoing fascination with Euro pop.* If Madonna's doing it, it's probably nearly jumped the shark.**

Anyway, so much amazing nostalgia! Cee-Lo and Madge doing Like A Prayer at the end is a particular highlight. And the voguing. In fact the whole thing is brilliant. Watch it.

(And if you've never seen a room full of drunk ordinands dancing to Like A Prayer, you've never seen anything.)

* There's loads of William Orbit production on the new album, too.
** Her last album (which is pretty good) used tons of Pharrell Williams, about a hundred years after the Neptunes had been cool.
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