Category Archives: big stuff

To you, with regard (8)

And the voice said: “This is the hand, the hand that takes…”

Location: a busy street in a south Manchester suburb, on a sunny Saturday morning. We see PHIL coming out of a newsagent, a hessian shopping bag in one hand. A passer-by accosts him.
VOICE: Phil, could I have a word?
PHIL recognises the voice, turns towards it and answers without thinking.
PHIL: Sure, what’s it about? Oh, wait…
Seeing the bystander who had addressed him, PHIL freezes and shrinks back. His mouth moves uncertainly before he speaks again.
PHIL: You… I’m sorry, have we met? I know Jan had family, but…
The bystander returns PHIL’s baffled gaze with an expression combining patience, impatience and amusement.
BYSTANDER: Phil, it’s all right. You can say what you see. What was your immediate reaction when you heard my voice?
PHIL: I thought you were Jan.
BYSTANDER: And what was the one possibility you utterly refused to consider?
PHIL: That you were Jan.
JAN: Well, then. Which way are you headed?

PHIL and JAN walk up the road in silence. Eventually PHIL finds his voice again.
PHIL: So, you wanted a word?
JAN: Thought you were never going to ask. You’ve been thinking about regret.
It’s not a question.
PHIL: Well, since you… And thinking I’d never see you again… I mean, we had that disagreement… more of a misunderstanding really… and I never went to see you when you were in the… before…
JAN: Before I died, no – no, you didn’t. It’s all right, don’t worry.
PHIL: Don’t worry? That’s just it – if I was worrying I could do something about it. I’m a bit past worry.
JAN: You’re not, though – that’s the point. You’re not even on the same track as worry. I’m not explaining it very well – have a word with this gentleman.
They are approaching a bridge over a canal. A path branches off from the pavement to run down beside the canal. A FAIR-HAIRED MAN, wearing flared jeans and an embroidered waistcoat, has just pushed past them onto the path.
JAN: Not so fast! Peter, a word?
PETER BELLAMY stops, turns and grudgingly walks back to join them.

PHIL: You’re… you’re actually him. You’re actually Peter Bellamy. I don’t know what to say.
PB: Stop there, I should, you’ve already given me my next publicity campaign. “Peter Bellamy – He’s Actually Him.” How can I ever repay you. Don’t answer that, for God’s sake. My amazing talent of actually being Peter Bellamy doesn’t seem to pull the crowds somehow.
JAN: Come on, Peter, give it up – stop pretending that stuff still matters. Actually it’s regret that I was wanting to talk to you about – I was wondering if you could say a few words on the subject to my friend here.
PB: Oh, very well. [To PHIL] I guess you regret never having met me, or even seen me, when you could.
PHIL: Well, yes. I mean, I was thirty years old when you… I wasn’t into folk back then, but I’d been into Steeleye Span…
PB: You said it, not me. Go on.
PHIL: I had Pentangle albums, I’d gone to Lark Rise… But somehow I never even heard your name till much, much later. I’d heard one track by the Young Tradition, but I didn’t get it at the time – I just thought you sounded like a bunch of mad Yorkshire reactionaries who were determined to make themselves sound as antiquated as possible.
PB: Did we record with the Watersons? I don’t remember.
PHIL: I didn’t have a very good ear for accents. So when I found out what I’d missed – how much I’d missed – who I’d missed… It felt like claiming that I was into classical music when I’d been living round the corner from J.S. Bach and never known.
PB: You weren’t, though, were you? Living round the corner, I mean. Going to the same folk clubs, whatever.
PHIL: Well, no, our paths didn’t cross, that was…
PB: And you were talking in the pluperfect, which is a dead giveaway.
PHIL: Sorry?
PB: “How much I had missed” – pluperfect. You’re thinking in the pluperfect, and that’s why you’re wrong – and that’s why it’s all right. For a start you’ve got to distinguish between ‘losing’ and ‘having lost’. Losing is when you’re clinging on to the rockface and feeling it slip away from under your fingers; lost is when you’re falling, or when you’ve fallen, and it’s all over. Losing is sitting by the phone all day with the growing certainty that it isn’t going to ring; lost is remembering that day a year later. Or you can think of it in terms of songs. Take Reynardine or the Recruited Collier – some song that you sang a couple of times when you were just getting started and never thought about since.
PHIL: And will probably never sing again.
PB: And will probably never sing again – exactly. That’s lost. But you learned those songs, once – you learned the lines, forgot the lines, struggled to remember the lines, got them, lost them again, learned them again… That’s losing.
PHIL: I suppose so. But where are we going with this?
PB: I was planning on a bit of a walk by the canal, but since your friend roped me in… No, the point is: how do you feel about not knowing the second verse of Reynardine, or the penultimate verse of The Recruited Collier?
PHIL: I’d never really thought about it. Nothing, really – I don’t make any claim to know those songs.
PB: Although you did once?
PHIL: I did once, but they’re gone. They mean nothing to me.
PB: And those are songs you used to know. Suppose you heard that there were some interesting songs in a book you’ve never seen, and that the only copy’s been lost?
PHIL: That would be sad, but I wouldn’t regret it personally – that would be like taking responsibility for something that never happened or never could happen.
PB: And yet you think you regret not meeting someone you never could meet, not hearing music you never had any chance to hear. It may be sad – it might have been good if those things had happened – but there’s nothing there to regret. Your life is your life; what happened, happened. It’s all right. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to resume my walk, and if you won’t excuse me I’m afraid I’m going anyway. Val de ree, and so forth.

PHIL and JAN are standing side by side on the bridge over the canal, leaning over the parapet and looking out into nothing. For a few minutes nobody speaks. Eventually PHIL sighs.
PHIL: That’s reassuring up to a point, but surely there are things to regret in situations like…
JAN: Like mine?
PHIL: Yes! We shouldn’t have fallen out, I should have explained myself better, I should have made more of an effort… All those things I could have done, and now I can’t.
JAN: Now you can’t. Tell me, what would you think of a religious leader who said that everyone had a moral duty to avoid anger, pride, lust and the rest of them at all times? No exceptions – anyone who committed any of those sins, even inside their head, would be drummed out of the church. What would you think of that approach?
PHIL: I’d think that was cruel and exploitative, as it’s a standard that almost everyone is bound to fail.
JAN: Almost everyone, yes. And what would you think of the idea that everyone has a moral duty to go back in time, after they’ve sinned, and avoid committing the sinful act?
PHIL: I’d think that was ridiculous – you can’t have a moral duty to do something impossible.
JAN: No indeed. And you can’t have a duty towards someone who doesn’t exist. Maybe you did the wrong things back there, or not enough of the right things, and maybe you’ll want to do better if you’re in a similar situation in future. But you haven’t got anything to regret. You don’t owe me anything – how could you?
PHIL: So maybe I did owe you something…
JAN: And maybe I was well aware of that. Or maybe I thought you owed me something different from what you thought you owed me; maybe I would still have thought you owed me, even if you’d done everything you thought you ought to do. Whatever. The point is, that story’s over now. You can’t owe Jan something if there isn’t any Jan for you to owe anything to. Try and do better another time, but apart from that, go on, go in peace. It’s just you now.
PHIL: I suppose… when someone dies, we lose the person, but we also lose the whole entanglement of expectations and obligations and shared understandings and misunderstandings and grudges and guilt that grows up around a relationship over time. Laying all of that down, letting it all blow away, isn’t the same as having the other person actually tell you they don’t care about any of it, but it could feel like that. I suppose it’s the difference between a debt being settled and a debt being cancelled – which is to say, if you’re the one with the debt, there is no difference. Losing somebody is pain, but there’s also a release: a chance to wipe the slate, let all the nonsense go, see the person as they were and feel your affection for them as it was. A chance to hear those words –
PHIL straightens up, steps back from the parapet of the bridge, looks around. He is alone.
PHIL: “It’s all right. It’s really all right.”

To you, with regard (7)

BUFFY:
Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form… but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of… but I think I was in heaven.
After Life (BtVS S6E3), script by Jane Espenson

Right, that’s enough background reading. Here’s the thought-experiment that sparked all this off, when I wandered into it late last year. Let’s assume that there is such a thing as Heaven, and let’s assume that conventional wisdom about Heaven has more or less got it right. By which I mean, not the clouds or the harps or the pearly gates or any of that apparatus, but the basic setup. What do we ‘know’ about Heaven? (I’m leaving Hell out of consideration for the time being, although I will come back to it. For now let’s just assume that everyone goes to the same place.) There are two key things, I think. One is that we go to Heaven as individuals – identifiable individuals, even; you are still you, your grandfather is still the person he was, and so on. The other is that Heaven is a place out of time; it’s eternal.

But what does ‘eternal’ mean?

Here there are many many sheep
And the people only sleep
Or awake to tell how gory and gruesome was their end
And I don’t have many friends
And it’s really very clean
And I’m thinking:

Juliet, you broke our little pact!
Juliet, I’m never coming back.

Up here in Heaven without you
I’m here in Heaven without you
Up here in Heaven without you
It is Hell knowing that your health
Will keep you out of here
For many many years
– Sparks, “Here in Heaven”

Well, it doesn’t mean that. Eternity can’t mean that time passes, for everyone but you, and you see it pass – watching while your children and grandchildren grow old, waiting for your double-crossing lover to get hit by a bus, etc. Why not? Because if you see it passing, it is passing for you (“oh look, now my widow’s got a new man – wonder if this one will last”); it’s just that its passage matters less to you, not least because you’ve got an infinite supply of it. And that would open up a whole range of possibilities which, I think, take Heaven in the ‘wrong’ – counter-intuitive – direction. For a start, if time can pass in Heaven, things can happen – and that means that Heaven can change, which probably isn’t something we want to allow. Take C.S. Lewis’s ‘worlds within worlds’ vision of Heaven in The Last Battle:

About half an hour later—or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here—Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. … Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

“I see,” she said at last, thoughtfully. “I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.”

“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

Further up and further in! But those woods – I can’t help thinking of Minecraft. Could you cut down the trees? Could you use the wood to make things? Could you cut down all the trees, pave Paradise and put up… well, presumably not. But what if you’d been a handyman in life and building an infinitely extensible log cabin was your idea of heavenly bliss? What if there were lots of people like you? Come to that, what if you had really happy memories of a car park and wanted to recreate that in heaven? Really, there’s no way of having large numbers of people coexisting, over indefinitely long time periods, without conflict developing and leading to at least relative unhappiness.

This is the case even if we aren’t talking about resource conflicts – in other words, even if we drop the rivers and woods and sea and mountains and assume there’s nothing there but people, perhaps sitting on clouds. Being reunited with lost friends and relatives has always seemed like one of the most appealing things about Heaven, closely followed by the chance to meet and get to know the heroes you never did know in this life. But if it all takes time, it could get awfully frustrating: what if Guy Debord or John Lennon wanted to talk to someone else (their own lost friends and relatives, maybe)? What if there were so many people wanting to talk to Picasso or Gandhi that you ended up getting stuck in a celestial signing queue? (“So amazing to finally meet you! Love your work!” “Yeah, great. Thanks. Who’s next?”) It starts to look as if Ron Mael had the right idea all along – eternity, if you think of it in terms of endless amounts of time, would get boring.

So eternity has to mean, not infinite time, but no time (Uchronia?) – and not a hack like “waking up to the same day over and over again” (which, as we know, would get a bit nightmarish after a while) but actually no time passing. When I imagine this kind of infinite stasis I picture the sound of a tuning fork: after the first impact it suddenly sounds as if that tone has always been there and will never fade away – 100% sustain, no attack or decay. Nothing happens, nothing changes. What’s interesting about this is that if there is no time, there can be no energy and hence no matter – whatever it is they do, sub-atomic particles take time to do it (or: they do it within a four-dimensional space-time reference frame). This in turn means no space; imagine space with no photons to traverse it and no matter to bend it out of shape, and what you’ve got isn’t just a void but a dimensionless void.

In Heaven, then, there is no space or time; there’s no light, no matter to be lit by it and no void to be dark. But there are (ex hypothesi) people – identifiable individuals; after spending however-many years looking out through a pair of eyes down here, your consciousness and character – whatever makes you you – is translated at death onto this timeless, spaceless plane. Now what? What logically follows from these (not particularly outlandish) premises about the afterlife?

You’re Already There. We know that there’s no time in Heaven. But that must mean, not just that when you arrive you’re there forever, but that when you arrive you will have been there forever. Which means that Heaven’s always already populated, not just with everyone who’s ever lived, but with everyone who ever will have lived. That family reunion will reunite you not just with your long-lost ancestors but with your descendants, even those born long after you died. For they too will, eventually, die – which means, from the perspective of eternity, their death has already been taken into account.

We Are What We Will Have Been (so we must be careful what we will have been). There are no concertinas in Heaven (yes, I know) – mainly because there’s no space, no matter and no time. But if I were to die tomorrow I would – theoretically – enter Heaven as the kind of person who plays concertina, and be that person for eternity; I’d also be the kind of person who had acquired that kind of musical knowledge at a fairly advanced age, and regretted not having done anything about it earlier. Whereas if I’d died ten years ago I would have (eternally) been the kind of person who vaguely wanted to learn another instrument and regretted not doing anything about it. In this way of thinking, the fulfilment that you’ve achieved by the time you die is yours for eternity – and so are the regrets you die with. If what you are – eternally – is in some way determined by the life you’ve lived, it’s pretty important to live a good life, whatever ‘good’ means in this context.

Try Not to Sin. The specific idea of sin, as distinct from ideas of wicked or wrongful action, is that a sin is something that goes on your record: your sins weigh you down. To paraphrase the previous point, if who you are for eternity is who you are when you die, you don’t want to die with too much on your conscience. So if it’s a good idea to get round to the things you keep meaning to get round to, it’s also a good idea not to do things you’ll regret – a category that includes things you think you shouldn’t be doing. This would also suggest a reason for thinking that suicide is a bad idea – it might get you there a bit sooner, but you’re better off staying here a bit longer and arriving in a better state, if that’s possible.

Getting to Know You. There isn’t a lot to do in Heaven, but why would there be? There’s no time and no space and no matter; as such, there are no material wants, no scarcity and no competition. There’s no advantage to be gained over anyone else, no risks and no opportunities, nothing to hope for and nothing to fear; there’s nothing to buy or sell, nothing to organize for or take part in. What there is is people: everyone who has ever lived or will ever have lived. Think of those long conversations with strangers, at the heel of a party or in the middle of a long journey, when there’s nothing to do but talk – about yourselves, what you’ve been doing, where you’re going, what you care about and hope for. Imagine having that kind of conversation with your Mum and Dad (finally); and with your long-lost ancestors, and with your descendants; and with your heroes; and with the people who slighted you and let you down in life, and with the people you slighted and let down. Not to mention total strangers – all those unique, irreplaceable individuals who happened never to come into contact with you. The moment of entering Heaven would feel like the longest and most exhaustive ‘meet and greet’ anyone could imagine. And the moment of entering Heaven would also be the eternity of being in Heaven.

Time (And/Or Something Else) Heals All Wounds. If you would meet and get to know multiple billions of people in a moment out of time (or an aeon), you would also be changed in the process: a single, irreversible and unavoidable process of change. Imagine what happens, in this model, when somebody dies feeling hatred for others, or any of a number of other emotions that wouldn’t have any function in Heaven. What are you going to feel towards the rest of humanity, when you’re sharing eternity with them (with no material wants, no advantage to be gained over anyone else, etc)? Nothing but curiosity, wonderment, fellow-feeling and love, surely; something a bit richer than Vonnegut’s two mutually-triggering signals of presence and recognition, but in that basic form. If someone dies after a life of feeling nothing but love and benign curiosity towards all their fellow humans, they’re basically going to fit right in. (Not that my thought experiment is telling you how to live your life, or anything.) But if someone dies after killing another person, or multiple other people – what would that reunion be like? Imagine Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting“:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

Like that, but not ending – as the poem ends, a couple of lines later – in a sleep that envelopes both the dreamer and the dead man in his dream. Like that, in fact, but not ending at all. Imagine going to your death a righteous, ideologically-justified killer, and then meeting your victims individually and getting to know them, to the point where you can experience the equal value of each one’s life with your own. Imagine the horror of that. Learning to relate to people you’d hated, feared and wronged, and relate to them as valued equals; feeling hatred, fear and righteous anger, then feeling the horror of what those emotions had led to and feeling them boil away; feeling the weight of what you’d done, perhaps for the first time; feeling the burden of guilt and feeling that in turn burn away in a kind of acid bath of pain, sorrow and forgiveness. Imagine that whole process condensed into an instant, so that your experience of entering Heaven would be an experience of hatred, confusion, horror, self-hatred, guilt and pain, culminating in love, acceptance and fellow-feeling. Then imagine that instant smeared out across the infinite expanse of eternity.

Now generalise from killers to everyone who’s ever done anyone any harm.

Heaven Is Other People, Hell Is Just You. Everyone, on this model, basically gets forgiven – what is there not to forgive anyone for, when everyone concerned is a massless, positionless entity on a timeless plane? – but the pathway to forgiveness runs through guilt and horror. Horror, that is, at yourself and the harm you did to others when you were alive: the more harm, the more horror. Have I just reinvented Hell? Hell, no (if you’ll pardon the expression) – but Purgatory, maybe. It’s a process of love and acceptance, fundamentally; it’s just that, for some people, getting to love and acceptance would in itself be an ordeal.

Lonely Planet. So Heaven would be this humanity-sized static hum of mutual recognition signals and general benevolence, coloured to a greater or lesser extent by the anguish caused by each person’s own deeds while alive. The good end happily and the bad – the bad also end happily, but with more difficulty. Moreover, given that the whole of the human race is represented on the eternal plane, what we have there in aggregate is total knowledge of the course of every human life, together with the capacity (or at least the certain knowledge that somebody has or had the capacity) to change or have changed any detail at any time. Benevolence towards humanity combined with omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence (exercised through human agency): out there in Uchronia, the timeless human race as a whole loves you, wishes you well, knows exactly what you’re going to do and can transform your life at any moment, although it doesn’t generally intervene directly in this world. What does that remind you of?

This model of Heaven – which is to say, a couple of ‘common knowledge’ precepts about Heaven taken to their logical conclusion – seems not only to work without God but to culminate in something with properties that are very much those of God (if we set aside the whole world-creating part – and even that works metaphorically). We can even imagine, pushing the conceptual boat out a bit further, that subjective experience of (awareness of? contact with?) the benevolent eternal background hum of humanity could be mistaken for awareness of, or contact with, God.

To sum up, then: if you take it that individual identity survives death, and that it does so on an eternal plane, it follows that it’s a good idea to be accepting of other people, to live as fulfilled a life as you can, to honour your parents, to have kids, and to harm other people as little as possible, and in particular not to find pleasure or justification in harming other people. It also follows that there is no need to suppose there is a God.

(And the truth is as great as belief is.)

NEXT: So I said, “OK. Who is this really?”

To you, with regard (6)

Humanity is what we are: we’ve all benefited from other people being humane, we’ve all been humane to others, nothing comes more naturally.

Humanity is an accomplishment: even though everyone can treat others humanely and everyone deserves to be treated humanely, most people, most of the time, don’t and aren’t.

Humanity is utopian: a society where everyone was humane to everyone else all the time would have to be a subsistence-farming commune or something (and we suspect that it would get dull after a while).

The frustrating sense that all three of these statements are true – that society would be so much better if it were built on the care that we naturally, unthinkingly feel for family and close friends, but that this would be a titanic undertaking and we’re unlikely ever to see it – runs through a lot of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There’s a character – I can’t remember which character or even which book – who decides to go and live in Indianapolis; he knows nothing about the city, but he’s read that Indiana was the first state to give Native Americans the vote and he thinks that whoever lives in a place like that must be pretty decent people. He arrives in Indianapolis in mid-winter; not knowing anyone and with nowhere to go, he spends the night on a bench at the bus station and freezes to death.

A similar story in a non-political vein, from Slapstick:

I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as “common decency”. I treated somebody well for a little while, or even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in return. Love need not have anything to do with it. …

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous. I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please – a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

And, from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, here’s the blessing that Eliot Rosewater imagines himself pronouncing over newborn twins in lieu of a conventional baptism:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

The quiet frustration in that ‘God damn it’ always chokes me up – as if to say, it’s not hard; it really shouldn’t be hard.

Someone else who grappled with the challenge of kindness was the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Here’s a statement of his therapeutic credo, from a 1957 paper.

For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

  1. Two persons are in psychological contact.
  2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.
  3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.
  4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.
  5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.
  6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of construc- tive personality change will follow.

There’s a certain amount of throat-clearing and scene-setting there, as you can see. For our purposes the key conditions are the ones listed above as 3, 4 and 5 – what the therapist needs to do, or more precisely how the therapist needs to be. (Rogers and his followers later generalised this model to other settings, notably education (where what was at issue is not so much ‘constructive personality change’ as personal growth).)

The three key attributes, then, are congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathic understanding. Congruence can also be thought of as genuineness: the point is not that you feel perfectly integrated into the situation you’re in, but that you’re not managing the situation by faking or putting on a performance; you’re integrated in the sense that there’s no break between the ‘you’ who’s in the situation and the ‘you’ who you feel you are. So you don’t censor your reactions or tailor what you say to the role you’re playing; if you’re bored or frustrated, you ‘bring it in’. Empathic understanding means that you try to appreciate the way that the client’s feeling and get a sense of how they’re responding to the place that they’re in. Unconditional positive regard, lastly, is just that: the words, at least, need very little translation. The concept can be hard to get across, though: the idea of helping your patient feel good about herself, whatever she brings to you, can seem a bit counter-intuitive (let alone applying the idea to students). But the idea isn’t to approve of everything your client does, so much as to convey love and support for what she is – a good person, deep down, or at any rate someone with the capacity to be a good person. Unconditional positive regard is another way to talk about having faith in someone. Rogerian therapy is about sending an unhappy person the message that it’s possible to express one’s feelings spontaneously and honestly without worrying about it (congruence), that their feelings are worth feeling and expressing (empathic understanding), and that the world is a better place for having them in it (unconditional positive regard).

Back to Vonnegut; The Sirens of Titan this time.

It is the tension between the hot hemisphere of day-without-end and the cold hemisphere of night-without-end that makes Mercury sing. Mercury has no atmosphere, so the song it sings is for the sense of touch. …

There are creatures in the deep caves of Mercury. The song their planet sings is important to them, for the creatures are nourished by vibrations. They feed on mechanical energy. The creatures cling to the singing walls of their caves. In that way, they eat the song of Mercury. …

There is no need for a circulatory system in the creatures. They are so thin that life-giving vibrations can make all their cells tingle without intermediaries.  The creatures do not excrete. The creatures reproduce by flaking. The young, when shed by a parent, are indistinguishable from dandruff. There is only one sex. Every creature simply sheds flakes of his own kind, and his own kind is like everybody else’s kind. There is no childhood as such. Flakes begin flaking three Earthling hours after they themselves have been shed. They do not reach maturity, then deteriorate and die. They reach maturity and stay in full bloom, so to speak, for as long as Mercury cares to sing. There is no way in which one creature can harm another, and no motive for one’s harming another. Hunger, envy, ambition, fear, indignation, religion, and sexual lust are irrelevant and unknown.

The creatures have only one sense: touch. They have weak powers of telepathy. The messages they are capable of transmitting and receiving are almost as monotonous as the song of Mercury. They have only two possible messages. The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.

The first is, ”Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

The second is, ”So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.”

“The first is an automatic response to the second, and the second is an automatic response to the first.” It’s not hard.

NEXT: so, where’s all this going?

 

To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).

Schematically:

Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

To you, with regard (4)

Three views on personal survival after death. (I was holding this post back until I had time to write some commentary, but if I do it this way you can decide what you think about them before I tell you what I think.) They date respectively from 1845, 1867 and 1998.

So: have a read of this.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Got that?

Now, take a breath and have a go at this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.

So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better – saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shaped it forth before the multitude
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reference more mixed with love –
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
Unread for ever.

This is life to come,
Which martyred men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
And in diffusion ever more intense.
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

And you know what to do with this:

Homework question: was that in fact three different views of personal survival, or only two? If two of them agree, which two?

To you, with regard (3)

Not the Victorian poetry – I’ll get to that soon – but a footnote to part 1. In that post I wrote briefly about the Beatitudes, ‘blessed are they that mourn’ in particular :

where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon

Karl Dallas on Peter Bellamy:

We met for the last time on November 5, 1990. It is surprising to me, in retrospect, that though we had been close for a quarter-century … I’d never done what I could call a “proper” interview with the man I’d always regarded as the primus inter pares of the post-MacColl revival.

We settled down on a Monday afternoon for a trawl through all those 25 years, talking about influences, pursuing that endless and ultimately fruitless search for a definition of folksong. Playing back the tapes today, the man lives again in my head as I transcribe the over two hours of conversation, the chuckles and belly laughs, the way he could bat a question back at me like a Wimbledon champion going for game-set-and-match, the muscular integrity of the man.

He was bitter over some things, and I felt his bitterness was wrongheaded, telling him so. That difference spilled over into the interview as published in Folk Roots, and after it appeared he sent me an annotated copy of it, indicating where he felt I had got it wrong. I was hurt by his criticism (we critics aren’t used to subjects who bite back) and for the first time I felt estranged from him. We never met again, and when he died I wondered (as I am sure must many of us) what part I might have played in his decision to take his own life. Of course, each of us has the right to end our story as we wish; to deny that right is to deny our very humanity, I do feel. But the guilt remains.

Looking back, as I re-play the tapes, I have to admit that the article I wrote was a great missed opportunity. By concentrating upon his strictures upon the folk scene (and some of its leading protagonists), I missed the greatness of the man, his enormous humanity, his wonderful contribution to the joy that this process we miscall a revival has given us all. At the funeral, I was still in shock, burdened by guilt. As I knelt in the chapel, I felt Peter’s very presence. He seemed surrounded by light. And I distinctly heard his words, in that unmistakable blend of Norfolk vowels and English grammar-school education. “It’s all right,” he seemed to be saying. “It’s really all right.”

I felt something similar – although much less intense – after my friend Les died recently. Although he was a huge influence on me musically, we were never at all close, partly because we didn’t agree on the types of music we really valued. I wasted a lot of energy alternately resenting not being in with Les’s musical ‘in crowd’ and reproaching myself for not making more of an effort to join in. Ideally I should have talked about it with Les, but he was never particularly voluble – and how do you talk to someone about the fact that you’ve never been close? Anyway, I was fortunate to be among the musicians at the get-together after Les’s funeral, where there was a small display of pictures of Les through the years, many from long before I’d known him. As I looked at the pictures, all that resentment and self-reproach came churning back up like indigestion. But then I felt… not Les’s presence or anything like that, but I did feel precisely those words: It’s all right. It’s really all right.

I remember, too, the evening of the day I heard my friend Madeleine had died; I had a whisky and a hot bath, and suddenly nothing was wrong, everything was perfectly, blissfully all right. It wasn’t just exhaustion (or alcohol); I remember reflecting on how strange this feeling was, even wondering vaguely if it was a stage of grieving that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had missed. I went to bed and slept like a contented child. (Then in the morning it all began again, of course.)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

I’m not insisting on the reality of these experiences. To put it another way, I absolutely am insisting on the reality of these experiences – they did really happen – but I’m not insisting there was anybody there but me. I do think there’s something interesting here, though.

To you, with regard (1)

Bear with me; the next few posts are going to be a bit weird. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say up front that my position on personal survival after death is pretty much that set out in the Magnetic Fields song “No”:

Is there a man in heaven looking out for you?
Is there a place dead loved ones go?
Is there a source of wisdom that will see you through?
Will there be peace in our time?
NO

But a thought experiment got hold of me a few months ago, and I’d like to explore it here. I’ll start with a couple more quotations.

It is useless for me to describe to you how terrible Violet, Klaus and even Sunny felt in the time that followed. If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.
– Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται
– Matthew 5:4 (King James version and original)

‘Blessed’. It’s not saying that those who mourn will be all right in the end, it’s singling them out – along with the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and poor in spirit – for bounty and privilege in the world that is to come. But where the meek inherit the earth and the merciful are shown mercy, what mourners are to be endowed with is ‘comfort’; specifically, the Greek says that they will be visited or called upon. (It’s the same verb stem as ‘paraclete’, a word widely used to refer to the Holy Spirit and literally meaning ‘the one that is summoned’.)

‘Blessed’, though. What’s that about?

NEXT: still no idea, but here’s some music.

He knows so much about these things

 

Eddie Izzard, interviewed (paraphrased?) in the Times magazine’s “What I’ve learnt” column, 7th May:

I’m not a transvestite. I have some of the same genetics as women, so I’m transgender. When I see a pair of nice heels I think, “Yeah, that could work. That could be kind of fun, kind of sexy.” Anyone can feel that. We’re obsessed with the differences between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina. Everyone should calm down and take a chill pill.

There is, as you’ve probably noticed, quite a lot of this stuff around at the moment. Opinions are divided – rather bitterly – as to just what it is we’re seeing. Is it a liberal movement, a claim for rights by a new constituency – are transgender people a disadvantaged and hitherto overlooked minority, whose struggles for recognition the rest of us should support? It’s worth pausing here to say that if that were all we were talking about, there wouldn’t be anything to talk about: singling out Sally (who I know or suspect to have been born male) for any kind of special treatment is no more appropriate or justifiable than doing so with Sam (who I know or suspect to be Jewish). That’s not controversial; it’s barely even political. In most social situations, the liberal assumption of universal human equality gets us all where we want to be: people are people, and that’s the only starting assumption anyone needs.

But it sometimes seems as if the trans thing is about something more than that, or something else entirely. Is it a more unsettling form of radicalism, a new wave of gender-subversive activism which seeks to challenge the pink/blue girl/boy female/male binary order most of us live in, rather than staking out a place within it or alongside it? Or is there something else again going on – something not particularly radical or even liberal? I mean, what does “a pair of nice heels” have to do with anything?

I was troubled by Eddie Izzard’s comments – not to mention his decision to rewrite his own identity as transgender rather than transvestite. (He’s been out as TV since the early 90s, but to my knowledge he’s never claimed to be transgender before this year.) I flashed back to this LRB column from a few years ago by an occasional cross-dresser: “I like wearing a dress and tights, and I want to look good in them, and I like being addressed as Stephanie … I like my life as Stephen just fine, so long as I get to be Stephanie now and again”. I wondered, is it wearing a dress or is it ‘be[ing] Stephanie’? Does Stephanie ever wear trousers? (My daughter’s been in trousers since she could walk – she only frocks up for parties.) The writer attends a makeup workshop at a trans convention:

The workshop itself was helpful but intimidating. ‘To be born woman is to know,’ Yeats wrote, ‘Although they do not talk of it at school,/That one must labour to be beautiful’: adults who weren’t born as women have a hard time learning later on. Among the lessons of the session were that girlish looks need more blush, sophisticated adult looks less, though they may need more mascara.

Heels and genetics, mascara and being ‘born woman’. The slippage goes both ways: first, wanting to look like a girl – to present in ways that have been coded as female – turns into being female; then it seems that being female (as 51% of the population are generally agreed to be) requires looking like a girl, labouring to be beautiful, dragging up. Just as it did in Yeats’s day, and just as it seemingly always had done. There’s a wrong turn somewhere here.

I was also reminded of a friend of mine, and of what we talked about one time when I dropped in on him just before Christmas. I found him and his family – wife and two kids – putting up decorations. They had some long, heavy coloured tinsel garlands, for hanging on the wall in swags; when I came in my friend had two of these draped around his neck like feather boas, and was giving one of them a twirl. The effect was very camp, but not in a mocking, exaggerated way; he looked remarkably comfortable like that, twirling his boa, chatting with his kids. I said “oi, Conchita!” or something similar. We got talking about Eurovision, and we agreed that Conchita Wurst’s performance had been stunning; my friend said what an amazing moment it had been when Conchita won, how inspiring and how right it had felt. (I remember we both avoided using the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ – Conchita this, Conchita that…)

Later, we talked some more about camp and about drag. My friend said he and his wife had bonded, years ago, over the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Frank in particular – that ‘sweet transvestite’, somehow coming across as both fussily camp and powerfully macho, in heels, stockings and a basque. Role model? I asked. He laughed – well, not exactly… but it would be nice sometimes to have that element of display, you know? I guess I was spoiled by glam rock… (And we talked a bit about Bowie.)

Later still, my friend said to me, You know, my best friend at school was always a girl – always. Well, not when we moved and I went to a single-sex school – but right up till then. Other kids said we were going together – when I was eleven or twelve, this was – but it wasn’t like that. From about the age of six it was always a girl I looked to, when I wanted someone I could talk to properly, someone I could trust. And of course when I started having girlfriends that’s what I wanted from them – someone to trust, someone to talk to. Always wanted to start with that, not with the dancing and flirting and silly fun stuff. Probably missed out. But I wouldn’t want a relationship that wasn’t based on it – friendship, I mean.

I don’t suppose I’ve ever told you about my trans period. Mmm? (I tried not to look startled.) No, I know I haven’t – I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone. I would have been about fourteen, struggling a bit with puberty. I was an intellectual little sod and I had very mixed feelings about being permanently randy, like you are at that age: puritanical mixed feelings, mostly. Basically I hated my body. I was at a boys’ school by this time, so I had lots of exposure to the less attractive side of masculinity – rugby, bullying, people going on and on and on about sex… I used to read the Guardian, including the women’s page; I had several female role models, people I’d always looked up to – older sisters, a godmother – but not much in the way of male ones… It all stacked up. Long story short, I turned against maleness in all its forms & decided that I should have been a girl. But I did have enough self-awareness to realise that if I were a girl I would still be attracted to girls; in my diary I referred to myself as a male lesbian.

You go through a lot in your early teens. Oh, you do – you try things out. It must have been around that time that I converted to Buddhism for a week; it wasn’t meant to be temporary, but it just happened it was the week before Easter, and on the day itself I had an intense emotional response to Christianity and promptly converted back. This lasted a good bit longer than that, though. It wasn’t an intellectual pose, either; the consciousness of not being a girl made me genuinely unhappy for quite a while.

What happened then? A couple of things. One was that I told my best friend, who was taken aback, but not in the way I’d expected – it turned out that he’d been working up the courage to tell me exactly the same thing about himself, and he clearly felt I’d stolen his thunder. I don’t remember ever discussing it with him again. But his actual sex life took off quite soon after that – and that he did discuss with me – which made the whole thing a bit academic. (I saw his name in the paper the other day, incidentally; he’s OK, and still a bloke.) The other thing I did was tell my Mum; she was sympathetic, but took the view that I should think about it for a good long time before committing myself to anything I might regret. She recommended Jan Morris’s Conundrum, which I got out of the library.

The classics, eh? Oh yes. Mum recommended Orlando, too, but I was more curious about somebody who’d actually been through it. The main thing I remember is how certain Jan Morris was, after completing gender reassignment, that she felt different, thought differently and even saw the world differently: she was more emotional than he had been as James but less interested in politics, and she’d acquired the ability to look at distant objects and see them as toys. (“So you see, Jan, these are small, but those are far away…”) I ran some of this past my mother; she didn’t quite give it the Nora Ephron treatment, but she was distinctly unconvinced. That stayed with me; it may have occurred to me even then that the qualities I admired, in the women I admired, didn’t include susceptibility to flattery or tolerance of being overcharged by tradesmen.

The other thing that stuck in my mind from that book, oddly enough, was Jan Morris’s retrospective celebration of the joys of being James Morris. There was a certain kind of energy and physical confidence which (Jan believed) went with being male as well as young and fit; and there was the memory of having sex with his (and subsequently her) partner, for which Jan didn’t see any need to apologise. “For when your lover pants beside you he is not necessarily enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility” – but this is your lover, and he is panting beside you, and that’s not nothing. It makes me think now that there might be loads of heterosexual men out there having sex without “enjoying the orthodox satisfactions of virility”, whatever that actually means; but Jan Morris didn’t reflect on that. Anyway, it was a small but definite influence on me, that book; a reality check (it can be done, she did it!) but with a bit of “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” thrown in (…and now she likes men holding the door for her?).

So you didn’t want to… Transition? (He grimaced.) No, there was no danger of… But actually, you know what, I’d say I did: I transitioned into being the person I wanted to be. It took me a few years, but I got there in the end. I remember thinking 27 was a very good age to be. Things have got better for me since then – much, much better. But by the time “Suedehead” came out I pretty much knew what was what.

Why do you telephone? Why indeed. Great unanswered questions of our time.

So what was 27? Mostly, 27 was not being one of the kids any more; it was feeling that I didn’t have anything to conform to any more – or to rebel against conforming to. It made everything a lot simpler. What was the person I’d wanted to be, after all – the person who I’d thought couldn’t possibly be male? Someone like my mother, my godmother, my aunt – someone intelligent but also caring, sympathetic but thoughtful, cultured but funny…

Sounds like quite a family. OK, someone like an idealised version of those people. But you take the point. Wanting to look good was part of it – I was so disappointed when I discovered ‘menswear’! – and wanting to move with a certain amount of grace, not just barging through everywhere. Hating my body was part of it, too; thankfully I got past that, eventually. But mostly it was about the kind of person I wanted to be – and after a while I found I could try to be that person without worrying, or being made to worry, about being a man. I mean, once you get to 27 there aren’t so many people calling you a ponce for using long words, or telling you that boys don’t talk about their feelings. There aren’t so many people policing the way you move or the clothes you wear, come to that, so you can pick up that side of it as well.

I don’t know if a 27-year-old woman would agree with that last part. Perhaps not. And that actually relates to one of the things that bothers me about the trans moment we seem to be in, culturally – the draggier end of it, anyway. Femininity seems to have become a site of transgression for men without ceasing to be a uniform for women. I’m willing to bet there are workplaces out there where a man who came in wearing makeup would be frowned on less than a woman who came in without it – he’s being bold and transgressive, she’s just not making an effort. It’s as if patriarchy reserved a second-class space for women – a space for emotion, not logic; for the body, not the mind; for falsity and display (“paint an inch thick”), not for the unadorned truth – and now men are even entering that space. While still trying to keep women inside it – we frock up to play at being something we’re not, but for women femininity is what they are. (When we’re talking about trans we always seem to be talking about women in the end.)

Aren’t you over-thinking this? What about that confused, lonely teenager who just wants… What about him? Didn’t I just explain that I was that teenager? I’m prepared to believe that my gender dysphoria was milder and more short-lived than many other teenagers’, but you’re not telling me that it wasn’t genuine. Besides, if it was mild and short-lived, mightn’t the reaction it got have something to do with that?

Are you complaining? No, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m saying is that the guarded tolerance with which my mother greeted my story gave me no encouragement, and no condemnation to react against either. I was left to share my feelings with my best friend, with my diary and with a book by Jan Morris. All of these did something to keep those feelings alive, but after a while I got interested in something else and they faded away. And, thirteen short years later, I was 27. It was a hell of a slog getting there – “will Nature make a man of me yet?” and so on – but growing up usually is.

So my message for that confused, lonely teenager is: “Hang on. You’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be. You can be the person you want to be; you will be the person you want to be. And it doesn’t have to involve surgery, or drugs, or cross-dressing, or even changing your name.” (Although I was obsessed with changing my name when I was a teenager – the search for the perfect pseudonym occupied me for years.)

Should we call you Conchita after all? No, no, it was my surname I wanted to get rid of – I couldn’t imagine becoming a rock star with a name like mine. And it’s true, I never changed my name and I never did become a rock star.

So, “hang on”… And is that what you’d say to teenagers who think they might be gay? Should everyone wait till they’re 27? No, of course not. I would advise fourteen-year-olds not to think that whatever they’re going through is necessarily going to last forever – but they’d never believe me, so there’d be no point. But seriously – when I was seven years old I wasn’t attracted to women; I also wasn’t a practising Christian, a Labour voter or a well-meaning middle-class Guardian reader. My parents expected me to grow up to be all of those things – that was our house for you – and so it came to pass, by and large. But if I’d grown up to be gay, or a militant atheist, or even a Tory, it would still have been a story I could tell from a shared beginning, a story that could make sense. By contrast, my parents didn’t have any expectations that I would grow up ‘as’ a boy – they knew I was a boy, from the moment I was born. (So I was a boy who didn’t like football, who liked wearing bright colours, whose best friend was a girl – so what? Still a boy.) To say that your entire past is a lie – not that your beliefs or your desires have developed in ways you didn’t expect, but that you never were what you were – is an awfully big step, for you as well as for everyone around you. Besides which, saying what you’re not doesn’t enable you to say what you are. You may have a deep-rooted feeling of revulsion against the sex you were born into (I remember that feeling), but you can’t possibly feel that you are the other sex – you’ve no idea what being the other sex is like. I’m a straight, Labour-voting mild agnostic, but I know from personal experience what it’s like to believe in an empty and meaningless universe, what it’s like to vote against Labour and what it’s like to be attracted to another man. What it’s like to have periods – or what it’s like not to have a prostate – I can’t begin to imagine.

All this is without getting into what committing to a trans identity, particularly as a young adult, will commit you to from that point forward. At the very least, going down that route is letting yourself in for years of distress – that’s what I’d say to that teenager. This isn’t about intolerance or prejudice; it’s changing something fundamental about yourself, socially and culturally as well as physically fundamental. I can’t think of a bigger change you could make, with the possible exception of some forms of extreme body modification. So yes, if you possibly can, hang on. But it’s a hopeful message as well – not just “hang on, don’t risk it”. “Hang on – you’ll be fine. It’ll all be all right. It doesn’t seem possible now, but it will be.”

Some would say you’re trivialising… Yeah, maybe. As I say, it’s possible that the gender dysphoria I experienced was an unusually mild and fleeting thing; maybe most kids identifying as trans these days ‘just know‘ who they are, undeniably and unshakeably, and know it from an early age. But I’m not sure. I saw some research the other day vindicating the reality of trans kids’ gender identification. One way we know that trans identities are real & deep-rooted, apparently, is that trans kids tend to socialise and bond with kids of their adopted gender, not their birth gender. So, there you go – me and my female best friend, what does that tell you? (Or should we be asking about her and her male best friend? Good heavens, what kind of weirdoes were we back then?)

At the end of the day, I can only picture the cultural landscape that would face me if I were an unhappy fourteen-year-old boy in 2016, and if I’d become convinced (as for a time I did) that being the wrong sex was the root of all my problems. I picture it and I wonder. I think of the resources of information, support, validation and enablement which I’d be able to find and tap into, and I wonder what my life would be like by the time I got to 27, or even to 21. I don’t think it would have gone the way it did. I might have ended up perfectly happy; I don’t believe in the inevitability of trans misery. But I do believe that there are many routes that most lives can take, many ways that most people can find to be happy – 14-year-old people especially. And if there are many routes to happiness, it seems like a good idea to choose a route of minimum self-imposed transformation and maximum self-acceptance – acceptance of your life, your body, your self.

That sounds like the cue for a song. What, ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’?

No.

Mostly harmless

At the LRB blog, Bernard Porter reminisces:

When I went up to Cambridge in October 1960, I found myself, for the first time, in the company of public schoolboys. … They were all very pleasant to me, despite my ‘Estuary’ accent and the fact that I had lived at home during my school years, and I made close friends with a number of them. But there was always this barrier – of adolescent experience – between us. They knew things that I didn’t (and vice versa? perhaps).

One thing was the proclivities of one of the fellows, the Rev. E. Garth Moore, notorious in public school circles as a sexual predator: they felt they needed to warn me, as a comparatively plebbish ingénu. ‘If Garth invites you to tea in his rooms,’ one of them told me on my first day, ‘don’t go. We know about him. You won’t understand.’ I think they were trying to protect me from embarrassment more than anything. It was kind of them. Anyhow, I did get the invitation, and politely turned it down.

This prompted a memory which I’ve never written about before. It wasn’t so much submerged, let alone repressed, as ignored; not in a locked cupboard of memory but in plain sight on a neglected shelf. I’ve never told anyone about it, but there’s a lot on those shelves that I’ve never told anyone about – the time the electricity meter broke, the time I nearly didn’t see Douglas Adams, the time we found the funniest line in Shakespeare… As a rule I haven’t told anyone because I didn’t think anyone would be interested. But maybe this one is worth bringing out.

So. Quite soon after I went up to Cambridge in 1979, I received an invitation to breakfast with Dr Pars, one of the college’s two resident retired fellows; the story was that the college had done away with lifetime residence and dining privileges several years earlier, but that Pars and one other don had hung on to theirs and were determined to exercise them to the last (as indeed they did). Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends, ‘Pars’ to everyone else – was 83 at the time.

Pars, anyway, entertained me and another undergraduate to breakfast in his rooms; I gathered on the grapevine that he was working his way through the first year intake. It was a civilised but not particularly comfortable occasion. The other student was a woman – the college had just started admitting women – and Pars seemed very solicitous in pressing food on her (“I do hate it when people die of hunger at my breakfasts”); she was rather posh and was very gracious with him. I remember there was a fruit course, complete with appropriate cutlery; I ate a banana with a knife and fork, which was fun at least. Then there was a second breakfast invitation, for me and another undergraduate (another man this time); he was a third-generation student at the college, and Pars had known his father (and quite possibly his grandfather). This somehow led to a theatre outing for the three of us (Frederic Raphael’s From the Greek). When Pars sent me an invitation to afternoon tea in his rooms – just me this time – I thought things were looking up. The cakes were nice, the tea was good quality and Pars confided that he too preferred China to India; it was all very civilised.

In retrospect it looks very much like a selection process, but nothing of the sort occurred to me at the time. The breakfasts – and the play – were rather a bore, but having a (very) senior don take an interest in one and serve one China tea in his rooms… well, I was on the Left, but I wasn’t immune to this kind of thing; I’d read a bit of Dornford Yates in my youth and always thought it sounded like fun, the fox-hunting apart.

Then I got a letter from Pars, saying that he’d previously sent me an invitation to the Club (or possibly The Club) and been disappointed to have no reply – but, “as an invitation to the Club was not the kind of invitation one refuses”, he would expect me anyway. Date, time, place – it may even have been at the Master’s Lodge – guest of honour so-and-so, dress lounge suit. (I don’t know if the lost invitation was some sort of ploy or if Pars forgot to send it. There’s very little chance of it actually having got lost, en route from one side of the college to the other.)

Now, I’d never heard of The Club – I’ve never heard of it since, come to that – and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But I thought it sounded appropriately privileged and inner-circle-ish, and I thought I’d give it a go; I was also slightly concerned about the potential ramifications of refusing, given that this was not the kind of invitation one refuses. My main worry was establishing what a lounge suit was, and – once I’d worked that one out – checking that I looked OK in one of the old suits my father had presciently given me before I went up. (I’d had them altered to fit my measurements, which at the time included a 28″ waist. I didn’t get much wear out of them.)

It was all very new and mysterious. I wrote, asking for advice, to a family friend named Keith – the son of a friend of my mother’s, to be precise. He wasn’t a personal friend – he was nine years older, a daunting gap at that age – but he’d graduated from the same college a few years earlier with a degree in archaeology, and had been very helpful when I was about to go up. I wanted to check out what I was getting into, and possibly show off a bit (“been invited to this thing called The Club, whatever that is…”). He replied, “I wouldn’t worry, Pars is pretty harmless these days.” Worry? Pretty harmless these days? I knew what Keith was – what he must be – referring to, but the thought had never crossed my mind until that moment; I hadn’t been worrying, but I was now (pretty harmless, these days?). What kind of ‘Club’ was this?

Keith was living at home at the time, in between research trips centred on shipwrecks, so I was able to ring him and ask what, precisely, he was saying about Pars. He laughed it off – oh, there were stories, you know… I didn’t know. Oh, you know… choirboys running screaming from his room in a state of undress… It’s all a while ago now – I mean, he’s an old man! I should go, it’ll be fine. Talking to Keith – who was a lovely bloke – reassured me greatly, even though he was actually confirming my suspicions. I rang my mother; she was rather brisk, and said that at this stage I was probably going to have to go, but pointed out that if necessary I could always make my excuses and leave.

So I went. It was a piano recital; there was assorted seating dotted around a rather large (and well-lit) room, there were twenty or thirty people, and I think there was wine. Looking around, I could see that the company was mostly male, but not entirely; some of my more lurid fears dropped away. I could also see that everyone else there was in their thirties or over; I was the only student. I didn’t recognise anyone, with one inevitable exception: Pars. He was sitting on a sofa, and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. The pianist was introduced and began to play – some classical piece that I didn’t recognise. I noticed Pars nodding and tapping his foot to the rhythm of the piece; I thought this was surprisingly uncultured and concluded that he wasn’t really enjoying the music. Then I noticed his hand, which was on my thigh, just above my knee. He let it rest there for a while then squeezed, as if he was assessing the meat on a cow’s hindquarters. Then he patted my knee a couple of times, and left his hand there.

After the recital I made straight for the door. The Club seemed to be a perfectly innocuous cultural society, and perhaps it really was a privilege to be invited; I hadn’t actually been molested as such, either – nothing had happened. All the same, I had had my leg fondled in public – and, what was worse, Pars had effectively shown me off to the assembled company as his latest (potential) conquest. It was a deeply humiliating experience, and I wanted no more of it. Happily, Pars didn’t pursue me – literally or metaphorically – and I never had anything to do with him again.

I wasn’t angry, though, so much as ashamed; the indignity had been forced on me, but it felt as if the resultant shame was all mine. Shame led to guilt and self-reproach – why didn’t I say no? why hadn’t I said no before? why did he pick me – was there something about me? I told my parents and friends about what had happened (I don’t think I said anything to Keith), but the idea of reporting Pars in some way never occurred to me, and if it had I would have dismissed it. After all, what could I accuse him of? What had actually happened, really? No bones broken, eh? And I’d done all right out of it, hadn’t I? Poor old Pars, he’s harmless enough, it’s sad really when you think about it… So people would have said – or so we thought people would say – back in the 1970s. Even writing about it now, my initial impulse was to change names and details, to protect the… well. So hard to think of it as something that he should have been ashamed of, not me; so hard to think of it as something to feel angry about, not guilty.

Dr L.A. Pars – Alan to his friends – died in 1985, aged 89. The saddest part of the story is that he outlived Keith, the maritime archaeologist. Keith died in 1980, aged 29. He’d just surfaced from a dive in a Scottish loch and was standing in shallow water in a ‘hard’, pressurised diving suit, with the helmet off. A freak wave knocked him off his feet, the suit filled up and he couldn’t get back to his feet; he drowned in four feet of water. Although I never knew him well, I still think of Keith from time to time – I’ve never forgotten him and hope I never will. I’ve never forgotten Pars, either, but I live in hope.

 

And find out what’s behind it

Cross-posted from ¡Vivan las Caenas!, where a series of retrospective posts is currently under way. This one is essentially ‘my life as a mature student’, and features what I didn’t realise then was the beginning of my interest in the law.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

As for the law, consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

A moment worth waiting for

I’ve been pleased by the response to the last couple of posts, including the corrections to my theology (cosmogony?) offered by a couple of commenters – although they do tend to undermine the argument I was making, so I’m not going to update the post to address them. The second post – the one derived from comments on Crooked Timber – was a bit more uneven; I think there’s some good stuff there (if I say so myself) but also some stuff that deserved the challenges it got from the CT sceptics. I’m going to use this space to think about which was which.

1. The Good Bits (I think)

faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

I think this is true – more importantly, I think it’s the right way round – but it’s only part of the truth; that phrase expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing is carrying an awful lot of weight, and getting a bit squashed by it. And what is the “value” of death? At a subjective level, surely, death is the greatest and most terrible challenge to everything we value, as well as being a universal and inescapable fact. “Expressing a sense of the value” is a coffee-morning phrase for something much more problematic and difficult – “the value of death” cashes in, roughly speaking, as she’s gone and I will never, ever see her again – and where the hell does that leave me?

But that’s also something people do with religion.

What do you do when the old man’s gone –
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song –
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). … The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

The thing is, I think that being human is deeply, deeply problematic – why wouldn’t it be? Thinking meat – what’s that about? House a reflective consciousness in a simian brain and you’re bound to get a bit of friction. I think churches are a good place to take those problems and work with them – although not the only place, obviously. Atheists would say that the fact that churches rely on a belief in God is a bug; I think the fact that they house practices that produce a belief in God is a feature, and an interesting one.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people. … We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to [saying that non-believers are] “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”.

The idea of holding a belief without asserting that people who denied that belief were wrong provoked a lot of resistance, but I think it’s still a valid point. Saying “I believe X, but I’m not going to say that X-deniers are wrong” is a way of saying that, in a particular (and important) area, it’s not up to me to decide what’s correct or incorrect; I may never know what’s correct or incorrect, or if I was told I might not understand. It’s a Horatio moment – a way of saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy dreams of.

One of the most valuable things religion does, I think, is to confront the believer with something they cannot possibly understand. What this is is secondary; what’s important is the feeling of being at the limit of your understanding and being at peace with that. Because life will throw things at you that permanently exceed your understanding, and the ability to be at peace with them will serve you well.

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

This also provoked a bit of resistance, mostly along the lines of “I trust the people who have given me good reason to trust them”. (Yes, I remember being young and in love.) Maybe some people do go through life up- and downgrading everyone they deal with, divulging a bit more or a bit less personal information, allowing themselves a bit more or less spontaneous emotional engagement. I think that sounds like Hell, and I don’t think it’s the way most people live. The belief in God is a lot like the belief that your partner loves you, or that the people you work with aren’t going to stitch you up – it’s not so much a belief as a commitment to choose to believe, an orientation of trustful commitment, extended in the case of religion to the universe and all that surrounds it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

2. A little light pushback

“Religion certainly does provide comfort to a lot of people in difficult situations, but does that make it a good thing? Follow the ‘opiate of the people’ analogy – opiates bring vital relief to people in severe pain, but we don’t think being a junkie is a good way to live your life. Perhaps religious beliefs are good to have when you need a comforting illusion, but they’re illusions that should be abandoned as soon as you feel mentally strong enough.”

My answer to this one is that I don’t think religious beliefs are comforting in any easy sense. The most comforting thing I heard from anyone in religious clothing after my mother died was something along the lines of “It’s time to let go” – as if to say, You’ve run into a wall that you can’t get past; perhaps you should turn round now and go home. (Not that going home was just a matter of going home, if you see what I mean.) I don’t think anybody told me my mother was watching over me or that I’d see her again, and if they had I wouldn’t have believed it. Religion, for me, is something that takes you to the very edge of abandonment and despair, and stays with you there.

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe. Anyone committed to believing that their departed parent was having a high old time up there, strumming a harp and chatting with Einstein, would also be committed to believing that something that appeared to be unbearable and incomprehensible actually made sense, except that it made sense in some way that couldn’t be understood either. Which isn’t that comfortable a place to be – in fact, I think it’s pretty much on the edge of abandonment and despair. But with a sense of not being alone there.

“Is it really a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand? Doesn’t that associate religion rather strongly with ignorance and lack of curiosity? For that hit of blissful non-comprehension, wouldn’t it be quicker just to believe that God made the world in seven days? Never mind that you don’t understand how it happened – it’s a religious truth, so it’s meant to be incomprehensible!”

I’ll take this one on: yes, it is a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand. It’s good to look at something you don’t understand and realise you don’t understand it (as distinct from thinking that if you don’t understand it it must be nonsense). It’s also good to learn more and understand more. But there will always be something you don’t understand, and there will always be some things you can’t understand. I think that’s a good thing to recognise. The alternative is to think that there isn’t anything that, in principle, you couldn’t understand. That might work for the law of torts or the Keynesian multiplier, but it wouldn’t do you much good with “why does everything die?”

“Fine, but you don’t need religion for that – just a reasonably well-developed sense of wonder and humility.”

Never said you did need it – just that religion is, often, a carrier of those things.

3. The less good bits

Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it. … Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff.

That ‘of course’ is doing rather a lot of work – or perhaps it’d be truer to say that it’s avoiding rather a lot of work. There’s a real problem here. I argued that religious ‘truths’ aren’t incompatible with scientific fact, because where they make factual propositions they’re not presented as law-like statements. Nobody’s saying that people who die generally rise again after three days, quite the reverse – Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection was miraculous precisely because it was an exception to the laws of death and decomposition. And it’s these localised, miraculous exceptions – at most – which believers are asked to commit to, and which they grapple with more or less effectively. But there’s no particular reason why the package of religious ‘exceptions’ should be limited to those relating directly to the life of Jesus. What about the plagues of Egypt? What about Aaron’s rod? What about God speaking to Abram? Come to that, what about the creation of the world in seven days? We know that this isn’t how the cosmos looks as if it works, but after all, this is an exception to all those rules…

I haven’t got an answer to this one, except to say that there’s nothing in Christianity to stop you travelling relatively light. Figurative interpretations of the Bible have a much longer history in Christianity than literal readings; by the time you’ve finished grappling with impossible beliefs and finding ways to believe in them, you may well come to the conclusion that God worked in his mysterious way through the Big Bang, the Nile flooding cycle and various other things, and generally kept his powder dry for the big performance in 30 AD. (In the immortal words of Wikipedia: “30 April – After being condemned to death by the Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin Jesus of Nazareth is crucified at Golgotha[citation needed]“.)

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion  – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

The weasel words here are “your daily life”. Anyone who believes in the ultimate overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, say, is unlikely to find much evidence for the underpinnings of this belief in their daily life, but if they follow the news for more than a day or two they’ll find enough. Whether evidence of God working his purpose out will also be apparent is more debatable. Perhaps the point that needed developing here was what was meant by a belief in God, or by orienting your life by way of such a belief. In other words, the question is not whether class struggle is a reality, but whether it’s a good framework for judging whether things are going well or badly. Similarly with a belief in God, and the beliefs that follow from it – above all the belief that humanity was made in the image of God, which makes each human life enormously valuable. And yes, you can find Christians campaigning against abortion on these grounds, but also against euthanasia, against the death penalty, against war, against poverty and political programmes that entrench it. Hence Christian Aid’s marvellous slogan, “We believe in life before death”.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Again, you don’t need religion for any of this (and, again, I’m not religious myself) – you just need a belief in people. But religion is, often, a carrier of that belief.

For me, religion is a way of dealing with the incomprehensible – and sometimes incomprehensibly terrible – facts of human life, a way of honouring things in life that seem to need honouring, and a way of giving due respect to people. Or rather, it’s one particularly specialised example of a family of cultural practices which offer ways of doing these things. It’s not a bad thing.

Falling to bits, gloriously

This post at Crooked Timber sparked an interesting and only intermittently acrimonious debate about whether religious belief is inherently irrational or self-contradictory, and how best to combat religious reactionaries. I got stuck in and ended up essentially playing a Christian on the Internet, despite not being one in real life. It was an interesting debate, though, and really made me think. Here are some of my comments. (Italics are other people’s comments; I’ve included links to their original comments as well as to mine.) Discussion centred on four inter-related topics:

  • the relationship of faith and practice (and by extension the relative importance of the two)
  • the truth-status of religious claims (if someone believes that Jesus was the son of God, are they committed to believing that someone who doesn’t believe that is wrong?)
  • whether beliefs grounded in faith set themselves above rational argument, so that a Christian can always end the debate by saying “it’s what I believe“; and
  • whether reactionary claims made in the name of religion are a good reason for arguing against religion, or (as I argued) a good reason for not doing so.

It’s a bit of a comment-dump – or rather, it is a comment-dump, slightly rearranged – but parts of it may prove interesting.

1. Who are these people and why do they do it?

I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.As for what faith is, as I said above I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) –

What do you do when the old man’s gone –
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song –
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

This is where Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God? Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

2. Do they really believe all that stuff?

God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. (What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.) I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Aslan judges some [Calormenes] – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”. In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’thow the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?”

this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. The Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong. Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? There’s been no objection to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

[NB when I wrote this I’d forgotten all about the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the faithful at the end of days, and was thinking in terms of people coming back from the dead here and now. The physical impossibility of resurrection from the dead is the main point here.]

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I’ve been describing.

3. You can’t argue with a Christian – or can you?

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

4. What about the bad guys?

the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

H: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
L: No, he didn’t.
H: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches. Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

In his statement, [the Bishop of Down and Connor] doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.” Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience? It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

To round it off I’ll just borrow a couple of other people’s comments, this time presented without any editing.

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

If there’s a king in Heaven high

Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:

Sacrilege

It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

3. And Christ receive thy soul

The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite –
AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

7. Against principalities, against powers

As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

  1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
  2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
  3. But GOTO 1.

So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

8. Everywhere all the time

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the Milky Way
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses
Still to come or long ago.
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

“Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

9. Sweetness follows

A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

10. The marvellous revealed

I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

11. Careful now

Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:

SAVE LIEBKNECHT

For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
– Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

When the winds begin to sing

Winter ade!

I went to a graduation ceremony at the University of Manchester yesterday. I’ve worked there for most of the last six years, so I’d taught a lot of yesterday’s graduands in all three years; it was good to see them make it to the end.

I’ve been to the last couple of graduations, but this will almost certainly be my last; I started work at another university at the beginning of February. For most of the previous three years I’d been working as what my new employer calls an hourly-paid lecturer. (Manchester, less grandly and less descriptively, calls the post “Teaching Assistant”.) This is not a great position to be in, particularly over summer. Summer 2009 was particularly difficult, and the start of the new academic year wasn’t much better. (It’s no coincidence that this blog was dormant for most of the calendar year 2009, or that I’ve been posting a lot more since February.) My current job was the right opportunity at the right time.

So yesterday’s ceremony roused some very mixed emotions. Leaving Manchester was a wrench, but it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I left Manchester and it was the right thing to do, but it was a wrench. I’ve got the Anselm Kiefer picture at the top of this post on my desk at work (literally on my desk – I must invest in a mount or at least some sellotape). The verse handwritten across it is adapted from a German folk song; it reads

Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh,
doch dein Scheiden macht
daß mein Herze lacht…
gerne vergeß ich dein,
kannst immer ferne sein
Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh.

Which means something like this:

Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts
But your leaving makes my heart laugh
Gladly I forget your leaving
May you always be far from me
Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

No sad songs for me

Oh, go on then. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil and Splinty, here are some of the saddest songs you could ask for. One per decade as required, although my musical memories go back a bit longer than totherPhil’s. (Back to this, if you must know – although I’d never seen that rather peculiar promo before tonight.)

Moving along, here’s one from the 1960s.

An early example of Scott Engel’s way with a song. Trundles along quite happily for a couple of minutes, then something strange and quite desolate happens. The good bit is almost immediately smothered by a ludicrous kitchen-sink big finish, but I think it’ll stick in your mind.

For the 1970s, Splinty’s had the obvious candidate; no song said She’s utterly gone and I’ll never, ever see her again like that one. But this comes close:

In the 1980s we get on to songs I actually knew at the time. I remember listening to this album in the winter of 1981, wrapping Christmas presents at my parents’ house – it’s a happy memory, which ought to disqualify the song. But it’s not a happy song; it’s really, really not a happy song.

You know that song Never Be Alone (a.k.a. We Are Your Friends)? I’ve always thought that was partly about fans’ imaginary relationship with pop singers, à la Rubber Ring (“A sad fact widely known…”) When I was 21 Julian Cope was my friend – it felt as if he’d not only read my mind, but been to places I was afraid of going in my mind and reported back. (When I read Head-On, years later, I discovered that the second part of this was quite correct.)

Runner-up: Anthony Moore’s Nowhere to Go, probably the most desolate and despairing piece of music I’ve ever heard; almost too despairing. That and Swans’ God Damn the Sun, which goes right over the top but redeems itself by being beautiful.

The 1990s go to Robyn. His saddest single song is probably She Doesn’t Exist, but the album version is meh. This, on the other hand, will pin your ears back. I’m not quite sure why it’s such a sad song, except that it seems to be about being lost and lonely – lost inside your own head (a mood it shares with the the previous song).

Hon mensh: Peter Blegvad, Something Else (Is Working Harder).
Yes, and don’t it feel like nothing’s real…?

2000s: oh, you’ve got to hear this.

I’d heard it a few times & simply heard a wistful, sweetly pretty song; then I read an interview in which KC explained that the song’s about his daughter, and specifically about talking to his ex-wife on the phone. Promise you’ll tell her…

Happy listening. Well, sort of.

Update 17/2/10 “With your repertoire, you could nominate the saddest song of the 1790s” – the Mrs.

Don’t know about that, but I do feel duty bound to bring to your attention the

Saddest Song Of All Time

Take it away, Tony. (No, that photo isn’t great. The album came out in 1976 and the sleeve has dated rather badly. The music hasn’t. That’s the thing with folk.)

If there’s a sadder song than that, I’m not sure I want to hear it.

Somewhere in the corner

Postdoctoral fellowship application, June 2006
12 months, to write and place two papers developing my doctoral thesis (analysing the Italian protest movements in the 1970s through contemporary press coverage) and submit an application for funding for a follow-up project (looking at British protest movements in the 1990s).
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Research grant application, January 2007
24 months, to analyse press coverage of four episodes of contentious activism (in Italy and Britain) and compare with subsequent legislation.
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Fellowship application, February 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. No feedback.

Focused research grant application, April 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of political radicalisation & embrace of violent tactics, and identify the key factors involved.
Rejected. Feedback mostly positive but some scepticism (“It is not clear what the researcher is going to do in the project period other than reading a series of Italian autobiographies.”)

Research grant application, September 2007
12 months, to analyse a selection of autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans together with accounts produced by non-political career criminals, tracing processes of desistance and identifying the key factors involved, with the goal of producing an analystical model which could be applied to subsequent interview-based research.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, October 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, February 2008
24 months, to analyse the impact of the Crime and Disorder Act’s statutory duty on local authorities to minimise ‘disorder’ by examining the regulation of disorderly events in the Manchester City Council area over a three-year period.
Rejected. No feedback.

Typically these rejections take about three months to come back. I’ve only just heard about the last one.

In the same period I’ve applied for lecturing posts at four other universities (one of them twice) as well as my own (three times), not to mention research posts at my own university (four of them). I may have forgotten one or two. I’ve had two interviews (I’m pretty sure that figure’s right).

A week or so ago, before I got the most recent rejection, I had a dream about all this. I was at a social event at work, with a smartly-dressed, slightly nerdy-looking band set up in one corner. They started playing “Don’t worry baby” – complete with harmonies – whereupon a guy from my department seized my hand and started spinning me round, encouraging me to dance. Then he started clapping out a complicated rhythm and encouraged me to join in, but I couldn’t pick it up. He looked a bit crestfallen – “Oh, you can’t get it? Never mind.”

What’s lurking here, I think, is a strangely moving account I once read of Keith Moon’s solo career, and in particular one recording session where he took lead vocals on “Don’t worry, baby” (he was a huge Beach Boys fan) with somebody else on drums. He was a weedy vocalist & the track was decidedly average, but someone who saw the session said that he was obviously loving every moment – this was what it was all about! Except that, of course, it wasn’t, not if your talents were Keith Moon’s.

On top of that, it evokes the funny bit at the end of Sudden Sway’s “Relationships” where a [fictional] percussionist called Kevin persistently fails to get anything like the beat. Groans all round, and the singer wades in and makes matters worse (“OK, so we’re only a support band, so what?”).

I think there’s a bit of Syd in there too – “Have you got it yet?”

So here’s me, trying and failing to get a research grant – and a proper contract with it. And here’s a drummer who really wants to be a lead singer; no one has the heart to tell him that he really can’t sing, so he keeps trying. He thinks he’s getting somewhere, but he never will – he really can’t sing.

And here’s a drummer who can’t even drum properly, who will only ever be a support act – and hey, what’s wrong with that?

And here’s a tune that I try to get, but I can’t get it – I can’t get it, it’s not possible to get it.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to get to where I am; ironically enough, it would also take a lot of work to get back to earning a living the way I did before. So what I do next is clear enough: I go on. I’m working on another research funding application and an application for a teaching post. Vedremo.

Postscript
After a night’s sleep, curiously, I remembered that I have actually been in the position of being a percussionist who’s berated by the rest of the band for not getting the beat – and a drummer who wants to be a singer. When I was about 16 and half my social life revolved around the local church, some friends of mine were in a drippy acoustic group. They played at church events and sometimes during services; there was a bit of a fuss the week they did “Goodbye Again” during Communion. I longed to join, partly so I’d get to hang out with girls but mainly so I could amaze everyone with my singing; at this point I’d never actually sung in public, but I thought I’d be great when I did. But if you haven’t got the nerve to sing in public, the chances are you haven’t got the nerve to ask to sing in public either. So I talked myself into a rehearsal, but I didn’t dare to suggest singing; I volunteered to improvise on flute or else to play bongos. The flute improvisation didn’t work at all; the bongos worked for about a song and a half, but after that got on everyone’s nerves. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t thought much about patterns, & saw my role essentially as providing a kind of running percussion solo, a la Rebop Kwaku Baah. (Meets John Denver. During a church service. Yup, that’ll work.)

It’s a pretty embarrassing memory. But it’s also a memory of feeling unable to do something – sing in public – which I now do regularly. And something else I longed to do when I was in my teens was to grow up to be a university lecturer – I didn’t know how I was going to get there, either. Around the time this thought crossed my mind, I drifted into a half-sleep and dreamed of performing a song called “Fake detector” – probably the angriest thing I’ve ever written – while stalking up and down in front of a long table, with a row of people sat behind it.

Why do I think I’m suited for this job? You want to know why I think I’m suited for this job?

Maybe not. Still, vedremo. To quote my favourite bit of Gawain,

Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?

No king can compare

A post-Christmas meme from Rob.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

Wrapping paper. Bags are for bottles of wine.

2. Real tree or artificial?

We switched to real trees a few years ago. This year was our first dead tree stuck in a bit of wood; it dried out quite a lot over the twelve days, and shed prodigiously when we took it out, but actually stayed greener than last year’s (purportedly) live tree in a tub.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Last weekend but one before Christmas.

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th. Obviously.

5. Do you like egg nog?

I think I’ve only had it once. It was OK. Like Rob, I’ll take mulled wine (or Glühwein) any day.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?

Depends what you mean by ‘child’. I’ve got very fond memories of the thing I got one Christmas to go with my Matchbox car track thing whose name I forget no not Hot Wheels… If you put in two D batteries, it would accelerate your cars to enormous speeds, without the need to clip the track on to the side of a table. I was mildly disappointed to see that the dials on the side were painted on, but despite that it was a present and a half (machinery! speed! noise!)

When I was much, much older, I told my parents where they could get Soft Machine’s Third at a 10% discount; since CBS had already cut the price to £2.83 (for a double album), this was quite a bargain. It’s pretty challenging music and I didn’t get it straight away, but that Christmas I really enjoyed not getting it – it had the two great attractions of seeming extremely grown-up and extremely unlike anything my parents would listen to.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes; it’s plastic and forty or fifty years old. It came from my wife’s mother’s house, when she moved into a home.

8. Hardest person to buy for?

I’ll pass on that one.

9. Easiest person to buy for?

And that one, although it does bring back a memory of when my daughter was quite small. We asked her what she wanted for Christmas; she thought for a while, then said, “A present.”

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Physical cards, definitely.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Again, I’ll pass on the details, but it was one that made me think I thought they’d know I’m not like that! Closely followed by Do I look like I’m like that? Am I like that?

12. Favorite Christmas movie?

I’m male, I’m married, I’ve got kids, I worked for many years at jobs I didn’t like, so it has to be It’s a wonderful life. Closely followed by Muppet Christmas Carol. This year we also saw Pulp fiction; that was good, too.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

It gets later and later.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Certainly not.

15. Favorite thing to eat/drink at Christmas?

More wine than usual. Posh beer, earlier in the day than usual. I particularly like strong, ‘fruity’ beers at this time of year. I put ‘fruity’ in quotes here because of a beer I saw in a supermarket recently, advertised as made with plums and pudding spices. Not the point at all – your ideal winter beer tastes like Christmas pudding, but also tastes like beer. (See also Orval – my favourite Trappist ale – which somehow tastes exactly like a) marmalade b) very dark plain chocolate and c) beer.)

Cheese straws. Stollen. Lebkuchen. And fruit cake, of course. The runaway winner used to be my mother’s rum cake (a fridge cake, made with (or rather consisting of) sponge fingers, coffee buttercream icing and rum); I must see if I can find the recipe.

16. Clear lights or colored on the tree?

One string of each.

17. Favourite Christmas song?

“In the bleak midwinter”, or “O come all ye faithful” (especially on the day, with the Special Christmas Day Verse – for a moment I can almost believe it again). “I wish it could be Christmas every day” (for a few years in the 1970s, Roy Wood was untouchable) or “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (the original, sad version). It’s the season for a sentimental pig-out, basically.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I used to go to my parents’. (For several years the other half and I used to go to our separate parents’; it worked for us.) Then we stayed at home for Christmas and all went to my mother’s for New Year. Then my mother died. So it’s home, these days.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

If there’s anything I hate more than Clement Moore’s ghastly poem it’s that bloody awful song about the stupid bloody reindeer with the luminous nose.

Yes, I can name all nine of them.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?

We alternate.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning of Christmas?

Christmas morning – after breakfast, when we’re all together. This was a very big deal when I was a kid (I was one of five); we’d assemble round the dining table, each with a pile of parcels in front of us, and have a kind of diplomatically synchronised unwrapping session. These days it happens on the living-room floor and we let the kids go first, but it’s still a big deal. It’s Christmas, after all.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

I think this year I’d nominate Sainsbury’s Stilton promotion. They bought it in by the ton – with a view to piling high and selling cheap – with the result that what they got was far too young: it was soft, crumbly and clean-tasting instead of solid, waxy and sour. Being young, it also didn’t keep, but went smelly within a fortnight. Bah, supermarkets.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?

Not really. We usually buy a new tree ornament every year.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?

Well, er, turkey. Followed by Christmas pudding. In flames.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

Bit late for that.

28. Shopping…Mall or on-line?

I try to avoid both, although it gets harder every year.

29. Do you decorate outside for Christmas or just inside (or at all?)

Just inside.

There’s a lot of my own childhood in the way I think about Christmas, and a lot of change and loss. Perhaps that’s part of what we do when we celebrate the longest night, in among the crackers and the mince pies (“Absent friends!”). Then Christmas passes, the days grow longer and the year turns.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you Adieu
Great joy to the new

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