Saturday, January 20, 2018

The March of Time

Mortality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she concurs that the quality suffered and the workload did him in, hastening his relatively premature demise. Still, late in her enjoyable consideration (if as she warns you may not want to learn all about his brother Cecil's entanglement in the Marconi case, which rivals Bleak House in its interminable litigation), she cites (anyone writing on GKC finds this necessity more than the usual subject may violate the standard 80%/20% or, loosened to 2:1 ratio I enforce for student assignments of originality to secondary material) him as usual, generously. In his talk in 1931 but perhaps printed in 1927, "Culture and the Common Peril," I found a pleasing echo of Hart's conclusion advising contemplation, and Aldous Huxley's 1962 lecture to the Tavistock Institute, which I will quote after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo credit)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"The Stone Reader": Book Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Philip Larkin "The Complete Poems": Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

David Williams' "When the English Fall": Book Review

When the English Fall by David Williams · OverDrive (Rakuten OverDrive): eBooks, audiobooks and ...
More than one friend lately has warned me to be prepared for challenges ahead--the kind which happen when our world, that of the "English," falls apart after a solar storm fries all systems and wires, machines and networks. Harrowing, but a scenario, scientists warn, that may bring down civilization, at least as we know it. In its wake, or out of its immediate impact to some extent, the Amish in this novel prepare for themselves, and against the gunshots, looters, and refugees to come.

This does not give away the plot. The blurbs and dust jacket copy say as much. What's left for the reader is David Williams' sparely told account in the voice of a family man. We see the before as well as the during of the catastrophe, and his journal records the events in simple prose, devoid of any effect fancier than some Scriptural allusions. The one striking me most: vultures around a corpse.

The narrative device of one character who predicts the end times ahead felt too literary, and the plot did not need this, but I suppose the author by this conceit wants to show the dependence on the wider world that even the Amish need, when it comes to medicine for their illnesses, and sales for their labor. It also connects the narrator's family to one on the outside, and widens the circle of concern.

I read this over a longer than expected (five-plus hours) wait at a car dealer for repairs, so I took my time with this brief book. I also paid attention around me to what the narrator recalls from his visits to the world of the "English." "I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down in their rectangles of light. No one was where they were." (27) A fresh take on a familiar subject. This novel does place you in the Pennsylvania district, neither romanticized or sensationalized. Again, it's honest report of a twist on the apocalyptic trope of speculative fiction.

For one representative person outside the farmlands and old ways, the narrator reckons the biblical analogy holds true. "The sorrows are planted, and they grow strong in the earth of his life, they rise up, and there is harvest." A Presbyterian elder, the author seems to be able to think in the style of a believer, and to channel his tamped down, unassuming chronicle in the mindset of one "non-modern."

For modernity, as it collapses, reveals unsurprisingly that we city folks cannot survive this meltdown. Guns prove a regression to another sort of tradition, as militias brandish them to make the narrator wonder the worth of a life like his protected by such. The lesson does not need hyperbole. Dimly remembering the unnamed cartoon "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the teller tells us: "you never knew when the magic you rely on will overtake and drown you." The magical realm we all live in enables these words in print, and my review beamed by its medium. So we reflect. (Amazon US 11/11/17)

Friday, November 3, 2017

Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics": Book Review

Bad Religion Audiobook | Ross Douthat | Audible.com
No, the venerable (and atheist) L.A. punk band does not figure in this learned recounting of how accommodationalists of both major Christian versions, evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mainline Protestants have multiplied and dwindled over the past few decades in America. But Ross Douthat strives for a punchy presentation of data which threaten to weigh down his pages. As the token Catholic/ conservative New York Times pundit, his columns benefit from his pithy remarks.

How does Douthat manage the shift to a long-form format? I felt very early on that this unfolded as if a dutiful, well-researched, but rather by-the-numbers tallying of the bull and bear markets as applied to Christian America's gains and losses, among the varying denominations and recent "para-church" endeavors. While I admit I was being educated, as a reader, I wondered if the pace would pick up.

Bad Religion begins with Douthat's refinement of his subtitle. He's not celebrating the demise of faith. His title refers to "the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." (3) The past fifty years finds the orthodox Catholic and Protestant bulwarks eroding, having "entered a state of near-terminal decline." The churches connected most to the past fade; the elite abandons its at least measured sympathy for Christian ideas. Hostility or indifference, as surely this former editor of The Atlantic knows, characterizes this culture.

While the U.S. remains an outlier in its high rates of reported belief among the "advanced" nations, a growing segment of its Christian majority, as it weakens overall in numbers, waters down traditional theology. Conservative or liberal, these factions appeal to the political and pop-cultural marketers. Often "spiritual" without being "religious," some seek a wider set of options for faith. Others distort, in Douthat's estimation, what has been the accepted dogmas and doctrines of conventional churches.

Neither conservatives nor "their secular antagonists" (4) recognize this drift. The religious right blames all flaws on explicitly anti-Christian elements. Secular stalwarts denigrate every form of belief as equally foolish or fanatical. Douthat explores those enclaves of our nation where teachings of Christ "have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed." (4) Here, neither papal encyclicals nor New Atheists are perused.

For a hundred pages, Douthat takes us through a vanished world of post-war confidence in religion, which fifty-or-so years ago began to implode as accommodationists hastened reforms which wound up, for many believers, leaving them to wonder "why show up on Sunday after all" if the ecumenical denominations earnestly insisted that deep down they were all the same, and that divisive details overcome were all that was needed to satisfy and stimulate the faithful. Yet the accommodationists in Mainline Protestant and Vatican II Catholicism almost immediately found their pews emptying, as the disaffected rejected religion, preferred spirituality, or most tellingly, defected to the evangelicals.

Douthat, writing in 2012, reminds those keen to denigrate evangelical and Catholic voters that now there is no "Catholic bloc." That broke up under Bill Clinton. Both Catholics and evangelicals span the range of income and professions as Americans on average. They both edged ahead, by the 1990s, when it comes to income and education. Long derided as the backward bullies of the rural heartland in the Midwest and South, evangelicals now are likely to fill the megachurches of Sun Belt and Mountain West suburbs and exurbs. While Catholics have only Latino immigration to thank that their totals have not dipped more, a tenth of all Americans have left that Church; these departed would be the country's second-largest faith cohort, if definitions were tinkered with. Evangelicals hold at about 20%. Douthat does not harp on his fact: evangelicals accept "limited inerrancy" rather than slavishly literal readings of the bible which fundamentalists cling to. This means that while science in scripture may be accepted as outdated, that the transcendent truth of God's will remains forever without fault.

"He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower." Douthat quotes Anglican Ralph Inge (106) aptly. As one who grew up in the very first batch of post-Vatican II Catholic children indoctrinated in the "Kumbayah" mindset, I can attest even among kids raised on The Monkees as we watched hippies delay adulthood, that the novelty of guitar mass for hand-holding congregants wore off fast for many with whom I was raised; few of them sustained this fervor well into their maturity.

Given his talent for cultural critique, Douthat documents well this transitional period when the counterculture strove to become the ecclesiastical norm. When he turns to the deconstruction of the Gospels by scholars who prefer the rabbi rebel Jesus to the Pauline redeemer Christ, I feared that Douthat would fumble. This tricky terrain challenges any to keep up. But he remains steady. I liked his comparison of the Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels and Jesus Seminar crowd's "historical Jesus" shorn of his halo to those dogged claimants who assert they've found the "real" Shakespeare. Both "turn out to be masters of detection and geniuses at code breaking, capable of seeing through every cover-up and unpacking every con." (171) No wonder we wind up with conspiratorial Dan Brown. The power of magical thinking and the relativism of po-mo profs blur.

Resisters dig in and strike back against the humanists and their Christian fifth column. Whereas mainstream seminaries diminish, a parallel evangelical and conservative Catholic set of colleges, institutions, and scholars emerge. The alliance between those once damned as papists and their former "holy rollers" foes looms larger, as the fight against abortion and for 'values' rallies both.

As the chronology catches up with recent events, the analysis sharpens. In the wake of the bursting of the 2007 housing bubble, Douthat notes in passing a telling truth. Hispanic, black, and white working class adherents of a prosperity gospel were most likely to have been swept up and over by the burst.

His chapter on this "name it to claim it" proposition, as filtered through Joel Osteen's lucrative ministry, makes God "seem less like a savior and more like a college buddy with really good stock tips." (189) Yet, the author cautions, the "crudeness" of the wealth-theology rhetoric "can obscure the subtlety of its appeal,"for it reassures followers that the sin of avarice can be assuaged by overcoming with stock phrases of credulous tit-for-tat "a simple failure of piety." (191) Rather than send down angels to prove His love for you, Douthat paraphrases, "He can just send you a raise." Similarly, Douthat delves into "financial ministries" and remains nuanced on the suitability of capitalism and its good works undertaken with the donations funding charitable endeavors. I wanted to read more on the megachurch entrepreneurial "outreach" and franchising, but this gets passed over perfunctorily.

Still, he's clever on seguing into the related New Thought-derived business empire. For it shares with the prosperity preachers an emphasis on "the social utility" of belief, an eagerness to define spiritual success in worldly terms, a hint of utopianism, and an abiding naïveté about human nature." (205)

Theodicy nestles not only within the wealth-faith, but in "the God within" predilection inherited from similar concepts of exchange with the powers above. Deepak, Oprah, Sam Harris, Eat Pray Love, Avatar, and even earnest apologist Karen Armstrong demonstrate the profitability of such pitches. Both affirm that humans figured out how the universe works, and how the spiritual forces respond. The "quest for God as the ultimate therapy" dominates. Not "I believe" but "one feels," to paraphrase prescient 1966 psychologist Philip Reiff, cited by Douthat. (230) This generates narcissism, infidelity, and a lack of empathy. The results can be tracked over the permissive period evolving in this purview. We wind up with a "spirituality of niceness" (234) Charting this among youth, as he does, is sobering.

Another congenial solution arrives with a universal God which outlasts petty local deities and clans. Drawing on Franz Rosenzweig and George Steiner, employing promised lands to polarized if both favored tribes, shows Douthat's erudition applied intelligently. Lacking the European penchant for blood-and-soil ties, Americans worship the exceptionalist, "city on a hill" civic religion of patriotism. Messianic, apocalyptic, reactionary crusades such as Glenn Beck's conflate populists with patricians. Paranoia, conspiracy theories, jeremiads of doom invigorate both extremes on the political spectrum. Angst, backlash, hubris, and adulation for whomever occupies the Oval Office produce craven American kitsch peddled for both parties and their anointed leaders ready to rescue despairing flocks.

That penultimate section of the book I found agreeable if not surprising, having lived under Reagan-through-Obama regimes. It's what you'd expect Douthat to expand upon from his columns. I do applaud his "heresy of nationalism" and his distrust of "religious faith" married to "political action."

He concludes with four "potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." Global, rootless life may seek an antidote to power plays and exhausted ideologies. Douthat suggests separatists offer a second route, withdrawing from the arena so as to regroup and reflect. Or, the massive movements bringing immigrant churches and missionary zeal back to America from the Third World might energize more at home. Diminished expectations, finally, might restore humility along with rigor.

Being political but non-partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and last of all, oriented toward sanctity and beauty. I aver this final aspect may inspire a "saving remnant," regardless of creed, to appreciate the "great wellspring of aesthetic achievement" that unfortunately persists more as relics and canons rejected by most in schools and nearly all in culture.

Literature, architecture, film and television certainly display a dearth of Christian creative achievement. Douthat chides, correctly, that "many Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate." (291) This muffles the impact of a legacy.

While naysayers will dismiss Bad Religion as stale superstition or sinister priestcraft, open-minded audiences concerned with the stability of a post-Christian polity will benefit from this balanced judgement from within the Christian intelligentsia, and they may concur that those two terms are not oxymorons. Douthat backs his side, but he's poised, professional and alert to all in the faith game.

P.S. Pp. 152-3 collect a deft summation of the paradoxical models of Jesus that believers affirm and scholars may debate. This exemplifies journalist Douthat's knack for mediating scholarship for a wider readership. I admit that many who'd benefit from his book will never hear its timely message.

Sure, there are places I'd have preferred more elaboration. For instance, the tacit influence of Teilhard de Chardin on Vatican II, to me at least, is a fascinating aside begging for more. But on key topics as how evangelicals adopted the pro-life campaigns of Catholicism even as its own members dissented, or how the excesses of flower-power liturgy hold up, if in retrospect to those of us who as youngsters barely recall them (like me) or weren't around yet (like the author), are worthwhile. Certainly his judgment that those who chased reform wound up a half century on looking as if graying curators of  dated curios, overseeing a little attended museum (I extend his metaphor) rings true, when one does the math on the evaporation of vocations to those very orders that figured the only thing holding them back from really appealing to more young men and women was more Bob Dylan, far fewer hymns. (Amazon US 11/3/17 a bit altered)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Phil Harrison "The First Day": Book Review


Samuel Orr preaches on East Belfast's streets. There "he spoke only the scripture, no commentary, no opinion, no interpretation. No pleading." On the south side of the city, another resident elaborates on her chosen texts. She pursues another Samuel, surnamed Beckett. Anna Stuart "lectured her groups of avid nihilists while looking" from her classroom high up among the red-brick facades of Queens University, "at people scurrying far below, like insects." Phil Harrison sets up his protagonists as he begins The Third Day. His examination of faith and the tensions it creates and confronts engage the reader who enters into this novel. An award-winning filmmaker, he turns to fiction for his print debut.

As a Belfast native, Harrison scrutinizes "a city without roots." Rather than drawing sustenance from the earth, this place rejects security. "Flags, history, tradition, they all take light from the world and bury it." Where this perspective emanates from is not clear. Beginning in 2012, the setting for this story sours its residents. Those raised by the "1986 generation of nay-sayers" of "No Surrender" grow up "just as militant, though with less to lose. A decade of unimaginative leadership, of reconciliation attempts built around 'telling your story', served for the most part merely to trap people in the failed myths they'd grown up with rather than encouraging them to abandon them for bigger, messier ones."

This judgment resonates. Its speaker will be revealed as another victim of this entrapment as it passes down from the sins of the fathers. The stories told by this voice fill in much, but not all. Limits to complete understanding persist, in the city and in Orr's family. For quite a while, readers may remain unaware of who narrates, nearly omniscient, during much of the first half. Harrison slows this pace.

An authorial decision which may startle some embeds itself in the early prose. For the King James Version in all its poetry and power flows through Samuel Orr by habit and by vocation. His stream of consciousness fills with biblical cadences, verbatim from the Good Book. Orr, as a congregant regards him, "seemed to have an ability to make it all about him, to turn the scriptures into biography." Furthermore, the listener to Orr's sermon observes, that obdurate lay minister "yet did not actually do anything; he merely refused to change, to be anything other than his flawed, blunt self."

Like many an Ulsterman, Orr resists sentiment. Harrison keeps him at a distance. Orr's his most potent presence, and when he recedes, his creator plays it safer. Anna's predicament moves Orr, first to passion but soon to estrangement. Their son, also christened Sam (the triple nod to this prophetical nomenclature makes one wonder how necessary is this choice by the writer), must deal with his brother by Orr's wife, twelve-year-old Philip. (The author gives this foil his own first name.) That older boy is saddled with a burden. His father's actions in engendering a sibling only half a brother rankle Philip. He, the narrator defines, "became continuation, the past blurred into the present." Here, the predicament of many in the Irish North hardens the young as it has the old for centuries. "It was like the story they told children: if you pull a face and the wind changes direction it stays that way forever." Philip's determination to thwart both his father and the lad he has produced creates the story line which takes three-quarters of these pages to work itself out. This presumes a reader's patience.

For Harrison resolves to move Philip into a key scene which will effect the narrator and this account.
As with the naming Harrison chooses to grant central characters in The First Day, so with this pivot. It smacks of too-neat a scheme. Perhaps in film this could be carried off adroitly. In fiction, it calls attention more to the author than his antagonist. However, the narrator does reveal necessary sentences (in more ways than one) necessary for the scheme to be at all credible. "Philip had an extraordinary skill of carefully unpicking a person's weakness, of paying attention as much to what they didn't say as to what they did." He teases out the repressed and unravels what others labor to hide. "And he had that rare absence of compassion, a preparedness to use whatever he could get his hands on for his own ends." Certainly this foreshadowing follows through on that narrator's portent.

The crux lies in the ability of Philip to convincingly carry off what Harrison wants him to see through. Orr opines that his older son's "genius" evinces itself by Philip never stepping out of his role. He's "like a method actor who finishes work on a film and forgets to return to his normal life."

The novel's later half shifts the chronology thirty-five years later. Surprisingly, The First Day does not attempt to create a future New York City much altered from today. Gentrification turns into its own parody; artisans consume themselves. This may have already happened, one may aver, by 2012.

As a museum guard, the narrator inhabits a potentially rich setting for an inventive storyteller. Phil Harrison, once more, does not attempt to expand this as much as readers might expect. Instead, the narrator has to "find my own corners, my periphery." He rationalizes this as a better option to the dour conditions which have dampened his upbringing. "Darkness as character--the unknown not as absence but as a space to grow into." These marginal haunts, inevitably, echo those of Sam Beckett.

The First Day succeeds when it plunges Orr and Anna into their own Irish-based predicaments. When the narrative resumes across the ocean, it diffuses. Family secrets, betrayals, punishment and redemption add up to familiar tropes. The promise of the opening chapters, full of the addled and stubborn Orr's KJV compulsions to channel the prophets, and Anna's desperate confusion as she faces the joys and sorrows of motherhood, fades. The narrator trots adroitly at its start. When the story turns to New York, too much has been left unsaid and hidden for its revelations to excite its readers. What could have accelerated into a dynamic climax idles and glides into too rapid a resolution.
(NYJB 10/24/17)