Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nihilism and protest

Here's an interesting quote from Ihab Hassan:

The prominent role played by terrorism and rebellion in the last hundred years of Western history must persuade us that man is no willing victim to his future. Even nihilism wears the ravaged face of human protest. The nihilist’s revulsion against the present confirms the prophet’s revulsion against that future the present contains.

The more I think about that, the more correct it seems. And somehow or other, it seems to give comfort.

Towards modern gnosticism - transcendence and immanence

When considering gnosticism in a modern sense, it is important not to get bogged down in the arcana of its early manifestations. As society has changed and man has become more rational, the role of religion has undergone a profound change. Karen Anderson suggests:

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

Her view is that, since the enlightenment, man has focused on science and rational thought rather than the traditional element of mythologisation – that is, a focus on logos rather than mythos. Erich Heller also relates the enlightenment to a loss of religiosity, noting:

the characteristic spiritual quality of that long period of history of which we are the bewildered heirs was not only the dissociation of faith from knowledge; this was a comparatively harmless episode, lasting from the seventeenth century to the age of Victoria, a mere surface repercussion of that mightier earthquake which severed faith from sensibility. It is this rift which has made it impossible for most Christians not to feel, or at least not to feel also, as true many 'truths' which are incompatible with the truth of their faith.

Referring to the above quote from Heller, Thomas Altizer concludes:

everything that modern man knows to be true or real has been created either by means of an abandonment or a dissolution of faith. Only a Gnostic spirit could lead to a joyous acceptance of the chasm that lies between modern science and modern faith.

Added to the diminution of importance of mythos, twentieth-century modernism heralded an increased sense of alienation. Jacob Taubes notes:

With the first World War a "world" broke into pieces. Man experienced himself as estranged in his social and cosmic setting and did not feel at home in a world he had so painstakingly cultivated to make his own. When the facades of culture and civilization crumbled under the impact of the First World War man was confronted with the realities of life: hunger, destitution, and death.

Eric Voegelin, in particular, notes the rise of gnosticism in the twentieth century:

Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivination of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.

Voegelin has been pre-eminent in identifying in twentieth century political systems an element of modern gnosticism which he finds troubling. Writing in Germany in 1938, he identified a malaise in society borne, he believed, of the loss of influence of religion:

the world finds itself in a severe crisis, in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience; and who does not know that the remedy can only be arrived at through religious renewal, be it within the framework of traditional churches or outside of this framework.

He identifies Nazism and communism as essentially gnostic movements which sought to transform humanity. As James Wiser notes:

he argued that National Socialism was, in fact, a peculiarly modern form of an immanent political religion. Like all immanent political religions National Socialism divinized certain features of the profane order. Yet unlike its premodern predecessors it operated according to a worldview and maintained by the authority of modern science.

Voegelin concluded that ‘[t]he gnostic revolution has for its purpose a change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society.’ It is, he believes, seeking salvation for mankind in an alien world, in the context of a loss of religion: the secular political state, instead, has adopted the role once assumed by the Church. Thomas Alitzer, agreeing with Voegelin’s thesis, asks: ‘May we then define twentieth-century Gnosticism as a search for an authentic redemption from an alien cosmos in the context of the death of God?’ Nonetheless, Alitzer expresses some unease at Voegelin’s stance, noting: ‘Voegelin fails to grasp the deep hostility to the world which is invariably present in true Gnosticism.’ Part of Alitzer’s unease is the way that Voegelin suggests that the rise of communism and Nazism as gnostic political religions was a natural consequence of the drift of history from the enlightenment onwards, with the resulting, slow death of God. There is some validity in this argument. Voegelin contended that ‘the essence of modernity [is] the growth of gnosticism’ and initially he did see this as part of a historical process. However, as James Wiser notes, he later changed his mind:

By 1952 Voegelin had reformulated his own position. Rejecting any scheme which posited a successive periodization to history, Voegelin argued that modernity is best understood as a particular moment within a continuous evolution within Western culture.

Wiser continues to suggest that gnosticism is, indeed, a major force in contemporary society, but ‘it is not modernity’s essence. Indeed the modern era is a composite of a number of traditions and to isolate any single element would be an unnecessary simplification. Voegelin also agreed that his earlier thesis was simplistic, noting that it linked, for example, totalitarian regimes such as fascism with ancient Egyptian sun-God worship, the former a clear example of immanentizing existence and the latter a transcendent worship. This points to a further, significant change in the tenor and direction of modern gnostic thought. Increasingly, although man is still trapped in an alien world, there is less focus on God as a means of escape or of transcendence in anything other than a sense of acquiring gnosis and consciousness. Voegelin explains:

In the ontology of ancient gnosticism [deliverance from the world] is accomplished through faith in the “alien,” “hidden” God who comes to man’s aid, sends him messengers, and shows him the way out of the prison of the evil God of this world (be he Zeus or Yahweh or one of the other ancient father gods). In modern gnosticism it is accomplished through the assumption of an absolute spirit which in the dialectical unfolding of consciousness proceeds from alienation to consciousness of itself.

As previously discussed, Voegelin identified in modern gnostic movements an increasing focus on immanence, a state which Altizer also notes when he says:

modern Gnosticism - inheriting the Faustian transformation of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence, a transformation symbolically portrayed in Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God - attempts to escape a cosmos and a history in which man has lost his human reality by searching for a non-transcendent and non-sacred state of subjective purity and existential authenticity. When Martin Buber says that the modern manifestation of gnosis is the "psychological doctrine which deals with mysteries without knowing the attitude of faith towards mystery," he is referring to a form of Gnosticism which has abandoned the sacred reality of the traditional forms of faith. Precisely at this point lies the revolution effected by modern Gnosticism - a revolution which is manifest in literature, philosophy, theology, and, indeed, throughout the whole gamut of modern life.

It is this approach to spirituality in a post-Nietzschean, godless world, that, for people like Voegelin and Altizer, has fuelled the rise in gnostic thinking. With God dead, the transcendent becomes meaningless, and in its place we see the immanentisation of beliefs. Galbreath, in his article on ‘problematic gnosis, comments:

Commentators on modern gnosticism, whatever their other differences, largely agree that in the post-Nietzschean world the radical dualism of traditional Gnosticism - the radical separation in origin and essence of humanity and the world, the world and God - has been displaced from the metaphysical to the immanent. In this view the death of God signifies that the dualistic opposition between humanity and an "indifferent" universe cannot originate in intrinsically opposed metaphysical principles of spirit and matter, good and evil, light and darkness. Instead, the polarization is said to be immanent within the historical process (Voegelin), the psyche (Jung, Quispel), or the human condition (Jonas). The Gnostic prison house is no longer the cosmos, the handiwork of an inimical demiurge; it is now our own minds, where the polar opposites function as categories for states of consciousness and degrees of knowledge: ignorance/knowledge, sleep/awakening, forgetting/remembering, alienation/enlightenment (gnosis).

Taubes takes the Nietzschean view further and identifies a strand of ‘Dionysiac theology’ in which we see played out a dialectic between the ‘bacchantic dance and the mystery of the cross’, in which ‘Dionysiac theology is an "ecstatic naturalism" that interpets all supernaturalistic symbols in immanent terms. The ecstasy does not lead to a "beyond," in a supernaturalistic sense, but signifies an "intensity" of the immanent.’
According to Altizer, in this analysis Taubes offers a key to understanding both modern theology and modern gnosticism:

Nietzsche's category [Dionysian] refers to an absolute form of life-affirmation and world-affirmation (portrayed conceptually through his category of Eternal Recurrence), as opposed to the radical world-denial which he associates with all forms of religious faith. However, a Dionysian form of existence becomes possible only through the death of God, through the collapse of every vestige of the transcendent. It is now that an affirmation of absolute immanence can be made, liberating man from all dependence upon a transcendent reality and thereby bringing him to an absolutely autonomous state of existence. (This state in its truest form Nietzsche hopefully awaited in the coming Superman, but it is already capable of defining the deepest meaning of human existence - as witness Nietzsche's category of the Will to Power.)

Altizer then concludes that modern gnosticism can only provide salvation through evading or negating this fallen, alien world. ‘Since,’ he suggests, ‘the way of gnosis must be a radically negative way of world-denial, it is in actuality the religious way of Gnosticism which is the real subject of Nietzsche's category of resentment.’ And this is the key point: Nietzsche, in promulgating the will to power and teaching that one must overcome ressentiment, is propounding something life-affirming. This is how we may find enlightenment, through our own endeavours, not through the favours of a God. Zarathustra tells us: ‘Let will to truth mean this to you: that everything be changed into the humanly conceivable, the humanly visible, the humanly sensible.’

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The carrying stream

Hermann Hesse, from Demian:

If, however, we were not something more than unique human beings and each man jack of us could really be dismissed from this world with a bullet, there would be no more point in relating stories at all. But every man is not only himself; he is also the unique, particular, always significant and remarkable point where the phenomena of the world intersect once and for all and never again.

I've written a bit about mythology recently, and its place in the fabric of our lives. It is, it seems to me, what defines us as humans, our ability to create myths in order to understand ourselves. And it can't stop. This is Hamish Henderson:

Then tomorrow, songs
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

John Ryan

John Ryan, creator of Captain Pugwash, has died aged 88. I met him a couple of times many years ago when he did some children's activities for me back in the days when I was a librarian. A lovely man, and a great way with the kids. He would draw Pugwash and co on flipchart paper as he told his stories. Great fun.

Flannery's racism

You see frequent casual comments about the supposed racism of Flannery O'Connor, mostly revolving around her use of 'nigger.' As she herself would point out, this is ridiculous: she was writing about people in the south of America at a particular point in history, and that is what they would have said.

A brief episode in Brad Gooch's biography of her is illuminating:

"I see I should ride the bus more often," she wrote to Betty Hester, in 1957. "I used to when I went to school in Iowa, as I rode the train from Atl. and the bus from M'ville, but no more. Once I heard the driver say to the rear occupants, 'All right, all you stove pipe blonds, git on back there'. At which moment I became an integrationist."

Not conclusive, of course. We'll never really know what she thought. But this, at least, offers better evidence of her opinion than the facile transposing of the views of her characters to her.

Towards modern gnosticism - 2- Beliefs

Turning to gnostic thought specifically, it is summarised by Arthur Nock as: ‘a preoccupation with the problem of evil, a sense of alienation and recoil from man's environment, and a desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe.’ It is premised in the notion that the world is a material realm into which man has fallen, and from which his soul can only escape through the acquisition of gnosis, or knowledge. This ‘knowledge’ is defined thus in the Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria and quoted by Jonas:

What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we sped, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.

This element of rebirth is important. Henri-Charles Puech notes that man is ‘condemned to be reborn, to pass from prison to prison in the course of the long cycle of reincarnations.’ Thus, he concludes, the gnostic’s response to the passing of time is one of ‘panic terror.’ Existence, then, is not a happy state. Eric Voegelin describes the gnostic belief thus: ‘Man experiences his existence as a creature and therefore as doubtful. Somewhere in the depths, at the umbilicus of the soul, there where it touches the cosmos, it strains.’ The world is ‘an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the other world of his origin.’ Voegelin explains further, quoting Gnostic texts:

“This world was not made according to the desire of the Life.” “Not by the will of the Great Life art thou come hither.” Therefore the question, “Who conveyed me into evil darkness?” and the entreaty, “Deliver us from the darkness of this world into which we are flung.” The world is no longer the well-ordered, the cosmos, in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is it the Judaeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos. For him the world has become a prison from which he wants to escape: “The wretched sould has stayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders around without a way out. .. It seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out.”

Thus, there emerges in Gnostic thought a mythology of passage, described by Gilhus thus:

The primary function of the gnostic myths is to invoke and sustain a process of change and transformation in the listeners, a process which occurs on the psychological level. The divergences and elaborations are reflec- tions of meditation and thought, and express the process of transformation. The "initiand" is set apart from his society and culture, and his transformation is fulfilled on the cosmological level when the soul transcends the spheres after death. Thus, gnostic mythology is a liminal phenomenon, because of its transformative function. It is a mythology of passage.

And, as Voegelin points out, this passage is essential to gnostic thought, and to the prospect of salvation:

the aim always is destruction of the old world and passage to the new. The instrument of salvation is gnosis itself – knowledge. Since according to the gnostic ontology entanglement with the world is brought about by agnoia, ignorance, the soul will be able to disentangle itself through knowledge of its true life and its condition of alienness in this world.

In Voegelin’s view, the gnostic attitude is one of dissatisfaction with one’s situation because the world is poorly organised. However, he contends, salvation from the evil of the world is possible, and thus it is possible for a historical process to change the world from wretched to good. This view is not universally shared, however. Robert Galbreath, for example, takes issue with Voegelin’s contention, arguing that it fails to take account of the binary nature of its radical dualism: ‘[Voegelin’s] belief that the wretched condition of the world will evolve historically through human action into a better condition, [is] a thesis which misconstrues or ignores the antihistorical, atemporal, nonmeliorative character of Gnosticism.’

Salvation, then, in this traditional form of gnosticism, is a transcendent event, only achievable by the attainment of gnosis and escape from the material world. The soul must escape the living body in which it is entombed in order to effect its passage. Gilhus identifies the key gnostic rituals which help it on this journey:

The gnostic rituals are the sacraments of baptism, anointing, eucharist, chrism and bridal-chamber, which separate the believer from the world, ensure him a safe passage through the different stations on the journey, and finally transform his soul into a state of salvation.

She further describes the cosmos through which the soul thus passes as tripartite:

The world above which is the source of pneumatic being, the world below which is material, and between these worlds, the intermediate realm of the archons, the rulers of the seven spheres of the planets. The world above is the home of pneuma (the spiritual soul) from which it once descended and sank into the material world below, from which it must begin its ascent. At both the descent and the ascent of the soul, it must pass through the archontic realm of the middle stage.

This material world in which man is trapped is the creation of a Demiurge, who is responsible for carnality and the evil that infests the world. Because this Demiurge is both evil and inferior to God, and because his world is evil, gnostic theory believes that those who are trapped within it must also be evil and inferior. A further consequence, identified by Jorge Ayora, is that ‘God cannot be known through a world that cannot reflect Him; He may only be known through revelation.’ The Demiurge is leader of the seven Archons, or rulers, and whose influence the gnostics sought to escape. Since they, collectively, rule over the world, the concomitant of this for the gnostic is a will to escape their laws. As Gilhus notes, quoting Irenaeus:

The gnostics aimed at freedom from the power of the archons who had made the body, and at freedom from the Law: "Therefore those who know these things have been set free from the rulers who made the world ... Thus if anyone confess the crucified, he is still a slave, and under the power of those who made the bodies; he who denies (him) has been set free from them, and knows the (saving) dispensation made by the unorginate Father. Salvation is for the soul alone; the body is by nature corruptible. He (Basilides) says that even the prophecies themselves came from the rulers who made the world, and that the law in particular came from their chief, him who led the people out of the land of Egypt".

Thus, Gilhus concludes, there was a contempt for the law and the lawmaker, to either of which the gnostics felt no obligation. She quotes from Hippolytus in evidence: ‘All the prophets and the law spoke from the Demiurge, a silly god (in his view), and they were foolish and knew nothing.’ The natural consequence of outright rejection of earthly law, of course, is antinomianism, and Gilhus concludes that, indeed, some gnostics ‘expressed their antinomianism by the desire to do everything forbidden by the Law: The archons made the Law to make man slave, therefore complete freedom consisted of a systematic violation of the precepts of the Law.’

Friday, July 24, 2009


I'm currently half way through the excellent Brad Gooch biography of Flannery O'Connor. I expect Flannery was a rather difficult person to get to know. I also suspect I would have been besotted by her. There's something about the sheer intensity of her personality that is fascinating. She seems to have been impervious to fashions or trends or the need to be anything other than herself. It's an admirable trait, particularly considering how young she was when she was Iowa. I still find her world view and her novels unpleasant, but I think I would have enjoyed arguing (and probably losing the argument) with her.

On the subject of her writing craft, she wrote to her putative agent: 'I don't have my novel [Wise Blood] outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again.'

That's a great sentiment, and a great way to approach writing (which, of course, is to say it's the way I choose to write...) I'm not sure exactly how true it is of Flannery, given that a. she consciously rewrote Wise Blood after having read Oedipus Rex to include the blinding scene, and b. even if she wasn't guiding the story, her God most certainly was, since her characters act totally according to religious/atheist type throughout; but nonetheless the natural, organic way of writing she espouses is certainly exciting to do and leads to unexpected results.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Towards modern gnosticism -1 - early period

‘Human beings have always been mythmakers.’ So begins Karen Armstrong in her Short History of Myth. Going back to the Neanderthals and our earliest forebears, there are clear signs of a mythological framework shaping their existence. Such mythology, Armstrong argues, ‘was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience… There was initially no ontological gulf between the world of the gods and the world of men and women.’ There was, then, a strong spiritual element to their lives, but the separation of sacred and profane which we understand today, when thinking of religion, was not so distinct. Taking the example of Australian aboriginals, Armstrong explains:

It is natural for these indigenous peoples to think in terms of myth and symbol because, ethnologists tell us, they are highly conscious of a spiritual dimension in their daily lives. The experience of what we call the sacred or divine has become at best a distant reality to men and women in industrialized, urban societies, but to the Australians, for example, it is not only self-evident but more real than the material world. ‘Dreamtime’ – which Australians experience in sleep and in moments of vision – is timeless and ‘everywhen’. It forms a stable backdrop to ordinary life, which is dominated by death, flux, the endless succession of events, and the cycle of the seasons. Dreamtime is inhabited by the Ancestors – powerful, archetypal beings who taught humans the skills that are essential to their lives, such as hunting, war, sex, weaving and basket-making. These are, therefore, not profane but sacred activities, which bring mortal men and women into contact with Dreamtime.

In this way, myth has become the vehicle by which religious truths are articulated and interpreted. As Ingvild Saelid Gilhus explains: ‘In religion, the consciousness of the believer is expressed through myths, and the original experience is locked therein.’ Myths described not simply an event or occurrence, but a common truth. This is the root of Armstrong’s ‘everywhen’, which she explains further:

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.

Organised religion can be traced back to around 11,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period in the Near East, when the transformation from hunter-gatherer to farmer presaged a profound change in society, but the key period of development was from 800 BC to 200 BC, a period described by Karl Jaspers as the ‘Axial Age’, when the religious and philosophical systems we know today – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Greek rationalism – began to emerge. Christianity followed two hundred years later, greatly influenced by Platonism, and Islam emerged a further six hundred years later. The origins of the various sects and groups which have become known as Gnosticism remains the subject of debate, with arguments that it comes from Hellenic or oriental traditions, and that it was contemporaneous and even antecedent to Christianity. Birger Pearson summarises some of the debate:

In our own times scholars have referred to Gnosticism as a kind of Platonism. Willy Theiler calls the Gnosticism of the Imperial period, both Christian and pagan (Chaldean Oracles, Hermetica), "Proletarier- platonismus." Simone Petrement portrays Gnosticism as "un platonisme romantique"; A. D. Nock prefers the designation "Platonism run wild." John M. Dillon refers to the Gnostic and Hermetic writings and the Chaldean Oracles as "the 'underworld' of Platonism."

Gilles Quispel maintains that, although sharing traits with other religions and philosophies, gnosticism is essentially separate:

Gnosticism is not a late chapter of the history of Greek philosophy and therefore a Christian heresy, an acute Hellenization of the Christian religion. Nor is it a fossilized survival of old Iranian or even Indian religious concepts, and certainly it is not derived from a presupposed consistent Iranian myth of the Saved Saviour. It is rather a religion of its own, with its own phenomenological structure, characterized by the mythical expression of Self-experience through the revelation of the Word, or, in other words, by an awareness of a tragic split within the Deity itself. And as such it owes not a little to Judaism.

It is clear that there was considerable cross-pollenation of thought in this turbulent period. Hans Jonas, in his important textbook on the gnostic religion, characterises the two centuries following the start of the Christian era as being a time of ‘profound spiritual ferment’, in which a number of sects – gnostic and otherwise – speculated on the human condition. Jonas identifies a number of characteristics of thinking at that time: firstly, movements were essentially religious; secondly, a core belief was one of salvation; thirdly, their conception of god was transcendent, which also meant that those notions of salvation were also other-worldly; fourthly, they demonstrated a ‘radical dualism of realms of being – God an the world, spirit and matter, soul and body, light and darkness, good and evil, life and death.’ He summed this up by suggesting that ‘the general religion of the period is a dualistic transcendent religion of salvation.’ [his italics]

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Age of Wonder

It's a bit of a cliche that the enlightenment was an age of rationalisation, where the hard facts of science overtook the mythological mysteries of religion. I've said as much myself in recent posts, I regret to say. As with most cliches, there's an element of truth and a larger element of mistake in the sentiment. Yes, indeed, the enlightenment was an age of scientific advance and rational thinking. But that is only part of the story.

Richard Holmes's marvellous book, The Age of Wonder, has just been published in the US, but it came out here in the UK some time ago. I went along to one of Richard's readings from it around publication time, and it was a brilliant evening. He dispels the myth that there were people of science on one side and people of the arts on the other, with no cross-fertilisation between them. Increasingly, we are coming to believe that that was the case, but Holmes neatly debunks it. He demonstrates that that scientists and artists had much in common. As the NYT review explains:

In assessing the quality of mind that poets and scientists of the Romantic generation had in common, Holmes stresses moral hope for human betterment.

The Age of Wonder, for Holmes, ended with Darwin's journey on the Beagle but, he hopes, 'we have not yet quite outgrown it.'

Yes indeed.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Karen Armstrong posits the idea of 'everywhen', a timeless experience in which the moment is eternal. We understand the idea of 'everywhere', but our modern, rational, linear minds cannot process the idea of an 'everywhen', a time outside the stream of passing moments which we understand as existence. She suggests Aboriginal Australians' concept of 'dreamtime' as an example of a state of everywhen.

Myth, she says, is a way of explaining the everywhen. She goes on:

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.

This, it seems to me, is close to Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence. It is through reconciling oneself to this that one can achieve contentment

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Entartete Kunst

On July 19th 1937, the Nazis staged the Entartete Kunst, or exhibition of degenerate art, one of the pre-war low points of Nazi culture which clearly presaged the horrors ahead.

Prior to the exhibition, over 5000 works of art were confiscated from museums and galleries across Germany, including works by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee and Moholy-Nagy and many others. The Entartete Kunst featured around 650 of these works, each accompanied by hate-filled, derogatory slogans and comments. State control of the arts began and increasingly repressive measures were enacted to silence dissenters. Many notable artists and thinkers had to flee the country. Others remained and formed resistance movements like the Weisse Rose, or White Rose group of students form the University of Munich. The leaders of this group, including brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, were executed for their non-violent protest, decapitated by the Nazis who were saving society from degeneracy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sense of place (3)

I’ve pondered the issue of sense of place in the last two posts because I find it fascinating. My reading at present is largely from the American south, and there is clearly an American south voice, even to the extent that I, who have never visited the place, can recognise it. The rhythms, particularly of the dialogue, are unmistakable.

In my own writing, however, a sense of place comes across hardly at all. I have written a few stories in the Scots language and they do work pretty well, but I tend to steer clear of it because it strongly limits the outlets for it: unless you’re Irvine Welsh, stories written in Scots are a hard sell. And so I write in English, and I write about places which might be England or might be Scotland or might be anywhere else, for that matter. There is no strong sense of place in my locations, or in the sentiments of my characters or in their motivations.

That could well explain why, so often, they feel flat and unconvincing. Perhaps I need to rediscover my sense of place. Unfortunately, that's not as easy as it sounds. My roots are strongly Scottish, and that is where I consider home, and yet I haven't lived there for twenty-two years. My current home is Yorkshire, but I have no sense of belonging here, not in the sense that I have been describing in these posts. I could no more try to write from the psyche of a Yorkshireman than I could a Martian.

It's an interesting quandary.

Sense of place (2)

Jorge Luis Borges and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in their joint introduction to the English translation of Borges’ short stories, The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969, state:

Perhaps the chief justification for this book is the translation itself, which we have undertaken in a new way. Working closely together in daily sessions, we have tried to make these stories read as though they had been written in English. We do not consider English and Spanish as compounded of sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world [my italics], each with a nature of its own. English, for example, is far more physical than Spanish.

They go on to say that they have re-thought every sentence of the original Spanish and not so much translated it, as rewritten it in English.

This raises another issue regarding sense of place. In the post below I noted how southern writers are indubitably shaped by their locale, but that, it seems to me, is a matter of voice and character and sensibility. It affects the outlook of the characters and, I suppose, of the author as well. It is, as Welty indicated, a largely unconscious process.

What Borges and di Giovanni are saying is that the very language itself is affected by this sense of place: the English language is more robust than Spanish, and this will change the inflections and style of the piece. Not just the whole nature of the narrative, but even the way it is written, is shaped by this sense of place. And on that basis, their contention that one can’t simply write a straight translation from one language into another, synonym for synonym, metaphor for metaphor, seems possible. But can one truly say that a sense of place – be it the American south or on a national level – is so deeply ingrained?

Sense of place (1)

In an interview with Gayle Graham Yates, Eudora Welty made the following observation:

Most everything I write - really, everything - my stories come out of life. Not from books. I don't mean that anybody would steal from books, but I mean they are not inspired by books.

This is an interesting contrast to Cormac McCarthy’s assertion that: “the ugly fact is books are made from books.” This suggests quite a difference in approach, and yet the authors are very similar in as much as location is a key factor in their work. McCarthy’s sense of place, especially in Suttree and the southern novels, but even in the western novels like Blood Meridian and even The Road, is famously precise, to the extent that Wes Morgan can identify specific locales. And Welty, in the same interview, says:

I think probably in the case of everything but The Robber Bridegroom, I simply wanted accuracy and faithfulness to a time and place.

She also explains in the interview how she invented a typical Mississippi locale so that she could write a Depression-based story centring on the family unit. This sense of place is a distinctive feature of southern writing, something that seems to inhabit the writers, almost without them being conscious of it. Welty explains further, for example:

I never thought of anything like this when I was writing the stories. Not in an analytical way. I was aware of what I was doing, but not analytically. Even what I say about choosing the place. It was just such an instinctive choice, and then it was dropped because I was into the story.

I am fascinated by this sense of place, and how it seems to shape some writers.

Jim Reid, 1934-2009

With the death of Jim Reid, Scottish traditional music has lost a fine exponent. He was a beautiful singer, with a rich, warm voice which brought songs to life. In particular, his version of Violet Jacob's poem, The Wild Geese, has never been bettered. I'm a Scot living in England, and whenever I cross the border I play Jim's recording of this and sing along and allow myself, for a few minutes, to be a sentimental old fool.

"Oh tell me whit was on your road, ye roarin norlan wind
As ye've come blawin frae the land that's nivver frae ma mind
Ma feet they traivel England, but I'm deein for the north."
"Ma man, I saw the siller tides rin up the Firth o' Forth."

He also, for me, sang the definitive version of Up The Noran Water, a beautiful hymn to human decency, and also, like many Scottish singers, had a fine line in wicked humour, which came out most prominently in his work with the Foundry Bar Band in Arbroath. His music will live on.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

Reading Delta Wedding is one of the most delightful experiences I’ve had in a long while. It is a rarity to completely fall into a novel and experience its slow unfolding almost as though one were a character oneself but, with Welty’s masterpiece, this is exactly what happens. The action is relayed through the various perspectives of the extended Fairchild family and, indeed, sometimes the same events are seen through more than one set of eyes with inevitable, subtle shifts of emphasis and interpretation. Even within the best of families there will be tensions, and there certainly are with the Fairchilds, some of whom have a grip on reality that is tenuous to say the least. Nonetheless, through it all, there is a real spirit, a kinship which overcomes all. This is a family that is rooted in its Delta homeland and that looks after its own,l and the result is that the reader is swept up in the embrace of this close, happy family. It is as though we have been privileged to stay with them for those few days before and after the grand family wedding and, at the story’s conclusion, at the end of our stay, we are forced to bid them an unwilling farewell.

On a simple reading, Delta Wedding could perhaps be considered Faulkner- or O’Connor-lite – Southern eccentrics doing lovably eccentric things, but without the underlying tragedy of Faulkner or violence of O’Connor. But this would be to grossly underestimate the novel and to overlook, amid the genuine warmth of its vision, those hints and portents of the darkness of life. There is a remarkable subtlety to the novel which, for me, marks it out as certainly superior to the didactic O’Connor and right up there at the pinnacle of southern fiction. This is not southern gothic: the Fairchilds, although strange indeed, are not freaks. Nor do they dance to their author's tune. They feel like real, breathing human beings.

The novel revolves around the extended Fairchild family, but in particular focuses on three characters. Firstly, nine-year old Laura, whose mother has just died and who is staying with her aunt and uncle and cousins, ostensibly for the wedding but possibly for good, as the Fairchilds decide whether to close ranks and embrace her to their bosom. Secondly, and possibly most importantly, there is Laura’s uncle George, the only person in the family seemingly untouched by southern eccentricity, and someone who is idolised by the family. And thirdly, Laura’s cousin Dabney, who is to marry (beneath herself, as is frequently hinted) the farm overseer Troy Flavin. Besides these, there is a cast of rich and beautifully described family members - mother and father Ellen and Battle, George’s wife Robbie, who has run away and left him, but who returns because she adores him, the remaining children, ranging from the toddler Bluet upwards, each with his or her own character, and a range of eccentric aunts and uncles who lend humour and warmth to the action.

But it is the family as a collective unit, though, that is perhaps the principal character here. Welty establishes a wholly credible family whose kin-loyalties leave them devoted to one another but also insensitive to the needs of others. Robbie, for example, George’s wife, struggling to gain acceptance in the family, complains to Ellen at one point: “Once I tried to be like the Fairchilds. I thought I knew how,” and ends with the devastating critique: “You’re just loving yourselves in each other – yourselves over and over again!” And there is, indeed, a cockiness, even arrogance, about the Fairchilds, demonstrated most tellingly in the novel’s most dramatic moment, told several times in the narrative from different perspectives. On a family outing, they are dallying by the railway line and one of the family, the slow-witted Maureen, gets her foot trapped in the tracks. George calmly tries to free it, while the rest of the family jump clear. A train approaches them but George, although he could have escaped, remains resolutely on the trestle, as though facing down the train. Ultimately, the train stops just short of them and the engineer shouts his apologies from the window. It becomes a grand, humorous family story. ‘Inevitable,’ Ellen describes it to herself later, while acknowledging that non-family members would have seen it as ‘conceited.’ George Poore, in his contemporary review, sums this moment up neatly: ‘To the Fairchilds...it was an amusing episode; to outsiders it was a piece of reckless quixotry typical of the Fairchilds, the essence of Fairchildism.’ But then again, it might be argued this was the nature of the Delta people in general. As Dr. Murdoch states at one point: “But – can’t do a thing about Delta people... They’re the worst of all. One myself, can’t do a thing about myself.” The family are summed up best, near the end of the novel, from the point of view of the matriarch Ellen: ‘Passionate, sensitive, to the point of strain and secrecy, their legend was happiness. “The Fairchilds are the happiest people!”’

Throughout, the novel is told in subtly changing voices, from a range of points of view. It is remarkably controlled and beautifully handled, giving each character strength and individuality. However, Paul Binding observes that:

In the novel's overall movement there is rather too little overt tension for its theme to emerge as sharply above its context as it should, and again, there is insufficient concentration on one viewpoint. We forsake Laura for Ellen, for Dabney, for Robbie, and a certain dissipation of attention results.

I simply do not agree. The theme emerges from the whole, from the gradual revelation of the family in its various misconceptions and misperceptions, its prejudices and partialities. Throughout, there is a sense of excitement and anticipation and of a tremendous vitality, as everyone awaits the forthcoming wedding. There is the bustle of ordinary family life, given fresh breath by the ensemble nature of the characterisations, and with each shift of point of view we see a subtle change in the narrative frame, are given a slightly different impression, offered another interpretation. In just the way that Faulkner uses different voices in The Sound and The Fury to help establish theme out of narrative, Welty uses her characters to ensure Delta Wedding is more than just a snapshot of an idyllic life. Without these shifts the novel could easily have become bucolic, a comfortable despatch from arcadia, but instead Welty ensures that we see this family as it really is – fine, happy, but as flawed as everyone else’s – and we see the world in all its dark reality. The beautiful girl who, unlike simple Maureen, is indeed knocked over by the train and killed, ensures we do not lose sight of that.

And so Eudora Welty creates something truly memorable. Delta Wedding is a remarkable novel because it is a slice of typical southern realism relayed through characteristically fine dialogue and strong characterisation, and at the same time it manages to convey something deeper, a glimpse of the realities of human nature, in all its good and bad.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


This is Ihab Hassan, writing in 1961:

The political and social experiences of our century reveal two opposite tendencies at work: the unremitting organization of society and the unleashing of vast destructive energies against civilization. Both tendencies are incarnated by the superstate which is at once utopian and demonic. Both have been abetted by the incredible development of technology.

On the one hand, there's an impressive prescience in these words, which precede Vietnam as well as our own present day cultural struggles. But there's also something self-fulfilling about the defeatist tone and the way that the discussion is twisted slightly so that 'technology' is presented as culpable.

The 'unremitting organization of society' is not a technological matter, although of course technology makes it much, much easier. Rather, it is the function of a state increasingly interfering in the affairs of its citizens. This, I admit, is made easier by the secularisation of society and the resultant diminution in the power of religious organisations, although I do not accept the arguments of people like Eric Voegelin, who lamented the loss of influence of religion when he declared: 'the world finds itself in a severe crisis, in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience'. This takes the argument too far. But nonetheless, there is a sense that our modern world is becoming an increasingly alien place. Voegelin also wrote, in 1938, in response to the rising Nazi threat:

The contact between one human being and another is interrupted; non-human ideologies stand opposed, and man is transformed into a cog in a machine, playing along mechanically in the bustle of life, outwardly warring and killing abstractly.

As with the Hassan quote, there is much to agree with in this, although again the author's undeniable concern for humanity leads him to a questionable conclusion. Voegelin continues:

That the power of the State is primal, or absolute, is no longer a judgement of the person who submits to the State, but rather the dogma of a believer. Through this experience, the existence of man loses reality; the State appropriates it and become what is truly real and that from which a stream of reality flows back into men, transforming them with new vitality into parts of the suprahuman reality. We have entered the center of a religious experience, and our words describe a mystical process.

Voegelin was, of course, a religious thinker, and it is natural, then, that his critique of an institution - the State - which he believes has won a bitter struggle against spirituality and indeed has supplanted it, should be couched in mystic terms. But as with the Hassan quote, he is creating a false dichotomy. Just as Hassan loads blame incommensurately on 'technology', Voegelin's implicit criticism of the secularisation of the State unfairly ascribes the alienation of modern man to a lack of spirituality. There are many reasons for the rise of Nazism, and increasing secularisation may be one of them, but only one of them. Instead of examining broader arguments, both Voegelin and Hassan appear to be focusing on the mechanisation of modern times and seeing it as a threat to liberty.

This is an exaggerated fear. Just as the Futurists, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at Tate Modern at present, were in thrall to the machine and venerated it in fascistic terms, it seems that these liberals are opposing it in equally exaggerated terms. Hassan goes on to quote Mussolini: "Nothing beyond the State, above the State, against the State. Everything to the State, for the State, in the State." Hassan rightly describes this as 'insane', and is also correct in suggesting that 'when technology is put in the service of such an ideal, the refinements of mass terror, mass torture... and mass hysteria become virtually inexhaustible.' Just so. But technology (and the State) have no monopoly on mass terror and mass torture. By creating such an easy target, it is possible to overlook other reasons for alienation.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Russian sensibility; or how to deliver the unvarnished truth

When asked by Raskolnikov's mother and sister to describe him, whom they haven't seen for three years, Razumihin eschews the western, diplomatic approach:

What am I to tell you? I have known Rodion for a year and a half; he is morose, gloomy, proud and haughty, and of late- and perhaps for a long time before- he has been suspicious and fanciful. He has a noble nature and a kind heart. He does not like showing his feelings and would rather do a cruel thing than open his heart freely. Sometimes, though, he is not at all morbid, but simply cold and inhumanly callous; it's as though he were alternating between two characters. Sometimes he is fearfully reserved! He says he is so busy that everything is a hindrance, and yet he lies in bed doing nothing. He doesn't jeer at things, not because he hasn't the wit, but as though he hadn't time to waste on such trifles. He never listens to what is said to him. He is never interested in what interests other people at any given moment. He thinks very highly of himself and perhaps he is right."

And the sister's response to this character assassination of her brother?
"You've told us a great deal that is interesting about my brother's character... and have told it impartially. I am glad."

Perhaps, then she deserves Razumihin's next triumph of tact:
"Do you know, Avdotya Romanovna, you are awfully like your brother, in everything, indeed!"

I'm often criticised for my bluntness, but Razumihin is a class act...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gods and men

Henry Bamford Parkes begins his 1960 monograph, Gods and Men, with the following, striking claim:

This book is written in the conviction that the vitality of any society depends on the continued affirmation of mythical symbolisms created by the collective imagination for the ordering of experience, and that a pure rationalism can result only in social disintegration.

Karen Armstrong, in her Short History of Myth, picks up the same sort of point, when she differentiates between mythos and logos, and says that mythos is the way to the sacred. What she suggests, I suppose, is that a surfeit of logos leads to a kind of spiritual constipation, the end result of which will be Parkes' 'social disintegration'.

An interesting theory, except it is unprovable, because it is resting on a false premise. There is no such thing as pure rationalism. We are beginning to see a worrying backlash at the moment against rationalist thought, as though the Enlightenment were some sort of impediment to progress because it de-emphasised the supernatural. In so doing, it is becoming customary to speak of rationalism, or science, or empirical study, in a pejorative sense. We are so beholden to the holy fact, they say, that we have lost all sense of ourselves and our souls. This is the excuse they use or ushering that old sky-god back in through the back door.

But this is not so. A state of pure rationality has never existed anywhere. I believe in science as a way of ordering our society, but there is still a place for beauty, for art, for culture, which is where the mythos now resides. God is a work of art.

Great chat-up lines in literature

I don't think I'd ever look to that miserabilist Dostoevsky for advice in any field of life, but certainly not in terms of chatting up women. His advice:

look here, you are good at mathematics, and working at it now... begin teaching her the integral calculus; upon my soul, I'm not joking, I'm in earnest, it'll be just the same to her. She will gaze at you and sigh for a whole year together. I talked to her once for two days at a time about the Prussian House of Lords (for one must talk of something) - she just sighed and perspired!

O tempora, o mores...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Pina Bausch 1940-2009

I've only just discovered that Pina Bausch has died. It happened last week when I was away at a conference and out of touch with the news.

I know nothing about dance, but I've always been completely mesmerised by Pina Bausch, going back more than 25 years to when I first saw her on Channel 4, I think with Cafe Muller, which I wrote about on here only a few weeks ago. Her Wuppertal Dance Theatre were in Britain last year and I was desperate to get tickets but they sold out. I regret that even more now.

Bausch explored those areas of disconnection which so interest me, but despite the alienation she projected there still remained beneath a strong element of humanity. You believe she cared about people. I hope Channel 4 will repeat some of those performances from the eighties as a tribute to her.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summum bonum

More from Eric Voegelin, here discussing Hobbes' (deliberate) omission from Leviathan of the motivating factor of the summum bonum, the highest good.

If there is no summum bonum... there is no point of orientation that can endow human action with rationality. Action, then, can only be represented as motivated by passions, above all, by the passion of aggression, the overcoming of one's fellow man. The "natural" state of society must be understood as the war of all against all, if men do not in free love orient their actions to the highest good.

This is a perfect summary of the state of play in Blood Meridian in which, as the judge tells us, 'War is the ultimate because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.' McCarthy, then, in true gnostic fashion, is revolting 'against the world as it has been created by God' and in so doing 'arbitrarily omits an element of reality [the summum bonum] in order to create the fantasy of a new world.' In order to promulgate his world view he has created, in Blood Meridian, a society where the highest good does not exist as a concept. This follows the approach of Hobbes in Leviathan, but it is a significant failing. However, there is a further, even more significant failing. Voegelin continues:

The only way out of the warfare of this passion-conditioned state of nature is to submit to a passion stronger than all others, which will subdue their aggressiveness and drive to dominate and induce them to live in peaceful order. For Hobbes, this passion is the fear of the summum malum, the fear of death at the hands of another, to which each man is exposed in his natural state. If men are not moved to live with one another in peace through common love of the divine, highest good, then the fear of the summum malum of death must force them to live in an orderly society.

Not only does McCarthy create a world where violence and warfare are the only currency and the highest good is an unconsidered option, he further manipulates his characters and situation. Hobbes was clear that, in the absence of the summum bonum, men would be motivated by an aversion to the summum malum, and that the subsequent fear of death would result in civilised society. But McCarthy omits even this regulating factor: there is no fear of death in Blood Meridian. The novel is characterised by brutality and fatalism and, despite living amongst so much bloodshed, its characters remain wholly unmoved by it. This is most memorably the case in the ending of the book. What happens? The kid goes voluntarly to the jakes and allows himself to be enfolded in the deadly embrace of the judge. He submits. He finally accedes to nihilism and goes willingly to his death. Where, here, is the fear of the summum malum of death?

And so we have a situation where McCarthy manipulates his plot so that his characters can be motivated neither by the highest good nor the fear of death. And in such a circumstance only one thing can prevail: the anarchic nihilism of the judge. But this is not a fair or credible representation of reality. This is propaganda.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


This is Eric Voegelin, political philosopher:

Of the profusion of gnostic experiences and symbolic expressions, one feature may be singled out as the central element in this varied and extensive creation of meaning: the experience of the world as an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the other world of his origin. "Who has cast me into the suffering of this world?" asks the "Great Life" of the gnostic texts, which is also the "first, alien Life from the worlds of light." It is an alien in this world and this world is alien to it. "This world was not made according to the desire of the Life." "Not by the will of the Great Life art thou come hither." Therefore the question, "Who conveyed me into the evil darkness?" and the entreaty, "Deliver us from the darkness of this world into which we are flung." The world is no longer the well-ordered, the cosmos, in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is it the Judaeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos.

Readers of Cormac McCarthy will be well used to his use of alien to describe the harshness of existence. The various concordances produced by John Sepich show the following uses of the word in his texts:

Outer Dark 3
Suttree 7
Blood Meridian 13
All The Pretty Horses 8
The Crossing 8
Cities of The Plain 4
No Country for Old Men 1
The Road 5

Some sample usages from Blood Meridian:

The survivors lay quietly in that cratered void and watched the whitehot stars go rifling down the dark. Or slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night. p. 46

Along the wall opposite crouched figures seeming alien to the light who watched the Ameicans with no expression at all. p. 101

The judge stepped into the sunlit doorway and executed upon the stones a series of steps with a strange precision and he and the fiddler seemed alien minstrels met by chance in this medieval town. p. 190

The instrument of salvation for Gnostics is knowledge - gnosis. But Voegelin cautions:

Self-salvation through knowledge has its own magic, and this magic is not harmless. The structure of the order of being will not change because one finds it defective and runs away from it. The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society.

Or, put another way, a dangerous self-indulgence. Voegelin identified the totalitarian regimes he fought as a young man (he had to flee Nazi Germany after trenchant criticism of the regime) as political gnostic movements. They seek to establish a superman, a carrier of the fire, a possessor of the divine spark. Again, recognisable phrases to the reader of McCarthy.