Tove Jansson’s Autumn Song

May 28th, 2016
This is a rotten although pretty literal translation of Höstvisa (Autumn Song), a poem by Tove Jansson which I found through a line in PO Enquist’s Liknelseboken. I have lost all of the rhyme and most of the swing of the original, but I think what remains is still worth posting.

I met with no one on the long way home
The evenings grow cold and stretch far ahead
Come comfort me a little for I am tired now
And suddenly so dreadfully alone.
I never saw before that the darkness is so vast,
I walk and think of all those things I ought
There are so many things I should have said and done
And there’s so very little that I did

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone

I’m looking for something perhaps we’ve forgotten
which you might help me to find
One summer passes, and it’s always just as brief
It’s the dream of what we could have gained.
Perhaps you will come some time before the dusk grows blue
before the meadows are dry and empty
Perhaps we’ll find each other perhaps we’ll find then
a way to make everything flower

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone

The storm out there has slammed the summer’s door
It’s too late now to wonder and too late to search
Perhaps I love you less than I did before
But more than you will ever know
Now we see all the lighthouses down the long coast of autumn
and hear the lost waves wander
One thing only matters and that’s the heart’s desire
And to be together with one another.

Hurry, beloved; hurry to love
The days are darker for every minute
Light our candles; night is close:
The flowering summer soon will be gone
You can hear it done as a song, rather beautifully, here

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Apophatic atheology

May 3rd, 2015

Hume says that beauty is produced by the conformation of the human mind, and is not an intrinsic character in the world. I think this derives from Locke. Anyway. The interesting point is whether we can even conceive of a world that could be otherwise, that was not shaped by the character of our minds. I think not. I think that meaninglessness is literally inconceivable. What is meaningless cannot be mapped, compressed, or translated into forms the human mind can grasp. It is what it is. If it could speak, it could only say “I am what I am”. And because of that, we can’t know what forms it would take if it were translated. We can’t say with confidence that the universe does not care of us, only that it behaves as if it didn’t or sometimes does.

See here MM’s critique of Barrow etc

The opposite of beauty is ugliness; this means there is a temptation to suppose that if beauty is removed from the universe, what remains is ugliness. But this doesn’t follow from the Humean claim. Ugliness is just as much produced by the conformation of our minds as beauty is.  A genuinely alien and meaningless condition would empty the universe of all human sense, including the thing about not making sense.

“Objects have absolutely no worth or value in themselves. They drive their worth merely from the passion” – this is true, but it implies that that the true state of things is worthlessness, and that implication must — again — be false. The world could only derive its worthlessness from the passions as much as it derives its worth. And, of course, our passions are themselves part of the world, and arose from it through a process of evolution. They don’t stand aside in judgment.
And the world, if Hume is really right, is not just beyond good and evil; it is beyond value and worthlesness, beyond beauty and ugliness.

I say that this may be true, but it is not a state which we can comprehend. We don’t have the characteristics that would allow us to do so. Reason is the slave of the passions, so if the world ultimately is independent of our passions, we have no way of grasping it. To resent, to despair, to feel anything about its remoteness from our passional ends is to interpret it through them.


[This is just a scrap that I found when sorting out my hard disk. I never knew what to do with it, though I suspect it belongs in my yet unwritten masterwork on God and the Grateful Dead, perhaps in the bit about bad trips and chaotic jams]

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More Tower Hamlets background

April 27th, 2015
Here is the text of the letter which Mawrey found was an exertion of “Spiritual Influence”. It was originally written in Bengali and not at the time published in English, something I believe is relevant to judging it. This is a translation accepted by all sides in the court as fair.

Creating opportunities, making provisions and providing services to the citizens on behalf of Her Excellency the Queen. In this case everyone has a freedom of right to choose a candidate who is suitable and able to provide the services. However we are observing that the media propagandas, narrow political interests etc involving the Mayoral election of Tower Hamlets Council have created a kind of a negative impression which in turn have created confusions amongst the public, divided the community and put the community in question. We are further observing that today’s Tower Hamlets have made significant and enviable improvements in the areas of housing, education, community cohesion, inter-faith harmony, road safety and youth developments. In order to retain this success and make further progress it is essential that someone is elected as Mayor of the Tower Hamlets Borough on 22nd May who is able to lead these improvements and who will not discriminate on the basis of language, colour and religious identities.

We observe that some people are targeting the languages, colours and religions and attempting to divide the community by ignoring the cohesion and harmony of the citizens. This is, in fact, hitting the national, cultural and religious ‘multi’ ideas of the country and spreading jealousy and hatred in the community. We consider these acts as abominable and at the same time condemnable.

With utmost concern we observe that by shunning the needs and opportunities of the Tower Hamlets Council and its citizens, Islamophobia, which is the result of the current political stance and which has derived from false imagination, has been made an agenda for voting and voters. The mosques and religious organisations have been targeted. It is being publicised that any relationship [involvement] with the religious scholars and clerics are condemnable and is an offence. Religious beliefs and religious practice are being criticised. One of the local former councillors of the Labour Party has stated in the BBC’s Panorama programme that ‘Religions divide people’. Even in the same programme the honourable Imam of the Holy Kaba Sharif was presented in negative and defaming ways and thus all the religious people, particularly the Muslims, have been insulted and thrown in to a state of anxiety. We cannot support these ill attempts under any circumstances. We believe that it is not an offence to be a Muslim voter, an imam or Khatib of a mosque and have involvement with all these. Under no circumstances it is acceptable to give a voter less value or to criticise them on the basis of their identity. As voters, like in any other elections we also have a right to vote in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets Mayoral Election and we should have the opportunity to cast our votes without fear. As a cognisant group of the community and responsible voters and for the sake of truth, justice, dignity and development we express our unlimited support for Mayor Lutfur Rahman and strongly call upon you, the residents of Tower Hamlets, to shun all the propagandas and slanders and unite against the falsehood and injustice.

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Excerpts from The Mawrey judgment on Tower Hamlets

April 25th, 2015

This entry is utterly unlike most of the stuff on this blog, but may be of interest to students of British politics and religion. It consists of excerpts from the astonishing and damning judgment against Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets in East London, who has had his election voided by a judge, Richard Mawrey QC, who sits as the election commissioner. As the very first excerpt explains, there is in British law a provision that allegations of electoral malpractice go up to a special court where the judge can overthrow the results of an election. This may seem unsatisfactory, but what other solution can there be to a problem of democratic corruption? I have to write about this, so I read the entire judgment rather than the newspaper summaries. Here are the bits I pulled out in Skim. I am particularly interested in the obscure offence of “Spiritual Influence”, which Mawrey defends in thought-provoking ways. Read the rest of this entry »

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A sermon for Terry Pratchett

March 16th, 2015
Many years ago, I was asked to preach a sermon at Wadham College. I hemmed and hawed a bit, saying this really wasn’t my line of work, but they were pressing. So I wrote something, and spoke it. When Pratchett died I dug it out for a look. Here it is
This is not a sermon, so if you’ll forgive me, I’ll start without a bad joke.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Why I am not a Christian

January 30th, 2014

My trouble with Christianity is that it is only true backwards. To take an example, here is a couplet from George Herbert –

Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through every vein

When I read it two things happen almost at once. The first is a stunned, visceral assent: a delight in the thought and its expression, and most of all in the way they are so perfectly united.

The second is to note that it’s not true. Pain is not always or even often the consequence of sin. My friend with the brain tumour and her husband are not being punished for anything anyone has done.

But suppose we read the couplet backwards – not as a description of the workings of sin in the world, but as a statement about the meaning of the word “Sin” and about whatever it is that “forceth pain to hunt his cruel food through every vein.”

Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference, but I think not. To read the couplet the first way, straight ahead, is to treat “Sin” as an almost scientific term: it becomes part of the chain of cause and effect, a name we give to an observable, predictable, and in principle even measurable pattern of events in the world. It becomes an explanatory hypothesis. Used in this sense we can postulate “Sin” rather as we postulate the Higgs boson and then go to see if it helps us understand the world a bit better. But in that sense, “sin” clearly does not exist. It is an epicycle, a meme, a failed would-be explanatory mechanism.

Read backwards, however, the couplet tells us something about the meaning of the word “Sin”. This is more interesting. There is a “press and vice, which forceth suffering through every vein” – we know this because we see people and animals tortured all around us, usually by disease but sometimes by deliberate wanton act. This is clearly something that has evolved, in the sense that the earth was once lifeless and for billions of years without conscious life or feeling. So there is something in the way the universe works which has produced the capacity to suffer and maintained and refined it through innumerable generations. Calling that something “Sin” illuminates what the word might mean. It gives the doctrine of “Original Sin” something real to refer to, and makes it worth thinking about.

Thinking about doctrine in this way is not a habit that I am ever going to kick. I’ve done it almost as far back as I remember. Perhaps the most shameful thing I will admit to publicly is that I won a scholarship to Marlborough on the strength of my essay in the “Divinity” exam. But I remember, too, the feeling when I had finished writing – that I had no idea at all whether any of it was true. It was just a rhetorical exercise, in a mode in which I happen to be naturally gifted. So I concluded that the man who marked it so highly must be bluffing too.

Subsequent, banal experiences with Christians who were stupid, cruel, smug, pharisaical, and otherwise human cemented this disillusionment. I could read the Prayer Book and love it but when I attempted the Bible I would recoil, simply unable to believe that anyone would take it as the word of God. When people describe themselves as “bible-believing Christians” I can attach no meaning to the words, except as a label: it’s like being “flag-believing Britons”. Similarly, I don’t know what it could possibly mean to believe in a Creator.

None of this innoculated my imagination. I have had numerous experiences that would count as conversion if they’d actually converted me. I remember Robert Runcie celebrating a eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, when it seemed quite irrelevant to ask if it was true: it was clearly something to be part of. At the other end of the scale, a couple of fundamentalists who had given up their lives to working with junky prostitutes in a provincial town broke bread with a quiet prayer over a linoleum tablecloth and that worked too. In Medjugorje I got zapped by the Holy Spirit and was for a while quite speechless with love for my crass and ignorant fellow pilgrims.

All this made me think that it didn’t matter whether I called myself a Christian but the Lambeth Conference of ’98 made me resolve not to do so. It was a triumph of the bullies, of the self-important, the vain and the thoughtlessly cruel. I may be a sinner, I thought, but at least I am miserable. I do not wish to be mistaken for a bishop.

But the New Atheist movement made it quite clear to me that I’m not one of them, either. I don’t believe that “religion” exists as a coherent category, let alone something which can or should be extirpated.

None of this is terribly satisfying. It is natural to suppose that our philosophical conclusions are the distinctive marks of our moral and intellectual excellence, but that doesn’t work for me. I know Christians who are nicer, cleverer, braver and more honest that I am. I even know some who appear to have no difficulty in believing the whole thing backwards and not all of them are Roman Catholic intellectuals. But I still can’t do it myself.

So why worry? Why not see it all as nonsense?” Because really it isn’t all nonsense: as a friend of mine, a former missionary, said once “It’s about the thing that is true even if Christianity isn’t true”. Christian language does things that no other use of language can. I can only conclude that God has called me to be an atheist.

This piece was written on impulse for the Church Times, so it assumes some familiarity with the culture of the Church of England. But I thought I would put it here to save explaining to people what it is I actually believe, or don’t.

Posted in God, Journalism | 4 Comments »

What happened?

June 5th, 2012

Notes made in the Cardiac HDU on 30/5/12, transcribed after I got home

Brought here from Addenbrookes after I started a heart attack in the audiology clinic. I had cycled there in a hurry over Windmill Hill, and as I continued felt, not chest pain, but a sense that my back was all tense and wrong. What I now think of as a shiny soreness on the inside of spine. My breastbone was also extremely tender on the outside. It needed rubbing and pushing to relieve the tension. I wanted to straighten my back and breathe more deeply. My spine felt hunched up between the shoulder blades. Breathing was raspy and metallic. My jaws ached, top and bottom, at the front.

None of this was particularly violent or incapacitating, but it would not recede or let me feel normal. Approaching Sawston, about nine miles on my journey, I had an odd sense of seeing myself from above and thought: “What a cliché – a middle-aged man who’s trying to pedal away from death”

That made me happier, but I still felt so wrong that I stopped in Sawston to ring C and say things were very odd, then pedalled on more slowly.

None the less, I was sure that this was just a spasm in my back, brought on by sitting wrongly on the bike. I had had almost the same symptoms the day before after and during my presentation a a group of Swedish editors, a tightness in the spine that could not be relieved by twisting or stretching.

But this time, in the audiology ward, I had a constant urge to push and rub my breastbone, There is still a weepy red patch at the bottom, four days later, where I rubbed right through the skin. I must have looked a bit bad, because they blood pressured me and took my pulse, before taking me down to A&E in a wheelchair, which I thought at first was over dramatic. but in the 15 minutes or so I spent waiting in a queue there, while the male nurse dealt with an aggressive Scottish drunk, I started to feel really bad, and the pain changed character so that sometimes my upper arms felt encased in squeezy cold metal mesh and sometimes the soreness was poking and prodding at my back, as if someone were pushing a broomstick upwards against it from the inside.

The people around my wheelchair started moving faster. I was given some paracetemol. This was useless. I was asked if I was allergic to anything — this was almost the first question asked by anyone who took me over in the next six hours,. i must have answered it ten times. I was given some kind of clotbuster. There was an aspirin, too, dissolved in a little cardboard cup.

My surroundings, once I was wheeled out of the A&E reception, began to look like the industrial cellars in a video game: black, grey and green, in fluorescent lighting. I remember a sudden drenching of sweat, like a thunderstorm, and then, as I was being lifted from wheelchair to trolley, a blast of dry heaves which everyone ignored. I was given an ECG and a black African doctor said over my shoulder to someone else that he didn’t like the sinus wave. That’s when I really knew what was happening. What seemed essential and possible was to behave courageously and deal with the pain. I asked for something for it, and somehow — did they set up a drip? — was given diamorphine. After five minutes, I asked for more, and was given it, without quibbles. The second dose really moved the pain away, a bit, but did nothing for fear and weakness. I did not think I was going to die.

By now flat on my back, rolled onto a stretcher, somehow. Movement was painful. Oxygen. Felt good, or seemed to relieve the scraping pressure inside. The plastic mask rasped on my nose in the ambulance. Sirens? I think I remember a bit of sirens. No sense of where we were. All the same bumpy trolley surface until lying in a large green-black echoing room in Papworth. A lean ?Irish doctor with steel-rimmed spectacles gave me a local anaesthetic in the groin and then for a long time all I could feel was a series of varying pressures there, and sometimes hands moving down by right knee.

Another, invisible, ?Scottish voice talks with clipped battle of Britain vowels about stent sizes to the doctor fixing me. Everything seems calm, decisive, practised, and reassuring.

Unknown time passes with the pushing and measured movements on my thigh.

The sensations of active pressure and pain recede a bit. Weakness, alarm, and fear. Then the doctor holds in front of my eyes a transparent plastic dish an on it maybe a centimetre of soggy crimson thread. “That’s the blood clot.” He says. “That’s what I pulled out of you.” He explained that he had stented me. That was the most vivid moment of the night. I was by then together enough to ask how he had got it out, and he said he had some kind of suction device.

They wheeled me up to the recovery ward. There was a huge tree outside the window whose foliage dipped and bobbed as a squirrel moved round in it. The room was full of a brassy, beeping monitors. I learned quite quickly to identify the tone mine made when I fibrillated or missed a beat, and for a while observed as my thoughts wandered round; every time they touched on work my heart stuttered. Somewhere around dusk a trolley came round with tea, and two digestive biscuits. They crumbled in my mouth like a sacrament.

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Richard Hooker

April 8th, 2011

The most extreme opposite true religion, is affected atheism.II.  They of whom God is altogether unapprehended are but few in number, and  for grossness of wit such, that they hardly and scarcely seem to hold  the place of human being. These we should judge to be of all others most  miserable, but that a wretcheder sort there are, on whom whereas nature  hath bestowed riper capacity, their evil disposition seriously goeth  about therewith to apprehend God as being not God. Whereby it cometh to  pass that of these two sorts of men, both godless, the one having  utterly no knowledge of God, the other study how to persuade themselves  that there is no such thing to be known.

From my phone.

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David Hume on a sense of proportion

April 7th, 2011

Such a reflection certainly tends to  mortify all our passions: But does it not thereby counterwork the  artifice of nature, who has happily deceived us into an opinion, that  human life is of some importance?

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More hume quotes.

March 25th, 2011

Comment superfluous
When a philosopher has once laid  hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural  effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and  reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd  reasoning

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