Archive for 2017

The TLS gets better

Sunday, November 5th, 2017
The TLS seems to have got a new philosophy editor, Tim Crane, and his influence on this week’s issue is remarkable. For a start there is his own long, excellent essay on what religion is and isn’t, exposing the inadequacies of treating is as either a mere set of propositions or only a social arrangement. The only thing this gets wrong is the tentative suggestions that Pentecostalism represented a novelty, or that this is what Pentecostal congregations are in search of.
In principle, it is possible for these two things to be separated: people might gather spontaneously, utter words, and perform some kind of ceremony together, even if these things had never been said or done before. (Perhaps Pentecostals’ speaking in tongues is an example of this kind of thing.)
Not only was the Asuza Street revival an entirely self-conscious attempt to return to the condition of the early Church; the services today are as ritualised as post-77 Grateful Dead concert. So for that matter, is an Alpha Course. Everything is done to condition expectations towards the arrival of the Holy Spirit. See also the “Was he slain or was he pushed?” passage of our church book. Then there is the dispute between Roger Scruton and Timothy Williamson, also flagged on the cover. As usual, Scruton seems to be punching where his opponents aren’t, but landing some real blows none the less. I still think that the best approach to his philosophy is through his thoughts on music.
There are concepts that play an organizing role in our experience but which belong to no scientific theory, because they divide the world into the wrong kinds of kind – concepts like those of ornament, melody, duty, freedom, purity, which divide up the world in a way that no natural science could countenance. Consider the concept of melody. Science tells us a lot about the properties of pitched sounds; but it tells us nothing about melodies. A melody is not an acoustical but a musical object. And musical objects belong to the purely intentional realm: they are sounds heard under a musical description. That means, sounds as we self-conscious beings hear them, under concepts that have no place in the science of sounds. No sound could rise from the depths as the E-flat major arpeggio rises from the depths at the start of Das Rheingold.
I am particularly susceptible to these arguments as someone who is profoundly affected by music but unable to reproduce or even consciously analyse it. But even if I were able to do that to the degree that a professionally trained musician can there would still be — I think — an absolute divide between analysis and experience. I find from music that I don’t believe in zombies. There is something it is like to listen to music which is absolutely unlike anything available in the third person world.

What I find odd is the question of whether this arises, as Scruton says, from our experience of other subjects. What effect does music have on severely handicapped babies?

Auden as a critic

Monday, October 30th, 2017

My mother’s ill, but recovering, so I read to her. In the bookshelf is a WW2 selection from fifteen English poets which one of my parents must have had at Oxford. The range is from Chaucer to Matthew Arnold, and each poet has a prefatory essay. What leaps out at once is the difference between those essays written by professional critics and teachers and those written by other poets. The poets are so much less mannered and more direct. In this collection, there is Auden on Byron, Louis MacNeice on Keats, and C.S. Lewis, a don who thought of himself as a poet, on Spencer. That’s a little unfair to Lewis. I don’t like his poetry but he really subjected himself to its rigours, and came thereby to understand a great deal which leaked into his prose insights.
Auden on Byron is spectacularly good:

Byron was an egoist and, like all egoists, capable of falling in love with a succession of dream-figures, but incapable of genuine love or fidelity which accepts a personality completely. This did not prevent his writing good love poetry like Hebrew Melodies. In fact, nearly all love poetry is dream-figure poetry. Love may stimulate an artist indirectly and intensify his general vision of life; it does not often make him write love poems: their source is more commonly egoism or frustrated lust.

But Byron was not only an egoist; he was also acutely conscious of guilt and sin. Sometimes these two traits ran in harness, and their conjunction brought out the worst in him, both in his personal life and in his art; the self-conscious Satanism of his affairs, and the worst parts of The Corsair, At other times they were in opposition, and the conflict brought out the best; Don Juan and the Greek expedition.

No egoist can become a mature writer until he has learnt to recognize and to accept, a little ruefully perhaps, his egoism. When Byron had ceased to identify his moral sense with himself and had discovered how to extract the Byronic Satanism from his lonely hero and to turn it into the Byronic Irony which illuminated the whole setting, when he realized that he was a little ridiculous, but also not as odd as he had imagined, he became a great poet.

I discovered while writing this that the whole text of the anthology is available, eccentrically scanned, on the Internet Archive. I doubt this is in strict conformance with copyright law: it can’t be seventy years since Auden, Lewis and MacNeice all died, to name only the contributors I recognised. But that makes it much easier to copy the delicious passage in which Pope (whom Auden thought was one of Byron’s models) explains the dynamics of modern day Twitter. Take it away, Alex:

’Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dangerous is the offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose.
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
Some are bewilder’d in the maze of schools.
And some made coxcombs Nature meant but fools.
In search of wit these lose their common sense,
And then turn critics in their own defence:
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write.
Or with a rival’s, or an eunuch’s spite.
All fools have still an itching to deride,
And fain would be upon the laughing side.

uncosy catastrophes

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Ever since I finally got round to reading The Death of Grass I have been snacking on the novels of John Christopher (Sam Youd) a British writer of appalling fecundity who was active from the fifties to the Eighties at least. According to his Guardian obit he wrote up to four novels a year and it’s not surprising that there was a certain amount of repetition. Some fraction are being republished — rather as the works of Jack Vance are — in a limited edition, which led me to his other famous adult novel, The World in Winter; and I’ve just finished Pendulum, published in the late Sixties.

They are all catastrophes, in which the breakdown of large-scale civilisation produces a breakdown of the small structures of morality: men emerge as killers and rapists; women as tough and resourceful victims. In The Death of Grass, the catastrophe is a plague which starves most of the world by annihilating rice, wheat, barley, and all other grains. Only potatoes remain as a source of carbohydrates. In The World in Winter it is an ice age, with glaciers returning almost all the way down to London, and white refugees fleeing in boats to Africa, where they are not welcome. In Pendulum, the most dated, it is a Sixties apocalypse: Britain goes broke and gangs of “yobs” on motorbikes take over.

The breakdown of moral order is extremely well done in the first two books and genuinely shocking. In both cases there are conflicts of duty, difficult to resolve. Two brothers end up fighting to the death over possession of a potato patch. A man must choose between loyalty to the friend who saved his life, repeatedly, and to his wife who is pregnant possibly by another man. People find themselves doing things which neither they nor the reader thought themselves capable of, and we care. The scene setting is also extremely well done, especially in The World in Winter. 

Pendulum is much the weakest of the three, though I still gobbled it down. Read fifty years later, it’s mostly illuminating for showing how the fears of Daily Mail readers and Brexit voters have evolved and been racialised in the intervening period. The hero is a successful and decent businessman whose wife is a bit of a bleeding heart liberal. He is loyal to his family, for whom he generously provides. The only cloud on his life is the presence of yobs from the local estates, who vandalise his outbuildings and roar about on motorbikes.

His sister in law is conducting an affair with an unscrupulous and demagogic sociologist, who emerges as the sinister power behind a movement of student revolt. The students — get this — are rioting because their grants have not been increased in line with inflation. The sister in law is a complex and interesting character, with a keen interest in sex. She sees right through her lover, but enjoys, as she later realises, being able to despise his weakness and hunger for affirmation. She also takes up with a police inspector, with whom, she thinks, she has nothing in common but limerance.

Eventually, the students and the yobs combine, as in the cultural revolution, and take over the government. The police stations are sacked and many are killed. There is a wonderful parody of a sycophantic Times leader praising this development. The police inspector takes shelter with his lover and they move out to the mansion in the country. But that has been commandeered by the yobs, and the owner’s family are confined to a couple of rooms at the top of the house.

Things get worse, in ways both predictable and unexpected. Eventually, the yobocracy is overthrown by a fundamentalist Christian uprising — this is surprisingly plausible — and the decent hero ends up in a work camp in the outer Hebrides for helping a yob whom the mob has beaten half to death. The sister in law finds a rather implausible and fragile happiness with the policeman, whose taciturn, competent pessimism turns out to conceal enormous courage and decency*.

So, it’s a straight and skilful exposition of the provincial conservative worldview: hard work and providing for your family is good. Students, layabouts, oiks, and sociologists are all enemies of the people. Religion is good but impractical until it turns bad and frighteningly practical. Women are strong, resourceful and full of agency, but still dependent on a good man to love them. France is remote and hostile but America is benign and will help as much as it can.

But there’s a sort of innocence about this which I don’t see in today’s right wing press. For one thing everyone, to a first approximation, is white. Only at the end, when some characters are sunk in extreme poverty, do they come in contact with a black family, whose cooking smells. But the underclass has not been racialised at all, and class substitutes for Islam as the expression of alien cultural difference.

Then there is the aforementioned idea of student grants.

There is the way the bad times come as a surprise: no sense that the world is rigged against decent people, though there is of course a powerful sense that the world is rigged against decency itself. But that’s tragedy, not resentment.

At the end of the book there are blurbs, in Amazon fashion, for others republished in the same series. In one, a small party get trapped in tunnels under a mountain, and have to make their way for days towards an unknown exit. In another, a small group is trapped on a desert island, and must struggle against the elements etc etc. I was reminded of Robert Graves’s squib

He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits The formula for comic rabbits paid
Alas, he found he could not change the tragic habits
The formula for drawing comic rabbits made.
  • Bet you didn’t see that coming.

Scientism and fundamentalism (in honour of Jerry Coyne)

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Below the fold is a piece I wrote for Zia Sardar’s magazine Critical Muslim. It’s rather long, partly because it contains an insertion on Sam Harris and torture. Although younger readers will not remember the new atheists this is a reminder that they could be quite as nasty and silly as traditionalist Catholics. (more…)