Saturday, June 30, 2007

Even though...still Nature....

Even though violent men continue to murder people and blow things up in Iraq,
and even though the Bush Supreme Court continues to subvert our Constitution,
and even though Cheenie continues to insist he is a law unto himself,
and even though the police in New York continue to harrass teenagers,
and even though prosecutors continue to suppress evidence to convict the innocent,
and even though genocide continues in Africa and other places,
and even though journalists continue to be murdered in Russia,
and even though women continue to suffer genital mutilation and worse in primitive and not-so-primitive societies,
and even though children continue to be kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery in Asia and elsewhere,
and even though millions of children in America do not have health insurance,
and even though this list of atrocities could continue on and on,
and even though we ourselves continue to do little to oppose these evils*,
still Nature, be it mindless or God-mindful,
continues to unfurl on this Carolina morning.



___________________
* Grateful acknowledgment to my friend Tom Sheepandgoats, who recently reminded me that we individuals play our own part in opposing or failing to oppose evil:

"Two religions in Nazi Germany comprised 90% of the population. If even one of them (and certainly if both) had taken the same stand Jehovah's Witnesses took, Hitler would have gone down in history as a flailing, disruptive madman who wrought relatively little harm. If religion is maneuvered into atrocities by cynical people, as opposed to taking the inititive themselves...well, I guess that's a little better. But only a little. In such cases, religions have not committed a crime of commission. But they've committed a crime of omission, and the end result is pretty much the same.

"Religion should make one a decent, better, more peaceable person. If it does not, then one might reasonably ask: what good is it? Those atheists have a powerful point, in my opinion. Only problem is they paint with too broad a brush and throw the baby out with the bathwater."

I've added to my list of links (on the sidebar to the right) one to Tom's excellent web log, "Sheep and Goats."

Friday, June 29, 2007

No-sweat terrorism

I've begun to read my seventh or eighth David Lodge novel in the past two or three months. (I've lost count.) This one's Paradise News, and it's set in Hawaii. But I'm still in the airport in London watching the passengers board:
"What do they see in it, eh? What do they see in it?"
      Leslie Pearson, Senior Representative (Airport Reception) of Travelwise Tours plc, surveys the passengers swarming in the Departures Concourse of Heathrow's Terminal Four with an expression of mingled pity and contempt. It is mid-morning in the high summer season and, adding to the normal congestion, there is a security alert in operation, because of a recent plane crash thought to have been caused by sabotage. (Three different terrorist organizations have claimed responsibility, which means that at least two of them are trying to obtain a reputation for indiscriminate murder without exerting themselves....) [emphasis of classic David Lodge wit mine; p. 3]
Paradise News was published in 1991, not that terrorism (and lazy terrorists) haven't been with us a whole lot longer than ten years before 9-11-2001.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

First-person report of a miracle

Did you ever have read to you as a child the story about the poor family whose food needs were met by the acquisition of a magic bag of potatoes? It has always been one of my own personal favorites in the fairy tale genre. At numerous times in my life blessings seemed to be showering down on me in a way that just didn't seem "real," in the ordinary cause-effect way. They really seemed like miraculous times.

And I realized today that I've been experiencing a time like that right now. What reminded me of it was my wife's announcement when I got home from work that she'd bought another pot today. It seems that she makes such an announcement most days. I got a new pot today. I got a new plant. I got some new shirts today. Some new socks, some new clothes. Had that picture framed. Had the roof repairman come today. Took Wally to the groomer. Took him to the vet again. Got a new pot, some new plants.

You see, I know what my modest pension brings in a month. I know what my modest salary from the State of North Carolina is. There's no way I can pay for all of this stuff. It's a bona fide miracle. My pension check and my salary check must be going into a magic bag.

It's wonderful.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What counts as "religious tyranny"?

My friend Ed commented on yesterday's post that
There are many in this country that would go along with the killing of anyone that wrote against Jesus. Two months in the desert with only the Bible and I could have these same people blowing themselves up for the faith.
I don't think Ed means to say that he has actual experience exploiting certain "religious vulnerabilities." I think he's just pointing out that those vulnerabilities do exist, and they can be exploited. (Actually, the vulnerabilities may be a good deal more available than the religious context implies. "The Milgram Experiment" of the early 1960's* showed that there were enough ordinary people in the State of Connecticut to man all of the Nazis' concentration camps. That is, ordinary people could be manipulated appropriately to think that what they were doing was acceptable.)

So, the question I have now is whether all tyrannies involving people who are correctly categorized as religious are "religious tyrannies." I suspect that more than a few are, rather, cynical manipulations of religious people by other people whose motives are anything but religious. Do all of the "suicide bombers" among the Palestinians and the Sunnis blow themselves and their "enemies" up from truly religious motivation, or have they been hoodwinked by people whose true lust is for...political power...or revenge...or nationalism...or...?

Ditto for the Bush administration's cynical exploitation of the religious right wing's vote. The lust of Bush and Cheenie and Rove and DeLay seems to have been to establish a Republican Party hegemony lasting "for a thousand years" (to echo an appropriately fascist precedent).
_______________
* Written up recently in the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Religious tyranny"

On Sunday I wrote about people's "holding onto" religious beliefs to the extent of trying to foist various practices on others, and as an example I cited the furor in some parts of the world over the knighting of Salman Rushdie. An editorial in today's New York Times (titled "Honoring Rushdie") discusses that case and provides an excellent phrase for the very thing:
Salman Rushdie’s knighthood is causing a furor — especially in Pakistan and Iran — among Islamic extremists, who see it as an official state endorsement of a writer who has been anathema to them ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. And it has caused a few ripples of conscience in the West, too, a part of the world where writers are not routinely threatened with death but where we do try, often perplexedly, to respect the validity and the intensity of other people’s feelings.

Mr. Rushdie’s new honor raises the same question now that his work raised when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwah against him in 1989. Do we choose to live in a world that honors writers or in a world that kills them?

It is tempting to say that this is too simple a way to look at it. It’s possible to argue that our desire to protect free speech — and, in effect, do away with the very notion of literary heresy — is as much an acculturation as the desire to enforce religious orthodoxy. But the problem Mr. Rushdie raises is not about the origins of human belief. It is about the consequences of human belief and, specifically, the consequences of religious tyranny [emphasis mine].

The imaginative range of his work, its complexity and its ability to test the limits of what we know and believe entitle him to the respect and the honors he has earned. Yet in some parts of the world it would earn him assassination. You cannot judge a society only by the way it treats writers. But you can be certain that if a society treats writers badly, it treats ordinary people no better.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Middle Way

Yesterday my wife and I had brunch on our back porch with a lovely couple half our age who are both committed to helping people and making the world a better place. Each has a master's degree in social work. He also has a master's degree in divinity (and is an ordained minister) and she plans to pursue a doctorate in women's studies after completing her final year of law school.

After we'd eaten all of the pastries and drunk all of the coffee, the girls went to sit on the glider with Wally and we boys remained at the table and talked about what he was doing as a social worker in children's protective services. The cases he described were harrowing to me, young children who have already been so sexually damaged either from abuse directly suffered or from just being in a depraved environment that their prospects for ever attaining a more or less normal life seem bleak indeed.

I can't quite remember, alas, how we sequed onto religion, but I guess, given our backgrounds, that it was inevitable. I summarized for him my metaphysical principle that the seminal contradiction at the heart of the cosmos (God's freedom) makes all things possible, in particular miracles that contravene the laws of nature. And I recounted the walk on which my learned poet friend had stated that he "believed all things but held onto none." We agreed in endorsing "believing all things" as a necessary expression of what we might call religious humility. We don't know whether or not what we take on faith is so, nor do we know that what others take on faith is not so. Therefore, neither should we hold onto our articles of faith, nor should they hold onto theirs—"hold onto" in the sense that we or they combine forces and go into politics in order to force beliefs and practices onto anyone else.

Of course, that holding onto is happening to a very great extent in the world today. We've got the fundamentalist Christians in America banding together to help put an abomination like George W. Bush in the White House and Tricky Dick Deuce (as Maureen Dowd calls Dick Cheenie today in The New York Times) in the chair of the President of the United States Senate. We've got so-called Islamic jihadists blowing up things, including not only Americans who believe they're trying to help but also mosques and members of other Muslim sects. We've got imams provoked yet again by Salman Rushdie—this time by his being knighted—to call for reprisals against those associated with his knighting. Holding on, holding on. And believing nothing but that they and they alone are right.

You know already (if you've been reading me) that I don't agree with Christopher Hitchens that "religion poisons everything." But if any one thing does poison everything, I submit that it's that unwarranted holding onto things that we only believe but do not know. Hitchens attacks religion as being the primary repository of such beliefs. He may be right in that, but it's the holding onto (the trying to foist onto others) that is the problem, not the beliefs per se.

I told my young friend that I was reminded by this of Jesus's advice to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." In other words, keep your religious beliefs and practices out of politics. Yes, said my young friend. "For me, Jesus stands for a balance of the spiritual and the physical." He explained that the fundamentalist "hangers onto" are just one end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mystically oriented individuals who jump off into the spirit world and maybe even believe that they are "one with the universe." My friend knows about that, for he tried to swim out there for a couple of years himself. He said it's a dangerous place. The universe includes the food chain, "Nature red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson), and the death of suns and of any life on the planets in their orbit.

Pursuing the spiritual alone, he said, is like wading into quicksand. You'll be lost if you persist in going it alone. You need at least one friend (he recommends no fewer than five*) to keep you from going under. He now takes the middle way. As a social worker, he's helping individuals in dire need, recognizing that such victims will be produced in perpetuity unless there be a radical reformation of the cultural, educational, social, political system that now produces them.

I told him I doubted that such a reformation would ever happen. He reminded me, I said, of Loren Eiseley's "star thrower"—the man who rescued individual starfish stranded on the beach by throwing them back into the ocean. A scoffer told the man that there are millions of stranded starfish in the world and throwing one back into the ocean isn't going to make a difference. The man said it made a difference to the one starfish he threw back.
___________________
* Five may have been the minimum support group number recommended also by Paul Goodman in that 1960's debate I've described between Goodman and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. at Yale.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Morning Has Broken

...like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for the springing fresh from the word

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light, Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day [– Cat Stevens]
Good morning!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Venus Flytrap

The insect on this flower isn't so safe as the one on the Azalea yesterday....

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Some more of the story

I meant to add to yesterday's post, apropos the scene on the train in David's Lodge's semi-autobiographical novel Out of the Shelter, that my own traveling wet dream occurred when I was a few years older than Timothy Young. And I was on an airplane rather than a train. I don't think I had to change planes in Chicago, and the seat next to me came to be taken by a young woman who boarded there. She wasn't much older than I and—if my memory is not playing tricks on me,for how could I possibly really remember now?—her name was Arlette Blake. Anyway, she was friendly and attractive and it was clear from our conversation that I could fall in love with her, if I hadn't already. At length we joined the rest of the passengers in sleep over the Atlantic toward Reykjavik. When I awoke in the morning, the stain on my tan trousers, though unsettling, didn't embarrass me (I seem to remember) as much as it might have.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Out of the shelter

Growing up, a wise man once told me, requires that we cut the symbolic umbilical cord that binds us to our parents. We have to leave the shelter. In David's Lodge's early work, his semi-autobiographical novel Out of the Shelter, "the shelter" stands not only for that, but also for the literal bomb shelters that Lodge (and the book's hero, Timothy Young) experienced in London during World War II. While this work was not as easy to get into as Lodge's subsequent novels that I've read, I soon found myself identifying so much with Timothy's growing up that I have become fully engaged. At fourteen (in 1949), Timothy is on holiday at the beach with his parents:
There seemed to be nothing much to do except mooch about the pier playing the pinball machines. In one part of the pier they had machines that you looked into to see pictures of bare women. He walked past them every day, longing to have a look, but afraid that people would stare, or his parents come past by chance. One afternoon when there weren't many people about and his parents were listening to a concert at the bandstand, he sidled up to one of the machines, inserted a penny, and pressed his face to the viewer. The machine whirred and a succession of faded sepia photographs flicked past, depicting young women larking about on swings and seesaws. It was true that they were bare, but the parts you wanted to see had been blanked out. The hairstyles reminded him of snaps of his mother and her friends when she was young, in the album at home. He left the pier feeling both guilty and cheated, and went to sit on the beach.... [pp. 42-43]
And two years later, on a train going to visit his sister in Heidelberg:
The train picked up speed. The percussion of its wheels drummed in his ears, shifting in rhythm and resonance as it clattered over points and rumbled across bridges. He rolled and swayed unresistingly with its motion. He was dimly conscious that people were stepping over him, but he did not bother to move. It was the schoolgirls, going to the lavatory again. They stepped over him in a steady procession and he looking up under their skirts, at their dark blue knickers, with handkerchiefs tucked under the elastic. The girl with the black pony-tail had no knickers on. Unable to move forward, she straddled him, and he saw all the smooth pearl pink fissured wedge of flesh between her thighs and a delicious warmth welled up inside him and spilled over.... [p. 82]
Ah, those adolescent desires and fantasies!

Monday, June 18, 2007

"Self-discovery"

The title is a quote from my masthead. Something I said on Thursday made me think of it: "I don't seem destined to any 'final discovery,' except in the sense that it will be the last thing I discover before I die."

As usual, my thoughts on this come in two's. First, have I unconsciously believed that at some point on my journey I would discover who I am in some "final" sense, or have I known that I will only continue in a process of discovering new, little things...until I die?

But (second) there's an assumption implicit in "[final] in the sense that it will be the last thing I discover before I die." The assumption seems to be that I won't have an "afterlife." I don't know that I won't. And, if I will have an afterlife, then what I discover after I die might indeed be a "final discovery"....

Sunday, June 17, 2007

What we deserve, what we need

As I just commented back to the hugely talented artist who took the photo I artified for my masthead:
If [yesterday] was "a day off," it was only from blogging, alas. I worked most of the day and fairly late into the evening on an index for a book about to go to the printer. If my muse was trying to deliver something, I was too tired to hear her tapping. I went to bed bleary and dull, past all ability to index another term or to revisit yesterday's post. And I'm not sure I'm that much recovered this morning. I may "deserve" a day off, but I think I need a week of them—from indexing if not from blogging!
Perhaps I can finish the index today and be receptive to a tap from "MuseEx" by even-time.

..."God willing."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Will this be a day off?

I don't want to take the day off, but beyond saying that, I have nothing else to say at the moment. However, the way things have been going lately between me and my muse, I feel pregnant with the possibility that something might be delivered before this glorious day is out. My heart sings praise and I voice it: Praise!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Two Things

Two things about yesterday's post. First, I ought never to say "more about this later" and certainly never "more tomorrow." I'm not sure I'm ready to deliver! And, second, when I re-read the post last night, I could see that I probably hadn't explained anything, certainly not made it simpler. In fact, freedom may not be what I originally identified as the "seminal contradiction"; I think I got to freedom from something else. But I haven't gone back to read the thread of my own thought. Also, to explain this would require me to go over Russell's demonstration that the existence of a contradiction in a logical system enables you to prove anything whatsoever. And I would need to demonstrate that the principle can be extended to metaphysics—something I don't think Russell ever claimed. Let's set this aside for now.

And let me try now (late in the evening as I try to revise today's post) to deliver the "more" about my new way of interpreting writing about "God." I have the sense, as I start to read self-proclaimed atheist Hitchens, that I can confidently distinguish between his supportable criticisms of various religious practices and his unsupportable overall conclusion (obviously false) that "religion poisons everything" (from the subtitle of his book). I even wonder whether he really believes that, or is trying to sell more books. While I think it is undeniable that adherents of probably every religion, while thinking they acted at the religion's behest, have committed crimes against humanity, I no longer think that that justifies the conclusion that "faith must end" (to paraphrase Sam Harris's title), that religion is no good, or that God, therefore, does not exist.

It seemed to me yesterday that I got to this "new way of interpreting" from the fact that the point of view (POV) of every "God book" author is limited (including the authors of books of scripture, if I am right about their being the works of humans—see below for a late-breaking epiphany). Each author's POV is limited precisely because of the principle that "all things are possible" and they have necessarily taken a particular POV in writing their book. Readers have more freedom; they can always step back to gain a larger POV from which to see possibilities beyond those the author considered. (You're probably already looking beyond me, in fact...aren't you?) To take that larger POV, "all" we have to do is to "pretend to be God," so to speak. (I know, I know, we can't take God's POV, but we can move in that direction, the same as we can move in the direction of loving our enemies, even though we may not be able fully to imitate Jesus Christ's example.)

Ha! [The epiphany:] writing the last third of that paragraph suggested a sort of proof that the various scriptures cannot be "The Word of God." Just read them. Their POVs are extremely limited. If "God" wrote them, "he" was either fooling mankind or parodying "himself" (or doing something else, anyway, besides really telling us what's what).

This brief statement of my "new way of interpreting books about 'God'" is somewhat provisional. But everything I write is provisional—a work in progress on the road to discovery. I don't seem destined to any "final discovery," except in the sense that it will be the last thing I discover before I die.

Maybe I'm not the only one for whom this is true.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Once again

If I am right that freedom is the seminal contradiction that makes "all things possible," we have a fundamentally new way of interpreting the works of Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great, which I am currently reading). And a new way of interpreting scripture and the works of devout Hebrews, Christians, Muslims, and anyone else who writes about "God." More about that tomorrow.

But am I right about freedom? No one has challenged me on the point, but I suppose it could be because no one has understood me, or those who think they have understood me may simply think me insane.

In case I'm not being understood (and to give those who tend to think me insane more information on which to judge), let me try to explain it. The problem might be that my idea is simpler than they have supposed.

Are humans free? If we are, it means that we may act contrary to the causes that otherwise determine our actions and cause us to act in ways that are, in principle, predictable. That is, if we are free, then our actions are not completely determined. The fabric of causality has a tear in it. If we live in a cause-effect world, then when we exercise our freedom we perform a miracle.

But if we aren't free—if there are no miracles (as strict scientists contend), then...who's writing this? You might as well go have a beer or a cup of tea.

I'm not claiming that human freedom is the seminal contradiction of the Cosmos. Men and women are terrestrial beings—creatures of the Earth. It would be "God's" freedom that is the seminal contradiction that makes "all things possible" and makes it prudent for us to "believe all things" (rather than hold on to a particular dogma, especially one that might prompt us to stone to death or blow up people who believe otherwise).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hitting the books early

I woke up very early this morning. Last night, inadvertently, I made our after-dinner coffee with regular beans rather than the usual decaffeinated. While I had no difficulty going to sleep around 11:15, I did at some time in the night think about how Mormons don't as a rule drink coffee or tea, while Muslims of the desert put cardamon in theirs to make it more palatably bitter and...other manifestations of the Tower of Babel that seems to define life on earth. At around 3:30 I got up with the curious idea of looking at random in a book of "sacred literature" and seeing what I hit. I selected Stephen Mitchell's Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry:
            Eternity
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.
                        – William Blake
And, on the facing page, also from William Blake, the very lines I shared with Maliha only a couple of weeks ago, when we were discussing innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
I turned to go back to bed, but since that selection from Blake reminded me of Maliha, I decided to "get a hit" from the Qur'an. As I walked back to the bookshelf I imagined opening the book near one end. To ensure that I didn't consciously choose either the front or the back, I rotated the book with my eyes closed before opening it. It was the back, where my thumb covered the opening verse of Surah 58:
            She Who Disputes
...And God hears both your sides in an argument,
for God is all-hearing, all-seeing.
                        – Thomas Cleary translation

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Divine Aporia

I have long regretted that I didn't study much classical rhetoric in college. My knowledge of technical terms in poetics and prosody has barely kept me afloat as I've tried to tread water reading literary essays and criticism. So my interest was piqued last October when a young Hollywood screenwriter suggested I look at M. H. Abrams's Glossary of Literary Terms. And I've since discovered Chapel Hill's own English Professor William Harmon's Handbook to Literature. Not bedside reading for everyone, but I delight in both books.

This morning I had occasion to look up a technical term in Harmon, for last night I came across a passage in David Lodge's Nice Work that seemed to bear on my recent infatuation with seminal contradictions and their seeming to provide a ground for the concepts of "believing all things" and "all things are possible"—which, for me, are admirably expressed by Howard Nemerov's short poem that I am fond of citing1.

Robyn Penrose's term of shadowing Vic Wilcox under the Industrial Year Shadow Scheme has come to an end, but an inspired Vic has wangled an extension of the program by which he will now shadow Robyn. In the first of Robyn's tutorials that he will observe, the discussion has turned to a line from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" whose use of the word "grooves" seems to defy interpretation: "Let the great world spin for ever, the ringing grooves of change."
"It's an aporia," said Robyn. "A kind of accidental aporia, a figure of undecidable ambiguity, irresolvable contradiction. We know Tennyson intended an allusion to railways, and, as Helen said, we can't erase that knowledge...But we also know that railway trains don't run in grooves, and nothing that does run in grooves seems metaphorically adequate to the theme. As Simon says, trams aren't very poetic. So the reader's mind is continually baffled in its efforts to make sense of the line." [p. 243]
I turned to Harmon for more2:
Aporia: A difficulty, impasse, or point of doubt and indecision. Used to describe a species of irony in which a speaker expresses uncertainty but intends none, as in this sentence: "I don't know what scares me more—your stupidity or your dishonesty." Aporia has also been used by recent critics to indicate a point of "undecidability" in a text, which indicates the site at which the text most obviously dismantles or deconstructs itself.
I muse whether "God" intended the irony implicit in the seminal contradictions of the Cosmos (freedom, for example). The overarching "divine aporia" seems to be that in dismantling and deconstructing itself, Being creates and constructs all, including in the food chain and the inexorable opposition of Good and Evil, not to mention another that affects us all: the fact that because we were born we will also die.
_________________
  1. "Creation Myth on a Moebius Band":
    The world's just mad enough to have been made
    By the Being his beings into Being prayed.
  2. Fifth edition of A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poking or...loving?

Yesterday's excerpt from David Lodge's Nice Work revealed that Vic Wilcox was about to realize he was in love with Robyn Penrose. In Frankfurt for an industrial trade show, they talk about love:
Ever the teacher, Robyn is, of course, trying... to demystify "love."
    "I love you," he says, kissing her throat, stroking her..., tracing the curve of her....
    "No, you don't, Vic."
    "I've been in love with you for weeks."
    "There's no such thing," she says. "It's a rhetorical device. It's a bourgeois fallacy."
    "Haven't you ever been in love, then?"
    "When I was younger," she says, "I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love for a while, yes."
    "What the hell does that mean?"
    "We aren't essences, Vic. We aren't unique individual essences existing prior to language. There is only language."
    "What about this?" he says, sliding his hand....
    "Language and biology," she says, opening her...."Of course we have bodies, physical needs and appetites. My muscles contract when you touch me there—feel?"
    "I feel," he says.
    "And that's nice. But the discourse of romantic love pretends that your finger and my...are extensions of two unique individual selves who need each other and only each other and cannot be happy without each other for ever and ever."
    "That's right," says Vic. "I love your...with my whole self, for ever and ever."
    "Silly," she says, but smiles, not unmoved by this declaration. [pp. 209-210]
I think of the opening of The Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Is the world just mad enough to have been made by the Word the deconstructionists are trying to deconstruct?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Poke in the Ribs

Midway through David Lodge's industrially dark Nice Work, I'm finding it as solidly enjoyable as its prequels, Changing Places and Small World, and I'm glad that I'm only about half-way through his fictional oeuvre. And this morning, reading last week's New York Times Book Review's review of a new biography, I may have identified the next English writer for my list. From A. O. Scott's review of The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader:
Amis did leave behind a credo of sorts, in the form of the following set of rhymed and numbered propositions, the fourth and last in a series of "Poems about Oxford," composed in 1950:
Here is a list of things I have understood.

i. There are only two sorts of things, bad and good.
ii. When he gets the good, a man ought to be glad.
iii. When he gets the bad, a man ought to be sad.
iv. Some of the good are joking, smoking, soaking,
And (if you will permit the expression) poking.
v. In a bad place these are absent, or even banned.
vi. In a good place they are frequent, or ready to hand.
vii. And I want as much of them as I can stand.
Anyway, on pp. 148-149 of Lodge's Nice Work, Vic Wilcox's secretary continues to lobby her boss to use nude photographs of her daughter for a company advertising calendar:
"I believe Brian mentioned to you his idea for a Pringle's calendar," she said, hovering at his shoulder.
    "Yes," said Vic, "he did."
    "He said you weren't keen."
    "That's putting it mildly."
    "It would be a great chance for Tracey," said Shirley wistfully.
    "A great chance to degrade herself," said Vic, handing her the letter.
    "What d'you mean?" said Shirley indignantly.
    "You really want pictures of your daughter in the altogether stuck up on walls for anybody to look at?"
    "I don't see the harm...What about art galleries?"
    "Art galleries?"
    "They're full of nudes. Old masters."
    "That's different."
    "I don't see why."
    "You don't get blokes going into an art gallery and staring at a picture of Venus or whatever and nudging each other in the ribs saying, 'I wouldn't mind going through her on a Saturday night.'"
    "Ooh!" gasped Shirley, adverting her face.
    "Or taking the picture home to wank off with," Vic continued remorselessly.
    "I'm not listening," Shirley said, retreating rapidly to her office. "I don't know what's got into you."
    No more do I, Vic Wilcox thought to himself, feeling slightly ashamed of his outburst, as the door closed behind her. It was in fact several weeks before he realised that he was in love with Robyn Penrose.
Vic's social awareness has been aroused by his few weeks' association with his "shadow" from Rummidge University....

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Meaningful Coincidences

I admit that I left yesterday's post hanging there. I really need to say more about how and why we look for meaning in coincidences.
Could the precise mention of my 43rd birthdate be more than a meaningless coincidence? Is the only meaning it can have for me as reader whatever meaning I may care to invest in it? It appears that even if some occult shadow somehow engineered my being introduced to David Lodge and led me to this novel, where I would find the "birthday sign," its only more or less "objective" meaning would seem to be something elementary like, "Hey, pay attention!" I would still have to invent whatever further meaning there might be....
First, I point out that "meaning...for me as reader" is ambiguous. "As a reader"—that as, as an interpreter of a work of literature—I might have to acknowledge that the writer chose a particular date simply to support the plot. Within the world of the book, a particular date may have no "meaning" other than that.

So it was me as something other than reader who wondered whether there might be some occult significance in the date. This morning, in such "cold light of reason" as I can attain to, it seems fairly clear that in order to derive occult or any other "extra-textual" meaning from the experience of reading a book, I have to be disposed to look for it. And since the first thing I thought of looking for was that there might be a shadowy angel (some emissary of "God") trying to give me a message, it appears that my disposition might be to want to believe in angels, believe in "God," believe that "God" tries to communicate with people.

Coincidences have a way of getting our attention. So do anniversary years that end in zero (or, better yet, double-zero). We don't make a big deal about turning twenty-nine, but, oh, when we turn thirty! We ignore that the zero factor depends on the base of our number system for counting. Coincidences may have as little significance as that. All of the things that we experience as going on at the same time are occurring coincidentally. But we consider very few such pairings to be coincidences. Any date that Lodge contrived for a book set in the decade of my forties would have been coincident with some date or other in my life....

As far as being disposed to find "extra-textual" meaning in a book, what about Scripture? We'd better synchronize our understanding of that word by doing a dictionary check: "A sacred writing or book...A passage from such a writing or book."* I had actually expected to find that "Scripture" meant a "writing or book" thought to be "the Word of God." I'm relieved to find that it isn't so, because the given definition seems to support my sense that to interpret a particular Scripture as "the Word of God," you have to be disposed to do so.

I am already well on record elsewhere as not being so disposed. I am rather disposed to interpret all such books as the works of men, works written, edited, selected, translated, intepreted by men (or women, of course).

Yet...I do seem disposed to expect "God" to communicate with me in some way or other. Curious.

I guess the question (or "a question," anyway) is: Is such a disposition part and parcel of magical thinking? And nothing more, that is.
________________
* A New College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Shadow Scheme

Reading David Lodge's "academic romance" Small World was a delightful romp, but the opening of its sequel, Nice Work, stirred up some unhappy memories. Chapter 1 introduces Vic Wilcox, the Managing Director of a general engineering firm in Rummidge. He's reading the Daily Mail, preparing to go in to the office.
He turns to the City Pages. HOW TO GET UP A HEAD OF ESTEEM.
What has been designated Industry Year has got off to a predictably silly start. Various bodies in Manufacturing Industry are working themselves into one of their regular lathers about the supposed low social esteem bestowed upon engineers and engineering. [p. 11]
What this brought to mind for me was my own years of going to work everyday "in industry." Ironically, I could never accept that our society paid programmers more to communicate with computers in their elementary language than it paid the teachers of our children to communicate in the language that had been Shakespeare's.

The other major character is Robyn Penrose, a scholarly junior English faculty member at Rummidge University. She reminds me of my "road not taken" forty years ago, when I dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy and ended up at the International Business Machines Corporation. She represents for me what I might have been....

And then—as if to drive home the story's pertinence to me—the book mentions the precise date of my birthday during one of the darkest, most troubling of my years at IBM. Robyn's Head of Department (none other than Philip Swallow of "Swallow in Turkey") has just been reminded that his nomination "for the Industry Year Shadow Scheme" is due. He fishes from the bottom of his in-basket an unopened letter from the Vice Chancellor:
A Shadow, as the name implies, is someone who follows another person about all day as he goes about his normal work...Shadows will be asked to write a short report of what they have learned at the end of the exercise. Action: Nominations to teach the VC's Office by Wednesday 8th January, 1986. [p. 54]
Well, in case you haven't already guessed, Swallow nominates Robyn Penrose.

Could the precise mention of my 43rd birthdate be more than a meaningless coincidence? Is the only meaning it can have for me as reader whatever meaning I may care to invest in it? It appears that even if some occult shadow somehow engineered my being introduced to David Lodge and led me to this novel, where I would find the "birthday sign," its only more or less "objective" meaning would seem to be something elementary like, "Hey, pay attention!" I would still have to invent whatever further meaning there might be....

Thursday, June 7, 2007

"God is a concept"

My accomplished poet and novelist friend Michael H. told me that he loved the Nemerov quote:
...a real killer. A couple of others came to mind when I started thinking about it. One of which is E. A. Robinson (fine poet), who described the world as a giant kindergarten where millions of people were trying to spell "G-O-D" with the wrong blocks. The other quote that came to mind was from John Lennon, in his song "God":
God is a concept
by which we can measure
our pain.
I wonder what Lennon meant by that. Does the rest of the song throw any light on it?
I don't believe in magic,
I don't believe in I-ching,
I don't believe in bible...
I just believe in me,
Yoko and me...
Could it be that the pain in question was his own pain? If so, perhaps his not believing (his inability to believe?) was the source of it. For my friend Maliha, "God" is crucially "tied to purpose and meaning." "God" supplies a narrative by which to answer the big question, Why are we here? or What is the purpose of our existence? Maybe it was the same for Lennon, and he was in pain over not being able to find in "God" a reason or purpose for his life.

Michael continued:
Lastly, given our universal ineptitude when it comes to defining that which is clearly undefinable (since it transcends, by definition, all of our attempts to describe it), I always like to remember something Joseph Campbell was quick to reiterate in this regard—he who thinks he knows, doesn't know; he who knows that he doesn't know, knows.
And that reminds me of Robert Frost's little poem, "The Secret Sits":
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
            [From A Witness Tree, 1942]
Something may know, but we don't.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"God"

It struck me forcefully this morning that whenever we use the word "God," we really ought to put it in quotation marks, for who has the slightest, vaguest idea what he or she is talking about? Who has any idea at all, really, whoever or whatever "God" might signify?

Of course, those who have a handy "holy book" that for them spells it all out will say that they know very well who "God" is. He's the Being, for example, who created the world in six days and on the seventh day rested, etc.

Well, I formulated my views on that yesterday, in response to Maliha's excellent observation that "We all have our own narratives that help us make sense of the world and help us figure out our own place in the universe." I replied that I guess mine, at the moment, is that man created [the concept of] "God" and concocted a fabulous marketing campaign to convince the masses that it was the other way around. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has developed a stern regimen of "papal infallibility" to keep the troops in line. I guess it wasn't so much a "marketing campaign" as a political power play.

Maliha also observed that a person's background affects the way he or she perceives the world. I suspected, in my case, that my distrust of authority must be among the most salient factors influencing me. Papal infallibility, of course, works really well into my anti-authoritarian strain.

Ironically (or maybe just naturally) it was the authoritarian weight of the Bush administration's pandering to the American religious right that seems to have provoked my current reexamination of religion and my relationship to it....

Whether or not Howard Nemerov was right that
The world's just mad enough to have been made
By the Being his beings into Being prayed*
I myself do seem mad enough for something...yet to be determined.
_______________
* That's Nemerov's poem "Myth of Creation on a Moebius Band" in its entirety.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Swallow in Turkey

Ankara, circa 1980

Last weekend I discovered the funniest (not R-rated) passage yet in the work of David Lodge, this from his comic novel Small World: An Academic Romance. In Ankara to deliver two papers on a British Council tour, Philip Swallow's host is Akbil Borak, who was educated in England. The evening of the day of Philip's arrival, Akbil's wife tells her husband not to go to sleep yet:
"I want to hear about your day. Did Professor Swallow arrive safely?"
      "Yes, the plane was only a little late. I went with Mr Custer in the British Council car to meet him....Then we went to Anitkabir to lay a wreath on Ataturk's tomb."
      "Whatever for?"
      "Mr Custer thought it would be a nice gesture. And a funny thing happened. I will tell you." Akbil suddenly shed his drowsiness at the memory, and propped himself up on one elbow to tell Oya the story. "You know it is quite an awe-inspiring experience, the first time you go to Anitkabir. To walk down that long, long concourse, with the Hittite lions and the other statues, and the soldiers standing guard on the parapets, so still and silent they look like statues themselves, but all armed. Perhaps I should not have told Professor Swallow that it was a capital offence to show disrespect to the memory of Ataturk."
      "Well, so it is."
      "I said it as a kind of joke. However, he seemed to be very worried by the information. He kept saying, 'Is it all right if I blow my nose?' and 'Will the soldiers be suspicious of my limp?'"
      "Does he have a limp?"
      "Since he fell down at the airport he has a slight limp, yes." [Turkey was then in a sorry state, roads in disrepair, service workers on strike, power shortages....] "Anyway, Mr Custer told him, 'Don't worry, just do exactly as I do.' So we march down the concourse, Mr Custer in front carrying the wreath, and Professor Swallow and I following in step, under the eyes of the soldiers. We swung left into the Great Meeting Place, very smartly, just like soldiers ourselves, and approached the Hall of Honour. And then Mr Custer had the misfortune to trip over a paving stone that was sticking up and, being impeded by the wreath, fell onto his hands and knees. Before I could stop him, Professor Swallow flung himself to the ground and lay prostrate like a Muslim at prayer."
      Oya gasped and giggled. "And what happened next?"
      "We picked him up and dusted him down again." [They'd "dusted him down" at the airport, after he stepped into a deep rut and fell down.] "Then we laid the wreath and visited the museum. Then we went back to the British Council office to discuss Professor Swallow's programme. He must be a man of immense learning."
      "Why do you say that?"
      "Well, you know that he has come here to lecture on Hazlitt because it was the centenary last year. The other lecture he offered was on Jane Austen, and only our fourth-year students have read her books. So we asked the British Council if he could possibly offer a lecture on some broader topic, such as Literature and History, or Literature and Society, or Literature and Philosophy..." Akbil Borak yawned and closed his eyes. He seemed to have lost the thread of his story.
      "Well?" said Oya, poking him impatiently in the ribs with her elbow.
      "Well, apparently the message was somewhat garbled in the telex transmission. It said, please would he give a lecture on Literature and History and Society and Philosophy and Psychology. And, do you know, he agreed. He has prepared a lecture on Literature and Everything. We had a good laugh about it."
      "Professor Swallow laughed?"
      "Well, Mr Custer laughed the most," Akbil conceded.
      "Poor Professor Swallow," Oya sighed. "I do not think he had a very nice day."
      "In the evening it was better," said Akbil. "I took him to a kebab restaurant and we had a good meal and some raki. We talked about Hull."
      "He knows Hull?"
      "Strangely, he has never been there," said Akbil. "So I was able to tell him all about it."
      He turned onto his side, with his back to Oya, and pulled the quilt over his shoulders. Accepting that he would not talk any more, Oya settled herself to sleep. She stretched out a hand to switch off the bedside lamp, but, an instant before her fingers reached the switch, the light went out of its own accord.
      "Another power cut," she remarked to her husband. But he was already breathing deeply in sleep.
      ...Philip Swallow woke suddenly in his hotel room in Ankara with all the symptoms of incipient diarrhoea. It was pitch dark. He groped for the lightswitch on the wall about his head and pressed it, with no result. Bulb gone, or power cut? Sweating, feverish, he tried to recall the geography of the room. His briefcase was on a dressing-table facing the end of the bed. About three yards to the right of that was the door to the bathroom. Carefully he got out of bed and, tightening his sphincter muscle, felt his way along the edge of the bed until he reached the foot of it. With his arms extended in front of him like a blind man, he searched for the dressing-table, but it was his big toe that located this piece of furniture first. Whimpering with pain, he delved in his briefcase for his makeshift toilet paper, and shuffled along the wall like a rock-climber until he came to the bathroom door. [Warned to bring toilet paper from home but forgetting until the last minute and discovering there was none at home, he'd packed some scratch paper.] He tried the lightswitch inside without effect. A power cut, then. Sink to the left, toilet beyond it. Ah, there, thank God. He lowered himself on to the toilet seat and voided his liquefied bowels. A foul smell filled the darkness. It must have been the kebab, or, more likely, the salad that accompanied it. Still, at least he had managed to get to the loo in time, in spite of the power cut.
      Philip began to wipe himself. When the lights came on of their own accord he found he was up to page five of his lecture on "The Legacy of Hazlitt." [pp. 180-181, 190]
Listening to this on tape in bed early Sunday morning, I tried to suppress my laughter so as not to disturb my wife. At breakfast, I summarized the whole passage for her, and she and I both nearly choked laughing.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Character Check-In

Heathrow, circa 1980

Morris Zapp's flight from Midlands has landed outside London in David Lodge's comic novel Small World: An Academic Romance, which now prepares the scene for Morris's departure for Milan:
The job of check-in clerk at Heathrow, or any other airport, is not a glamorous or particularly satisfying one...Cheryl Summerbee, a checker for British Airways in Terminal One at Heathrow, did not, however, complain of boredom. Though the passengers who passed through her hands took little notice of her, she took a lot of notice of them. She injected interest into her job by making quick assessments of their characters and treating them accordingly. Those who were rude or arrogant or otherwise unpleasant she put in uncomfortable or inconvenient seats, next to the toilets, or beside mothers with crying babies. Those who made a favourable impression she rewarded with the best seats, and whenever possible placed them next to some attractive member of the opposite sex. In Cheryl Summerbee's hands, seat allocation was a fine art, as delicate and complex an operation as arranging blind dates between clients of a lonelyhearts agency. It gave her a glow of satisfaction, a pleasant sense of doing good by stealth, to reflect on how many love affairs, and even marriages, she must have instigated between people who imagined they had met by pure chance. [p. 114]

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Airport Security

English Midlands, circa 1980

The Rummidge literary conference described in the opening sections of David Lodge's comic novel Small World: An Academic Romance is over, and the professor from Euphoric State is off to another:
A small line of people standing by for seats on the flight to Heathrow looks anxiously at Morris Zapp as he marches up to the British Midland desk and dumps his suitcase on the scales. He checks it through to Milan, and is directed to Gate Five. He goes to the newstand [sic] and buys a copy of The Times. He joins a long line of people shuffling through the security checkpoint. His handbaggage is opened and searched. Practised fingers turn over the jumble of toiletries, medicines, cigars, spare socks, and a copy of Hazlitt and the Amateur Reader by Philip Swallow. The lady making the search opens a cardboard box, and small, hard, cylindrical objects, wrapped in silver foil, roll into the palm of her hand. "Bullets?" her eyes seem to enquire. "Suppositories," Morris Zapp volunteers. Few privacies are vouchsafed to the modern traveller. Strangers rifling through your luggage can tell at a glance the state of your digestive system, what method of contraception you favour, whether you have a denture that requires a fixative, whether you suffer from haemorrhoids, corns, headaches, eye fatigue, fatulence, dry lips, allergic rhinitis and premenstrual tension. Morris Zapp travels with remedies for all these ailments except the last. [p. 102]

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Magical Thinking

In 1990, after I came down with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and its usually associated depression, I started seeing a psychotherapist. My "Youie Summer" of 1989 was then still recent and powerful in my psyche, so naturally I told him about it: the marvelous coincidences I had experienced, the wondrous signs I had seen. How taken aback I was when he characterized my experiences as "magical thinking." It had never occurred to me that that was a psychiatric term:
A conviction that thinking equates with doing. Occurs in dreams in children, in primitive peoples, and in patients under a variety of conditions. Characterized by lack of realistic relationship between cause and effect.*
Of course, now that I've suggested that much of our thinking about God amounts to magical thinking, I'm wondering if it really is. And I'm wondering in what sense much of the thinking we humans engage in every day as we try to stay afloat might also be "magical thinking" in the psychiatric sense. _____________________ * John F. Abess, M.D., his Glossary of Terms in the field of Psychiatry and Neurology. Note to myself: read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.

Friday, June 1, 2007

PTL xxxx

When I saw the North Carolina license plate "PTL xxxx" this morning, I thought of the club started by the televangelicals Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1970's. "PTL" stood for "Praise The Lord." The late Jerry Falwell even got involved after the club fell on hard times owing to Jim's drugging and raping a church secretary. According to Wikipedia,
The September 21, 1987 issue of Time Magazine noted that Jerry Falwell "plunged" down a 163-foot "hellish" water slide in fulfillment to "a promise made during a fund-raising drive that netted $20 million for the debt-ridden PTL."
And PTL reminded me of a placard on the wall of my sister Mary's guest room: "Praise the Lord...anyway." That is, Praise the Lord not only because something good has happened to you (you're still alive, for example), but even though someone else may have been raped, murdered, or killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq....

We silly, magic-believing humans want God to be good. And for the bad that God is probably responsible for (if He, She, or It is responsible for other stuff), we make up reasons why that's really good too. Someone's got to die to make room on the planet, for example. One animal has to be slaughtered if another is to eat. Eat meat, anyway. Humans need bad stuff to happen so that they can have "learning experiences." Nevermind if the ones who get crushed under a bus flunk the exam immediately. Stuff happens, and they get to take a make-up in the afterlife. Maybe other animals don't get that second chance, but...well, they don't really feel pain anyway, right? Et cetera, et cetera.

I actually started thinking about this before I saw the "PTL" license plate. When I woke up this morning, my book tape player had of course gone all of the way to the end after I fell asleep last night listening to David Lodge's Small World: An Academic Romance. I figured I might as well wake up by listening to a few more "pages" before I got up. (I certainly didn't feel like springing out of bed yet—not that I feel that way often anymore, alas.)

I didn't know at what spot on Side 3* of the tape I'd fallen asleep (that is, approximately how many seconds I might need to rewind), so I tried to tune in to "my spirit self," which never sleeps and observes everything, and sense when he (or it? or she?) was telling me to stop. When I felt something, I stopped the rewind and, sure enough, I was at a spot I sort of remembered listening to not long before I fell asleep. It had worked again.

Whenever it "hadn't worked," I'd always thought that I had failed to tune in and so didn't sense when my spirit self was telling me to stop. But what I got to thinking this morning was that my expectation that my spirit self wouldn't try to trick me (that is, wouldn't lie to me) might be a false expectation. What if he let the tape run all the way back without saying anything to me at all? What if he said it almost instantly and kept saying it as I inched my way back? In fact, might this have been what was happening on certain occasions...?

And what if God plays tricks on us? He certainly seemed to play them on the other folks who didn't wake up this morning (or on those who died yesterday and didn't even get to go to sleep last night, and especially on the Iraqis and on the Americans that Bush keeps sending to Iraq for whatever his reason is this week).

Or, to "simplify" things (although I don't understand how it could possibly make things simpler), what if there isn't any spirit self, and what if God doesn't exist? What if there are other reasons or agencies—chance, neuronal activity, who knows what?

But we'd probably still believe in magic.
___________________
* This special recording medium from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped has four sides packed at half-speed (15/16 inches per second) on each cassette tape.