Wednesday, 31 December 2014
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Tuesday, 11 November 2014
Friday, 7 November 2014
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Monday, 3 November 2014
Poseurs, frauds and pseuds have taken over philosophy
The elegant writers of old are gone, says Patrick West. Now philosophy is full of exhibitionist gobbledygook
Philosophy at 3:AM
by Richard Marshall
What’s the point of philosophers these days? Not much, if you ask your average lay person or journalist. Philosophy, most of us would say, has become arcane, obscure, too technical and trivial. Such a perception was made manifest during the notorious Alan Sokal hoax of 1996, when the scientist concocted an essay of pure gibberish and successfully submitted it to an academic journal. It seemed to confirm the view that modern philosophy has become obscurantist, and a repository for frauds and pseuds.
It’s this impression that Philosophy at 3:AM seeks both to explain and to redress. Based on the cultural/literary website 3ammagazine.com, it’s a collection of question-and-answer interviews with 25 contemporary philosophers of all hues, from metaphysicians and logicians to ethicists and linguists.
The cry that “philosophy has become too obscure” is akin to “the young are badly behaved” or “our language is becoming debased” – it’s ancient and eternal. Sure, modern analytical philosophy can seem overly technical, and the continental variety can veer into exhibitionist gobbledygook. This appears especially so when you compare both schools to the beautiful literary philosophy of yore: Camus, Freud, Nietzsche, Rousseau.
But there has always been dry, technical philosophy: Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hume’s Treatise, Aristotle, Aquinas and Hegel. As the America metaphysician Eric T Olson argues here: “Philosophy is hard. That’s its nature. No one would expect serious works of physics or mathematics or economics (as opposed to popularisations) to be immediately accessible to intelligent readers with no training in the subject. Why should philosophy be any different?” Philosophy at 3:AM thus emerges less as a book on philosophy than one about it. And here lies a problem – or perhaps the problem.
I’m not sure a lay reader would want to read a book in which philosophers talk about their own discipline. Such navel-gazing only seems to reinforce the perception that philosophers are out-of-touch. This collection is thus a symptom of the problem it’s trying to address.
The use of the impersonal female pronoun from the outset is a case a point. When speaking hypothetically, I would prefer an alternating “he” or “she”, or even a “s/he”, to a question-raising, flow-stopping impersonal “she” and “her”. Keep it simple: the first rule of good writing. There is also the name-dropping. “Philosophical enquiry,” asks one philosopher, “is that the sort of thing Aristotle and Hume were doing, or the sort of thing that Kripke and Gettier were doing?” The last two are hardly household names. Add to this, the often sycophantic tone of the interviewer: “Your ideas blow away many so-called radicals such as Foucault, and your conclusions, couched in very cool, precise language, belie their corrosive impact...” Yuk!
It’s a pity, because if you persevere, there is much interesting matter here. Patricia Churchland suggests that moral behaviour preceded religion by 200,000 years and religions evolve into monotheism – yet Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists continue to live without deities.
While Gary Gutting rightly derides Derrida’s writing as needlessly obscure and repetitive, he defends him as a serious and valuable philosopher. The meaning of words are forever unstable, and we shouldn’t be afraid to accept this. Brian Leiter dismisses Derrida as a “poseur”, while standing up for Foucault, who diagnosed how “individuals in the modern era become agents of their own oppression”. To be sure, Foucault belongs to the category of seductive literary philosopher, but it was Freud who first truly elaborated how people internalise rules, becoming the oppressors of themselves.
Eric T Olson explores the Theory of Forms using the tale of Theseus, the mythical king of Athens who builds a ship and goes to sea. He occasionally returns to port to replace the ship’s worn pieces until eventually every one of them has been exchanged. In the meantime, the local museum has been collecting the cast off pieces, which it manages to assemble just as they were when Theseus first set sail. So there are now two ships: the repaired ship at sea and the reconstructed ship in the museum. Which of the two is Theseus’s original ship? Olson concludes that both are.
Michael Lynch regrets the rejection of objective truth in modern philosophy. “It is not just a metaphysical mistake; it is a political one,” he says, while Graham Priest delves into motion, contradiction and paradox: “For something to be in motion is not for it to be in one place and one time, and another at another, but at one and the same time to both be and not be in a place.” It can indeed be difficult to resolve place and movement: this is why prepositions are so different and difficult in foreign languages (in Italian you say you are “at” a city, irrespective of whether you are going there or situated there; and you say you are “in” a country whether you are heading or actually there).
Finally, Eric Schwitgebel asks why professors of ethics slam doors, talk rudely during presentations, leave behind rubbish at their seats – and why among university libraries, textbooks on ethics are stolen more than the average.
This is all very interesting, but it’s also very bitty. What could have been a good book is ruined by its presentation in a deeply unsatisfactory format.
The Middle Ages make us look uncivilised
We're told the medieval era was full of flat-earthers, witch-drowning and deaths by Iron Maiden. But that's pure fiction, says Patrick West
It’s customary among journalists today to describe barbaric and senseless behaviour as “medieval”, and the reaction to recent beheadings at the hands of Islamists in the Middle East has been no exception. In the Times Matthew Syed applied the word to Islamic fundamentalists’ treatment of women, while a Daily Express headline spoke of “The chilling medieval society Isis extremists seek to impose in Iraq”. Perhaps Pulp Fiction is to blame. In Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Marcellus Wallace famously exclaims: “I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”, reinforcing the cliché of the Middle Ages as an era of savagery. Still, today’s hacks do history no favours by repeating this lazy and misguided stereotype.
If only Islam in the Middle East would return to medieval values. A thousand years ago, the Muslim world was far more civilised than Christendom, with Islamic civilisation the torchbearer in the fields of chemistry, medicine and astronomy. Though relatively backwards by comparison, Christian Europe was relatively free of ISIS-style extremism and barbarism. Religious fringe movements such the Lollards in England or the Anabaptists in Germany were either short-lived, tolerated or expelled to the New World.
Islamic State-style religious extremism was not a feature of the medieval era, but rather of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. It was the 16th and 17th centuries that saw Puritanism, the Inquisition, the massacre of Huguenots and Irish Catholics, witch-drowning, the burning of heretics and holy wars across Europe. The Middle Ages were relatively civilised by comparison. Indeed, medieval Canon Law stated that witches didn’t exist.
Of course, journalists alone aren’t wholly to blame here. We’ve all been subject to this myth of medieval barbarism ever since the Renaissance, and Europe’s consequent desire to depict the interregnum between the Fall of Rome and its rebirth as a dank and brutish time.
The Victorians reaffirmed this caricature in contradistinction to their own times (albeit with a large element of romanticism – hence the Gothic Revival). They created the legend that it was common belief in the Middle Ages that the world was flat. As J B Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth, Columbus and Modern Historians (1991) explains, the Greeks determined that the Earth was a sphere by 500 BC. Most educated European maintained this to be true thereafter. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave the globe’s spherical nature as a standard example of scientific truth.
While Aquinas did ponder in his great work “whether several angels can be in the same place at the time”, neither he nor any other medieval scholar agonised over whether how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The first reference to this comes in 1618 (by a Protestant). There was no taboo on dissection in the Middle Ages (a practice imported from the Middle East), and spices weren’t added to mask the foul taste of rotten meat: such spices from the Orient were vastly expensive and instead the practice of smoking, curing and salting was widespread. That quintessentially “medieval” torture device the Iron Maiden was an 18th-century invention, the first citation of it being in 1793.
The Church and monks in Ireland preserved knowledge of Roman civilisation. It was the Church that helped to establish the first universities in Bologna, Oxford and Paris. The medieval era also gave us writers that are still read today: Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch and Machiavelli.
The Church was not the censorious tyrant of Hollywood legend. As the historian David Linberg writes: “The late medieval scholar rarely experienced the coercive power of the church and would have regarded himself as free (particularly in the natural sciences) to follow reason and observation wherever they led.” Again, it was later, darker era that saw the Church become more intolerant: Copernicus wasn’t persecuted in the 16th century, but Galileo, in the 17th century, was.
While some Muslims and Christians are prone to dwell on the dogmatism and brutality of the Crusades, it was these adventures in the Holy Land that brought Christendom into contact with Muslim advances in science and technology – not least with what we today call Arabic numerals. The medieval epoch was a thoroughly outward looking one. In 986AD the Icelandic seafarer Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to spot America, while Leif Erikson was the first to set foot on it.
In more recent times, film and television, from Braveheart to Game of Thrones, has perpetuated the popular misunderstanding that the Middle Ages was a time of constant fighting, bloodshed, torture and execution. In reality, the most common forms of punishment in Europe were exile, public humiliation and fines. When execution did take place it was usually through hanging rather than beheading – a fate reserved only for the nobility and rarely the public spectacle of lore. In England, medieval civilisation also saw the institution of trial by jury.
Of course it’s easy to swing the other way, as did G K Chesterton and 19th-century anarchists, romanticising the Middle Ages, and depicting it is as an era of agrarian simplicity, freedom, chivalry and banquets. Nevertheless, to brand something abhorrent as “medieval” is a historical hangover from the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Such arrogance and lofty thinking is particularly misplaced considering the violent world we live in today or of the horrors of the last century. That which we abhor as uncivilised and abominable should really be called “Baroque” – or perhaps “20th century”.
Patrick West is a columnist for spiked-online.com
The Iron Duke needed a little help from his friends
Patrick West on a book that shows that Britain actually had a rather minor role in the great Battle of Waterloo
By Gordon Corrigan
Atlantic Books, £30
A common complaint made by First World War historians is that our perception of that conflict has become distorted by Blackadder Goes Forth. This was the 1980s comedy that reinforced the poets’ narrative that it was a needless and horrific conflict conducted with great incompetence and callousness. Yet Blackadder was equally guilty of reinforcing another stereotype: that of the Duke of Wellington being an aloof autocrat. In Blackadder the Third, set in the Regency, Stephen Fry interprets Arthur Wellesley as a overbearing bully who enjoys thrashing his servants and duels with canon (“only girls fight with swords”), and whose guiding principle for leadership is to “shout, shout and shout again”.
We have read and heard much about the First World War in this centenary year. No doubt we will hear much about the Duke of Wellington – and Napoleon – next year: the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. So it is timely to deflate some of the common misconceptions surrounding the Iron Duke and the battle itself.
Far from being the bellicose boor of Stephen Fry’s incarnation, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a cautious and conscientious figure, who was willing to be at one with his troops on the field of battle. “He planned meticulously and well understood the importance of logistics, of being able to feed, house, tend and transport an army,” writes Gordon Corrigan in Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and Its Armies. Wellington was a calm, methodical leader, and it was his consequent victorious track record in Iberia that had won him the position as head of the Anglo-Dutch army.
Corrigan is eager to puncture another illusion: that Waterloo was essentially a British victory. The British were actually a minority in the Anglo-Dutch coalition of 110,000 men, which in turn was smaller than the 117,000 Prussian force. The Russians were to provide 150,000 and the Austrians close to 300,000, but by the time both were close enough to take part the fighting was over. Britain’s main contribution was £5m and the Royal Navy’s blockade. And at Waterloo, were it not for the late arrival of the Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher, Napoleon might have triumphed.
So how did this victory come to be perceived as a typically British affair? Hindsight and subsequent Anglo-German relations, argues Corrigan. The year 1815 marks the start of the British Century and the last throw of a French imperial era. Between the two world wars of the next century, and after the second, there was little incentive to credit the Germans with anything. Most books on Waterloo after 1945 were allegorical. In writing of the gallant, outnumbered and outgunned British holding the foe until the last, before defeating the mighty dictator and thus saving the world from tyranny, they actually spoke of a much more recent conflict.
Waterloo is not all historiography. Far from it. It’s an old-fashioned romp, in which the emphasis is on detail, tactics and character rather than theory or grand narrative. The lack of primary sources will disappoint the more rigorous reader and orthodox historian. But as this book is primarily a yarn, it doesn’t really matter.
Inevitably, the author compares and contrasts Napoleon and Wellington. Both were born in the same year in peripheral parts of their nations. Both were the product of feckless fathers and domineering mothers, and rose through sheer ability and minimum of patronage. But here the comparisons end. In contrast to the prudent Wellington, Bonaparte was a gambler and opportunist who was careless with the lives of his troops.
Corrigan doesn’t, however, cast the battle as a simple duel. Blücher emerges not merely as a first-rate leader, but also as the most colourful of the three commanders: “A quaffer of copious quantities of gin and brandy, Blücher would swig coffee, munch raw onions and smoke a huge meerschaum pipe as he rode along”.
We later learn of Blücher and Wellington’s first encounter after victory. With both generals on horseback, Blücher threw his arms about Wellesley then kissed him. We also discover that only 10 per cent of British officers had been commissioned from the ranks. The bulk of officers were of the middle classes, educated at grammar schools and the sons of professional men. More revealing still is the number of English and Irish Catholics in the British Army, making up 20 per cent by the time of Waterloo. This preponderance was due to the anti-Catholicism that had been institutionalised in 1688.
While the ban on Catholics joining the Army was lifted in 1741, they were still debarred from holding any “office of profit under the crown”. But this wasn’t enforced in the Army, as long as they didn’t make ostentatious displays of their faith. As a consequence, the Army became one of the few outlets for a Catholic gentlemen. This legacy continues today: in 2012 Catholics made up slightly more than eight per cent of the population but 20 per cent of Army officers. So much for disloyal papists.
More sensitive readers might flinch at the passages on amputation, while perhaps the most appalling disclosure is that riflemen deliberately picke out drummer boys. They were deemed so important because when shouted orders were drowned out by ambient noise signals were given by the beat of a drum.
The Battle of Waterloo is further demystified when we read of looters on the field in its aftermath. Wounded men who tried to resist thieves had their throats slit.
Corrigan’s manner can be a bit gruff. There is a non-sequitur complaining about the RSPCA and a breezy comment about the French soldier’s predilection for rape sits uneasily. His use of “England” to mean Britain is felicitous to historical usage, but it’s just plain wrong to the modern ear. Nevertheless, Waterloo is a hugely enjoyable, illuminating and very gory read.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
Tuesday, 9 September 2014
Sunday, 7 September 2014
Tuesday, 22 July 2014
Even bishops are forgetting the community
Notebook, Patrick West
Whenever an Anglican bishop makes the headlines, I find it hard not to think of Dr Spacely-Trellis, the fictitious Bishop of Bevendon. The monstrous creation of the Daily Telegraph’s late Michael Wharton, he was the trendy, go-ahead cleric who wants to jettison such “outmoded” ideas as belief in the Immaculate Conception, the Trinity, the Resurrection and so on.
The latest real-life candidate is the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, who has called for an end to mandatory collective worship in schools. The 70-year-old legal requirement belongs more to the 1940s, he says, than to a 21st-century Britain in which Christianity is but one faith among many (and none).
The comparison with Wharton’s grotesque is admittedly a little unfair. One of the Church of England’s greatest merits is that it’s never really been literal-minded. My father, for example, would always conscientiously go to St Giles-in-the-Fields in central London to sing hymns and hear sermons about the Somme, and he still enjoys Songs of Praise. But like many church-goers, he’s never been especially interested in the theological aspect of religion. And like many conservative Anglicans, he is suspicious of Evangelical "do-gooder” types.
To my father, being an Anglican and singing hymns is merely part of being an Englishman. And now that the Irish community in England has to all intents completely assimilated, a similar case could be made for the ritualistic, congregational, community-centred nature of English Catholicism.
In my mind, the real problem with religion, and indeed atheism, is when it forgets its communal role and starts to become too literal-minded. Witness the wilful ignorance of young earth creationists or bellicose homophobes who cherry pick Leviticus – or, even worse, intolerant Islamism. Richard Dawkins’s reported disapproval of telling children fairy tales is a milder version of this mindset, as is the Bishop of Oxford’s opinion on daily prayer in schools. Both the bishop and Dawkins overlook the role of communal ritual, religious narrative and England’s Christian heritage.
Far from creating imaginary divisions, daily acts of communal ritual bind people together. As Jonathan Sacks argued in his splendid 2009 book, The Homes We Build Together, the best way to bring people together is encourage them to do things together. This is the key to creating harmony in a multi-ethnic country such as ours – not to “respect” or “celebrate” difference, but rather to ignore difference.
Of course. a lot people do take their theology very seriously. But my hunch, as an ex-atheist, born-again agnostic, is that most Catholics and Anglicans go to church on a Sunday more for the ritual, the stories, the sense of community and the sheer mental escape, rather than for answers to the big questions. Even religious groups who aren’t big on theology, such as the Quakers, recognise the importance of communal ritual.
I have a friend, who now works on the Guardian, whose Hindu parents came from India, and yet he attended a Quaker school in Reading. He’s an exemplar of how multicultural Britain is a success story when we don’t make a fuss about cultural difference, but instead concentrate on what we have in common. A basic Christian daily ritual offends only attention-seeking self-flaggellants.
This brings me to another fictitious cleric, Fr Dougal Maguire from Father Ted who, when asked his thoughts about religion, replied: “Ah, come on. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” Most of you wouldn’t agree, of course, but these words are worth thinking about the next time you’re at Mass: the very act of communal prayer might sometimes be as important as what is said during it.
Tuesday, 15 July 2014
The year that propelled Britain into the future
In 1846 the country was on the cusp of modernity, but have we really changed that much, asks Patrick West
Penny Loaves & Butter Cheap, Britain in 1846
BY STEPHEN BATES
HEAD OF ZEUS, £25
The recent European elections highlighted a significant divide in this country, of that between London and the rest of England, between a liberal metropolitan class and a UKIP-voting middle-class and lower-middle class uneasy with mass immigration and the European Union. We had grown accustomed to the notion that Britain was becoming an ever more disparate country - what with the spectre of Scottish independence - yet now there was the realisation that London is a very different place to the rest of England, what with its moneyed aristocracy and low-paid workforce from overseas.
As Stephen Bates new publication, 1846, explains, there was a comparable conflict between an uncouth bourgeoisie and a nobility in the mid-part of the 19th century - one that pitted the landed gentry against uppity northern industrialists. If debate today often centres on the influx and movement of people, in the 1840s it was the importation of food, and more specifically, corn. The new industrialists sought free trade and the end to tariffs - the Corn Laws - in order that their workforce eat more cheaply, while landowners strove to resist any change that would be detrimental to its already increasingly precarious position.
The passing of the gentry's power to the industrialists is one many themes in Bates's snapshot of the year 1846, when Britain was at the height of the Industrial Revolution, and on the cusp of modernity. And its a testament to the author that he has managed to make the Anti-Corn Law League debate interesting, so sullied is its reputation (in my eyes) by history lessons of yore.
The collision between old and new money took many forms. Many aristocrats, such as the "prickly and self-righteous" Lord Ashley, later Lord Shaftesbury, were of a highly moral, evangelical persuasion. Disgusted at the new "Millocracy" they believed that factories subverted and destabilised the social order, and actually exploited the workers, unlike the paternalistic aristocracy. There was also the belief that they were inimical to Christianity, and promoting godlessness and even Papism.
Yet, some industrialists could be just as paternalistic-minded. Bates takes the example of the Ashworths of Bolton, who at their cotton-spinning factory provided workers housing, holidays and education, while paying them sufficiently high wages so that their wives didn't have to work. In return, they insisted on cleanliness - a change of shirt twice a week - attendance at church or chapel every Sunday, sobriety and sexual morality.
If the 1840s was marked by a rise in evangelicalism in Britain, it was also a distinguished era for the High Church and Catholicism. It saw the emergence of the Tractarian movement, which sought to return the established Church to a more ascetic, pre-Reformation manner, and the rise of skilled polemicists such as John Kebel, Edward Pusey and John Henry Newman. This phenomenon was met with suspicion and hostility by evangelicals, and when Newman or any person of note converted to Catholicism, there was generally outrage among the Protestant clergy and press.
Anti-Catholicism was still part of every-day discourse in 1846 (although, in England, it would start to wane hereafter), with cartoons in Punch depicting sly and devious papist priests, or treacherous Oxford undergraduates wearing papal tiaras. And England would have its last anti-Catholic spasm in 1850 with the restoration of Roman Catholic bishops to England, an outburst aggravated, as Bates observes, by Cardinal's Wiseman ill-judged call for the reconversion of the country. The Times, true to form, called it "one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence which the court of Rome has ventured to commit since the crown and people of England threw off its yoke."
The Protestant Ascendancy had already been incensed by Prime Minister Robert Peel's proposal to increase the grant to the Catholic priests' training seminary in Maynooth, outside Dublin. He had done this in order to win over the rural clergy in Ireland, a country that was suffering dreadfully in 1846, its potato crop having failed for the second year in a row.
From the outset there were plenty of graphic reports in the press as to what was happing in Ireland and urgent appeals from both British and Irish observers; one curate in Mayo wrote "No language can describe the awful condition of the people... They are to be found in thousands, young and old, male and female, crawling the streets and on the highways, screaming for a morsel of food." But for the most part, reaction to the famine from London was one marked by "callousness and ineptitude... managerial infancy and amateurish competence". Matters were made worse when the Whigs - who believed in the iron laws of laissez faire economics - were voted in in the summer of 1846, stopping all emergency imports.
The evangelical Charles Trevelyan, placed in charge of Irish affairs, had been taught by Thomas Malthus as a schoolboy. He couldn't even be stirred when a delegation of Anglican clergyman got down on their knees to beg for relief to be sent to Ireland in 1846. "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated," he said. "The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people."
The book 1846 is a splendid achievement, and befitting of a journalist, the author has an eye for the big picture. He includes sections on overcrowding in burial grounds, life expectancy (38 for a rural labourer, an astonishing 15 for a labourer in Liverpool), the railway bubble and subsequent crash, the toleration of prostitution (it was thought a better alternative to having unwanted mouths to feed), Mendelssohn's incredible popularity, church attendance (less than 50 per cent) or the fact that the first murderer tracked by train was a Quaker. Just as we are still in the midst of a transformative technological revolution, 1846 was a year in which the old wrestled with the new.
Thursday, 26 June 2014
Wednesday, 4 June 2014
Tuesday, 3 June 2014
The Enlightenment was an age of wizards and weirdos
Patrick West sees a medievalist take revenge on an era that mocked all that came before it
The Dark Side of The Enlightenment
By John V Fleming
W H Norton, £16.99
In academia and among the intelligentsia it’s long been fashionable to deride the claims and pretences of the Enlightenment, with its dual principles of detached reason and objectivity. Ever since the thoughts of postmodernists Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty et al became voguish in the 1970s among red brick universities, the belief spread that the tenets of the Enlightenment were not only arrogant and spurious, but also actually dangerous. The application of reason, logic, categorisation and industrial progress led us, after all, to the atom bomb and Auschwitz.
Although postmodernism isn’t spoken of today with the breathless reverence it was in its late 1980s and early 1990s heyday, Enlightenment values are still disdained. We live in an age in which everyone’s subjective opinions must be valued and in which we have become more censorious to spare the feelings or “deeply held beliefs” of others. Perspectives, not objective knowledge, are what matters in an age in which Voltaire’s first principle – the right to be offensive – is anathema.
This isn’t an entirely bad thing. The advocates and devotees of the Enlightenment have often been unwilling or unconscious of its debt to a Christian world perspective. The concept of the individual (and from it the Rights of Man) evolved from that of the soul. Progress is a secularised form of Providence, while egalitarianism was promoted, especially among low church Protestants, by those who had read in the Bible that we are all God’s children.
It’s in this spirit that John V. Fleming has written The Dark Side of The Enlightenment, criticising its boastfulness, and especially the manner in which it belittled much that came before it. As a professional medievalist, Fleming feels the Enlightenment cast a permanent slur on the Middle Ages, caricaturing it as an era of “brutality, disease, ignorance, and superstition”. This “Gibbonesque view … has become permanent in our lexicon”, he says. So, if the Middle Ages weren’t that “medieval”, in the pejorative sense of that word, maybe the Enlightenment wasn’t so enlightened.
“One of the paradoxes of the Enlightenment,” writes Fleming, “is the fascination of many of the enlightened with the occult.” It was an age in which knowledge was sought as much through the “dark arts” of magic and alchemy as detached, objective enquiry. It was a time in which Freemasonry did not wither, but enjoyed a rebirth, as did the associated cult of Rosicrucianism, which in the early 17th century declared there to be a secret brotherhood of sages and alchemists ready to transform Europe scientifically, politically and culturally.
There was no dichotomy between reason and mysticism, Fleming observes. The pursuit of truth came in many guises, some ostensibly rational, others not, and many indistinguishable from either category.
We tend today to differentiate alchemy from chemistry, but that is merely a linguistic nicety: the latter emerged from the former. (The author might have added that astronomy emerged directly from astrology.)
Nevertheless, Fleming does not believe the Enlightenment was an era of clean, delineated materialism. “The mainstream of European thought was not materialist but sacramental,” he says. “In the sacramental view, the material and visible world paralleled another that was immaterial and invisible.”
Like John Carey’s recent book, Victoria’s Madmen, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment follows the format of a potted biography. Likewise, it introduces us to a bizarre collection of motley characters and ostensible charlatans possessed with esoteric beliefs in the so-called Age of Reason. As a result, the book veers from bitty to sprawling to chaotic. It concludes by veering off into a dual biography of an Egyptian wizard called Count Cagliostro and the novelist, preacher and mystic Julie de Krüdener. The book has no conclusion, leaving the reader to wonder whether it could have actually done with a rigorous dose of Enlightenment-style rationalisation.
Ultimately, The Dark Side of the Enlightenment tells us nothing new – at least in its overarching thesis. You don’t have to be a Foucault scholar or post-structuralist to appreciate that the Enlightenment contained its own contradictions or fundamental elements of superstition and religiosity. Anyone who has read the Fortean Times in the last 30 years can tell you the same: that the men of reason could also be quite barmy, or imprisoned by their own delusions (or meta-narratives, if you will). No one has believed in the absolute division between post-Enlightenment positivism and pre-Enlightenment primitivism for decades. Even today’s popular arch-rationalists such as Richard Dawkins and Professor Brian Cox can talk of nature in poetic and rhapsodic ways.
Ultimately, I fear that John Fleming isn’t fighting a war with today’s ostensible rationalists. He is, in fact, still quarrelling with those long dead arch-prophets of the Enlightenment – Kant, primarily – who thought so little of his beloved Middle Ages.
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Monday, 24 March 2014
Patrick West doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at The Smiths' lead singer's autobiography
Penguin Classics £8.99
Even before most people had read Morrissey’s autobiography, it had caused a stir, owing to Penguin’s decision to publish it as a Classic. How could the musings of a mere pop star be placed in the same category as Virgil and Homer? While Penguin tried to pass it off as a literary joke, others weren’t convinced. Morrissey, lead singer for the seminal 1980s group the Smiths, is notorious for his sense of self-importance. He is a legend in his own head, and like all divas, he is surrounded by acolytes who cater for every whim and fantasy. “Penguin Classic” indeed.
Steven Morrissey forged a career singing about loneliness, alienation and despair - a famous Smiths songs is called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now - so one might expect Autobiography to read like the diary of maudlin, bookish teenager. In this department, it does not disappoint.
“My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway,” it opens sonorously, like an aspiring T. S. Eliot. He morosely depicts the Manchester of his youth, “where aborted babies found deathly peace instead of unforgiving life”, peppering his prose with alliteration and rhyme, writing of “shells of shabby shops” and “glamour and clamor” (he insists on American English spelling throughout).
From the outset, it‘s clear this isn’t to be a regular self-aggrandising autobiography or a misery memoir. One of his teachers, Miss Redmond, “is aging, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics”. He is confronted by Vanessa Redgrave, who “goes on about social injustice in Namibia, and how we must all build a raft by late afternoon - preferably out of coconut matting“. Bad artwork for one of his album covers was “enough to have made van Gogh chop of both ears” (he also insists on italics for emphasis).
Elsewhere, Julie Burchill arouses “loud yawns of national disinterest“, while Sarah Ferguson is the “overly untalented… Duchess of Nothing”, an ungallant if irrefutable observation. When and old friend Simon Topping appeared on the cover of the NME he exclaims: “I died a thousand deaths of sorry and lay down on the woods to die.” I found myself laughing aloud uneasily at these passages, unsure whether Autobiography was adolescent dross, something close to genius or some meta-ironic joke going over my head.
Perhaps it‘s because Morrissey is so candid and lacking in self-censorship. Morrissey decided to drop his first name, Steven, because “classical composers were known by just their surnames, and this suited my mud lark temperament quite nicely.” He knows that he’s seen for his “intolerable egocentricity and dramatized depression” and strikes back by announcing early: “Naturally my birth almost kills my mother, for my head is too big.”
Autobiography is thin on details and chronology, and he tells us little about the music that made his name. His bitter, whiny, self-pity and ingratitude can be grating, and a braver editor would have cut the tedious court struggle that mar a solid fifty pages towards the end. And the only genuinely conventional passages are those in relation to his Irish-Catholic background. “Catholicism has you tracked and trailed for life with an overwhelming sense of self-doubt”, he laments, as many have done before him.
Yet the memoir is genuinely affecting in parts. His friend, the singer Kirsty MacColl, died in 2000 in a boating accident in Mexico, after he had urged her to go there. Morrissey’s palpable feeling of guilt is compounded when he receives from her a posthumous postcard. “I cry myself blind for yet another lost friend“, he writes, and you believe him. Upon the death of his aunt Rita, he reflects with some profundity: “I shall catch up with you in the afterlife, and if there is not to be one at all, then neither of us shall be alert enough to be disappointed.”
Morrissey - blunt, queeny, self-absorbed - has by accident or design created an absurd, brilliant and disconcertingly hilarious memoir. It’s like reading the diary of a teenage Alan Partridge who wants to be Oscar Wilde. It’s probably the best and worst book I read in the past year.
Sunday, 16 February 2014
The Victorians era had its share of Russell Brands
The Victorian age was stuffed with eccentrics touting counter-cultural creeds, says Patrick West
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave MacMillan, £20
The Victorians were prudish in their morals, solemn in their temper and adherents to order, progress, Church and Empire. Or so the caricature goes – the one created in the 1920s that persists to this day. Popular wisdom still has it that they were a stuffy lot and the word “Victorian” continues to be pejorative shorthand for dusty and sclerotic.
The 19th century was, however, also an era of great turmoil. Most of us know about the rise of the conventional popular ideologies of democracy, nationalism, imperialism and socialism, but this was also a time for more fevered counter-cultural creeds. Communism, anarchism, feminism, the occult, environmentalism, exoticism and mysticism: all jockeyed to capture the imagination of those who sought not to improve the world but to re-imagine it.
Structured in a series of mini-biographies, Victoria’s Madmen seeks to illustrate “the imagination of a generation bored with inertia and complacency”. It features familiar figures as Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and Arthur Conan Doyle, alongside lesser-known characters such as the painter-madman Richard Dadd, the occultist Aleister Crowley, aspiring messiah James Jezreeel, the worshippers of Pan and the Latvian anarchists of London’s East End. The book is a cross between a Daily Telegraph book of obituaries and the Fortean Times.
What’s so striking here is how Victorian society, particularly at its dawn and tail end, resembles our own. We live in a time of deep introspection, one consumed with identity politics, “personal goals“, “self-esteem”, the number of “likes” and “retweets” on social media and the Selfie. We are reminded that the early-19th century was also a period for self-reflection, if not sheer self-obsession. The Enlightenment had promoted the autonomy of the individual through reason. But after Napoleon, this begat the narcissism of the Romantic era, the “disease of self-expression, individualism” so exalted by the poets. This spirit led Coleridge to oblivion. “I was heart-sick and almost stomach-sick of speaking, writing, and thinking about myself.” he lamented in 1804, describing his descent into opium addiction. The Marquis de Sade was another consequence of the “Byronic personality which … had unwittingly discovered the path to hell alongside the path to heaven.”
While we associate the mid-Victorian period with scientific and industrial progress – Darwin and Brunel – “the last two decades of the 19th century was both a period of intense complacency and intense doubt.” There was a feeling that the price of industrialisation had been man’s soul. The “back to the land” movement of the 1880s was one consequence. In his book Merrie England (1893), Robert Blatchford imagined a return to primitive socialist values. He wanted to “restrict our mines, furnaces and chemical works … stop the smoke nuisance … Then I would set men to work to grow wheat and fruit and to rear cattle and poultry for our own use”. He was kind of Victorian George Monbiot.
The late 19th-century and Edwardian era of nostalgia and escapism gave life to the folk music movement (with its Morris Dancers), the cult of Pan, paganism, nudism, occultism, Futurism and Imagism.
It was the paradoxical time of Jekyll and Hyde, when even Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that arch-sceptic and rationalist, could be an ardent Spiritualist. It was a time of country house decadence, champagne and drug addiction. Rather than being an age of calm and progress, the late Victorian era was one deeply uneasy with itself. Society, wrote G K Chesterton, was “plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide”. People were turning inwards, regressing. “Pan represented to many late Victorians and Edwardians a dream of social escape and personal release, expressed sometimes as a return to magical thinking and sometimes as a rush towards sexual excess and free love,” writes Bloom. Like Russell Brand, Victoria’s madmen believed society needed a spiritual revolution and, more portentously, that it was decadent and in need of cleansing.
With its centenary approaching, much has been written recently about the First World War, whether it was just and who was to blame for it. Revisionists are keen to question the consensus established in the 1960s that it was a futile war of lions led by donkeys. Historians such as Max Hastings maintain that imperial Germany was itching for a fight. The truth, as Victoria’s Madmen reminds us, is that by 1914, there was a widespread belief in Europe that “the old world must be blown up to be born anew”. Everyone in 1914 was eager for conflict. “We wish to glorify War,” the first Futurist manifesto proclaimed, “the only health-giver of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful Ideas that kill”. The Irish poet revolutionary Patrick Pearse believed “bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”, while according to Bloom, Gerard Manley Hopkins believed that “to die young and beautiful was better than to die old and decayed”.