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A quick, but not too hopeful scan of the charity shop bookshelves this morning yields an odd find, among the usual slew of well thumbed novels, cook books, and the occasional, but not unusual, copies of a “Souvenir Guide to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”. It’s what I suppose you’d call something from the popular science genre, a kind of “Special relativity and field theory, for dummies”, with equations. It was written by Leonard Susskind, a professor of physics at Stanford University, and a terrific communicator of very hard science. I was briefly tempted by it but, after a bit of soul-searching, I put it back. As for the Diamond Jubilee books, they reminded me of something I’d read the evening before, my opinions of which were as yet unformed, but forming. More of that, later.

We’ve talked on the blog about the various piles we readers have for books. The common one is the “to be read pile” – books waiting for us to get around to them. We add books to it, as we go along, but we do eventually get around to reading them. Then I have a “books to be read again pile” – books I enjoyed, and tell myself I want to read again, though whether I ever will is another matter. Then there’s the “books which, in all honesty, I’ll never read, though I tell myself I want to” pile. I’ve had one on there, for thirty-five years, called “the makers of mathematics”. I’ve never read it, but keep telling myself, I might, one day. Another one I have on there is “Teach yourself calculus”, similar thing: thirty years, and the spine not cracked once.

They’re books I had the mind for, in my student days, and occasionally fool myself I have the mind to get back into, but never have done, and probably never will, because my mind has changed shape, over the years, and moved on. I’m thinking this book of Susskind’s will end up on that pile. There’s something worthy about it, intellectually challenging, and deeply interesting, but it’s beyond anything I could make use of these days. Plus, you can find a lot of Susskind’s lectures on YouTube, which likely cover the same material, should I feel so inclined. And these books linger on the shelves. They pine for attention like neglected puppies and, given the nature of puppies, I cannot part with them. So, it’s better not to acquire them in the first place. Thus, the decision is made, and I put the book back. Let someone else have the pleasure of it. I have enough to be going on with the “to be read” pile.

Speaking of which, I’m reading “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, prompted by a reader of the blog (thank you). We read him at school. I remember White Fang, and Call of the Wild, but People of the Abyss was never mentioned at the time – this being the account of him basically going undercover as a down-on-his luck Yankee seaman, in London’s East End, around the time of the Coronation of Edward the 7th. Along with Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it’s one of the most detailed and damning accounts of engineered destitution ever written.

Hard as it is to say though, such works no longer fire me up, as they would once have done, and, in the case of Tressell, indeed did. I used to think the solutions to the world’s ills were obvious, and easy. Now, I’m realising there’s something contrary in human nature that defeats common sense, and stymies compassion. It causes some to treat the majority appallingly, and with contempt, and for the majority to let them get away with it. Books like “People from the Abyss”, though written over a century ago, remind us of the depths to which we might yet return, because that amoral streak is still there, and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it. There will always be rich and poor, but that there is also engineered destitution, shames us all.

Had I been born into the those times, and that class, my life would have been short and unimaginably hard, but I suppose I would have accepted it, like everyone else, and no doubt still raised my cap at the passing of the King’s coronation. Something about the opening paragraph of the book shot it to the top of my “to be read pile”, nudging aside Dostoyevsk’s Crime and Punishment, which I’m struggling with. Indeed, were the latter not hailed as a masterpiece, I would have to call it one of the most tedious books I have ever attempted, and might have been better placed on that “books I shall never read” pile – except I have read a bit of it. Should there be another pile then? Books I could not finish and set aside for later?

I do not wish to put on bibliophilic airs. I am the product of a comprehensive education system, as it was in the 1970’s, and which I have always felt was not quite as good as it might have been, though I understand it was much better than things are now. I did however pick up a middling engagement with the written word, and a love of books.

When my boys were at school, however, I discovered books were not read as avidly any more. What was more important were the bullet-pointed outlines, from which the key stage questions might be answered. Books, then, were no longer touted as being worth the love invested in them. And then of course, schools cannot afford books any more except – and now I remember those charity shop copies of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – I read every primary school child this year is to be given a book in commemoration of Her Madge’s Platinum Jubilee, this at an estimated budget of 12 million. It is a work of, as yet, unknown content, beyond the diktat that it shall be “patriotic”.

For such an administration as the one we now have, I accept such a thing is more or less obligatory, though whether the children will treasure this gift, as intended, is quite another question. Whether they will read it at all is equally doubtful. All of which suggests another list of books, which, thanks to the subliminal effects of all the other books I have read, down the years, I would want to steer clear of in the first place.

Speaking of Her Madge, back in the heady days of 2012, the time of that Diamond Jubilee, though not a Royalist myself, I saw the pomp as a unifying force for a people knocked about by the crash years, that things could not help but get better after all the jolly bunting, and a stiff cup of tea, served in jubilee china. They didn’t. They got worse. Much worse. Still, there was definitely something in the air that summer, because I wrote warmly of Her Madge as being the ideal of a nation, and something – the ideal I mean – worth polishing one’s shoes for.

We do need something to polish our shoes for, I think, but I have since returned to the straight and narrow in my search for other heroes, not of nationhood, but more elusive. It’s the best in personhood, perhaps, or at any rate a thing well beyond the sticky grasp and ken of the tabloid hacks, “influencers” and the makers of cheap memorial mugs. In 2012, I was a man who enjoyed lunching modestly in my local market town. Now my town has nowhere to lunch, beyond the newly fangled sawdust and spittoon boozers, which I shudder to frequent. Instead, I take what pleasures I can find for the fiver I might once have splashed on coffee, in the charity shops, and the bargain basements, of which there are now many. We are all, in short, a little more thread-worn, our jolly bunting derided on the world’s stage as symbolically empty, and meaningless. We are, as a nation, spent and pointless. Or so it feels from the crumbling market towns of the North.

But we were talking of books, or lists of books. And we began with that book by Leonard Susskind. How about him, or those like him? Are they not far worthier of our celebration? They are, after all, the best of us, and come from many walks of life, both high and low-born. Indeed, I raise my cap, and polish my shoes to men and women of such calibre. I have had the pleasure of knowing, and working with a few. There is a certain bias in my thinking, of course, having been inspired to higher things by the likes of them, and you may have your own candidates. But is it not better, if we are to look to others as an example, we value them in proportion to what they have to teach us. Flags and bunting teach us very little, other than which way to point a gun.

Here he is, talking about black holes, and the seriously spooky nature of the universe as a hologram.

Damn. I wish I’d got that book, now. Thanks for listening.

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Not being a fan of horror movies, I’ve not spent much time thinking about zombies. But in this book the authors present a convincing argument that, in fact, the zombie genre is the underlying myth of our times.

The zombie first appears in western popular culture around 1920, and has seen an exponential rise ever since. Of the 600 zombie movies ever made, over half have been made in the last decade. The prevalence of the genre is hard to miss and crosses platforms easily from print to film to video games. But whatever the platform there are characteristics of the zombie that do not change, which suggests something deeper is at play – that the zombie is a symbolic representation, a thing of mythic importance, a monster rising from the depths of its creator – us -and saying something about the state of our collective psyche.

Zombies eat brains, but are themselves without mind. And no matter how many brains they eat, they gain no wisdom, yet continue mindlessly consuming. To kill a zombie you have to destroy its brain, or rather, in order to prevent the zombie eating your brain and rendering you mindless, you have to destroy its empty mindedness. So here’s a clue that what we’re talking about is ourselves; we are the zombies, we are the walking dead.

We zombies have no sense of home, no coherent language, we shuffle en-masse, but with no real aim. We are hideously ugly, a decaying parody of, and an insult to, the human forms we possess. Though we gather in large numbers, we have no community, no culture to nourish the spirit, no purpose other than to eat, to consume mindlessly. We do not co-operate with one another, we employ no particular strategy in the pursuit of our mindless aims. When faced with the very real danger of our own elimination, we take no evasive action. We simply haven’t the sense to care one way or the other.

Another curious fact is the zombie is never named as such in the stories. Only we, the viewer, know its name. The human protagonists are prey to their own whims and inevitably fall foul of the contagion. One by one, they become zombified. They never say: oh, right, they’re zombies, here’s what we need to do.

To follow the genre’s usual mythic narrative, we, the non-zombies, seek refuge with others of our kind, in fortified surroundings, and from where we blast away at the brain-dead with whatever weapons come to hand. But, in spite of our best efforts at cooperation, there’s always a falling out into irreconcilable factions that work against one another. Then there’s a weakness in the defences, a door unlocked, a window left open that lets the zombies in. Significantly, say the authors, there is never a happy ending, no superhero, no super-technology, no God-sent zombie-killing virus to the rescue.

But here’s the thing: the zombie is not evil. It just does what it does, mindlessly, without malice. It’s not dead, but not entirely alive either, and to be touched by one is to become a zombie yourself. They are existentially terrifying. But more, the undead nature of the zombie, and its links to the apocalypse, say the authors, are a reference to our rejection and perversion of the Christian myth. As Nietzsche wrote towards the end of the nineteenth century, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,” then a short time later, the zombies (us, denuded of something vital) appear in the culture.

This is a short book, scholarly in nature, but I found it deeply interesting, accessible and very readable. Since reading it, I am seeing zombies everywhere, in the news, on social media, on the street, infecting others with their mindlessness. While it is significant, the loss of any spiritual dimension to the culture, the breakdown of organised religions – i.e. traditional, institutional beliefs in a “God” archetype – are also considered culturally inevitable. Religious attendance in the west is inversely correlated with the rise of the zombie. But equally, our search for an alternative “secular” spirituality won’t work, those on offer being too small and fragmented. Attempts by the state to usurp the function of religion, by substituting political and social ideologies like Marxism and Fascism, it’s to be hoped are experiments we can avoid repeating.

Just as the zombie myth does not offer any hope of salvation, neither do the authors at this stage offer any solution to the crisis of meaninglessness in our times. However, it at least enables us to get a handle on the nature of the problem, perhaps with a view to an intelligent attack at some point in the future, and this will be the subject of a future book.

Speaking of John Vervaeke, for anyone working through his “Meaning Crisis” lecture series on Youtube – in my humble opinion, one of the best things on there at the moment – I’ve found “Zombies in Western Culture” a good introduction to his thinking.

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It was reading the psychoanalysts that introduced me to the interpretation of dreams. But I also read Dunne’s “Experiment with Time“, which said if you make a note of your dreams for long enough you’ll dream of things you’ll later encounter in waking life, like a premonition. If I’m being honest with myself then, it was more on account of Dunne than the psychoanalysts I began a dream journal. I was looking for personal experience of something anomalous, something that would challenge the rationalizing ego, and grant credence to the possibility there was something beyond the face value of the material life.

And you know, Dunne was right. Time is not the straight line we think it is, or at least my own experiments along his lines – basically recording one’s dreams as diligently as possible – convinced me it was so. Sometimes we do dream of things that subsequently happen, as if the dreaming mind can borrow images from both our past, and our future. What do you do with that? Well, you think about it for a bit, then screw the lid back on, tight, because having established the fact there’s something wobbly about the way we view the world, something strange about our concept of time, you discover you’re not equipped to explain what it means and, in spite of his valiant efforts to the contrary, throughout several subsequent books, neither was Dunne. Then I read Priestly’s “Man and Time” which covered some of the same ground as Dunne, though without the analytical ambitions. Priestly, the artist and playwright, was able to look differently on the results than Dunne, who was a scientist and an engineer. He was able to say (and I paraphrase): “yes, it’s a rum one this, and we’ll likely never get to the bottom of it. Best just to go with it then, and don’t worry about solving all the equations.”

So, instead I turned back to the psychoanalysts and tried interpreting dreams. This is something of a hit-and-miss affair. Plus, those psychoanalysts will throw you deep into symbolism and mythology, stuff you’ve never heard of, nor will you ever discover in a lifetime, and I worry if you think long and hard enough there’s a danger you’ll read something into nothing. Personally, I’d rather the dreams spoke in a language tailored to one’s own ability, otherwise what’s the use? Sometimes they do just that, but mostly they don’t.

So while it is indeed possible to glean some insights from our nightly adventures in dreams, I reckon it’s best to simply let the dreams be. By this I mean, don’t try to dismantle them and examine the pieces. James Hillman’s book “The Dream and the Underworld” says something along those lines and discourages any particular practice in following dreams, other than, well, just following them. Sometimes you’ll get a definite “Aha!”, but overall the impression is that the dream has its own life, and we’re giving ourselves airs if we think its business is to interfere in our every waking step along the way.

I’m still in the habit of remembering dreams. Mostly though, I recall only fleeting glimpses. At one time I would have beaten myself up over that, worried I might have missed out on a vital insight, so the most valuable lesson there is to let them go their own way if they’re not for hanging around. I’ve a feeling we dream all the time anyway, night and day. Slip into an afternoon nap, and the dream-life is right there again to pick you up and carry you along in its surreal flow. It’s like a soap opera, no matter how many episodes you miss, you can jump back in anywhere and pick up the threads. Dreaming is one half of our natural state of being, but mostly I’ve no idea what the other guy is up to in there. Sometimes our paths will cross though, and then the one world mirrors the other in ways that mean something.

There’s a school of psychology which holds our brains to be computers made of meat, that we are nothing but biological machines, that dreams are junk, and we shouldn’t bother our waking consciousness with them. But I suspect those who say such things don’t dream very well, or very deeply. Anyone who’s had a big dream and been moved by it knows that, while they cannot always be understood, dreams are certainly not junk. And sometimes, yes, they’ll trip you up with hints of the non linearity of time. And maybe you wished you’d not seen that, because in fact it’s easier to go on believing we are indeed just biological machines with an end-by date, that time is a straight line, and that there’s nothing more to the world than a swirling bag of dust and a black void at the end of it.

True, most of the time that’s the way it looks, and you wonder at the point of plodding on. Then you have a big dream, and you wake up knowing that’s not the way things are at all, and you’d better keep going because there’s a bigger picture here, and while you might not understand it, you’re a part of it, and you don’t want to let the team down by giving up on it. Like Dunne discovered, you’ll never explain it, because we’ve not the language, neither mathematically, nor philosophically. Yet, like Priestly tells us, it adds another dimension to the world, if we’re only prepared to think on it without a view to explaining anything, and rather just accepting that things may just be so. And if we can do that, it’s like opening a door without wondering how the lock and hinges work.

As for what’s on the other side, well that’s more a sense of being, than a way of thinking.

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moss1I’m struggling with my reading at the moment – a couple of difficult books on the go. One of them is Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness. The other is Bernado Kastrup’s Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics. The Neumann is from 1949, a distillation of Jungian thinking on the nature of the unconscious. The Kastrup is a recently published book that revisits the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading books like this, way beyond my intellect, I accept I’ll only grasp them dimly and in the hope the effort goes some way towards expanding the mind, even a bit. But their greater impact is on the imagination, where even imperfectly grasped imagery can take on a life of its own, dance with images gleaned from elsewhere, and in ways the authors never intended. And there are some startling images in those books.

It’s thus, stumbling through other books, I’ve gleaned bits of metaphysical ideas over the years, and begun assembling a story that’s making sense in layman’s terms – if not in its details, then in its broad generalities. But sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaken, not so much in the truth of these matters – though there is always that of course. It’s more the question of embarking upon such a quest in the first place. Is my head, in fact, pointing in the wrong direction?

When we speak of metaphysics we’re talking about the origins and the inner workings of the universe, also its reflection in the structure and the flow of the human mind. It’s unlikely you’ll get any of this if you’re a materialist, and view the universe as comprising purely material stuff that was big-banged out of nothing. There is another view though – the idealist view – that there is no material, that what we experience in the world is a result of our being conscious within a greater consciousness, a consciousness that sets the stage, and the rules we play by.

If materialism is true, then fair enough, the game is up, life is absurdly pointless, and we’re all doomed. But with idealism, everything is still to play for, and the possibilities worth exploring. I used to be a materialist – as an engineer you more or less have to be – but that stopped making sense for me a while ago. Idealism may be wrong but it’s much more fertile ground for the imagination.

It was once intimated to me that we already know the true nature of things, but we’ve forgotten them as a precondition of being born. At some point though, when we fall asleep for good, we’ll go: “Oh yea, I remember now!” I say it was “intimated”, and the realization did feel very real at the time, but of course I’ve forgotten it all again now. However, the point is, why spend decades of your life banging away at this stuff, when you’ll be gifted it all back in crystal clarity anyway? And if such talk is nonsense – as it may well be – then it doesn’t matter either way, does it? So why the imperative to probe the metaphysical? And if it was so terribly important for us to know – I mean to help us all get along in the world – we’d be born with a greater sense of it than we have, wouldn’t we?

I don’t know. Would we? Do we, actually? Are those haunting aspects of existence, things like love and beauty, not metaphysical intimations? And what about dreams?

Are you still with me?

What I mean is, pursuing the metaphysical can be like scaling a waterfall when it’s in spate. The general flow of being is in the other direction, and perhaps we’d do better to flow with it. Maybe it’s a reaction to the chaos of a world gone mad that we’d even bother trying. Maybe it’s one’s apparent inability to effect much change or understanding of things that we want to escape from the madness. So we seek to resist the flow of life, which seems permanently bound for disaster, and swim back upstream to rest in the formless, as far away from ground zero as we can manage.

But then the chaos we see in the human world is a result of those same intrinsic energies that give vent to life. Left to itself, the natural world will thrive on those energies. It will be red in tooth and claw, and endlessly self consuming, but it will not be self-reflective. It will be ignorant of its own beauty, and that strikes me as a gap worth filling.

Self reflection is an imperfect instrument though, and comes with risks. It can distort how we see the world. Sit that on top of largely simian instincts and you can see how easily we land ourselves in trouble. If we are not to destroy ourselves, we need to wise up! But what can one do if the route to wisdom is so difficult, and only the Neumanns and the Kastrups can attempt an understanding of it, for are they not too few to form a critical mass? Must the rest of us wait for a divine transformation to enlighten us?

Imagine, jealousy, greed, hate and the evil that is lifestyle blogging, all gone in an instant. Imagine, enlightenment as instinctive as the knowledge never to wear brown shoes with blue trousers, enlightenment that we can look back upon our history with equanimity and wonder how there could once ever have been a people so benighted.

There are those in the human development movement who believe such a thing will happen, but this sounds more to me like the second coming of the Christians, a thing I suspect should be interpreted in terms rather less than literal. In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I’m reminded that in the Daoist way of thinking, mankind stands with one foot in the world, the other in the heavens. Some of us are more inclined one way or the other, but the important thing is to find a balance. Which means,…

It’s time to set the Neumann and the Kastrup aside for a bit. Instead, I’m picking up Le Carre’s “Agent running in the field“, and, delight of delights, I am to spend a week, holed up in tier three isolation, with no interruptions, and Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness.”

Let it rain!

[Unless you’ve got plans, then let it shine]

Graeme out.

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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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Themagus_cover.jpgNick Urfe – young, middle class, self-loathing, classically educated prig and womanising misogynist finds escape, and half hearted employment teaching on a remote Greek Island. Here, he meets the wealthy recluse and aesthete Maurice Conchis who befriends him. Also living under Conchis’ protection is the mysterious and ever so winsome Lilly, with whom Nick falls in love. So far, so predictable then. But that’s your first mistake, and there will be many more if you try to second guess this outrageous labyrinth of a novel.

In short, Nick finds himself way over his head at the centre of a dark psychodrama in which he seems to be acting a part among a cast of other baffling, shape-shifting characters, with Conchis as director, manipulating him at every turn. Meanwhile Lilly transforms from one role to the next, becomes Julie, or her twin sister June, all of them leading Nick on, drawing him into deeper intimacy, then pushing him away. Does she really have feelings for him, or is she always simply acting the part Conchis has written for her? Who is the real Lilly/Julie/June anyway? Who is Conchis? Just when Nick begins to think he’s worked things out, and us with him, Conchis changes the narrative again,… reveals all that went before was a lie.

To what end are we playing this game is, of course, the question. Perhaps there is no end in the normal sense, and if we cannot trust the narrative why should there be a reliable end anyway?

As we, the reader, like the hapless Nick, are drawn ever more deeply into Conchis’s web we begin to wonder if the story is actually a psychological metaphor of the state of our own selves. Although at times inscrutable, like Conchis himself, this makes for an unsettling, disorientating and at times disturbing read. Hailed as an example of post-modern literature, The Magus shatters the accepted norms of story-writing where a protagonist works towards some goal and, in voyeuristic fashion, the reader simply follows along in the background to be gratified by a conclusion, neat or otherwise. Reading the Magus, Fowles drags us in with him, cautions us at every turn against trusting the story. Indeed, its occasionally ad-hoc nature has us wondering if he’s not just making it up as he goes along, that, like the Magus, he’s bamboozling us, with smoke and mirrors and none of it means anything other than what we project into it ourselves.

Peppered with psychological and mythological references, the story shifts from present to historical flashback, at times dramatic, erotic, horrific, and all of it quite possibly absurd. There is always the feeling here that if only I was as intelligent as the writer, and the critics who have lauded the story, I would know the difference; I would know, like Nick wants to know, if I was merely being taken for a ride, or if there was some point to the experience, that Conchis is more than simply a fraud at best, and at worst a dangerous psychopath.

Nick returns to England, penniless, disturbed by his experience, but seemingly also deepened by it. He’s more self-reflective, kinder to others, but like him we’re left wondering, waiting for a conclusion that never really comes, which suggest that if the story is indeed some kind of psychological experiment and we’ve come some way along the road to recovering our potential as a decent, self-aware human being, the final step is up to us. Nick is not the first young man to experience The Magus, and he won’t be the last,.. but who truly benefits? The subject, or Conchis?

Read as a straight novel, the main problem with the plot as “psychological experiment” is that nobody warrants that much elaborate attention, and former victims (or subjects) having been so abused and humiliated by Conchis in the process would probably be inclined to return to his island with a machine gun. Except angry loathing and a desire for revenge appear not to be a side effect of Conchis’ methods, just as the reader is left feeling disorientated, breathless and none the wiser, but rather more thoughtful and certainly not resentful of the time spent on this compelling, but ultimately bewildering labyrinth of a novel.

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jefferies[1]

My most treasured book by Richard Jeffries is not this one but a fragile early edition of The Amateur Poacher, (1879). The Amateur Poacher is a collection of essays detailing bucolic life around Jeffries’ native Coates, in Wiltshire and is cherished for its evocation of a rural England now lost. But there’s something else in it, not so much written as alluded to through the intensity and the beauty of Jeffries’ prose. What that is exactly is hard to describe but many have felt it, and wondered,…

Let us get out of these indoor, narrow modern days, whose twelve hours somehow have become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

Traditional ideas of spirituality and religion are but the ossified remains of this ineffable thing the ancients called “divine”, but it’s still present in the world and can be felt anywhere where the last sleepy cottage slips from view, where we can immerse ourselves once more in nature and intensify our experience of it through the lens of the psyche as well as the senses.  Jeffries allows that nature can be cultivated – meadows, coppices, fields of wheat – it does not have to be wilderness. It’s the life-energy in it that’s important to the soul, while the built world – the towns, the cities – are dead places more associated with the soul’s decay.

The nature of this ineffable “something” haunted Jeffries. While it’s hinted at throughout his writings, it’s here in “The Story of my heart” he attempts a more direct understanding of it. It’s not an easy book to summarise and must really be experienced, so there’s little I can do here but grant a flavour of it.

Written in the intense and emotional language of a prose poem, the book treats mankind as a being both of and keenly attuned to beauty, also as something apart from the world and capable of great perfection on our own terms, both physically and mentally. Nature, on the other hand, though at times ravishing to the senses, is more reflective of something within us, while being of itself blind to our existence. Though not intentionally cruel, nature can easily harm us. Also when we see the low creeping forms of life, it can be ugly, even offensive to the soul. Only superficially then can we describe Jeffries as a nature mystic. He does not deify nature, more something in man that’s higher than anything we can imagine.

“The sea does not make boats for us,” he says, “nor the earth of her own will build us hospitals.”

But for all our efforts with boats and hospitals in the last twelve thousand years, we’ve done nothing more than struggle for subsistence. Yet if we put our minds to it we might harvest in a single year enough to feed the entire world for decades. That we don’t suggests a deep failing, that we allow ourselves to be perversely distracted by everything that is bad for us, deliberately avoiding the need for cultivating the soul-life. Instead, we eulogise enslavement to largely meaningless and unproductive work.

He describes observing traffic in London, the crowds the carriages, the mad, rushing crush of it, everyone driven by an insatiable craving for motion and direction. Yet for all of that, he says, we are going nowhere, and shall continue to do so: while money, furniture, affected show and the pageantry of wealth are the ambitions of the multitude.

He sees the general human condition as one of perpetual ignorance and suffering,… so great, so endless, so awful that I can hardly write of it. He dismisses religion in all its forms, also the idea of deity entirely on the basis of the evidence,… that there is not the least trace of directing intelligence in human affairs.

Our miseries are our own doing, he insists, and we must own them: because you have mind and thought, and could have prevented them. You can prevent them in future. You do not even try.

For us to progress, he urges us to reconnect with the higher mind, what he calls the “mind of the mind” – this being the soul, or the psyche because:

The mind is infinite and able to understand everything that is brought before it. The limit is the littleness of the things and the narrowness of the ideas put for it to consider.

Neither religion nor the physical sciences can offer us anything in this regard, those modes of thinking being completely wide of the mark. But as one who has felt the full blistering force of his own higher nature, Jeffries cannot be wholly pessimistic about our lot either, only lamenting that we need a quantum leap in understanding if we are not to spend another twelve thousand years going around in circles.

But while he tries his eloquent best to tell us the story of his heart, the abiding impression of this book is of an exquisitely sensitive man beset all his life by visions and feelings of such sublime loveliness they left him virtually speechless.

I was sensitive to all things, the earth under, and the star-hollow round about; to the last blade of grass, to the largest oak. They seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me.

Branded heretical in his time, pilloried by the Church for his paganism, and by urbanites for his unflattering views of London, the book did not sell well and many critics dismissed it as unintelligible. But for others, including me, Jeffries’ prose describes most powerfully those things all sensitive countryphiles have felt, and which we know point to a greater understanding of our place in the Cosmos – if only, like him, we could open our hearts to it properly, and find the words.

*[Richard Jeffries, English nature-writer, novelist, natural historian. 1848-1887]

For more information about Richard Jeffries you can do no better than to click here.

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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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history of loneliness

A History of Loneliness is a novel about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s an important and unflinching work exploring the corruption of power on a vast scale, its systematic cover-up, and the devastating effect the scandal had upon the psyche of a nation when it woke up to the truth of its betrayal.

Odran Yates, is a good man, sent for the priesthood by his mother at the age of 17. He’s not sure if he has a true calling. It was simply the done thing and, in common with many other lads of his age, he simply went along with it. But he finds he enjoys the seminary life and excels at his studies. Scarred by tragic childhood events, and abused by the parish Priest – a thing he’s long suppressed – Odran is more damaged than he seems. Is the Church to be his rehabilitation back into  life, or an escape from it?

Reticent and bookish, he begins his career teaching at the Catholic school, thinking to settle into the quiet cloistered life. For decades, he keeps the real world at bay, only to find himself suddenly sent to cover a parish for his old friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle who, after only a short tenure, has been quietly “moved on”. Although promised it’s only a temporary thing, Odran finds himself marooned in the position, a hapless pawn in a grand power-play as the first paedophile cases begin to break, and the church seeks to cover itself. We learn it’s not the first time Tom Cardle has been moved on, and though it’s obvious to us now in hindsight why, to Odran it remains a mystery.

To be a priest in Ireland at the outset of Odran’s career, was to be man highly regarded and trusted. People gave up their seats on trains for him, bought him food and drink and generally prostrated themselves in hope of currying favour with God. But when the scandal breaks, the priesthood becomes at once universally reviled, priests reluctant to go about in their collars for fear of attack. Odran is accused of attempting to kidnap a small boy when he was only trying to help the child who had lost its mother. Such is the paranoia and hatred of the public, he is set upon in the street, punched to the ground, then treated appallingly by the Garda who are quick assume him to be a paedophile “like all the rest”.

As the story shuttles back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle and the all too human weaknesses in Odran’s character are revealed and we are forced to ask: how could such an intelligent man really have been so naive as not to know what was going on? Did Odran, and all the other good men of the Priesthood, simply turn a blind eye? Or were the good men themselves also victims of the institution they so loyally served?

Worse is to come with Odran discovering how the corruption goes to the core of the Church, that rather than work with the authorities in exposing and punishing rogue priests like Tom Cardle, the Church has defended them, covered for them, because the Church could not be seen to be anything less than omnipotent, having set itself above all other authority, save God – above the state, and the law – that Ireland had become up to the time of the crisis a virtual theocracy, the Church unchallenged in its domination over the lives of the Catholic population, and under the cover of which many an appalling abuse took place.

All Odran wants is a return to the quiet life of the school, but as the layers of deceit unfold he looks back and asks himself has he not wasted his life in devotion to an institution that is morally unworthy, indeed responsible for ruining the lives of so many innocents? And as an outraged public turns upon anyone wearing the collar, including Odran, are the good priests not equally culpable and deserving of the public’s anger? But if that’s the case, with so many wrongs in world, who among us is entirely without sin? Who among us has never turned a blind eye to a thing out of a sense of one’s own powerlessness to make any difference whatsoever to a rottenness so deep?

Read this book if you can bear it. Put yourself in Odran’s shoes, then ask yourself, honestly, what would, what could you have done?

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