Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Then I’m going to Ffald-y-Brenin, a Christian retreat in Pembrokeshire, and a place where people have often said they’ve experienced miraculous visitations from the Holy Spirit. It is known as a ‘thin place’ – in Celtic Christianity, there are supposed to be certain places where the border between the sacred and the secular is particularly diaphanous.
Obviously, I feel like a bit of a spiritual tourist. Am I going for my own advancement as a writer, or am I going with a genuinely open heart to see what is ‘out there’? I hope the latter, but as a writer there’s always some ego mixed in.
When writing on religious group psychology, you have to decide how much you should ‘go with it’ and give yourself to the experience, and to what extent you should stay objective and detached. When Jon Ronson, one of my heroes, went on the Alpha course in 2000, he felt he couldn’t switch off his journalistic mind during the Holy Spirit session of the Alpha weekend:
James rests his hand on my shoulder. “Oh Jesus, I pray that Jon will receive Your wonderful spirit. God. Please come and fill Jon with … ” It is not working. The spell has broken. I tell James again that I’m sorry, but I’m a journalist.
I’m also a journalist, although I happen to believe in God and was helped to overcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder through a near-death experience which felt like an experience of grace. So I’m more open to the value of ecstatic experiences. But there are aspects of charismatic Christianity that I find off-putting. When an entire church gets ‘slain’ by the Holy Spirit, when people fall over, roll around on the ground, bark like dogs and so on, is it a visitation by God, an outbreak of mass hysteria, or some kind of learned cultural practice?
When it comes to Welsh religious revivals, Welsh Christians think of them as both a supernatural experience and a learned cultural practice. They are very aware of the history of Welsh revivals, and this knowledge creates expectations of future revivals. Wales is known as ‘the land of revivals’ – previous revivals include a Methodist revival in 1735, when congregations would shake, weep, faint and jump for joy, and a cross-denominational revival in 1859, when historians suggest 100,000 people – a tenth of the population of Wales – converted, and services were so ecstatic that ‘people were carried out of chapel unable to move hand or foot’. Both revivals were intensely musical – hymn-singing plays a central role in Celtic ecstasy.
The most famous Welsh revival was in 1904-5. It was started by a preacher called Joseph Jenkins, after he had a vision of being wrapped in a blue flame. His sermons started to inspire great excitement among his congregation, particularly young women, one of whom followed him home one night, then stood up at church the next day and declared ‘I love Jesus with all my heart’. This set others on fire, and the normal order of service gave way to spontaneous testimonials, conversions, moans, fainting and hymn-singing.
The fire spread to a 26-year-old miner called Evan Roberts, an intensely religious young man who had prayed for a revival ‘for 10 or 11 years’. He was dramatically filled by the Spirit during a service, bending his knees and crying out. The next nights, he had a series of visions, of hell, of Christ’s victory over Satan, of an enormous religious revival that would save 100,000 souls. Although not a priest and not very educated, he became the de facto leader of a revival that swept through Wales ‘like a hurricane’ as David Lloyd George put it.
A journalist who covered the revival, WT Stead, was struck by the unplanned spontaneity of the services, though in other ways, the scenes closely followed the cultural script of previous Welsh revivals – melted hearts, tears, joy, fainting, spontaneous hymn-singing, public confessions, testimonials, mass conversions, the sense of ‘a country aflame’. All of this was repeated from previous Welsh revivals. What was new in the 1904 revival was that young people, particularly young women, played a leading role, singing and giving testimonials, in a break with religious tradition. And the mass media also played a central role in the revival, helping to spread the fire through their reports – one historian calls it ‘a newspaper revival’.
As Roberts predicted, there were scores of conversions – perhaps 100,000 or so. Many alcoholics gave up drink, and supporters of the revival said the entire moral climate of the country was improved, with pubs emptied, crime down and industrial unrest quelled.
Then, after a year or so, Roberts became more and more exhausted and erratic. He would dramatically stop the singing during the services, declaring there were obstacles to the Holy Spirit’s visitation, naming people in the congregation who were obstacles, including priests. He emphasized there must be total obedience to the Holy Spirit among everyone present. He became uncertain about when it was the Holy Spirit prompting him to speak, or the Devil. He eventually retired from public life, publishing a book six years later warning of the rapid approach of the Apocalypse.
What are we to make of it all? It’s a sensitive subject, particularly for an English journalist (although as my name suggests I have a lot of Welsh blood in me). For the Welsh, the 1904-05 revival was and is a source of national pride, evidence of the country’s special relationship to God, Who speaks to their warm Celtic hearts in a way the mechanistic English could barely appreciate. The academic historian, meanwhile, might look for social or cultural causes of the revival, and interpret it as some sort of mass psychic reaction to the advance of scientific rationalism and the demands of industrial civilisation.
A colleague of mine at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Rhodri Hayward, has written an excellent book on the question of how to interpret mass ecstatic experiences like the 1904 revival, called Resisting History: Religious Transcendence and the Invention of the Unconscious. He looks at how the unconscious was invented in the late 19th century, as a way for the new secular discipline of psychology to provide a naturalistic explanation for ecstatic religious experiences like trances, automatism, visions and mass revivalism.
Rhodri traces this invention from Frederick Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, who posited a subliminal self to explain the behaviour of spiritual mediums, to William James, who developed this naturalistic explanation of religious experience in his Varieties of Religious Experience, to early explorers of the unconscious like Janet, Charcot and Carl Jung, all of whom were keen to explain spiritual experiences through the naturalistic idea of the unconscious. The unconscious was a crucial device in a broader move to disenchant supernatural experiences and fit them into a naturalistic historical narrative.
What’s interesting is that the early pioneers of psychology remained very ambivalent about whether religious experiences were supernatural or not. The border between natural and supernatural explanations of ecstatic experiences remained rather thin, or diaphanous. Myers, at the end of his life, decided that some spiritual mediums really were communicating with the dead. Jung came to view much unconscious phenomena as genuine communications by spirits. William James was also convinced that some mediums were genuine and remained open-minded about whether religious experiences could be genuinely supernatural. He wrote: ‘The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point in our enquiry be held to exclude all notion of higher penetration.’
Right at the birth of psychology as a rationalist discipline, there’s uncertainty about whether the unconscious is a trash-heap of primitive impulses, or a cave of hidden treasures.
This uncertainty about apparently supernatural experiences exists for Christians too. Even during the 1904 revival, Welsh people wondered if Roberts was simply a ‘neurotic youth’, if his fits weren’t manifestations of pathology rather than divine ecstasy. One church minister wrote to the Western Mail suggesting there were, in fact, two revivals going on, a genuine revival, and a ‘bogus revival’ being led by Roberts. Roberts also became uncertain whether his visitations came from God or the Devil, and this uncertainty and sense of a cosmic spiritual war being waged in his own person eventually exhausted him.
Speaking for myself, I remain uncertain about the religious experience which healed me of years of trauma and suffering. Was it an experience of the Holy Spirit, or a moment of religious mania prompted by a near-death experience after several years of depression? If it was some sort of supernatural visitation, from who or what?
William James suggested that, even if we can’t know for sure where such experiences come from, we can still empirically weigh their effects: ‘What comes must be sifted and tested, and run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience…Its value must be ascertained by empirical methods.’
We see chroniclers of the 1904 revival trying to do just this, taking statistical evidence of the numbers of conversions in each village and town. Judged by the number of people it saved from alcoholism, the 1904 revival seems socially valuable (although Marxist historians like EP Thompson might argue that such ecstatic outbreaks put back the cause of political agitation).
It’s very difficult to empirically asses all the effects of a revival – particularly as historians can’t peer into the spiritual realm to see what might have been the effect there. Certainly, the Welsh revival had a huge impact on modern Christianity, helping to popularise a new, highly emotional form of worship which one meets on the Alpha weekend. The revival didn’t seem to have such great long-term effects for Roberts himself, though for all I know his reward was in the afterlife.
I wonder, finally, if one can combine cultural historical accounts of ecstatic experiences with an open-mindedness to the possibility that such experiences are, at least partly, supernatural. In other words, is it possible that spirits or the Spirit really do speak to humans, but that we also interpret such experiences through pre-learned cultural scripts (such as the history of Jewish messianism, or the history of Welsh revivals)? Some of those scripts are perhaps better than others, in that they more successfully ‘run the gauntlet of confrontation with the total context of experience’. I think that one problem with the Christian eschatological script is it leads to mass Millenarian expectations that the world is about to be utterly transformed into a perfect Age of Love. History has repeatedly disappointed this ecstatic expectation, yet somehow it keeps coming back.
In other news:
Talking of Millenarian expectations, the NYRB reviews a new book that looks at Millenarian expectations and the idea of the demonic enemy in fascism and communism. Behind a pay-wall alas.
The New Yorker, meanwhile, looks at a new neuroscientific attempt to measure and quantify consciousness.
I did a 5 min essay on Radio 3′s Nightwaves this week, about the 2400th anniversary of the founding of Plato’s Academy, asking whether philosophy belongs inside or outside of academia. Its 26 minutes in here.
On that theme, here’s Philosophy Bites’ Nigel Warburton, on why he’s left academia to practice philosophy outside of it. And here’s a BBC article looking at philosophy’s central role in French school education.
Here’s an New York Times article covering a successful trial of cognitive processing therapy for rape victims in the Congo.
Here’s a Spectator piece by Norman Stone looking at the political crisis in Turkey and Erdogan’s over-played authoritarianism.
Here’s a piece I wrote about the Sunday Assembly and why I don’t think God minds me playing the drums there.
Here’s a piece on how psychedelics is turning into a subject of serious academic research (man).
UCLA has a great centre for investigating mindfulness. Its website has some good free meditation podcasts.
Finally, this week I got very excited about Laura Marling’s new album. Here’s a short film she helped to make of the first four songs of the album.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
‘Er…I had depression and anxiety about a decade ago…and I think perhaps the Holy Spirit helped me…’
‘but funny thing is, haha, it…er….led me to Greek philosophy.’
‘…and…I became interested in how Greek philosophy inspired modern therapy…’
Get to the Jesus bit!
‘…but I’m also interested in Christianity, so I came on Alpha…’
‘…and it was fun. I met some nice people…’
CUT! Cue a shepherd’s crook yanking me off from the side of the stage.
Not really, but the audience cheered every other testimonial, while I felt my more nuanced message failed to hit home. I sloped off stage feeling like a rapper at a country and western festival. And then I got driven off to another church, and had to do it all over again.
Anyway, this newsletter is not about that. It’s about this. While I was waiting to go on stage at HTB, the service began. The video screens around the church flickered to life, and various uplifting images came on, of people finding transcendence in the outdoors, mothers hugging their children, the stars twinkling and so on, with big lettering superimposed saying ‘Come to find MEANING’ and ‘God is MASSIVE’. The music got louder and faster, and then suddenly the band came on stage and started playing, the lead-singer was this girl with an amazing voice, and everyone got to their feet to sing along, and I swear, I nearly cried. My heart swelled with emotion. I was tired, no doubt, somewhat frazzled. Yet a few chords of Christian rock, some lights and video, and the floodgates almost opened.
And what better proof of the Holy Spirit would there be than that? All around me, the Spirit was filling people. The second service was even more full on – it was the student service, for teenagers. Well, you can imagine. They were crying, laughing, shaking, hands aloft, on their knees, eyes closed in ecstasy. Feeling it. It reminded me of the Whirligig, the club my friends had gone to when we were 16, where we’d all taken ecstasy for the first time, except these kids were just on Jesus. Still, some of them seemed just as strung out as my friends and I back then – one kid was giggling away to himself, and I thought, in the scientific materialist paradigm of the DSM, that young fellow might be considered to have mental health issues, but here, at this church, he is loved and his eccentricity is seen as a sign of grace. (I later found out that this sort of laughter is actually quite typical of charismatic worship, so I was perhaps being a bit judgmental in thinking the boy had mental problems!)
What HTB gets is the power of music. It’s a non-cognitive form of persuasion. There I was, all ready to deliver my nuanced message of liberal ambivalence, and the music nearly swept me away. Plato best understood the power of music, how it works not by persuading our reason, but by side-stepping it, and connecting directly with our feelings. Before you know it, you’re tapping your foot, singing along, and you realise the words are ‘I Love Jesus’. Sing it enough times, and a belief or attitude is formed in your character, without you ever necessarily considering it. This is the power of music. That’s why Plato thought music should be carefully controlled in his Republic – it was too important to the formation of national character to be left to musicians, those mad prophets of ecstasy.
When I was growing up, pop music meant far more to me than anything I heard or sang in church. I had to go to church every day at school, and it left me cold. But when I listened to Otis Redding, or Public Enemy, or the Happy Mondays, or Primal Scream, then I felt something. When I played drums with my band, that meant something. The beat and the melody convinced me of the whole ideology of pop: don’t fight it, feel it, as Bobby Gillespie told me. Come together, get loaded, get higher than the sun. And when, a few weeks ago, I first saw a Christian rock band on stage at HTB, I thought: you apostates! You heretics! How dare you exploit my music to spread your religion. Stick to Onward Christian Soldiers and leave rock and roll alone!
Sweet Soul Music
What I’m belatedly realising is this is a slightly upside-down way of looking at it. Pop music – rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, dance – came from the church. It took the melodies and the emotions of gospel, and secularised them. It created a secular faith, an experience, a feeling, which brought people together, pink and brown, believers and non-believers, and gave us an emotional outlet and a brief feeling of unity, transcendence and power.
I’m reading a great book about this. It’s called Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick, and it’s about the rise of Southern Soul in the 1960s. It starts off by looking at three pioneers of soul music – Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke – all of whom took music from the gospel church into the realm of the secular and the profane. Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, released in 1954, was a cover of a gospel song called ‘It Must Be Jesus’. Charles used the same wails, shouts, calls and response as you would find in any Pentecostal church, re-packaged it, and brought it into the white, secular mainstream. That opened the floodgates for a whole litany of other shakers and shouters, from the angelic Sam Cooke, to the screaming James Brown, to the pitiful Otis Redding.
In their trembling voices is a plea – they’re begging, they’re pleading, they’re yearning. It’s like a Sufi singer, crying for their spiritual home. Except in soul music, it’s usually about a woman, ostensibly. But in that plea, we are all re-connected to a much older religious emotion, a longing for God, a longing for deliverance. The best soul songs show what Guralnick, quoting Hitchock, calls ‘knowledgeable apprehension’: they build, then fall back, then build again, then finally reach a moment of ecstasy, a wail, like the arch of a gothic cathedral – and just for a moment, you’re in the realm of the sacred. That’s how I feel, anyway, when Al Green wails 2 minutes 42 seconds into ‘Tired of Being Alone’. My favourite songs all have a moment of ecstasy, like when, 3 minutes 22 seconds into ‘Heroes’, David Bowie goes up an octave and cries ‘I…I will be king’.
The leap from the church to R&B was seen as scandalous in the 1950s. Singers like Sam Cooke were inspiring powerful, uncontrollable emotions in their female audience, but directing them not to God but to…sex! And when the music swept away white teenagers too through radio and TV, it provoked even more moral panic. One friend described the first time Sam Cooke played the white-only nightclub, the Copacabana: ‘man, those chicks were popping, it was almost like a sex act man, like he was beating up on them to get an orgasm’.
When Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner in 1964, apparently after trying to rape a girl, it was taken by many in the gospel community as divine judgement on his decision to leave the church and move into R&B. There was even a gospel song about the danger of being lured away from the church into pop music, for the money and power and sex, called ‘He Gained the World (But Lost His Soul)’:
He started out in church
Singing in the gospel choir
Every Sunday he sang a solo
That made the sisters shout and cry
The children danced the Holy Ghost
When he sang and played his tambourine
After church he’d tell the preacher
All about his plans and dreams…
It hurt the congregation when they found out the news
That he’d stopped singing for the Lord
And started singing that rhythm and blues…
Now he gained the world, but he lost his soul…
Some pop icons would repent, abandon rock and roll and go back to the church to become ministers: Al Green, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, even Richard Coles from the Communards. But most stayed where the party was, using music to try and get rich and get laid. Over the years, pop music perfected the mechanics of ecstasy – the art of driving a crowd wild with the beat, the break, the call and response, the dance moves, the histrionics, the lights, the props, the pageantry. For 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, pop music was the unofficial cult of western industrial societies (now it’s been replaced by the cult of technology and we’re mainly left with nostalgia).
Popular music provided a temporary community through dancefloors, moshpits, festival sing-alongs. It also provided community through being in a band. Bands are mini ethical communities, where you learn about obligations and commitments to one another – the commitment to show up to practice, to work on getting tight. This is what Roddy Doyle, was getting at in The Commitments: how bands are a form of spiritual community, albeit an incredibly fragile one, constantly on the verge of falling apart.
Well, of course there are all kinds of problems with pop music as a secular religion. It inspired and channeled religious emotions not towards God but towards the Pop Star, and this messed people up – particularly the pop stars. The drugs which fueled the religious exaltation also messed many people up – out of the four people in my first band, fatefully named Lunatic Fringe, three of us developed mental illnesses because of drugs. And, finally, something that was meant to be about community and transcendence ended up, in gangsta rap, in the glorification of money, power and violence. Hip hop has more power than any other contemporary music, but now you listen to the lyrics and think, my God, this is hateful. But at its best, soul and rock and roll gave us an outlet for emotions that were often left out of the rationalised world of modern capitalism. It let us feel broken, lost, hurt, lonely, longing for release, and let us know other people felt the same – like prisoners communicating with each other by tapping on the pipes in their cell.
Meanwhile, the church has moved from its initial condemnation of rock and roll, towards embracing its spirit and its music. In the 1960s and 70s, the Charismatic Renewal movement swept through western churches, with intense services accompanied by signs, wonders and ecstasies, and often powered by joyous rock music. In the 1970s, a musician called John Wimber left the Righteous Brothers, found Jesus and started the Vineyard Movement, which briefly converted Bob Dylan, and from which Mumford and Sons originate. The Vineyard Movement emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and rock music played a big part in its services. Wimber came over to the UK in the 1990s, and helped to inspire the ill-fated 9 O’Clock Service in Sheffield (the so-called ‘rave church’), and spread the charismatic embrace of rock to the affluent kids of HTB in Knightsbridge. HTB and Alpha is soaked in rock references: the first sermon I saw there, the preacher played a clip from Pink Floyd in the sermon! And from HTB, the rock-infused charismatic movement is gradually spreading into the entire Church of England. Who’d have thought it: the staid old Anglican Church has picked up the mechanics of ecstasy from rock and roll.
Check it out: this is a video from HillSong, a massive charismatic rock church in Australia. If you find it a bit too, er, plain vanilla, try this playlist I made of some great 60s soul tracks. Way more uplifting! And you know why? Because the soul songs go lower. They go down into the pain in a way this ultra-white preppie Christian rock never does. It’s so upbeat and chirpy, it doesn’t have any room for the possibility of failure. It has no blues.
In other news:
The journalist Miranda Sawyer has been exploring similar themes to this piece in a series for Radio 6 on music and emotions. In this episode, she considers the emotion of Jubilation, and interviews Sister Bliss – who hopefully I’ll be interviewing next week!
Interesting Prospect review of Antony Pagden’s new book on the Enlightenment, which argues it was based not so much on reason as on sympathy. But did it fatally lack sympathy for the majority of the world who believed in God?
Here’s an interview I did with the Irish Times.
Nice piece by Juliet Michaelson of new economics foundation, critiquing the Justin Wolfers paper on income and well-being that I linked to last week.
This is well interesting: a cultural history of exhaustion, from the Medical Humanities Centre in Durham.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, which is the main funder of mental health research in the US, has shaken up the world of psychology by rejecting DSM 5, the so-called ‘bible of psychiatric diagnosis’, as too inaccurate – before it’s even been published. Its director says NIMH is building its own new diagnostic criteria, which are alas likely to be even more biomedical than DSM.
Meanwhile, a new art show in New York is called DSM V. Can the musical be far behind?
A novelist with MS says she has a new lease of life thanks to the ‘brain enhancing drug’, Modafinil.
Look, we did a philosophy picnic on Hampstead Heath! It was fun.
That’s all for this week. Buy the book and give it to a friend!
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
He’s thus one of several English philosophers (AC Grayling, John Gray, Alain de Botton) currently trying to re-invent religion for a secular age. I’m not certain his attempt will be more successful than these earlier attempts, but before we criticize the project, let’s first outline his argument, because it’s certainly interesting.
1) Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology
Firstly, Critchley argues that all modern political ideology involves a reformulation or metamorphosis of the sacred. In this he follows the German philosopher and ardent Nazi, Carl Schmitt, who wrote in an influential 1922 essay, ‘Political Theology’, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.
The Age of Reason might have congratulated itself on doing away with the old superstition of Christianity and the Divine Right of Kings. But Enlightenment political philosophies simply created new ‘sacred fictions’ to put in the old gods’ place: The People (or Volk), the Fuhrer, Representative Democracy, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand, and so on.
So, for example, American democracy is built on the strange Deism of the Freemasons / Illuminati. The Invisible Hand, meanwhile, was taken by Adam Smith from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – at the end of the play Oedipus is carried up by an invisible hand to the Gods. Sophocles took the image from the ancient fertility myth of Demeter. So an image that originally symbolised the divine power of Nature over human affairs came to be used to symbolise the divine power of the Market.
In seeing Enlightenment politics as competing ‘sacred narratives’, Critchley follows John Gray, who made a similar critique of neoliberalism as a Utopian religion in his 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. It’s also, interestingly, in line with the recent work of the social scientist Jonathan Haidt, which has looked at how different political narratives of the sacred push different emotional buttons within our psyches. Haidt wrote last year:
The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
2) Rousseau’s civil religion
The Enlightenment philosopher who best understood the irrationalism of politics and the need for a conscious reformulation of the sacred was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau understood, better than most Enlightenment philosophers, that man “consults solely his passions in order to act”. The challenge of passionate politics (as Rousseau sees it) is how to transform a handful of alienated and selfish individuals into a mystically fused whole, in which no citizen is subordinated to any other, because all are united in the General Will. How can this mystical transformation happen? Rousseau writes in his Considerations on the Government of Poland: “Dare I say it? With children’s games: spectacles, games, and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’”. As Critchley notes, this idea “had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fetes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution”.
Rousseau was also the only Enlightenment political philosopher to follow Plato in seeing music as absolutely crucial to the formation of the national soul. In his ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages, Melody and Musical Imitation’, he blamed the decay of melody for the loss of political virtue, and expressed some hesitant hope that music might be revived and once again used as an organ to shape the national genius. Again, Rousseau’s Romantic nationalism was prescient, anticipating not just the importance of the Marseillaise and of national anthems in general to 19th century Romantic nationalism, but also the zenith of Romantic nationalism in the Nazi regime’s use of Wagner.
The crucial ‘fiction’ in Rousseau’s civil religion is the fiction of the legislator, an almost superhuman Leader who will guide the people to their mystical oneness in the General Will. The Leader is a ‘superior intelligence who saw all of man’s passions and experienced none of them, who had no relation to our nature yet knew it thoroughly” – not a man, so much as a God.
While one can applaud Rousseau’s prescience in understanding the power of the passions in politics, his plan for a civil religion is also a little chilling, bringing to mind Robespierre’s Dictatorship of Virtue and, even more, Goering’s Myth of Hitler, which likewise relied heavily on grand festivals, parades, games, music and cinema. Critchley admits: “It would seem there is little to prevent the legislator from becoming a tyrant, from believing that he is a mortal god who incarnates the General Will. Such is the risk that is always run when politics is organized around any economy of the sacred”.
Another risk of this politics of the sacred, of course, is that the politics of national ecstasy quickly turns into a bad trip of paranoia and bloodletting: Woodstock mutates into Altamont. To keep the people ‘high’, to keep the national festival going, at some point you need to start finding scapegoats to murder.
Critchley recognises the risk of bloody totalitarian dictatorship is a bit of a problem with Rousseau’s politics. He notes that the French philosopher Alain Badiou is happy to follow Rousseau and advocate violent dictatorship. Badiou writes: “Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of political will.” But Critchley, noble fellow, decides this “is a step I refuse to take”. So if a cult of the Fuhrer doesn’t appeal, what other models are there of passionate politics?
3) John Gray’s passive nihilism
Critchley’s search for what Wallace Stevens called an ‘acceptable fiction’ – some myth we can believe in even when we know it’s not true – brings him onto similar terrain as John Gray, whose new book, The Silence of Animals, also quotes Stevens heavily and is also a search for a myth we can believe in. But Critchley wittily rejects Gray’s sacred narrative:
[Gray’s pessimism] leads to a position which I call ‘passive nihilism’…The passive nihilist looks at the world with a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening, or, as was the case with the aged Rousseau’ botany. In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling into a meaning. In the face of the coming decades, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge… Nothing sells better than epigrammatic pessimism….
4) Mystical anarchism
So what form would Critchley’s more positive and optimistic politics take? He looks to medieval Millenarian anarchist movements, like the People’s Crusade of the 11th century and the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit of the 14th century. He uses Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium as a source, and notes the power of various self-proclaimed Messiahs – Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, John of Leyden – “to construct what Cohn calls…a phantasy or social myth around which a collective can be formed”.
Once again, there are some risks to such Millenarial movements: like the French Revolution or the Nazi regime, the fires of political ecstasy were stoked by identifying scapegoats and declaring a Holy War on them. Violence, Critchley notes, “becomes the purifying or cleansing force through which the evil ones are to be annihilated”. But Critchley hopes to build an ‘ethical anarchism’ that rejects such violence, or rather, than seeks to violently annihilate the self, rather than the Other. He looks to Marguerite Porete, a mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, and how she tried to annihilate herself to become one with God. He’s also interested in Christine the Astonishing, who also tried to annihilate herself: “she threw herself into burning-hot making ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days”. Astonishing indeed.
We might simply reject such movements as Medieval nuttiness, but Critchley sees them as anticipating modern anarchist movements, particularly the Paris Commune, and the Situationism of Paris 1968. He doesn’t discuss the Occupy movement, but it also struck me as having something of the Millenarial uprising to it, not least in its occasional Woodstock-esque emphasis not on process reform but on a radical transformative politics of love. This is what Critchely is groping towards. He writes: “love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty and engage with its own annihilation”. Mystical anarchism, then, is an annihilation of the self and an attempt at the ‘infinite demand’ of love – not of God, but of one’s fellow men.
Critchely also explores St Paul’s writings at length, partly through the interpretations of Heidegger and Alain Badiou, and sees in Paul a role model of sorts for the Utopian anarchist in late capitalism, longing for another world which is not present, and suffering in anguish in a fallen world that is so alien to one’s desires. And yet Paul somehow manages to hope, to believe and have faith in the not-yet, which is an attitude that the mystical anarchist also clearly needs.
6) Critchley’s spat with Zizek
The last chapter summarises an argument Critchley has been having with Slavoj Zizek, who is supposedly one of the top ten thinkers in the world, according to Prospect magazine’s new poll (if anything exposes the limits of representative democracy, it is that assertion). Zizek sees Critchely’s politics of anarchist protest (for example, his advocation of protest against the Iraq War) as simply playing into the hands of the ruling regime. It makes the protestors feel better, and even helps the regime by giving the appearance of lively liberal disagreement.
Zizek by contrast, in Critchley’s words, asserts that “the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby”. Go to bed, like John and Yoko. However, Zizek also dreams of “a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed”. Yikes. Stay in bed Slavoj!
Critchley rejects this position, arguing it involves a misinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. This seems a weird reason to reject it: surely one can reject it simply because it’s evil? Why is Walter Benjamin suddenly granted biblical authority? Critchley can sometimes get lost in critical theory’s jargon and guru-worship, and not see the ethical wood for the semantic trees. I’m glad he rejects Badiou’s call for a Maoist dictatorship, for example, but why does he still quote Badiou so reverently? He called for a Maoist dictatorship! Why quote Carl Schmitt at such length, without fully spelling out quite what a book-burning Nazi anti-Semite he was? Critchley comes across as a sympathetic and decent voice (I have no idea how the man actually lives) but the philosophers he looks to (Rousseau, Heidegger, Schmitt, Badiou, Lacan) hardly inspire confidence in the ethical authority of philosophers. You sometimes feel Critchley is too reverent before charlatan bullshit merchants like Lacan, that he lacks common sense, lacks Orwell’s ability to see through intellectual bullshit and to recognise a scoundrel when he sees one.
7) Problems with Critchley’s politics of the sacred
My main problem with Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless – similar to my problem with Gray’s new mythology – is that, for an attempt at a ‘passionate politics’, it is far too intellectual, tepid and, well, theoretical. Take this passage, where he attempts to formulate his faith of the faithless:
Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.
How is such airy-theory ever going to inspire an ecstatic popular uprising? The problem, I think, is that both Critchley and Gray are trying to construct a faith or myth and give it sacred power, but for a myth to have that power, you have to really believe it. You can’t just suspend your disbelief. This is the major difference between Critchley and St Paul or Christine the Astonishing. The latter two were perfectly happy to risk their lives for their sacred narratives, because they really believed in Jesus and in the after-life and so were happy to give up the world, even to see the world destroyed. And, crucially, they didn’t think it was possible to meet the ‘infinite demand’ of love without God’s help. They are weak, but God is strong. Critchley embraces Paul’s sense of human weakness, but is not capable of accepting the idea of God’s strength, which renders the ‘infinite demand’ of love even harder to meet. This, to my mind, is a problem with humanism in general: how to meet the infinite demand of ‘love thy neighbour’. I think Tobias Jones may be right: it is much easier to love thy neighbour when you have a common God above you and within you. Beneath modern cosmopolitanism, after all, is the Stoics’ sacred belief that we are all citizens of the City of God.
More broadly, do Critchley or Gray really believe their myths, or are they just playing? What are they prepared to sacrifice for them? Likewise, what are the followers of De Botton’s Religion for Atheists prepared to sacrifice, other than the occasional Sunday morning? It all seems very post-modern, very cafe-cosmopolitan, ironic, safe, non-committal, and a million miles away from either medieval Millenarianism or modern fascism or Jihadism. It seems like cafe chat. Talk is cheap.
My second issue with this new postmodern embrace of religious myth is this: let’s say you succeed in creating a Supreme Fiction which people really do believe in, which pushes their sacred emotion buttons and mobilises a mass movement. How can you be sure that your new religion doesn’t veer into the orgy of scapegoat-sacrificing that previous ecstatic politics have veered into? How do you make sure your Woodstock doesn’t turn into Altamont? How do you make sure the leaders of this movement don’t start believing, as Hitler started to believe, that they really are the Messiah, the embodiment of the national genius, Wotan? As I said in my review of Gray’s book, myths are slippery things – they take hold of us and use us as vessels, like the alien face-suckers in Prometheus.
My final concern is that it seems like the Two Cultures are getting further and further apart. On the one hand, philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) seems to be rejecting the Enlightenment, rejecting liberal humanism, and looking to irrational and often violent religious myths for consolation and inspiration. On the other hand, the social sciences are informing a new ‘evidence-based politics’ – what Carl Schmitt would perhaps say as the deification of the Randomised Controlled Trial. The Two Cultures seem more and more incapable of talking to each other.
We need both! Critchley looks out into a bleak future likely to be characterized by “religious violence and environmental devastation”. In such a future, I am certain we will need good myths. But we also need a way to preserve scientific literacy and a respect for scientific evidence. That’s why I find Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics one optimistic meeting ground, bringing together both philosophers and social scientists. I think we should be wary of entirely rejecting Socratic humanism and completely embracing an irrationalist or Dionysiac politics. We are a generation that didn’t experience Nazism, and so have a more optimistic attitude to the politics of ecstasy. I like Dionysiac ecstasy as much as the next man, but I prefer it in church to a nationalist Fuhrer rally. As Eric Voegelin put it, don’t immanentize the eschaton.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all started on Tuesday.
On Tuesday evening, I watched a film called Room 237. It introduces us to some of the online obsessives who, in the last few years, have put forward complex and often very sophisticated readings of Kubrick’s horror-masterpiece of 1980, The Shining. We hear from six critics, each putting forward a different master-theory of the film: that it’s about the Indian genocide, or the Jewish holocaust, or the faking of the moon landing. Some of the theories are more credible than others, but the film certainly convinces you that Kubrick is playing some strange semantic games.
There’s the question, for example, of whether the ghosts in the hotel are real or just a reflection of Jack’s inner demons. He only ever sees the ghosts when there are mirrors around. Who is the management of the hotel, the higher powers driving him to kill his wife and child? There’s also the weird ending, with the photo of Jack from a party at the hotel in 1921. He is told that he’s ‘always’ been the caretaker. Has he been reincarnated? And who in damnation is that guy in the bear suit?
Then there are the little details that have driven online theorists crazy with speculation. The film is full of continuity errors – furniture appearing then disappearing, photos on the wall changing arrangements. The first scene in the hotel takes place in a room which appears to have an impossible window (see the map below) – as if the hotel’s architecture doesn’t make sense, like a building in a dream. These hints of hidden meanings and codes have driven people to construct theories bringing together every single detail in the film, from typos on the pages Jack writes (‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’) to the cartoon figures on Danny’s bedroom door. Everything becomes soaked with hidden significance.
One way to understand the film is as an exploration of how we have an emotional need to find hidden meanings, as Sigmund Freud discussed in his essay, Das Unheimliche, or The Uncanny. Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson repeatedly read and discussed this essay while writing the script for The Shining.
In his essay, Freud begins by exploring the etymology of the German word unheimliche, the opposite of heimliche which means ‘homely’ or ‘familiar’. He suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when the homely is made strange and frightening to us. Freud then explores some of the plot-devices with which Gothic writers produce this feeling in us – ghosts, dopplegangers, telepathy, curses, apparitions in mirrors, inanimate objects coming to life, events from the past repeated, numbers repeated, symbols and patterns repeated, all of which produce the over-riding sense of “something fateful and unescapable”. Freud suggests that these Gothic plot-devices work on us emotionally because they reconnect us to our pre-modern animist beliefs. The uncanny, he writes, connects us to
the old animistic conception of the universe, which was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled by the spirits of human beings, and by the narcissistic over-estimation of subjective mental processes (such as the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts…the carefully proportioned distribution of magical powers)…It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage of primitive man, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces which can be re-activated.
Romantic literature attempted to keep alive this old animist paradigm within the scientific-industrial age, and succeeded for a while, but gradually such beliefs came to seem more and more childish to us, and were pushed to the margins of our culture, into nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and then into the ‘low art’ of fantasy, horror, science fiction and comic book culture. Modern men and women duck into the low dives of ‘trash culture’ to re-activate their primitive belief in the spirit-world.
Kubrick recognised this cultural-religious function in sci-fi (he explored animist-religious ideas in 2001: Space Odyssey) and in horror-fantasy. He rang up Stephen King at 7am one morning, in their first conversation, and launched in with ‘I think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don’t you?’ King, perplexed, asked ‘why do you think that?’ ‘Because supernatural stories all posit the basic suggestion that we survive death.’ They appeal, he later said, to our ‘longing for immortality’. They also posit the suggestion that there is some higher pattern, some secret dimension, to our banal material existence, which is also perhaps an optimistic idea, even if the secret dimension turns out to be Evil.
Engineering the Uncanny
What Kubrick does in The Shining, and what David Lynch does in his works, is masterfully re-activate these animistic traces and engineer a sense of the uncanny. (Kubrick made the crew watch Lynch’s Eraserhead before making The Shining to give a sense of the mood he wanted to evoke, while Lynch’s Twin Peaks is clearly influenced in turn by The Shining). Take Kubrick’s repetition of certain numbers. Freud noted:
we of course attach no importance to the event when we give up a coat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on board ship is numbered 62. But the impression is altered…if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that everything which has a number – addresses, hotel-rooms, compartments in railway-trains – always has the same one, or one which at least contains the same figures. We do feel this to be ‘uncanny’, and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number…
Kubrick seized on this idea for The Shining. The cover of his edition of Stephen King’s novel is covered with scrawls of him trying to work out ways to use the number 217, which in King’s novel is the hotel-room where Danny and Jack see a witch (it’s changed to the number 237 in the film).
Kubrick repeats the number 42 throughout the film – on Danny’s shirt, on the number-plate of Hallorann’s car. When Danny and his mum are watching TV, it’s showing a film called The Summer of 42. The numbers 2, 3 and 7 when multiplied together make 42. The stools in the bar where Jack meets the ghostly barman are arranged in a group of four and a group of two. And so on.
Kubrick also plays with mirrors, twins, dopplegangers and doubling to suggest hidden connections between figures – Danny is connected by telepathy to Hallorann, Jack is haunted by the ghost of the previous caretaker Grady, or maybe he is the previous caretaker. David Lynch did the same sort of thing in Twin Peaks – Laura is doubled with her evil doppleganger from the Red Room, and also with her cousin Maddy. Her father Leland is also Bob, who appears when he looks in mirrors. In the Red Room, the giant is doubled with the dwarf, who speaks in reverse in a sort of mirror-language, just as Danny does when he chants Red Rum. Both Kubrick and Lynch also use garish carpet patterns to suggest hidden patterns in reality (they should have opened a store together: Uncanny Carpets).
The Uncertainty of the Uncanny
At the heart of the uncanny is a confusion of the self and its boundaries. The philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that in the modern secular age we all have ‘buffered selves’ that are walled off from nature and from each other. In the animistic age, we had ‘porous selves’, selves without firm boundaries, invisibly connected to each other by thoughts, energies, elective affinities, and also connected to the spirit-world, capable of being invaded by benevolent or malevolent spirits. In the modern world, we are autonomous agents trying to figure out what to do in an indifferent universe. In the animist world, we are the creatures of the Fates, threads in some cosmic pattern of Good and Evil.
The uncanny is a particularly modern emotion, however, because it rests on an ambiguity and uncertainty about whether there is a natural or a supernatural explanation for the eeriness of the atmosphere. The Bible is not an uncanny work because it is very clear that all the supernatural events are the work of God or the Devil. There is no ambiguity. The Shining is an uncanny work because there is this uncertainty. This is what initially drew Kubrick to King’s novel. The ghosts appear at the corner of our eye, at the margins of our modern rational consciousness. The events in the Overlook Hotel could be explained in secular Freudian terms as fantasies emanating from the hidden violence in the Torrance family – Jack’s murderous anger and Danny’s Oedipal rage. The Shining could simply be a story of male domestic violence against women and children. Likewise, Twin Peaks could simply be a drama about an incestuous family.
Kubrick complicates matters further by introducing a political level of significance. The violence in the film could also point to the historical violence of white Americans against Indians (the hotel is on an Indian burial-ground and there are Indian symbols around the hotel) or African slaves, or the Nazis against the Jews (42 was the year Hitler began the Genocide). Or the film could simply be a story of how the political elite (the hotel management and its powerful guests) use stooges like Jack for their state-sponsored mass murders – look, in the final photo, how Jack’s hand seems to be held up by the rich people around him. He is their puppet, their errand-boy.
Can we escape the past?
Is The Shining really an optimistic film, as Kubrick suggested all horror stories are? On one reading, the film could suggest humans are trapped in cycles of violence, frozen in sin like Jack at the end of the film, doomed to repeat our crimes over and over. On the other hand, Danny and his mother escape the Overlook Hotel. Danny is not lost in the maze – he retraces his steps and gets out. Perhaps we too can escape history.
Perhaps the film suggests that we’re at risk when we overlook things, when we forget the crimes of the past – like Dilbert Grady apparently forgetting that he killed his wife and children. Art holds a mirror up and show us our dark side, reminding us to take care, showing us a way out of the maze like Ariadne’s thread or Perseus’ mirror-shield. Kubrick said: “There’s something inherently wrong with the human personality. There’s an evil side to it. One of the things that horror stories can do is to show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly.”
Or perhaps that is too neat and utilitarian an explanation of art’s power, and art is in fact more dangerous than that. The uncanny, after all, is a dangerous emotion. Once activated, how can we be sure it will stay within the bounds of art and not spill out into reality? How can we be sure we will not ourselves be possessed by the old belief-system and find ourselves back in the demon-haunted world we thought we had left behind?
Kubrick wrote: “Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If [horror] required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.” For better or for worse, we crave the uncanny. We have a deep emotional need for patterns of meaning and intimations of immortality. Freud would say that was the vestige of our primitive self, Jung would say it was our true self seeking its Maker.
Either way, modern life does not that satisfy this emotional need for the uncanny, so we turn to art, and to The Shining. We try to decipher Kubrick’s intentions as if he was God, and every detail of His creation is a clue to His meaning. Like lost souls, the acolytes haunt the Kubrick archives at the University of Arts London, which I imagine as a vast warehouse containing an almost infinite number of crates. And in one of those crates, perhaps, lies the key.
In other news:
John Gray is our next guest at the London Philosophy Club, on April 9. You can sign up here.
How useful would randomised controlled trials be in public policy, in areas like education for example? The debate rages on the internet, as Michael Gove dismisses ‘bad academics’ for blocking evidence-based policies, while some academics suggesting there are risks to thinking everything can be quickly solved by an RCT. Rebekah Higgit summaries the debate and provides lots of useful links here, while Evgeny Morozov warns of the risk of ‘solutionism’ in public policy, in his new book reviewed here.
Teenagers used to define themselves by whether they liked Blur or Oasis. Now they define themselves by whether they own Mac or Samsung, argues this piece. And, to prove how chic geekdom has become, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s new film sees them become hapless interns at Google. Sounds…pretty dire!
I’m working on an article looking at five years of Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT), the British government’s flagship mental health policy which has brought CBT to the masses. Here is a good blog by a therapist looking at the data coming out of IAPT. And here’s a good new article in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology looking at the limits of evidence-based medicine in psychiatry (behind a pay wall alas).
A philosopher and psychologist debated whether psychology was a science or an art on Radio 3′s Nightwaves this week. The debate then rumbled on for days on Twitter…for all I know it’s still going. The discussion is 34 minutes in here.
Some new books. My friend Tom Chatfield from the School of Life has a new book out called Netymology, a dictionary for tech language. Another friend, Tom Butler-Bowden, has a new book out called 50 Philosophy Classics – I’ll publish an interview with him soon. I’m still reading David Esterly’s book about wood-carving and philosophy – it’s really brilliant. I admire David a great deal.
Finally, here’s a Tumblr that made me laugh a lot this week – a collection of lousy book covers from the world of fantasy fiction. Enjoy, and see you next week.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Last month I interviewed the philosopher Roger Scruton – the interview is on YouTube, above. If you want to download it as an MP3 just copy the URL and take it here.
The interview was inspired by this interesting article which Roger wrote for Aeon Magazine, in which he warned that modern culture was being submerged under a sea of fake emotions, fake culture and fake intellectuals. I read his book Modern Culture, and became interested in his idea of how high culture took the place of Christianity in the last two hundred years as an ethical guide and educator of our emotions.
Scruton suggests that, during the Enlightenment, as religion started to lose its central place in our society, art and literature took its place. They ‘ceased to be recreations, and became studies, devoted, as divinity had been devoted, to the nurturing and refining of the soul’. High culture gives us objects of beauty, the sublime contemplation of which lifts our souls from the transient and gives us intimations of the eternal. It gives our lives a sense of meaning (even if that meaning is tragic): ‘Our lives are transfigured in art, and redeemed of their arbitrariness, their contingency and littleness’. High culture transforms our raw emotions, particularly our feelings about love and death, giving what could be savage and destructive emotions a shape, a meaning, and a place in communal life.
Scruton also believes that high culture acts as a sort of cult. He follows Nietzsche in suggesting the root of culture is in cult, not just etymologically but psychologically. It provides an alternative sort of community for a society that has “out-lived its gods”. He writes:
A high culture is a tradition, in which objects made for aesthetic contemplation renew through their allusive power the experience of membership. Religion may wither and festivals decline without destroying high culture, which creates its own ‘imagined community’, and which offers, through the aesthetic experience, a ‘rite of passage’.
I wish someone had told me, as I sat in an Oxford tutorial picking over Virginia Woolf, that I was going through a cultic rite of passage. I would have felt a lot more heroic.The problem, as Scruton and other cultural conservatives like Allan Bloom see it, is that at some point – probably around the 1960s – high culture lost its cultural authority, and instead our societies became submerged in a sea of crude barbarism (rock and roll, TV, Hollywood etc) which totally lacked the ability to educate our emotions and shape them to their highest form. Instead, the rise of popular culture has meant a 60-year rush to the lowest common denominator of emotion, intelligence and even audio frequency, culminating in the zombie sub-woofer of Skrillex or the face-stomping brutality of David Guetta (Scruton doesn’t exactly put it like that, but that’s pretty much what he means).
When we try to face the serious things in life (love, death), we either do so through a sort of violent fantasy that is really a form of wish fulfillment, in porn or war-porn, in which there is little education of the emotions. Or we create highly sentimental or kitsch art in which the higher emotions are ‘faked’.
Meanwhile, a generation of ‘fake intellectuals’ have undone high culture from the inside, by subverting traditional ideas of beauty, truth and justice and putting in their place a sort of irresponsible and ultimately meaningless wordplay that appeals to a certain sort of pretentious undergraduate (Scruton is no fan of post-1968 French intellectuals like Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida, as we discuss).
I suggest to him in our interview that things aren’t perhaps as bad as all that – the most popular commercial radio station in the UK is not Technobadger FM (despite my constant promotion of it) but Classics FM. And the modernist literature once confined to a small elite is now widely read at schools and universities. High culture has, if anything, become the province of the masses. But I just want, quickly, to explore his idea that high culture could be some kind of replacement for Christianity.
Why high culture is no substitute for religion
There are several problems with this idea, as I put to him in the interview. Firstly, it’s elitist. The best religions, including Christianity, work partly because they are inclusive both to the intellectuals and to the masses. They have esoteric philosophical ideas for the chin-strokers, and rousingly emotive hymns, rituals and festivals for the masses. The reason Stoicism or Neo-Platonism never took off in the Roman Empire was because they only offered theories for the elite, and nothing meatier and more emotional for the masses. So high culture fails to include the poorly educated, while Jesus was sublimely inclusive, hanging out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, shepherds and other social outcasts. What would Jesus make of Glyndebourne?
Secondly, as Scruton himself notes, in aesthetics, the focus is on the signifer (the work of art) rather than the signified (God, nature, the cosmos etc). So when Oscar Wilde says he admires the ritual of Catholicism, what he really means is he digs the incense, the costumes, the chanting, the candles. Religion becomes reduced to an aesthetic display, a show, a spectacle.
Thirdly, related to the last point, in high culture, the priest or prophet figure becomes replaced by the artist. We start to see, from the Enlightenment on, a profane veneration of the artist as sacred prophet – we start to get scenes of German women kneeling at the feet of The Master, Friedrich Wagner. The problem with this is your average artist is a very different kettle of fish to a priest. Artists may be inspired geniuses, but they are also often very bad human beings, who exploit everyone around them for the sake of their art. So it’s a pretty poor exchange to swap priests for artists. You end up with the worship of rock stars and thousands of groupies offering their bodies up for a night with their God. Priests may not be as glamorous or as good at publicity as rock stars, but the best of them are quietly devoted to the service of others rather than the glorification of self.
Fourthly, in high culture there is no necessary connection to good works, to charity, to washing the feet of your fellow humans. Instead, the goal is the aesthete’s delicious enjoyment of their own sentiments. It’s ultimately a rather subjective and selfish form of self-gratification, compared to the selfless humanitarian work that religion seems to inspire in some people (though clearly good works without a bit of selfish culture can be quite philistine – as Mathew Arnold argued in Culture and Anarchy. There’s a delicate balance between devotion to others and the cultivation of the self).
Finally, I don’t think the ‘imagined community’ of high culture is any substitute for the actual community of a church, an umaah or sangha. When you read, you read alone. When you go to a concert, you go alone or with a friend, you sit next to strangers, and you leave as strangers. Only in an ecstasy-fueled rave is there any sort of community to rival the close and loving community of genuine religious communities (and that only lasts three hours or so, while you’re up. Then you come down and creep into bed for two days and never see your new best mates again).
The lessons of Christianity for the Skeptic / atheist movement
I think it’s useful to think of these things with respect to atheism / skepticism too, particularly as atheists set up churches and imagine themselves as secular religions. I’m all for creating closer ethical communities, with or without God. But the fledgling ‘church of atheism’ has a long way to go. Firstly, we’ve noted that religion acts as an educator of the emotions. This is not the case with Skepticism. While Skeptics may pride themselves on being a ‘cognitive elite’, they often seem quite an emotionally-challenged community. This is particularly obvious in the Skeptic movement’s favourite art. Skeptics adore superhero, sci-fi and fantasy works, which typically glorify power and technical prowess, without any deep understanding of love, tragedy or mortality. That’s not always true (Lord of the Rings has a decent sense of tragedy) but it’s mainly true. Skeptic science may be rich, but the artistic culture beloved of Skepticism is emotionally flat and adolescent.
Secondly, Skeptic or atheist culture does not seem to me to be that inclusive. The tribe defines itself as the ‘cognitive elite’, as a tribe of ‘Brights’ or ‘geeks’. It is mainly a tribe of university-educated middle-class white males. One of the things that Christianity has which atheism has yet to have is, as Rowan Williams put it eloquently in his debate with Richard Dawkins last month, a “refusal to ignore those who are at the edge of their society”. Christianity, inspired by the example of the outcast Jesus and his outcast tribe, has a strong sense of mission to help the marginalised, the weak and the vulnerable. Of course one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have such a mission (think of George Orwell). But it seems to help. The Skeptic / atheist movement by contrast seems often to be a celebration of the congregation’s smartness compared to the ignorant masses.
A love for the weak and the marginalised may be the key to Christianity’s emotional education. I’m not sure that atheist / Skeptic communities allow people to share their own weakness and vulnerability, in a way that the best religious communities do, from Alpha to L’Arche to Alcoholics Anonymous. Religions ‘educate our emotions’ partly by allowing us to open up to one another and admit our shameful sense of weakness and vulnerability. Skeptics, by contrast, often seem to be in rigid suits of protective emotional armour, and to be far more comfortable with impersonal subjects like astronomy or IT. If they do express emotions, it’s either a geeky love of sci-fi / fantasy or highly vindictive attacks on their enemies.
This lack of emotional availability and vulnerability extends to the leaders of the Skeptic / atheist movement. Two comedians have set up an ‘atheist church’ in Islington. Well and good. But are they available to their congregation throughout the week, night and day, to offer them support? Alain de Botton says he wants to start up a Religion for Atheists. Fine and dandy. But I’ve given several classes at the School of Life, and I’ve never once seen him there. By contrast, Nicky Gumbel – who set up the Alpha Course – is at his church leading the course every single Wednesday, and serves his church every other day of the week too. He devotes the same amount of relentless energy serving his church as Alain de Botton does to pursuing book sales. I’m not criticising Alain for that – I am the same, only lazier and less successful. I’m just saying, that’s the difference between a writer and a priest, and between culture and religion.
In other news this week:
Here is a wonderful essay from Aeon by the philosopher Stephen Asma, on our emotional similarity with other mammals.
How to get more girls into science subjects at university? Perhaps by taking Psychology A-Level more seriously – girls make up 70% of the students for that subject, and typically get twice as good results as boys.
The LSE in London has a new exhibition looking at the relationship between fiction and philosophy.
A shocking piece in the New York Times on young people getting addicted to Adderall through ADHD prescriptions.
A piece from the BPS Digest warning that CBT self-help books might do more harm than good for some depressed people prone to rumination, if they just encourage more rumination.
Birkbeck is home to a wonderful interdisciplinary project on dreams and dreaming. Listen to the talks at a recent seminar here, including Robin Carhart-Harris (yes, the Imperial investigator into magic mushrooms and ecstasy, also known as The Man With The Best Job In London) talking about the neuroscience of dreaming.
And finally, this coming Tuesday I’m leading another evening session in the Philosophy For Life course at Queen Mary, in the Lock-Keeper’s Cottage from 6pm. This Tuesday we’re discussing the Stoics. It’s going to be great – come along.It’s free and open to everyone. Here is a photo from this Tuesday’s session.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>