Thursday, January 19, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass": Audiobook Review

"Tell them true stories"
What did you love best about The Amber Spyglass?
I loved the evocation of the underworld of the dead souls. Philip Pullman may draw inevitably from Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton, but he uses these venerable sources well. He reshapes his last volume of His Dark Materials to expand his vision of the cosmology that promises a second chance at Eden, if one tempered by realities not even fantasy can avoid.

What did you like best about this story?
The boatman's warnings as he ferries certain characters across to the land of the dead remains haunting and moving. It channels classical motifs inventively and engagingly.

What does Philip Pullman and full cast bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
Again, the range of voices makes the slower parts (and there are many, alas) move along. If I'd have just read this novel, I might not have pressed on through the particularly perfunctory parts often involving a character returned from the second installment, Mary Malone. Also, the disjointed nature of much of this plot challenges patience, even if moments glimmer.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
Adversary or Authority: who do you love?

Any additional comments?
Like even the beloved Tolkien, fellow don Pullman falters when he tries to wrap up his trilogy. The climax happens well before the end, and a particular character's fate is almost an aside, barely seen, when other writers would've made this a blockbuster showdown. Pullman elaborated so much earlier that too much of this feels didactic and not adventurous. Still, despite the structural clunk, his characters can tug at your heartstrings and even the walk-on parts evince the author's profound humanism and the Keatsian "negative capability" at work. (Audible US 1/16/17)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Subtle Knife": Audiobook Review

"Upending the Story of the Fall, part 2 "
If you could sum up The Subtle Knife in three words, what would they be?
Inventive, unpredictable, menacing

What did you like best about this story?
Philip Pullman's second installment delves into the tale of the Fall and the rebel angels, combining this with speculations about dark matter and parallel worlds, in an engaging manner. I like the intellectual underpinnings of this segment, more than the main action.

Have you listened to any of Philip Pullman and full cast ’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
Yes, and this compares equally to the first I heard, The Golden Compass. More witches this time, and we are introduced to Will Ransom as a co-protagonist in another Oxford. He seems hesitant and petulant, but we learn why this may be if we stick to the storyline ahead.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
The showdowns of two main characters ending each of the two last chapters.

Any additional comments?
I liked the introduction of Mary Malone. Her demeanor changes from chipper to awed, understandably, as she learns verification for some of her far-fetched research. The return if briefly to the academic setting where the first book began is welcome. It's Pullman's milieu. (Audible US 1/10/17)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass": Audiobook Review

The Golden Compass By Philip Pullman"Against the powers that be"
Would you consider the audio edition of The Golden Compass to be better than the print version?
Did not read the book, but I reckon this works well on audio, as it's been recommended as one of the best such adaptations we have of a novel by an ensemble cast.

What did you like best about this story?
The inventive, slightly altered world. We have amberlit, chocolatl, coalsilk, and smokeleaf as indicating this realm nearly like our own, in the wake of Pope John Calvin and the lands of New Denmark and New France indicating a bit of a shift from our own time and society.

What about Philip Pullman and full cast ’s performance did you like?
Philip Pullman handles the narrative evenly. I liked the variety in the bear and human and witch voices. The children and adult roles both meshed smoothly.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?
Two. The fate of the sundered daemons, and Serafina Pekkala's lonely admission.

Any additional comments?
The story has plenty of sudden turns. That kept the pace lively. But some of the latter half dragged for me, not enough to ruin the storyline, but enough to make me wonder if the next two installments will turn didactic or talky." (Audible US 12/16/16)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mark Williams' "Ireland's Immortals": Book Review

How the Christian Irish regarded their island's pagan divinities, in medieval and modern times, comprises the two halves of Ireland's Immortals. Mark Williams, an Oxford medievalist, unravels the tangled threads in texts that challenge even the skilled interpreter. Old Irish remains formidable for scholars, and the fact that the evidence exists only in copies centuries after its first renditions onto parchment, deep within already Catholic times, complicates any explicator's task. Dr. Williams remains steady throughout this study. His accessible style remains academic but blessedly free of jargon or cant. His glossaries summarize key concepts and his footnotes address arcane debates.

His history of the gods of Irish myth examines key writings left by the monks and scribes, from the period after conversion. Williams estimates that within a half-century after the Patrician period, Ireland would have been effectively under Christian control. Although pre-Christian practices may have endured, they diminished rapidly, despite the imaginations of later bards eager to insist on secret continuity with centuries nearly up to our own. Williams separates the archaic from the innovative elements inserted into these stories and chronicles preserved within monasteries. Although these tales and accounts were tamed, a "ferocious weirdness" persists in surreal or juxtaposed scenes, distinguishing imagery from the dour scenarios in Anglo-Saxon sagas such as Beowulf, for instance.

These Irish pre-Christian versions resemble, as in the Book of Invasions, a chronological origin myth of successive waves of those landing on the nation's shores, the configurations of Romanesque architecture.  Williams compares the sagas to these simple, repeating structures which are decorated with teeming surface details. The medieval corpus, furthermore, rises as a massive edifice, if resting on slender foundations. Pseudo-scholarship at its most ingenious labored to match biblical lore with Celtic supposition. This tension, concentrating around the meaning of the "god-people" the Túath Dé, sustains itself within the literature Williams examines. Part inherited narratives, part concocted alterations shaped into a Christian mindset, these tales' impact faded by the end of the Middle Ages. The Irish seemed to lose interest. Only in the nineteenth century did curiosity revive about gods.

Part two delves into more recent reworkings of the myths of the Irish gods and goddesses. Romanticism, antiquarianism and the occult generated speculation. W.B. Yeats and George Russell epitomized the poetic turn of the Celtic Revival at the end of the Victorian period, in the wake of a British passion for the classics and the pagan to counter the tamed, the scriptural and the stolid. Gods, as redefined by the Irish revivalists, emerge as "spiritual entities." Among the Anglo-Irish gentry rise intellectuals eager to fabricate a past for their country, rooted in wisdom of the earth and appeals to the forces lingering, despite the reign of Christendom, supposedly on fringes of the Celtic homeland.

The ninth chapter introduces William Sharp (1855-1905). Taking on the feminine alter ego of Fiona Macleod, Williams engagingly shares this fantasist of Gaelic Scotland. In Fiona, we encounter a fabled "self-sequestered Highland visionary." Williams labels her as "an imaginary personage, albeit an alarmingly insistent one." Characteristic of this author's tone, he keeps his investigations lively even as he grounds them in careful judgement. He counters the bent suppositions and fey imagination lavished upon sources that, in modern times, create a "feedback loop." Williams analyzes distortions within American anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He adapted his Oxford dissertation oddly; the 1911 compendium persists as a New Age "crank piece."

For Mark Williams' predecessor at his university proved both an "exorbitant Celtophile" and a misled eccentric. He conjured up the peasantry as informants for a pan-Celtic fairy belief system. Evans-Wentz incorporated an unnamed mystic's testimony. Yet this was none other than George Russell. Williams reasons that Evans-Wentz betrayed a "spiritual crush on Russell." The endurance of this account lies beyond the scope of Williams' work, but he admits he had to cut a third of his own draft. The results remain impressive, even if the source of the apt John Cowper Powys colophon beginning Chapter Nine lacks attribution to that fabulist, as obsessive as many in this volume, of strange magic.

Nowadays, Williams tracks a second arc, again with diminishing attention to the old gods, among Irish writers. The Túath Dé and their replacements, the Túatha Dé Danann, as the Irish supernatural race, endure within the "wide uptake" by creative classes outside the isle. The fine arts alongside Celtic Paganism and Celtic Reconstructionism enshrine goddesses, notably the fire spirit of Brigit.

Unfortunately, opposition to the ancient forces still exists. Vandalism of historic sites and a modern sculpture to the Celtic sea-god testifies to the powers of these representations as feared by Christians. Unlike other cultures where monotheism replaced paganism, Williams concludes that in Ireland, a "restless refusal to resolve" the ambiguities of the survival of the venerable if often barely recalled deities within a Christian context distinguishes that island's literary legacy within the extant sources.

Fittingly, Williams ends his five-hundred page survey with a tribute to the late John Moriarty, a philosopher and shaman. Moriarty's "ecological and psychic sensitivity" to raise the terrain's specters signifies the restoration of "imaginative vitality." In a nation divided by income inequality and sectarian squabbles, Moriarty's vision and precision Williams's precision contribute valuable insights that may guide all those who look to the Irish tales and Celtic heritage as a relevant force of energy.
(Interview with Mark Williams here. Amazon US 1/11/17 and Amazon British 1/12/17)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"MYFAROG": Book Review

How far the creator of this My(thic) Fa(ntasy) Ro(le-Playing) G(ame) can be critiqued as for his creation, like many controversial artists of all sorts, I leave to the inquirer. Some have slagged off this tabletop RPG on hearsay or rumor; it's unclear how many naysayers have actually played it and found it wanting. To be sure, it's challenging. These 160 closely printed pages fill with charts and directions, even if version 2.6 is streamlined. The author encourages novices to follow suit, and as with younger players, to leave off the stamina and power modules. I am in the minority, for I have nobody to play this with. But, given my research into Ásatrú and native European spiritual and cultural pursuits, MYFAROG sparked my curiosity.

For now, I'll look at the context within which this RPG unfolds. Perhaps solo practitioners may cobble out a way to invent scenarios? I also wonder how those incarcerated, or lacking a GM and others available to join in, might deploy the characters, settings, beliefs, and actions entertainingly. I welcome any suggestions as to how players have modified or customized this for such applications, even if this logically may contradict a RPG.

You can play as various types of humans, or as a wood elf, Fairling, or god-fathered or divinely born. Traditional magic followed by natives appears there on Thule to be giving way to religion as Ásatrú. Groups on the islands correspond roughly to nine nations of ancient Europe. This text refers to a map included in the book, but this is superseded by an eponymous online site where the maps of these locations can be downloaded via pdf's.

Scanning the contents, you'll see on the first page nods to Homer, Tacitus, the Stoics, the author of Parsival, Lovecraft, and Tolkien among others. That anticipates the brickbats tossed at this game for its labeling of some races along with species beyond the Thulean natives and nobles. Surely some of these venerable storytellers also stand accused under contemporary standards promoted by many as suspect of bias and imbalance? The frank fun of such narratives generates good and bad forces, those seeking to subvert and infiltrate, and those trying to resist and fight back. In other conflicts, these may take the name of vampires, zombies, or aliens. And as the writer reminds us (156): Thule can be reassembled to be what the participants want it to be. It's not historical. Perhaps those hostile to MYFAROG did not reach this penultimate page of the text proper.

It is, however, intriguingly based on a stretch of northern Norway that may have been free of glaciers even during the last Ice Age, thanks to the Gulf Stream. Thule corresponds to this territory, and suggests that its proto-European peoples may have survived from times far before. Their struggles can parallel realms as far back as the Stone Age for some, transitioning into the Bronze, or for others, the Iron Age. "Be prepared to enter a world very different from our own" (4) is advice to take to heart. It's fantasy, and exists on its own terms, which one is welcome to tinker with.

Gender, social class, birth place, life stance, tribe, age, origins, and talents all inform one's character role. Dice serve to toss in the element of chance or luck, as in every existence. Gear must be donned and skills amassed as much of the material relates in such a barbaric location to battle, quest, attack, and defense. While the laws may not be those of our own era in regards to sexual behavior, the code is based on pre-Christian and pre-Roman standards of honor above all. Fidelity is praised; non-conformity often receives the force of consequences for resistance.

Outside the Thulean circles to be guarded, bands of rivals lurk. This creates conflict, for no land in this cosmology rests unperceived by intruders. As with any contest, the enemies are subtle and their methods sinister. Betrayals can happen, but the price for exile or outlawry is harsh indeed. Animals, animated objects, nymphs, human NPC's, trolls, and the fearsome ettins (a particularly inventive set of foes) eye Thule with their motives.

Names, a calendar of festivals and feasts, deities, and samples of character sheets fill out this volume. The level of detail may seem excessive, but as with any visionary landscape populated by the enchanted witness turned seeker, this will not seem neither superfluous nor extraneous data. (Amazon US 1/7/17)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Michael Moynihan + Didrik Soderlind's "Lords of Chaos": Book Review

This book has sparked much attention, considering its volatile subject. Reading it at a distance of 15-20 years from the events, the subtitle "the bloody rise of the Satanic metal underground" betrays the gist and the gore of the account. That is, it examines the media role in "satanic panic" while it responds to it. Michael Moynihan, joined by Didrik Soderlind, extracts the roots of the black metal scene, especially in Norway. The first three chapters range widely, with surprising scholarship sprinkled into the narrative, with engaging metaphors and clever asides. Entertaining and educational, this start bodes well to expose this scene for everyday readers, who likely lack knowledge firsthand.

The authors then delve into the "bloody" events. They preface their manner of investigating this milieu in an "unflinching fashion" with a reminder some may overlook. Twice on pp. x/xi they remind us. "It is not our job to pass judgment on our subjects; we expect our readers to have the intelligence to do that for themselves." And, noting our our world needs "dangerous ideas more than ever," even if it "may not need the often ill-formed and destructive ideas expressed by some of the protagonists" in this study, nevertheless "we felt all along that this is an issue for the individual reader to decide." Intriguingly, my public library system shelves this in the Young Adult musical section.

While the central characters are well-known within the small black metal community, the authors enrich their presentation with scholars and observers less expected. For instance, Jacob Jervill, a Christian minister, laments the decline of attention paid to evil within the State Church of Norway, and he analyzes the vacuum left by the diminished force of that tradition in a system where affluence, conformity, and comfort spark not contentment but unrest among some growing up feeling outsiders.

Likewise, in Ch. 10, critiques by the members of Ulver, by Simen Midgaard, and by Pal Mathiesen deepen one's understanding of the forces tempting youth towards acts of destruction and sounds of despair. Varg Vikernes, as a lightning rod for such energies, typically avers: "I never say anything to 'provoke,' but I 'provoke' intentionally to say something." (qtd. 162) His pronouncements fill many pages of this work, and the authors editorialize vis-a-vis his "ex post facto revisionism" his habit to frame previous remarks in light of his present concerns. These do evolve or shift, as the Nordic concentration among this set turns from a youthful dalliance or dance with the "adversary" to a more folkish and saga lore-inspired Odinist or Ásatrú focused revival of the suppressed old beliefs. (213)

Michael Rothstein speaks of the willingness of certain believers to then turn to Thule and UFOs as extended forays into Northern occultism. These searchers then find authorities, however discredited, to support their worldview. (188) So, Lords of Chaos (the title taken rather anti-climatically from a clique of Ft. Myers, Florida, teens led by one of their number who called himself God) serves too as a reminder of how alternative and fringe movements gravitate towards earlier conspiracies and cabals.

For this, Hendrik Mobus' interview offers the most in-depth example. Calling himself a scapegoat like a "modern Loki," (292) he and Varg (p. 162) justify a shared ambition to recast black metal in a "militant heathen" (303) mode of attack. In retrospect, the authors place the satanic adjective of their subtitle in a time period late in the 20c, waning more than waxing by the time of the 2003 2nd ed.

But as Vikernes rationalizes, the dramatic claim of why medieval stave churches were burned across his homeland echoes, even as the mindset of the perpetrators may move with the times, new and old. "Show Odin to the people and Odin will be lit in their souls." (96) Many may scoff at this confident proclamation, but a few do seek out heathen ways as more invigorating than Christianity's claims.

P.S. This book while footnoted could have been improved by an index. The chapters skip about and transitions diminish as the pages add up. It aims for an international coverage but this weakens the later sections. As it progresses, it's as if journalism has been inserted or recycled. Women barely appear; this may not be the fault of the authors, but it symbolizes a lacuna worth questioning. The clip art and illustrations may lighten density but it lessens the impact as not all are necessary. It could have listed a discography, to supplement URLs for indie labels and told more about the music itself from leading bands as well as their deeds, crimes, and punishments. A needed if now-dated resource.
(Amazon US 1/4/17)

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Brad Warner's "There Is No God and He Is Always With You": Book Review

There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places
I've enjoyed the series of engaging books by Brad Warner joining his Zen practice to his life and music. He writes naturally, in a conversational style, and roams widely in his speculations. His new book takes on the God question. He adapts "inmo" from his mentor Dogen for the title "There Is No God and He Is Always With You." Typically gnomic, the kind of challenge Warner likes taking up.

He makes intriguing connections. Stoner rock, punk, his Japanese work experience, his battles with facing a fatal disease that runs in his family all inform his reflections. Like his other works, this book does feel like a series of extended blog entries or reflections more than a coherent whole, and the informal approach may frustrate academic types of readers. But as in comparing the Buddhist concept of being reborn over eons to the Norse one of Ragnorok, he hits on a few memorable insights overall.

On p. 66, he opines that God exists because we ask questions of him. On p. 77, he cites a song by Om, "Meditation is the practice of death" to remind us of our mortality. I confess that Warner has more fortitude than me or the friend he mentions who stays awake at night fearing self-annihilation. But Warner has always championed a tough-it-out on the cushion method to staring down the truth.

He nods to others who support his own search. Christopher Hitchens' typically provocative statement that even if Jesus was born to a virgin, performed miracles, and rose from the dead, still this track record would not prove to Hitchens that "what Jesus said was valid" (129) fits well as Warner shows with Dogen's skepticism about supernatural powers. While Warner validates his form of Soto Zen, he leaves open the doubts that occupy many of us who may be less convinced by proclamations of any who deem themselves holy. As he reminds us on p. 175, God is "a dangerous word" to bandy about.

Therefore while I may not be as convinced as Warner about the usefulness of adapting this loaded word within a Buddhist framework, he does encourage one to examine the Big Questions. And that, combined with his commonsense style and accessible musings, makes for another worthwhile book, as Warner deals with middle-age, restlessness, and the continual quest that beckons for the thoughtful, contemporary seeker. It's loose and casual, but it also sums up serious, dogged inquiries.
(Amazon US 1/5/17)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Christopher Hitchens' "The Portable Atheist": Book Review


As many reviews on Amazon precede mine, I will offer a sample of the places I found most engaging. Christopher Hitchens received plaudits from some and suspicion from others, even fellow travelers, for what seemed in the wake of his "god Is Not Great" bestseller a cash-in with not as much editing of the inclusions as a rapid assemblage. Too many of the 47 excerpts drag on; a careful compiler would have excised portions and given overviews, while translating passages from other languages and footnoting arcane references as so much material is drawn from sources long ago.

His introduction, on the other hand, pleases. It's a joy to read Hitchens, whether you agree with him or not. Early on his contrast between god-like cats and dogs who treat us like gods (15) establishes his point memorably. His frank question why "semi-stupified peasants in desert regions" receive revelations of their Creator vs. those among the rest of mankind resounds. (18) His humility that whether innate or inexplicable, we can still laugh at our folly of invention humbles us against such faith-claims. (25) As he cites his friend Richard Dawkins, we are all atheists of some sort, for who among us still worships Jupiter? (20) Hitchens thunders against theocracy as the original totalitarianism, the tyranny exerted against anti-theists who take on a more active stance of opposition against the despots determined still alive among us who exact punishment against thought-crime. (23)
Hitchens pithily and typically sums up the struggle: "the main enemy we face is 'faith-based.'" (29)

Among the entries, I perked up with Thomas Hobbes' examination of the four causes for the "natural seed" of religion. (45) David Hume's extended foray into the contradictory elements of a deity demanding both praise and terror serves as an early examination of the force that compels our fealty. (61) Then the poet Shelley tackles both the argument by design (89), and the fact that even two centuries ago, "men of genius and science" championed atheism (94) attests to this venerable legacy.

Leslie Stephens' name may be less familiar than the three mentioned above, but he responds to Cardinal Newman's appeal to conscience for belief in God with the plain admission that such an appeal "has no force for anyone who, like most men, does not share his intuitions." (155) Anatole France wittily captures the conundrum at Lourdes, full of crutches "in token of a cure." His friend points "to these trophies of the sick-room and hospital ward" to whisper: "One wooden leg would be more to the point." (168) Emma Goldman reasons how in every age, God has been forced to adopt himself to human affairs, a petty meddler rather than an eternal, awesome force for goodness. (186)

Bertrand Russell earns his allotted span in this anthology. He encourages the dogmatic reader to read papers of opposing views, good advice still. "If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason to think as you do. (275) Carl Sagan wonders logically why God is so visible in the biblical world while so obscure in ours. (318) Dawkins conjures up Mt .Improbable, where the seeker can climb by a gentler back slope towards rational discovery rather than a leap up the front precipice, as a way towards clarity. (387)

Victor Stenger's chapter 37 on cosmic evidence is lengthy but rewarding, as he dismantles arguments. A zero energy universe, rather than a miracle, is exactly its "mean energy density" for one appearing "from an initial state of zero energy, within a small quantum uncertainty" initially necessary. (314) While John Updike's rambling conversation in his novel Roger's Version puzzled me at first, the explanation of how quantum fluctuations or tunnels via Higgs Bosons sparked what became time and space prepared the way helpfully for the learned astronomical discussions by scientists in later pages.

Ibn Warraq's in-depth exegeses from Why I Am Not a Muslim similarly fill out a need here to get away from a steady attack on the Jewish and Christian versions of an Almighty. He also debates the principle within Islam of supersession, a series of revelations urging departure from earlier forms of belief to higher and then single ones. "If there is a natural evolution from polytheism to monotheism, then is there not a natural development from monotheism to atheism? is monotheism doomed to be superseded by a higher form of belief, that is, atheism--via agnosticism, perhaps?" (396) Wise words.

H.L. Mencken, for those contemplating pagan or pantheistic retreats, lists outmoded powers above and below to illustrate the dead voices of forgotten or outmoded forces once called upon by millions of our ancestors. Michael Shermer's discussion of the legend of the Wandering Jew seems superfluous, but Sam Harris' "In the Shadow of God" states a fundamental warning. "Whenever a man imagines that he need only believe the truth of a proposition, without evidence--that unbelievers will go to hell, that Jews drink the blood of infants--he becomes capable of anything." (457) A twist on the Grand Inquisitor of The Brothers Karamazov (the latter tale not here) as to God and morality?

Back to Dawkins, he notes how the Bible fails as a "truly independent guide to moral conduct," serving instead as a "Rorshach test" where people pick out what reflects their own morals and interests. (341) The God in this volume fails, he adds, to ultimately care about his creation. (336) Steven Weinberg seconds this. "But the God of birds and trees would have to be also the God of birth defects and cancer." (372) Salman Rushdie reflects: "Only the stories of 'dead' religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you." (381) A.C. Grayling denies that an atheist should label him or herself as one. "The term already sells a pass to theists, because it invites debate on their ground. A more appropriate term is 'naturalist,' denoting one who takes it that the universe is a natural realm, governed by nature's laws." (475) This spins back to Hitchens' start.

That is, he broadens the other contested term. "Religion is, after all, more than the belief in a supreme being. It is the cult of that supreme being and the belief that his or her wishes have been made known or can be determined." (loc. 393) This may be reductionist for scholars of the philosophy of religion. I aver so, but Hitchens tries to focus on the disputes among atheists over an "intervening" divinity. Men and women will continue, he avers, to create such. "We are unlikely to cease making gods or inventing ceremonies to please them for as long as we are afraid of death, or of the dark, and for as long as we persist in self-centeredness." (loc. 385) One last reminder, from the introduction again. "If anything proves that religion is not just man-made but masculine-made, it is the incessant repetition of rules and taboos governing the sexual life." (loc, 418) Hitchens, for all the scattered evidence marshaled here untidely at times against the presence of such a querulous God, endures as a presence. (Amazon US 1/5/17)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fate of my fathers

Last year, I remarked to a FB thread that the Irish might have suffered trauma in surviving An Gorta Mór. A recent study verified this epigenetic transfer to children born to parents who had endured the Holocaust, after all. I was mocked immediately as if I was trying to support white privilege, and as if I was discounting somehow the experience of the Middle Passage and black slavery and abuse.

Not sure how all this equates in the victimhood sweepstakes, but it wasn't my intent to enter that contest. I merely wondered, as Séan de Fréine did half a century ago in his little book The Great Silence, how the impact of the sudden and dramatic loss of one's identity rooted in language, culture, and family might be shattered so its effects were transferred by mores and habits from those effected.

In de Fréine's account, he focused on the nationalist legacy, but I recall hearing Garrett O'Connor speak of this in nature as well as nurture terms twenty-odd years ago. His chapter on this topic in Tom Hayden's The Great Famine collection of essays suggested from O'Connor's treatment of we Irish how this might have come down 150 years later, and left imprints on dynamics and complexes.

My ancestral region has lost 80% of its population since that mass death and emigration crippled its economy, its coping mechanisms, and its people's prospects. How might that have emanated in my forebears? How, huddled in a farmhouse rebuilt around 1851, might they have dealt with this--or not?

Psychoanalyst Michael O'Loughlin explores this, and he lists some of the research advanced. It's no longer apparently a fringe idea, despite my FB deniers. As genetics progresses, so do explanations.

Now, I write this short entry far from my expertise, but I raise it anew as I happened to see one pundit fear how this upsetting behavior undergone by millions now might echo down the DNA so to speak. The shakeup among half the nation in terms of their expectations for the election leaves many around me self-medicating with more pot, more booze, and more indulgences. I lack this reaction, but it may be indeed my inherited detachment from emotion from my own clan, who knows? An useful article in Discover Magazine in March 2013 elaborates discoveries of Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf.

Apparently I am vindicated. While my own family history is left for discretion off this day's reflections, I can see evidence for supporting patterns I have inherited from stress and separation very early on. While this does not ease my challenges directly, it does offer me explanations for why I am at least in part--is it nature and nurture?-- the way I perplexingly am, facing a topsy-turvy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brian Eno on 2016/17

This post lacks a stable URL so I reproduce it in full for your contemplation. Happy New Year 2017. 


The consensus among most of my friends seems to be that 2016 was a terrible year, and the beginning of a long decline into something we don’t even want to imagine.

2016 was indeed a pretty rough year, but I wonder if it’s the end - not the beginning - of a long decline. Or at least the beginning of the end….for I think we’ve been in decline for about 40 years, enduring a slow process of de-civilisation, but not really quite noticing it until now. I’m reminded of that thing about the frog placed in a pan of slowly heating water…

This decline includes the transition from secure employment to precarious employment, the destruction of unions and the shrinkage of workers’ rights, zero hour contracts, the dismantling of local government, a health service falling apart, an underfunded education system ruled by meaningless exam results and league tables, the increasingly acceptable stigmatisation of immigrants, knee-jerk nationalism, and the concentration of prejudice enabled by social media and the internet.

This process of decivilisation grew out of an ideology which sneered at social generosity and championed a sort of righteous selfishness. (Thatcher: “Poverty is a personality defect”. Ayn Rand: “Altruism is evil”). The emphasis on unrestrained individualism has had two effects: the creation of a huge amount of wealth, and the funnelling of it into fewer and fewer hands. Right now the 62 richest people in the world are as wealthy as the bottom half of its population combined. The Thatcher/Reagan fantasy that all this wealth would ‘trickle down’ and enrich everybody else simply hasn’t transpired. In fact the reverse has happened: the real wages of most people have been in decline for at least two decades, while at the same time their prospects - and the prospects for their children - look dimmer and dimmer. No wonder people are angry, and turning away from business-as-usual government for solutions. When governments pay most attention to whoever has most money, the huge wealth inequalities we now see make a mockery of the idea of democracy. As George Monbiot said: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the purse is mightier than the pen”.

Last year people started waking up to this. A lot of them, in their anger, grabbed the nearest Trump-like object and hit the Establishment over the head with it. But those were just the most conspicuous, media-tasty awakenings. Meanwhile there’s been a quieter but equally powerful stirring: people are rethinking what democracy means, what society means and what we need to do to make them work again. People are thinking hard, and, most importantly, thinking out loud, together. I think we underwent a mass disillusionment in 2016, and finally realised it’s time to jump out of the saucepan.

This is the start of something big. It will involve engagement: not just tweets and likes and swipes, but thoughtful and creative social and political action too. It will involve realising that some things we’ve taken for granted - some semblance of truth in reporting, for example - can no longer be expected for free. If we want good reporting and good analysis, we’ll have to pay for it. That means MONEY: direct financial support for the publications and websites struggling to tell the non-corporate, non-establishment side of the story. In the same way if we want happy and creative children we need to take charge of education, not leave it to ideologues and bottom-liners. If we want social generosity, then we must pay our taxes and get rid of our tax havens. And if we want thoughtful politicians, we should stop supporting merely charismatic ones.

Inequality eats away at the heart of a society, breeding disdain, resentment, envy, suspicion, bullying, arrogance and callousness. If we want any decent kind of future we have to push away from that, and I think we’re starting to.

There’s so much to do, so many possibilities. 2017 should be a surprising year.

- Brian

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye 2016

"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning."
T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding."

Yes, many mourn the celebs and rock stars who die, the election results in Britain and then America, this annus horribilis. But look at the height of the plague in 1353, or the Nazi incursions as of 1943. So my wife in her blogpost, with me under a fictional persona, part me that is, has me say to her in comfort. The compassion of a gerbil, that's me, so I'm told. And my character replies gamely how he does have a heart, if hidden, and that he prefers to keep it from the endless lamentations on social media and the constant indulgences of grief against the cold hard facts of mortality and inevitability.

That dovetails with a book landing in my hands entirely by fate this week. Harvard Law's Brazilian political philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Ungar's The Religion of the Future posits a mentality when we can summon up a force against belittlement of our talents, creations, and aspirations fulfilled, but one that somehow--here's the rub--that accepts the reality of our oncoming death, our existential groundlessness, and our insatiable desires to go beyond the limits of time, space, resignation, and life.

A heady work, and I am progressing very slowly, re-reading passages and pondering them. In a true memento mori or vademecum on my Kindle (I bought that e-book from Verso on sale). It reminds me of the scope of a book Ungar rejects for its Axial Age thesis, Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution (2011) which I labored through a few years ago, and a third, which I studied exactly two years ago, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Like the time-slowing-to-a-crawl labyrinthine slush of J.C. Powys novel Porius, and the tale of the most irascible SOB ever by Halldór Laxness, Independent People, the discipline of a long immersion, if over a long attenuated timespan, of challenging texts rewards me. I admit I leap between such and lighter fare, but the stimulation of these tomes I like.

Image: "Janus-like" statue, Boa Island, Co. Fermanagh. For the New Year and new hopes for healing.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Newton's Third Law

Even if New Year's is two weeks away, I've resolved this past year to expand my reading material. The echo chamber's become a common phrase the past few months, derided by some who blame whatever ideology one leans to for keeping half of America tuned out from the other half. Both sides sometimes could care less about the other (small 'o' rather than The Other elevated by one side). But I figure it's stimulating to do so, and besides, I've always had unpredictable (a bit at least) and contrarian ideas.

So, I read Ross Douthat in the NYT regularly. This conservative Catholic intellectual's an anomaly, certainly. His take on the campaigns and culture wars from his perspective reminded me not of my Jesuit college, which was decidedly of the "social justice" tilt, but of a few authors I tried out in the stacks during my stint. I roamed them to find among the Eric-Gill- Hilaire Belloc- Chestertonian axis an argument for distributism, a return to guilds, and a William Morris-inspired direction of a benign reform less hostile to the spiritual than the Marxism and/or liberation theology favored by certain professors. I mulled over these issues in my undergrad years, during Reagan's first term, and while I opposed him, I found that the knee-jerk denigration of those like my family who voted for the Gipper as an antidote to the identity politics promoted by the Dems diminished the voices of "my" folks. Unions declining, education faltering, the Church diminishing, their trusted verities faded rapidly. This white working class is mostly mocked, but I understand it.

Not that I backed the GOP, but I didn't cotton to the attitudes of those limousine liberals either. The earnest Michael Harrington's version of democratic socialism appeared as one option some of my circle entered, if gingerly. We were from the blue-collar ranks, the first to go far with higher ed, from average parishes and schools. But the Jane Fonda-Tom Hayden in the People's Republic of Santa Monica's noblesse oblige the DSA exuded for L.A.'s NPR crowd on the Westside, few of whom were natives and many from New York and other bastions of privilege, rankled me instinctively. (I get that way whenever my hometown is critiqued by airy arrivals from wherever.) And when I questioned proto-Maoist radicals at UCLA a few years later during my doctoral quest, as to where their efforts to recruit among the likes of my father's machinists would wind up, as factories left the U.S., I did not get much response as to a shift to consciousness raising among the temps in their monitored cubicles.

Now, as many may have buyer's remorse as to whom they voted for to bring back those tool-and-die jobs my dad did, the choice of the right-wing, as fickle as predicted in their embrace of cronies from capitalism's elite to fill the Cabinet to come, bodes poorly for reforms. No surprise there. But in retrospect, an April 23rd 2016 piece by Douthat I found this morning in the paper pile shows how the lately fevered fears of certain "alt" sites and voices can be placed within a larger context, one the media pass by. I'm unsure how much aligns with what I stumbled across in college, but here goes.

Douthat documents the roughly 2/3 bias in programs (highest in my field of English Lit) against conservative candidates otherwise equally qualified for a post competing with a liberal applicant. 10% of the humanities professoriate total its right-wing. A minority no advocate lobbies for more spaces in the ivory tower. This movement Douthat labels as '“neoreaction,' which in its highbrow form offers a monarchist critique of egalitarianism and mass democracy, and in its popular form is mostly racist pro-Trump Twitter accounts and anti-P.C. provocateurs." (See here for more on the latter contingent's variety, tallied by one who delights to épater le bourgeois.) Douthat suggests these two phenomena emanate from a common core: "the official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts."

The Whiggish expectation that we advance inexorably towards a better future outweighs the Newtonian third law of actions triggering equal and opposed reactions. They may be balanced in that one President follows another, and their racial and social stances may be seen in opposition. But are they equal in reactions? Both kow-tow as any elected figure in the U.S. of any stature to bankers, developers, lawyers, tax-dodgers, connivers, and cabals. A shadow government runs our real system. For me, a change of the front man does not mean the backing band has changed utterly for the better. It's as if the lead singer lip-synchs what the talented songwriter pens, the charmer out of the spotlight,

Going beyond the easy depictions of idolizing Him, Douthat discerns a void on campuses. If a discontent wants to revolt against "tenured radicalism," what to do? Those think-tanks don't attack
"the very roots of the modern liberal order." (Deft spin to the derivation of a less-heralded radical.)

"Deep critiques" abound on the left.. Douthat notes that while scholarship on Carlyle or T.S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling continues, few publishing on these writers would admit any admiration for their politics. Their often racist and anti-semitic outbursts, akin to the antebellum South, make this sympathy taboo. Yet when we erase polarized opposites of Foucault or Zizek, we may lack contexts.
But while reactionary thought is prone to real wickedness, it also contains real
insights. (As, for the record, does Slavoj Zizek — I think.) Reactionary assumptions
about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order,
the evils that come in with capital­-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the
ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for
family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes,
sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.
Both liberalism and conservatism can incorporate some of these insights. But
both have an optimism that blinds them to inconvenient truths. The liberal sees that conservatives were foolish to imagine Iraq remade as a democracy; the conservative
sees that liberals were foolish to imagine Europe remade as a post­national utopia
with its borders open to the Muslim world. But only the reactionary sees both.
Is there a way to make room for the reactionary mind in our intellectual life,
though, without making room for racialist obsessions and fantasies of enlightened
despotism? So far the evidence from neoreaction is not exactly encouraging. The official intelligentsia’s permanent and increasing leftward tilt, and the appeal of explicitly reactionary ideas to a strange crew of online autodidacts. is also evidence that ideas can’t be permanently repressed when something in them still seems true.
Maybe one answer is to avoid systemization, to welcome a reactionary style
that’s artistic, aphoristic and religious, while rejecting the idea of a reactionary
blueprint for our politics. From Eliot and Waugh and Kipling to Michel Houellebecq,
there’s a reactionary canon waiting to be celebrated as such, rather than just read
through a lens of grudging aesthetic respect but ideological disapproval.
Now, where are the insights Douthat invites? Tribalism has been blamed for the intransigence of the divides into which we are born, are classified within and expected to uphold for a demographic tick-box or a employer-mandated form. Order is fragile, but as with global warming and neo-liberal pieties, do these impacts merit dismissal as we crest into planetary chaos? The ebb of standards in the arts and discussion we lament within the chattering classes (at least of a certain age, before the advent of word processors and smartphones), but we engage in the same technologies and share the same memes as our younger charges. I personally get frustrated by the casual reversion to f-this and s-that all around now, but my peers shrug it off. I'm happy that the definition of family expands to same-sex couples and any whom have long faced ostracism. But I worry about the "single mom" trope as if this origin excuses any criticism of blame for the damage a fragmented home may inflict on young or old.

As for patria, I suspect this when nationalism stands for inbred mores and backward selfishness. Much as I have a soft spot for the Irish Tricolour, I remain detached about flag worship, and even the standing for the Pledge discomforts me as I've grown to realize this compromised U.S. Yet I defy its liberal norm in arguing if fruitlessly against open borders as I believe any jurisdiction by its nature should exercise self-deliberation among its citizens as to how many newcomers it can include. This clashes with everyone around me, but it's a tenet for me squaring with sustainable economies, eco-friendly lifestyles, and populist decision making rather than the centralized dictates that the au courant  musical hit Hamilton champions, if glossing over the real Alex's pro-British elitism and trade that favored the wealthy and the Feds rather than the states and those resisting Beltway power.

Religion needs no debate here. It's been contemplated for all my life, let alone many of my posts. The appeal of the atavistic and the ancestral pulses strongly within me. Its dangers and its delights create discomfort and rouse discussion. Suffice to say that "its strange viral appeal" buzzes in my sly soul.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The In-Crowd

How much do our quick decisions and snap judgments rest on our implicit, innate bias? I have often wondered about how our ancestral groupings, to use Dunbar's Number of no more than 150 people among whom we can establish trust and form bonds, wired into our brain capacity, works in out post-prehistoric cosmopolis. Two NYU psychologists published their summary of an apt experiment.
This finding — that people are reflexively prone to “intergroup bias” in punishment — is consistent with what many scientists believe about humans’ evolutionary heritage. Homo sapiens spent thousands of years in close-knit communities competing for scarce resources on the African savanna. Members of the in-group were presumably sources of help, comfort and cooperation; members of opposing groups, by contrast, were sources of threat and violence. As a result, the tendency to instinctively treat in-group members with care and foreigners with caution may be etched into our DNA.
Our finding sheds some light on the nature of implicit racial bias. Because people frequently form group memberships on the basis of race, the same biases that emerge along group lines may underlie many instances of racial discrimination. This human tendency is almost certainly inflamed when different racial groups are exposed to racial stereotyping and institutional discrimination, but it may start with common instincts driven by the pressures of evolution.
We need not resign ourselves to a future of tribalism. On the contrary, our research suggests that people have the capacity to override their worst instincts — if they are able to reflect on their decision making as opposed to acting on their first impulse. These insights, for example, could inform the types of implicit bias training programs that the Department of Justice is now requiring for nearly 30,000 prosecutors and law enforcement officers.
Acknowledging the truth about ourselves — that we see and think about the world through the lens of group affiliations — is the first step to making things better.
A short entry today. But as I've been mulling over the pull of the tribal and the push of the social, this merits archiving on this blog. Living in one of the most polyglot cities in the world, in a situation few since maybe the few million in ancient Rome have encountered, I wonder about the pressures exerted. Diversity and multiculturalism are taught and seen in the couples and children around me. But the force of the familiar, as in the perpetuation of the old country and the mother tongue, also dominates the local scene, and it does not fade as immigration sustains the counter-assimilation tide.

Sorry if you expected me to review this Berenstain Bears title. I can guess the plot, however. There's sure a lot of headbands sported on that playground. It's encouraging to see two bespectacled hip-cubs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dependent Arising + the Dodgers

At my last sitting, our moderator raised a couple of insights I wanted to share. First, that the fundamental concept of dependent arising, that nothing happens in isolation, in Buddhism connects with the problem many have of taking ideas out of context. Then, extracting phrases, elevating persons, exaggerating points generates the distortions that can plague us when we loosen moorings. We drift from the safety net.

That is, meditation can ground us into a state of awareness, to explore the realm where our mental (and sometimes to me visual if less so than it "appears" most people who report their recollections) constructs solidify or emerge under a contemplative situation. This may seem airy, but becoming more cognizant of how we respond in our interior to forming awareness around an image, a thought, a thing can help us understand how the formative process works within to solidify the intangible, to reify the imaginary, and to harden the fluid. In turn, this reveals how we conceptualize and then may try to hold on to the ever-changing as if permanent. And we see, I'd add, how many huddle around their role model, their candidate, their champion, as if he or she can solve their problems and offer solace or success if only we believe enough in Her or Him to rally to their party, to vote, to hope. Change comes no matter.

As I've stated often, my disengagement with this status quo grows with age. But all around me, pain and unease manifest themselves. In those who fear the new power, in those who cheer the new power. But transferring our own actions and identities onto another clashes with our own capability to create change in ourselves and in those around us, practically rather than politically or ideologically. For those removals of "agency" (a buzzword now, but it works in philosophy...) to a figure we idolize or disdain distances ourselves from the true force of energy and enthusiasm, that we possess within us.

If a lesson in impermanence is needed, it's all around us. Administrations come and go, programs get implemented for better and worse, and campaign promises evaporate more than they find fulfillment. Too many in my estimation have rushed the past year and a half into worshiping one figure or another. They forget that, like rooting in my analogy for the red team or the blue team, that losses will happen and victories may diminish or increase, beyond the desperate intercessions made by the fans.

I used to watch the Dodgers much more (and not at all since they were blocked by cable in their hometown due to an endless dispute), but I realized that their own instability provided me with more worry than pleasure. What should have been entertainment became for me a struggle, as my emotions rose or fell with the hapless Blue Crew too often. So, while I remain loyal, I remain detached. That sort of emotional removal may not work as well for a society where a supposed leader can unleash sorrow or promote joy through his or her policies, but it may be necessary, for one's own sanity.

Part of me wants to engage, part of me to disengage. Within a system I dislike, my atavistic allegiance is to the underdog, the marginal, the misfit. That may include the befuddled home team, who never fail to fail again, since 1988''s World Series. I believe that more self-consideration will benefit me so when I choose a response, it's better informed and less knee-jerk or group-think. Meanwhile, CNN blares in the room above, the newspapers I get grow thinner and more expensive, and the reasons I have to put my trust in the powers-that-be dwindle as I try to look inwards, to take my own path, even if that means I blaze it and it lacks any definition or label, any post or marking.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hardwired for religion?

I want to share two competing arguments about the influence that religious aspirations impose upon our neural networks. These do not prove the existence of religion or divinity. But they assert in overlapping analogies the human craving to find explanations in patterns, dreams, visions, yearnings.

In Quartz, Olivia Goldhill admits the shortcomings of a recent report on tests conducted on 19 people, but she finds the neuro-theological research encouraging. "The Neuroscience Argument that Religion Shaped the Very Structure of our Brains" cites Jonah Grafman: Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. 'As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,' he adds." Intriguingly, as religious activity takes up so many portions of activity in society, so in the brain. It's diffused, so no particular part generates this locus.

Anthropology is needed to expand this field, and Goldhill warns that it's too facile to generate brain scans as some solution to a very intricate underpinning of our ancient mindset. The manufacturing of empathy, however, appears to overlap with where we think about God, Grafman and colleagues aver.

Last night, reading far afield as a newcomer I explore the topic of the folkish vs. universalist inclusion in heathen and pagan European-centered fellowships, this metaphor intrigued me, speaking of wiring. I leave aside the medium and focus on the message. (From a controversial source. I choose not to have any pingback spark or interference occlude my discussion here.) This practitioner asserts, in my paraphrase, that the "European" native, pre-Christian path is the correct software. If "partly compatible" software is installed, it's akin to Buddhism. If it's "malicious," as with a "virus," it's liable to crash the internal drive, akin to Christian or Islamic teachings. Reboots may delay failure. But unless the system runs with the proper program, the computer will keep failing. "Desert" religions possess within this inherent flaw, as they originated within other cultures. Inevitably, there's one fix.

I've been mulling this over lately, as previous blog entries have shown. My sittings with others revolve around another model, that the dharma liberates all, as a therapeutic program rather than any revelation as if a supernatural imposition into human affairs. Part of me, personally if paradoxically, wonders why the desire among countercultural pagans and heathens requires a faith-based direction. One large stumbling-block is that these very terms are defined by the Christian opposition, those outside the permitted expression of belief and ritual labeled in late antiquity "hicks" in the "sticks."

As the egghead, I ask why, if we have evolved past slavery, cannibalism, the divine right of kings, and trepanation, some insist that the solution to our woes is a rejection of the secular humanist tradition that has tried to overcome our nastier and brutish tendencies. Unlike Saul, I reckon few of us turn Paul on some Damascene road, falling off a horse thanks to a call from on high. Or Luther's fear.

Is the more persistent if more low-key call for a return to the heart's pulse and the earth's embrace sufficient to heal our post-modern, consumer-driven, and market-based mentalities? Can we find solace in any old ways? Isn't the aspiration of no gods, no rulers a truer, anarchist expression of the potential within us to conquer the demons within? Or, is this trust in human perfection itself an ideologically suspect campaign? My wife isn't wired for religious quests as I am, for instance. She suspects what I sustain, if irrationally. I'll continue this investigation next post, adding perspective.