Saturday, January 20, 2018

The March of Time


Today, my wife's marching for a second year downtown with hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, mostly women, with fewer children, dogs, and men. I reflect on the past year and more, but often since the last election, I prefer to retreat into my books, whether Kindle or print, to read reflectively.

Rather than research for my "professional development" or reviews of new titles, this aims at not an external but an interior goal. The Benedictines called it lectio divina. Catholic schools when I attended may have called it spiritual reading. Whatever the post-Catholic varietal, I need this "safe space." But it's not that. It's one where I confront hopes and fears, anxieties as well as contemplation.

My wife and friends would doubtless interject this, when I am not spewing what they regard as a jumble of reactionary-neofascist elitist populism leaning towards left-libertarianism more than conventional (!) anarchism, that I am in this natural state unless roused by work, meals, or chores.

I am choosing as the hunches move me. Julian Barnes' harrowing Nothing to Be Frightened Of was peddled a baker's dozen years ago as the first "post-Dawkins" take on mortality and our fears of death. Not sure about that, but despite or on account of his avuncular (albeit when he wrote this he was about four years older than I am now) digressions and erudite detours, his rambling ruminations and his Francophone excursions, I found his audio rendition so engrossing, listening to it in the dark before sleep, that I purchased a copy of the book. I liked the Canadian and British covers, with various Tarot/ chapbook depictions of Le Mort more fitting than the American version, which had his stereotypically featured English countenance, as Barnes (as myself if in a somewhat more Irish if also elongated physiognomy, I have been told by colleagues) looks exactly like a reader would expect.

Then I turned to my e-book public library's "if you liked this, then" options and browsed. The past year, since I discovered at last that the system had finally synched with Kindle, I've been borrowing audio and print (?) titles diligently, and I save 200 more as treats on my ever-changing moods wishlist. It's fun to preview samples, and like the bookstores where I have spent so long a part of my past life I am overwhelmed with tomes around where I type, and terribile dictu in the disarray of my garage, it's an efficient if frustrating (for there as in brick-and-mortal realm, so much is not where you want it electronically or physically--what you search for in vain only whets your appetite) pursuit.

I dutifully filled notes with many highlights of the next suggested title, the restive, grouchy (if not as acerbic as sensitive-plant critics had averred) David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. That formidable study (my review linked quotes extensively from Hart's dense analysis, rewarding if rambling) in an endnote directed me to the somewhat (until math and biology kicked in halfway) easier God's Undertaker investigating if religious inquiries trump materialist dogma as to if an intelligence (steady there--as agency or impetus rather than design per se?) might be discerned. Lennox as an informed scientist handles data confidently, adroitly. and commendably with modesty tempered from both and all sides, and I did enjoy his witty analogies summing up the various ways science itself calculates the immense odds against our being here at all. And it's not merely the Anthropic Principle all over again. He marshals detailed arguments and documents them.

Both Lennox and Hart share a commendable connection with Barnes and the author I will mention next. They all expect a sophisticated audience (Hart perhaps too much as his volume, the only one from a university press, expects philosophers whereas a lot of "laypeople" are curious sorts who want to know precisely where his quest aims) and they reward by upending some of our pet hobbyhorses.

Somehow I wound up no idea how (maybe one of the previous three authors quoted him) with G.K. Chesterton's 1908 Orthodoxy. Not the best title as he admitted, but he answered his foes who challenged him, after he took on the chattering classes' champions in Heretics, to respond in turn with his own metaphysical riposte. So this blend of blurred autobiography (shades of Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, I wonder?) and theological assertion of the necessity of paradox as the manner in which people grasp feebly the shards of the divine presence and plan in what seem contradictory fashion served as the prolific (too much, that) pundit's foray into theological discourse for the rest of us. Many admire GKC's aplomb. Fewer admit he can exhaust one's patience with his relentless reversals.

Maisie Ward's early biography of her friend, who was published by the firm of Sheed & Ward she co-founded, has been relegated as a "hagiography" in Garry Wills' first book on GKC which for all its acumen does smack as he'd admit now of the eager grad student more than the sagacious scholar he became. Apropos of saint-hailing, the blogger "Innocent Smith" offers a needed reminder that if the fringes alone claim GKC and his circle for their own cause only, this bodes not well for all.

Ward too takes pains now and then to call GKC to task, for after his conversion to the Church finally occurred in 1921, his compulsive, frenetic graphomania on top of a regular lecture circuit far and wide rendered a lot of his various genres into padded, rumbustious postures which seemed, at least to Wills, to have been set when GKC was barely in his twenties. Ward offers a nuanced portrait.

But she concurs that the quality suffered and the workload did him in, hastening his relatively premature demise. Still, late in her enjoyable consideration (if as she warns you may not want to learn all about his brother Cecil's entanglement in the Marconi case, which rivals Bleak House in its interminable litigation), she cites (anyone writing on GKC finds this necessity more than the usual subject may violate the standard 2:1 ratio I enforce for student assignments of originality to secondary material) him as usual, generously. In his talk in 1931 but perhaps printed in 1927, "Culture and the Common Peril," I found a pleasing echo of Hart's conclusion advising skillful contemplation, and Aldous Huxley's 1962 lecture to the Tavistock Institute, which I will quote after.

"The coming peril is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic overproduction, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the wellbeing of contemporary civilisation. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves." GKC castigates the flood of information-but-not-knowledge, while Hart and current critics warn of our data overload empty of wisdom sifted from this inundation which a century on churns that flood into a tsunami.

About three decades after GKC's death, after more war, more automation, more standardization, Huxley reflected on his Brave New World Fordist scenario. The ultimate transformation, he opines, applies a subtler form of control than neural injections or tinkering with our bags of skin and water. Situated on the cusp of the counterculture, this speaker has been, a search of sites shows, linked by those where the far right meets the far left, and accused of conspiratorial aims. I will leave that surmise aside as I do rumors of reptilian overlords and ZOG machinations, but from the transcript: 

"There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” It's intriguing, if aesthetically maddening considering the manner in which dodgy websites present Huxley's less, uh, assigned musings, to find then Alan Watts' further reflections. (That is, I think it's him. This infuriatingly font-crazed resource credits an Alan Watt speech, 2006.) A drawback for the inquirer persists in that so many less mainstream sources simmer on suspicious blogs and addled archives which, to say the least, fail to meet tenured types' muster.

Stick around among the formerly mocked pop cultural fans, all the same, and at least safely employed academics may come to elevate what they once cast aside, as this next author proves. I thought of another prediction when I read GKC just after quoting that Huxley passage on FB. Philip K. Dick's exponentially closer to Huxley than Chesterton (although the latter has been credited by Adam Gopnik--drawing on previous judgments I suspect--as the "pivot" between Lewis Carroll/ Edward Lear and Kafka/ Borges. Anyone familiar with the Argentine Anglophone knows his admiration for Chesterton. I'd been thrown off, three decades ago, by The Man Who Was Thursday. I want to return to it without spoilers, having vaguely remembered the ending as extremely odd even by post-Victorian experimentation in the company of H.G, Wells, one of GKC's dear foils-as-friends. I speculate if PKD might have been directed, in his own late-life Gnostic virtual reality simulation, deep in his soul by tales subsuming spiritual as well as spectral confabulations, in a steampunk age.

PKD mused not long before his own untimely demise, in of all places a dreary Santa Ana condo: "Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups... So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.” Re: his Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974 SF novel.) He became agoraphobic but made sure to stay within walking distance of the post office and Trader Joe's, where he purchased frozen dinners and roast beef sandwiches. GKC, renowned for breadth and width, would've chuckled loud over his fellow fabulist.

PKD and I share a Californian (although he like another nearish neighbor Huxley I regard as blow-ins) curiosity about what's out there and within us. Huxley intrigues me far less as a popularizer of perennialism than as a skewed satirist; despite what many who see me think, inside lurks a touch of humor, albeit inappropriate invariably in these perpetually "outraged" and "scandalous" times these poetasters preached about all too accurately. GKC plays a shell game with rhetoric, entertaining as he instructs, but he can weary with his relentlessly paradoxical phrasing. Yet he pleases me for his "little England" outlook congenial with Tolkien and a scholar of these two men, Joseph Pearce and "distributism." Pearce and I are exact contemporaries, coming of age as exurbs paved over our childhood haunts. I anticipate naysayers of idealists and dreamers who will bring up Eric Gill (similar to Jefferson, we lecture others on their sins and not their successes) by advising a reread of John 8:7.

The Ball and the Cross, I figured, might be easier to start with, but I gave up the audio halfway in. Although Gildart Jackson tries his best to dramatize the madcap pursuits, I felt as if Heckle and Jeckle, or more precisely Tom and Jerry were bashing away at each other. You can see the warm-up for Orthodoxy: Brits landing on an island that perplexes them, lunatic asylums, lunatics, and an apocalyptic conclusion that again does not jibe with the main plot, but feels tacked on before and after, without surprise or suspense. I long for theological thrillers, a sadly neglected sub-genre I have tried to suss out from Goodreads and web inquiries but finding nearly nothing of note I have not noted. But GKC promotes a dour Scot, worse yet a humor-challenged Highland Catholic recusant, as his hero, while naturally the other Scot, an atheist bookseller, gets a few sputters of wit for his lot. I scanned the rest myself, but found it slapdash, meandering even for a brief novel, and a fusty curio.

I tried Sherlock Holmes a couple of years ago, figuring I'd delight in the Victorian London which captivates me. If I could go back in history, I'd enter the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. To my letdown, although I liked re-reading A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, the stories did not grab me. Mysteries haven't done much for me. But talking to a close friend, I related how GKC forays led me to his favorite fictional character, James Bond, by a circuitous route through Maisie's friend Caryll Houselander, evidently a troubled type who saw visions and dreamed dreams as a Catholic convert turned mystic. She'd been left in the lurch by none other than "Sidney Reilly" (born a Rosenblum in the Tsarist pale) the "Ace of Spies" who inspired Ian Fleming's inventive 007.

My friend praised The Man Who Was Thursday as a story he'd returned to over and over with joy. Although no believer himself in what another friend of mine likes to relegate to "priestcraft," he likewise recommended the Father Brown mysteries of GKC. I've previewed online Michael Hurley's Penguin introduction and his explanation of their weird assumptions and wily craft suggests they may blend better for me than Sherlock in evoking GKC's unsettlement behind such searches for "truth." Michael Newton approves a recent BBC series, contrasting the priest with the deerstalker detective.

I have no profound wrap-up but I set down my jottings as a reminder to myself that the wanderings of whatever mind, spirit, soul and/or brain generates within me, set into type, mark wherever I'm at today. I don't call my orientation by any label or denomination or philosophy, and I leave that to academics who strive to categorize our irreducibly, incorrigible yearnings. As for me, I look ahead. Similar to Barnes, I deeply fear what may come. Like Hart, I inform myself on what others scoff at as metaphysics; as with Lennox, I try to keep up if lagging far behind with physics, if as it is for poets.

How I drift from book to book, quoteworthy utterance to dusty volume (even if digitized; public domain combined with a Kindle frees me of shelf-space guilt), remains explainable maybe to a scientist, but might a sage add a nod? As always, I ruminate. I wonder what and/or who's guiding me.

(photo credit)

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