Saturday, December 30, 2017

Robert Coover's "The Origin of the Brunists": Book Review

The Origin of Brunists (ebook) by Robert Coover ...
I'd always relegated Robert Coover to the ranks of John Barth and Donald Barthelme, as briefly influential arch peddlers of irony, lust, and erudition to the counterculture and its academic cheerleaders. But I remembered, all the way back to high school, finding in a remaindered anthology of writers recommending titles that'd fallen through the shelves by the late 70s. Among them was a take on religious fanaticism in a coal-mining burg somewhere between the East and the Midwest.

Finding this as an e-book from my library, despite the nearly 600 pages, I sampled the start and signed on. Fifty-plus years after it appeared in 1966, parts of it hold up, and some does not. The louche {lad}y-hound Justin Miller turns into the anti-hero who runs the West Condon newspaper and investigates and infiltrates the cult he names the Brunists after their founder. He's not monikered Giordano, but Giovanni Bruno's bent clearly aligns with the heretics and fringe criers out of visions.

After a convincingly depicted, richly detailed immersion into the mines and their miners, and the disaster taking ninety-seven of them away, the novel settles in for a long, long stretch. Layered, we get to know by slow accretion the stratified levels of class, mentality, and promiscuity which occupy the inhabitants of the dismal town. Coover gradually introduces a large cast of characters, who take up sides for and mostly against the Brunists who gather to concoct their odd doctrines and incantations. Coover channels the New Age rants of Eleanor Norton, the fundamentalist counter from the Baxters, and the mathematically obsessed theories of the local lawyer. These overlap as Miller uses the circle of First Followers to pursue yet another dame, the sultry sister of Giovanni, Marcella.

Familiar scenes distort. A high school basketball match seen as if an occult ritual, or a chess match. A Joycean parody of a newspaperman's turn to the bottle if not the broads. Prose that early on breaks into fragments as the disaster below gets rendered into not sentences but panic, as exploded dialogue.

However, halfway on, Coover cannot resist the type of mockery that so many of his peers indulged in. As if abandoned ramblings from Mark Twain's satires on heavenly kitsch and biblical fables, we get a Borscht Belt shtick for the remainder of the plot, on and off stand-up riffs on the Last Judgment. A little goes a long way. It's as if Coover tired of sustaining the tension he'd built up, and he had to deflate his study of belief and its discontents to give more room for louche Lotharios and sullen sluts.

We get it. The hillbillies and the Babbitts, hypocrites and the defeated mobs. We don't need so many. This novel could have lost a considerable chunk and streamlined some of the too-easy targets and heavy breathing couplings out of John Updike, managed just fine. But it's from the Sixties, granted. Four-letter words shocked more in respectable print then, and the effect, as with these worn-out epithets, has dulled over the intervening half-century as what was low-class banter turns normal chat.

This all ends, without quite giving away the ending, in a Day of the Locust type of showdown. Coover, we realize as the novel lopes along and refuses closure, integrates a spin on Judas, Jesus, and the apostles, before and after the Resurrection. Some of this stays clever, but West Condon's human frailty and its woebegone Winesburg, Ohio-meets Main Street cast of misfits and opportunists resists the novel's final pages. No wonder, nearly five decades on, we find a sequel, twice as long as this. (Amazon US 11/17/17; excerpt to Spectrum Culture favorite books read by staff in 2017 as my pick)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"The Stone Reader": Book Review

Neither op-ed pieces nor arcane articles (at least in editorial theory), these appeared sponsored by the New York Times circa 2010-15. The contributors attempt to connect current issues with moral treatments, as well as take on philosophical contentions, to explain them to their educated readership.

The results prove mixed, as tying big issues to the passing headlines leaves many pieces already dated rather than relevant, although the larger ethical concerns may remain appropriately applied; other writers dive into deep debates within academia, about gender and racial bias, or claims peddled by colleagues or rivals. Certain essays churn out as dutiful term papers, or earnest self-promotion, introspective ruminations from diaries, or niggling hairsplitting about (to me) self-evident points.

Co-editor Peter Catapano quotes his editing partner Simon Critchley: "Philosophy assesses and presses public opinion by asking essential questions: 'What is knowledge?' 'What is justice?' 'What is love?' He continues: "The hope that drives this activity is that the considerations to which such universal questions give rise can, through inquiry and argumentation, have an educative or even emancipatory effect. Philosophy, as the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell puts it, is the education of grown-ups." (loc. 364) Costica Bratigan, early in the first part which explores the pursuit of wisdom, reminds us that the "ultimate testing of philosophy takes place not in the sphere of strictly rational procedures (writing, teaching, lecturing) but elsewhere in the fierce confrontation with death of the animal we are." (27) She challenges the reader to deal with one's fear of annihilation, so she can tell you about which approach suits your attitude best. She links this to philosophers who have died in testament to their convictions. "Dying for an idea" may seem less strange, I aver, when we testify to this principle in patriotism and commemoration in memorials of those named heroes by us.

Critchley listens to Socrates and Phaedrus to place this endeavor into a less morbid expression, when "we have to meet the other on their ground and in their own terms and try and bring them around. slowly, cautiously, and with good humor." (55) His writing keeps lively, and he offers sufficient  background for us to keep up, a feature not always shared by his contributors. Adam Etinson puts Montaigne's "On Cannibals" into an ethnocentric realm, and he warns that if we'd been born maybe down the block or certainly across the planet, we'd hold different of our "deepest-held beliefs," and this fact "should disconcert us, make us more open to the likelihood of our own error, and spur us to rigorously evaluate our beliefs and practices against alternatives, but it need not disillusion." (86)

Peimin Ni applies this well by encouraging the lack of labels rather than their proliferation to bring in disparate legacies, fresh texts, ignored values, and global perspectives. Yet the persistent slant of this volume, speaking of bias in academia, shows in its presumption that its audience fully supports the progressive mindset the NYT and the Stone blog articulate. This may be inevitable, but incorporating other flavors of diversity, ideological and intellectual, could have enriched too-homogenous a flavor.
Even traditional thinker Roger Scruton echoes the previous critic, Slavoj Zizek, suspecting reformers.
Overall, more gadflies buzzing would have stirred up the status quo perpetuated by the NYT as here.

So Gordon Marina's sharp innovation blending pugilism with philosophy stimulates."While Aristotle is able to define courage, the study and practice of boxing can enable us not only to comprehend courage, but 'to have and use' it. By getting into the ring with our fears, we will be less likely to succumb to trepidation when doing the right thing demands taking a hit," he concludes. (218)

The editors open part 2 musing "whether it makes any sense to talk about that which comes after or beyond nature. Is everything explicable through science?" (237) This section delves deep into biology, neuroscience and psychology. Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson champions multiple over kin selection vigorously, warning that to "yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots--students of insects call them ants."(273) He's adroit at conveying data, better than many of the scientists among whom he offers a second vigorous entry. He compares our "campsite-anchored prehumans" with our "immense memory banks," while arguing how our abilities to figure out alliances and rivalries, bonding and deception galore in the past, present, and future links to our instinctual "delight in the telling of countless stories about others as players upon the inner stage." (395) Out of this process, we've evolved the humanities, creative arts, and political theory--ethics too.

Winding up an eloquent paean to faith, from his non-Christian point-of-view, Critchley testifies to its "enactment of the self in relation to an infinite demand that both exceeds my power and yet requires all my power."(421) One so-called faithless along with those affirming creeds, he reckons, can affirm.

Another unbeliever, Louise Antony, aligns in her thoughtful peek back at her childhood Catholicism. She reflects: "Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant. I think just the opposite--they would become surprisingly important."(486) Well stated, but for balance I'd have liked it if adherents of religion found a place, to contend with or to agree with the dissenters.

Joel Marks narrates another shift from youthful to mature ideal. He abandons moral labels. He pragmatically addresses situations and perspectives. No god, no supernatural law, not even his conscience will convince him of an ethical obligation. "Instead I will be moved by my head and my heart. Morality has nothing to do with it."(508) This spirited attitude refreshes, amidst duller articles.

Scruton, himself an object of attack by many who'd favor this book and nearly every one of its liberal pundits, chooses hope rather than truth as a counter to dangerous "collective enthusiasm" and those optimists goading on the more tentative and thoughtful to social engineering and geopolitical folly with sometimes fatal results, as the past and present century show. "People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-spirited bigots." (613) What bridges Scruton to Zizek across a supposed divide: lessons from those feted by the left who wind up as corrupt as those they toppled, as totalitarian impulses remain.

Nancy Bauer ends her look at Lady Gaga within feminist thought with another glance at the gap between idea and action, ambition and hypocrisy. "It remains to be seen whether philosophers will be able to pick up the gauntlet that's still lying on the ground more than half a century after Beauvoir passed it down: whether we can sketch a vision of a just world seductive enough to compete with the allures of the present one." (635) Frequently, Gary Gutting appears, more aware than many academics herein that he seeks to get across arcana to those outside the ivory tower (or in it four years at best).

Weary of the "outrage" every time a racial incident is publicized and polarized, he prefers "serious discussions about economic justice," and if our capitalist system is "inevitably unjust."(Some attempt was made three years after he wrote this, in the 2016 Democratic campaign, as an instructive example of Gutting's advice playing out in the media and among the populace.) How might the current set-up be reformed or replaced? "If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?" (657) Although many essays involve the Trayvon Martin case, the better ones demonstrate that truly salient issues outlast the tweets, memes, and soundbites. Reports of racial tensions in Cuba and immigration clashes in France, too, expand what is overwhelmingly an American-centered NYT compendium.

Perhaps a few those preached to in this liberal choir may harbor hesitation at particularly rarified or idealistic nostrums. Todd May tackles whether nonviolence in America could triumph. He as many of these professors cites Kant's imperative, not to treat others "simply as a means but also as ends in themselves." (700) He makes a concerted case, pondering as others within the sly 2nd Amendment.

Jamieson Webster joins Critchley late on in a sharp rejoinder to hipster commodification and preening postures. They confront the reader to scrutinize what he or she surrounds life with--is it ironic or loved? Why ape ugly, louche poses and pursue the cult of this selfishly acquisitive mindset? "Is the prosperous self the only God in which we believe in a radically inauthentic world"? (732) This message resonates with many, hipster or not, I suspect, and at its best, the core of the morals that persists in these pages, from Aristotle and Plato down to our contentious and fragmented global spirit.
(Amazon US 12/8/17)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tim Crane's "The Meaning of Belief": Book Review

The "New Atheists" get it wrong about religious perpetuation, argues this philosopher, an atheist himself. Tim Crane rejects basing opposition to faith claims and belief systems primarily on bald evidence of their irrationality. This default stance characterizes non-believers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, and Daniel Dennett who aver that if mass ignorance and dogmas were corrected by science and logic, these newly enlightened billions would, dazzled by the glow of reason, disavow delusion. For, if 8 out of 10 among us affirm a God or gods, why in this advanced era have not more been convinced of the error of their benighted, superstitious, and unverifiable suppositions?

So Crane begins this brief book, The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist's Point of View. Based on his 2007 lecture which failed to sway his London academic audience away from a rote response centered on what Crane regards as an over-exaggeration of blaming the world's problems on religion as the root cause for every evil, this professor ten years later has refined his subtle message that tolerance better addresses religion today, and that this denotes neither its approval nor its affirmation.

He counters New Atheist objections with two observations. Religion combines much more than a system grounded in a cosmological construction of a powerful deity ruling the universe. It embeds two crucial needs which many humans have long sought and will continue to seek. First, the impulse for "more to it all than just this" motivates a religious quest. Second, this search offers inspirational enrichment in the historical legacy of a faith, expressed through ritual and tradition. Crane defines religion four ways. It's systematic, practical, a search for meaning, and an appeal to the transcendent.

Religion aligns humans with "a collection of ideas and practices" designed to match a particular worldview. Over six billion believers in Crane's estimation do not grovel before supernatural agents as their predominant concern. Rather, religion in their quotidian routines connects one's practice with a stable and supportive community. This is central, not peripheral, contrasted with a New Atheist critique which elevates the supernatural as if this occupies the majority of a believer's daily devotion.

Crane warns that his inversion of categories does not presume their truth. He strives to show how religion contains content which atheists tend to demote in their rush to convince duped believers. Given the faithful have not been swayed in significant numbers by the New Atheists, Crane asserts that believers do not recognize themselves within those depictions popularized by their detractors.

Delving deeper into impulse, Crane determines that people long for a meaning which will outlast their own mortality. This rests in a divine presence. Pessimists, of which Crane is one, admit if tacitly that if an "unseen power" (using William James' formulation from his pioneering work in the classification of experiences) could be verified, that disenchantment and meaninglessness would be replaced; the foes would become comrades in faith. Optimists dismiss enchantment itself as possible.

They reject "even the possibility that God's existence could give the world meaning." Crane, speaking for the former faction, considers the persistence of a "religious temperament" without one's belief. This is balanced by adherents who, as do many Christians and Jews nowadays, may participate in actions and rites without a temperament inclined towards any faith itself. This does beg the question whether secular mores are accelerating this lack of a temperament, or whether those who formerly had to play along despite their true preferences may more freely express disbelief now. The challenge remains that belief by definition eludes our "full cognitive grasp" in words or images. This relates to theodicy--how a good God can exist alongside bad things--and the puzzle of creation by an eternal Creator, to name two venerable examples of puzzles which believers may confess they can't solve.

Scientific explanations rest on mathematics and laboratories; ordinary believers (not theologians) may lack education, or if they have it, Crane reminds us, few will pursue the higher study of what can be arcane knowledge and difficult data. They simply lack, again, any technical inclination. Their tolerance for "mystery and ignorance" is greater than a scientist's. They don't demand hypotheses or proofs. Not certainty so much as "continued struggle" occupies the mindset of many sophisticated believers more often than naysayers may imagine. Crane quotes Francis Spufford here in wise support. Facing the unknown and inexplicable, these faithful attempt to reconcile the explicit with that which cannot be explained in tangible form or clear articulation, but which nevertheless endures.

Identification with the wider system within which this impulse persists incorporates many situations not based on belief itself. Crane appears to find wiggle room here, but he tallies how but one of the Five Pillars of Islam and the Ten Commandments respectively state a cosmological claim of God's existence and dominance. Rather, pilgrimage, dietary rules, or circumcision exemplify the granular means by which a religious community continues. Crane cites Emile Durkheim's reminder that believers belong to a larger polity. This collective figures out who will be a member and how, and invents rituals to incorporate believers and sustain the system which codifies faith-claims tangibly.

For those who balk at this argument, Crane notes how without religion, a believer would indulge in only magic, which lacks any church. Akin somewhat to nationality, ethnicity, patriotism, family, and clan, humans establish manifestations of their common values and ties to their terrain and to one another. These endure; we belong to these categories without entering them by our rational choice.

Therefore, religion cannot be excised from our social order without leaving but a slight scar. Crane judges that the academy for scientists themselves reifies a similar set-up. Those who are convinced gather together to repeat cherished actions and to find solidarity in sophisticated networks and ranks.

The concept of the sacred connects impulse with identification. Objects possess an external significance in worship, but they also emanate an internal meaning directed towards transcendence. Illogical as a funeral rite may be when weighed against utility, Crane reflects, even an atheist might be moved by that moment. There's no logic why we place wreaths on a grave, but we bow to ritual.

The penultimate section of this text turns to the way pain and violence intrude upon everyday life. Religious institutions and groups of believers cause atrocities, Crane agrees. But he rejects the claim that they "have been in some way uniquely responsible for the worst horrors and evils of the human race." For "Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism appeal to no spiritual agencies." He at some length, granted this short text, confronts those who would equate political ideologies with religious functions.

"Beliefs about God" do not align exactly with social uses or abuses of religion, Crane explains. Many supposedly religious conflicts "have little do to with any of the theological ideas that may have been responsible for the religious schism in the first place." This careful admission deserves attention. Crane cleanly cancels the canard promoted by both Dawkins and Hitchens which blames the conflict in the North of Ireland on ecclesiastical debates. The Croats and Serbs two decades ago were not fighting over the "filioque" clause about the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son which led to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Such lofty disputes played no role. On the other hand, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence against Salman Rushdie, this documents the precise cause and effect of a doctrine and a harm.

In Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and even the Thirty Years War, ethnic and territorial allegiances entangled with denominational affiliation and princely power plays subsumed any distinctively religious content, Crane determines. This little work could have generated more space to this matter, for it's key in rhetoric repeated by leading atheists and secularists, but he retreats to a philosophical consideration of "theoretical rationality, or reasons for belief," which displays his scholarly bent. He shows that without religion, as recent events verify, human irrationality endures apart from any faith.

Yet, as the revival of religions within contemporary China reveals, nationhood gathered up within faith systems confirms this pair as the "main drivers behind world events," rather than what the last century assumed, as the battles between "principles about state ownership and the economy." This statement elides the economic roles religion promotes, generates, and perpetuates, but Crane in his final chapter clears room for non-political analysis. He explains that his last pages will elucidate instead the logic behind a personal advocacy of tolerance by atheists towards religion. This is not an agreement with faith-claims or ritual actions. It does not capitulate to the "non-starter" of "anything goes" relativism, or a "wishy-washy respect" for all faiths (one conjures up apparitions of the post-9/11 "Co-Exist" bumper sticker ubiquitous in enclaves of the bien-pensant liberal constituency) which glosses over pain and cruelty exacted by the perpetuation of barbaric and nonsensical codes.

For disapproval may follow frequently wherever atheists live among believers. Not necessarily due to differing opinions or actions, Crane assures, but out of a moral imperative for a far more fundamental expression of mutual respect: that for each other as human. Non-believers may respect believers, while strenuously rejecting their views and their actions. Crane's first principle presents a common cause through a dignified expression of humanity, neither churlish nor condescending, towards faith. The Meaning of Belief prefers calm logic to bold catchphrases. It likely will not attract the attention given by supporters or detractors of the New Atheists' shelf of screeds, but it invites poised reaction.

Tim Crane wraps up this swift study (too much so in one parenthetical moment when Muhammad is said to have lived "around 600 BC") by repeating that his colleagues, the New Atheists, are too optimistic. That is, by their idealism that with the imposition of reason, faith will ebb away smoothly. As a realist and a pessimist, he reckons neither secularism nor religion will disappear anytime soon.
(PopMatters 12/5/17 in slightly ed. form; Amazon US 12/5/17)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Johnny Rogan's "Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance": Book Review

Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance by [Rogan, Johnny]
Twenty years after this first appeared, this diligent chronicler returns to the book that made him famous. Johnny Rogan incited Morrissey into barbed jabs against this joint account which, as he notes in the new introduction, revealed only that his subject had not yet read it. This is much more detailed than all but a Smiths fanatic will wish, and like Rogan's book on Ray Davies (which I reviewed), you get such trivia as who Rough Trade's Geoff Travis dated, as well as seemingly half the classmates Morrissey ever entertained or angered. (The subsequent autobiography by Morrissey serves as a neat balance, as M. evokes powerfully his Mancunian-Irish childhood; Rogan to his credit provides historical context for the wave of post-war Irish immigration which all four Smiths shared in recent family trees.) Despite the massive amounts of data early on, for Morrissey at least, a reader understands the Sixties pop and English culture which made such an impact on his formative years.

For Johnny Marr, far less background is included, and by comparison bare-bones looks at Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. This, however, demonstrates as so much of this dense book does in numbing proof (a feature echoed by Morrissey's vitriolic attack in his autobiography on the drummer's lawsuit for lost wages) of how little the rhythm section would share in the Smiths, in terms of credit and power.

Astutely, Rogan explains: "As in the Jagger/Richards axis, Maher [soon to go by Marr] was content to allow his partner to become the public face while he imperceptibly and effortlessly won the accolades for his virtuosity. It was a perfectly conceived musical partnership." Even if it needed four.

"What the group shared was a quest for the subliminal magic moment in pop. It was there in Morrissey’s unearthly vocal yelping; in Marr’s experimental open tunings; in Rourke’s ability to create 'a song within a song' through his imaginative bass lines; and in Joyce’s tendency to alter the timing to unorthodox but spectacular effect." Rogan takes us through the standard high points and most of the recordings, in helpful illustrations of lyrical and musical influence, and exacting manner.

As with Morrissey's self-portrait in print, the downside after the first two LPs comes and after that, it's never as fun. "Pop at its epochal best provides an almost frightening expectation and exhilarating sense of instant history in the making. The all too familiar alternative is a depressing anticlimax, akin to the disillusionment produced by a soured love affair." The crowds grow, the concerts get louder, and the band gets tougher in its attitude on stage and off. Magnified in this is, of course, the frontman.

Bouquets are thrown and hugs attempted of M. But as Rogan knows, it's tricky. "The overt politeness and irrational benignity with which some people treat nuns, negroes, priests, mental patients, royalty, foreigners, the disabled and the deformed, were bestowed upon Morrissey with alarming regularity. Whether intentional or not, he had the power to make people extremely wary of causing offence."

It's sad to learn of Rourke's addictions and Joyce's taciturnity, for they sustained the fabled alliance. Its unraveling comes as the "jingle-jangle" wears down Marr, limiting his creativity. Like Rourke, his funky side had to be suppressed in the Smiths, and he yearned for release, and he forced his hand. The punk energy of Joyce worked to boost the band on stage to new heights, but behind the scenes, squabbling, drugs, and drink led to the separation of the three musicians from their songwriter. "The Smiths projected a semblance of pop group solidarity and camaraderie, but all the power and influence lay with Morrissey/Marr. Beyond that dynamic was the increasingly incandescent spectacle of Morrissey the media star, burning up fame in blazes of publicity and rent-a-quote accessibility." So, too soon, the saga ends in lassitude and the band fades. A sobering tale. (Amazon US 12/3/17)