Thursday, October 8, 2020

I havent thought much about this for a while

 As some of you will know when I was 19 I spent three tumultuous weeks hanging out with the Unification Church (aka the ‘Moonies) near Leicester Square. That doesn’t sound long and it wasn’t but its impact was enough to make me drop out of university for 9 months and return to Durham to study Theology, instead of Philosophy.

Of course, my experience was not that dramatic compared to some people's which can range over a number of years or become permanent. In addition, although I definitely feel I’d lost control of my thoughts to a great extent, I was never 100% sold and there were always doubts. I wasn’t forcibly coerced by my family to see the exit counsellor I met in Scotland and after speaking with him, I shed all attachments pretty quickly and had no doubt that that was the right thing to do.

The experience, however, did signal a quite radical departure in my life. I became, after I left, much more interested in spirituality and even more withdrawn and other-worldly and to be honest felt that the entire texture of my consciousness had changed, pretentious as that might sound. I lost all interest in the question of what career I should pursue or in my life direction as such, thinking the present tense the only moment of eschatological significance (yes, I really did think like that). I dropped any former interest I'd held in extra-curricular activities such as acting, rowing, student journalism (and drinking!) and instead spent much of my time wandering between cafes reading and reflecting on the beauty of God and the universe – without, I’m glad to report, trying to recruit or convert anyone to anything, though my experiences were definitely Christ-inflected. I entered what felt like a permanent high that lasted for the next 4 years. A friend at uni wondered if I’d dropped a tab of acid and had never come down. Sadly this elevated state of mind was not to last, and I trace the first of my occasional but long-lasting cycles of mania and depression to this original descent in the autumn of 1994. I don’t know and maybe I never will whether I would still have developed my 'alleged' ‘bi-polarity’ if I hadn’t visited the ‘Principle Life Study Center’ in December 1990. Oddly enough, however, it has only very recently occurred to me that there might have been a connection.

Anyway enough about me. That said, this book, of the many written about cult experiences, is of particular interest because it is the only resource I can find online that even mentions the existence of the Principle Life Study Centre which was located near The Ivy restaurant and St.Martin’s Theatre on West Street (where Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is still being shown). The author, Yolande Brener, was also by her own account a visitor at the same time, though I don’t remember her. She may have been out fundraising at the time, I guess, since she’d joined a few months earlier and this is what I would have been shortly destined to if I’d stuck around. I’m pretty sure that the German guy she mentions, Andreas, and the Australian with the chin and the ‘meteor chest’ were the two guys I spent most of my time with. Her descriptions seem accurate and are similar to my own experiences. Anyway, not that I am an advert or anything, or presume that I am interesting, blah blah (though cult experiences as such might be), but the Kindle book is only 3.39 sterling if you want to take a look. The section about the Centre as such are from page 39 to 56.

Btw, if you happen to know what became of the Principle Life Study Center and when it closed down (last time I checked it was an Arabic cafĂ©), I’d be interested to know.

Have a Happy Thursday.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Maybe one of the reasons why truth finds it so difficult to emerge in life is because humans fear the consequences if it does. If you have committed some misdemeanour or crime, in private or public life, however much you might be willing or happy for this to be exposed if committed by others, you might want to look out for your own interests first and keep the truth of your activities concealed. This may sound obvious, but we wonder about the 'truth' of public life, and the private life of significant others, and make great efforts to urge openness and sincerity (or transparency as it were) from each other; and yet we get confused or enraged because someone hasn't told us the truth about something. Yet why be so surprised? 

I’m not trying to defend wrongdoing, I'm just saying, the obstacles in the path to truth are not merely epistemological or procedural, but also social. If we really want the human truth to come out - and quite possibly we do not since it may also involve us and those we love - we might want to think about amnesty's and domains of forgiveness as contexts for such revelations, founded not on wishy-washy uber-liberal relativistic indulgence, but on reflections upon our own complicity with the unethical, actual or potential (unless of course we claim to be perfect). Otherwise, why not openly acknowledge that the loss of truth is a price that we are willing to pay for the threat of retribution remaining always active and in place. Or acknowledge that if we want both, that is, if we want both truth and retribution, that the only way to get this is through ever more intrusive surveillance and policing powers to root out wrongdoing – powers which we can just hope will themselves not be corrupt. I do not doubt that the ultimate answer that would render the truth something that wouldn’t wish to conceal itself is people just doing the right thing in the first place. But this is a separate matter, the question of how to achieve this complex and important. Nevertheless, in the meantime, the truth is concealed and the role that fear of retribution plays in this, I think, interesting.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Does language imprison thought?

In Saas-Fee a couple of weeks ago a young charismatic and very scholarly American, a new friend of mine, told me that there is no thought outside language and wondered why I could think otherwise. That was a crazy night and between discussions about Blanchot's neutral and Badiou's set theory, our discussion about the ineffable was erased. Nevertheless, in a state of mind not altogether sober, I thought about his question and spoke the following into my trusty Phillips MP3 player whilst looking for that friend, who had gone missing. I am not sure if it is 'any good', but I think it provides some kind of an answer (or at least position) - but if you disagree, do let me know:

"If it is accepted that there is no thought outside language, it nevertheless seems that language is inadequate for thought. But to know this, to sense this, that language is inadequate for thought raises the question: how do we know that language is inadequate for thought if that knowing is not in-itself a kind of thinking? Perhaps it is a kind of thinking, but a different kind of thinking. In which case we could then re-formulate our original position and say not that there is no thinking outside language but that if there is thinking outside language, it is of a different kind.

And we can readily ask the question, what do we mean by thought? Is thought the same as awareness, is thought the same as sensation, is thought the same as a certain cognitive sensation? A sensation not in a physical sense, a sensation not in an emotional sense, but a sensation that wishes, that seeks, to manifest itself as a kind of awareness that seeks the concept, that seeks articulation in the form of the abstract. Sensation that seeks articulation in the form of the abstract: is this what we mean by the thought that is outside language? The thought that while it remains outside language cannot be crystallised, cannot be communicated because it lacks language, but a kind of thought that seeks incarnation and seeks crystallisation in language; and that if it were to achieve that would then alter the nature of language-encapsulated thought, of language expressed thought.

For what is it that we are really talking about here? We are talking about a desire, a felt imperative to bring to light and share in the community a sense of life that, as of now, the discourses of the world do not encompass, do not express, do not communicate. This is what is at stake." 

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Theological Conundrum

One of the last things my Slovak ex-girlfriend said to me was that ‘I should have become a priest’. I never got round to asking her why. Nowadays, while not exactly fallen out and vaguely in touch, we do not talk.

Anyway, it is something I have often wondered about.

After all, I have no degree in English language teaching. All I have is a CELTA, which took me one month to acquire, and which it is very difficult not to acquire (or at least used to be). On the other hand, I have a BA in Theology from the Theology Department of The University of Durham, one of the best Theological departments in the world (or so it used to be)*. From the same University I later scored a Distinction in the oddly named MA degree subject ‘Seventeenth Century Studies’, which featured Theology as a central component.

So, on paper it seems a Priest is what I was set up to become (or at least an academic in Theology/Religious Studies or History). Rather than linger on what has happened, I wanted to explore the theological conundrum that developed during my studies at Durham and that has remained to this day.

My dilemma is that I believe contradictory things about Christianity. Things that I have not been able to resolve. On the one hand, I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an essential sense is unique, true and superior to all other religious revelations or teachings, as well as being relevant to the entirety of the world, to people of all cultures and all nations. My faith, I would argue, has resulted from experience as opposed to from argumentation or any habit of Church attendance. This faith is also strengthened, however, by some reasoning. What the Gospel proclaims that God has done in Jesus Christ is exactly what I would expect a real God to do- were such a God to exist. In other words, the Gospel message makes sense at a theoretical level. This is what I can only imagine must be expected of a God of Love; namely that he would become one of us, teach wisdom and overwhelming love whilst amongst us – especially the emphasis that we should love one another -; that he would then be killed by us, very importantly that he would then forgive us for killing him, and finally that he would then rise from the dead, before heading back home. All these sorts of things just make sense. Or putting it another way, if I were God, and I looked down on a world of suffering and hatred, this is exactly what I would do; this is how I would behave. Hmmmmmm, maybe some of that needs to be explained.

Anyway, on the other hand, despite my basic acceptance of the Christian Gospel, there are other things I believe about Christianity, as it stands, that conflict with my positive regard for the Gospel. These concern two matters; firstly, Christian attitudes towards sex and hell, and secondly the increasingly widespread development within church circles of a liberal stance towards Jesus Christ, which while very agreeable in its tolerant approaches towards sex and hell effectively destroys the very purpose of Christianity’s existence by denying the divinity of Jesus Christ and the unique significance attaching to his death and resurrection.

This is a complex looking theological conundrum. As I see it, there is no point even pretending to be a Christian if you dont believe that Jesus was God and that he died and rose from the dead. On the other hand, since the meaning behind this divine act on our behalf was that God loved the world enough to sacrifice his only Son to death and doom for our sakes, it is surely then contradictory to believe at the same time that people still get sent to hell (presuming they ever did)? Doesn’t that contradict the Gospel in its essence? Doesn’t that eventuality obviate the whole purpose of the incarnation, just a shade? Maybe God shouldn’t have gone to all the trouble in the first place.

Furthermore, that the majority of the people who apparently still get sent to hell appear to get sent there because they get carried away by sexual desires arising in them from a sexual nature which God himself created, is an ever greater absurdity. While I do not deny that there should be such a thing as sexual ethics, just as there should be such a thing as business ethics and medical ethics, Christianity has always attached a degree of importance to sexual behaviour far in excess of its actual potency as a source of misery and suffering on the earth.

I realise that there are many church going people who will share my tolerant attitudes towards sexuality and judgement. I realise equally, that there are many church going people who will share my insistence that Jesus was and is God, that he died and rose again, and that those adhering to liberal forms of Christianity which deny this and deny the Gospel’s uniqueness as a divine revelation are not Christians. My problem is that I do not find people who hold to both positions – who are both liberal morally and judgementally and Orthodox in terms of Christology - or not many (in fact only one, and he may have changed his mind). Certainly not enough in any case to have found my niche in the ecclesiastical map, to have found my flock, a denomination that I would wish to work as a Priest for.

And so stands my theological conundrum.

And so it is that I am an English Language Teacher and not holding forth about the glorious power of the Gospel, the Jewel at the heart of Judah; about its ability to break the chains of fear and death, and to reconcile the human family through the power of sacred love.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

What We Are II - Evolution and Animality

Some people think that we are highly evolved animals, cousins of the apes. Actually, it’s commonly supposed that most people think this, or should I say that most ‘intelligent’ people think this. By intelligent I’m excluding those who base their cosmologies on a book, as opposed to on organic relics dug up from the ground. Such ‘believers’ might consider themselves intelligent, but my point is that mainstream ‘respectable’ opinion does not.

Actually, it’s interesting to wonder what percentage of the 6.8 billion people walking the face of the earth ‘believe’ in evolution’.

Most people, I suspect, tend to believe either in ‘nothing’, by which I mean ‘that it is good for me and my family to get richer’, or else in reincarnation, a belief involving the ethical motivation to lead a good life to avoid coming back as a slug, or worse. The next largest group, I think, thanks largely to the power of Mecca and Rome (as well as its rebellious offshoots), believes with varying degrees of sincerity in its absolute importance in the eyes of a shy, generally invisible, all-loving, all-judging entity called ‘God’. So important do they think they are in the eyes of this being, indeed, that they suppose he’ll go to the trouble of deciding upon their fates based on everything they have ever thought or done and that he’ll then sustain their bodies and personalities for all eternity in one of two prepared places that he had gone to the trouble of creating – especially for them (as if the creation of the Earth, large and wide as it is, were not enough!!).

I’m not sure how or where or whether evolution fits into any of these belief systems. I suppose it sits happiest with the belief in ‘nothing’.

Still, believing in nothing hardly counts as a belief in evolution in my book. So, it seems that most people don’t believe in evolution after all, despite the rage it struts on the stage of ‘the world’. Most people just don’t care about evolution, I suspect. Or if they do, they tend to think that evolution is a shade barbaric. Most people, after all, don’t like to think they can be reduced to, and therefore explained away, as ‘animals’, whatever it is they think animals are.

On the other hand, I’ve also noticed that an interesting number of people in the West can’t get enough of this idea. The notion that we are ‘only’ animals fills them with delight! Why this should be, I suppose, involves a fair amount of fear and detestation of the spiritual, at least as far as ‘the spiritual’ has been understood in classically religious terms. Such terms usually have had a great deal to do with sex, or rather with its repression and denial; or if not about sex in such an explicit sense then at least about the general depreciation of the physical and empirical world and the seat of our senses, the body, that has been such a fashionable preoccupation in the Occident for over two thousand years.

Is this what it boils down to? Do people really want or do not want to believe in evolution because of whether they want or do not want to maintain that humans are ‘just animals’. If this is so questions must be raised about what animals actually are. And since we have never spoken to them or heard them give an account of themselves in their own terms, it’s very difficult for us to know, in ways other than by merely imposing our epistemological paradigms upon them, what they actually are. They merely embody and in that way prove our own preconceptions about them. That this is so, of course, makes it much easier for us to then eat them, or else kill them to fuel the flames of our vanity, than it would be if, well, we interacted and communicated with them as equals. Yet that this is so also means, ironically, that even though both believers and disbelievers in evolution care passionately about whether or not humans are animals, or the degree to which we are animals, we don’t actually know what animals are. No more, it might be said, than we know what humans are.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What We Are

Thinking about what we are is a reasonable thing to do, I suppose.

And when I say ‘what we are’ I mean that. I don’t mean ‘who we are’, which is different. Who we are is strictly sociological, by which I mean that the question already presupposes that we are essentially defined by our membership in human communities. Who implies name, rank, status, role. Who wishes to locate us in a position within the external human community. It has already decided in advance that we belong somewhere within it, and not anywhere else. Who we are, therefore, is not that profound a question since it presumes too much, too much of that which it just takes for granted.

What we are is much better. I remember realizing this dancing under an African sky in the summer of 1990. It was an almost mystical moment, an epiphany of insight. It felt so marvelous, suddenly realizing I didn’t just have to be human, indeed that I couldn’t just only be human. I saw that this understanding ‘human’ is one that humans themselves had constructed. How can that make it true, or at least exhaustively true? There may indeed by something real in what we think we are, but surely this understanding cannot be the whole picture since we can only see ourselves from the inside, from our own perspectives. There must be something preceding, left over, flopping around the edges of our self-images. Surely?

Monday, March 29, 2010

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

Recently I've reacquainted myself with George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. A remarkable man of controversial reputation for whom I can admit to having a very profound respect and indeed love. This is certainly in part due to the circumstances whereby I originally came across him.

In the aftermath of the spiritual awakening I experienced as a 19 year old, Gurdjieff brought a clearer shape and deeper understanding to my effforts to reintegrate myself into the world of others after months of what had seemed to be an intense mystical absorption. This absorption, luscious and sublime though it was, was isolating. In its most vivid moments it left me at a loss to know how I could harness what had come to feel like an entirely new mode of being to the context of the public, social world. For sure, I often felt that I was supremely happy, even that I'd like nothing better than to grow wings or drift off into the ether. Other thoughts of an even more eccentric nature suggested that the world itself would soon joyously unravel, to be swept into the arms of the eschaton, joining me in my rapture. Despite that, however, a core of sanity prevailed, a voice of sense that wouldn't let me conclude that the world would soon end, but rather spoke to me of my need to attend to the sensible. The objective options were just two, or so it seemed. To get a job or to return to university. Subjectively, however, I had to get a handle first on what had happened to me, to readjust to the groove of objective involvement. My psychic states at this time were the opposite of pathological, so I had no need of a psychologist. I needed a spiritual master. Somehow who could give me insight into the human condition of a kind that would allow me not to fly from 'reality' and the 'affairs of the world' but, on the contrary, to return to them-to come back down to Earth, even though I knew there was no going back to the person I had been before my spiritual awakening; as indeed there has not been. For this readjustment to the public life of objective engagement I have Gurdjieff to thank. Not that my life has been 'a bed of roses' since then.

Indeed, maybe the onset of my troubles, my worldy confusion and sense of dislocation, which began in 1993 and gathered force in 1994, whatever other causes they may have had, can be linked in part to my abandonment of Gurdjieff. The reasons I had for doing so are not as clear to me now as they were then; but I remember that I had felt these reasons authentically at the time. This does not mean, however, they they were not mistaken. Great errors are often hovering around us, waiting, ready to be made. Perhaps rejecting Gurdjieff's influence was one of them. Perhaps, alongside the various regrets that I have, I can add the regret of forgetting this man.

Gurdjieff is different. Don't take my word for it. Investigate for yourself. He's different in the way Morrissey is different and Jim Morrison are different in the world of popular music. In the way T.S.Eliot is different from other modern poets. But it's easy to waste words eulogising someone. I am biased by my love, and the effects he has had on me. No doubt we are all biased by our experiences in singling out particular people as special. Maybe they are all 'different', only to us. Maybe we only attach objectivity to that difference to justify the arbitrary nature of our attachments. So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe he's not different. Maybe he's just another guru. On the other hand, maybe he's not.

Recently I composed a summary of my understanding of  his teaching. Not that he was only a teacher of a certain body of thought, mind. He also composed sacred music and a was a choreographer of sacred dance.

But at the core of what he did lies what I'd call his vision. Aspects of it, in isolation, are not original. Even he acknowledged this. What else was he doing, after all, wandering around Central Asia for 20 years if not collecting insights and knowledge given to him by others. But a man doesn't have to say something new in order to be something new. In addition, a man can say something new just by saying things that are not new in a new way, or in new combinations. And even if what he says is not new, it can still be felt as new - as it was when he said it, when he appeared out of nowhere in pre-First World War Russia and began to shake that part of the world that would listen with his being.

“Gurdjieff’s most essential idea is that we are ‘asleep’. Our consciousness is degraded. It is not as it should be, or at least could be. We cannot marshall, but instead squander, the power of attention, since we are internally fragmented and misaligned between mind, body and feelings. So Gurdjieff’s problem with the human subject is not just a mind-body problem. This misalignment and internal incoherence means in the West that we tend to be lop-sided. We are too rational, too intellectual, and what he called our physical and emotional ‘centres’ are underdeveloped and out of synch, especially the emotional centre. In other cultures, things can be different; there, people might be too emotional or too physical. Since humans in general, however, lack the genuine power of attention, we forget our ‘higher’ selves, which we might only sometimes, rarely, or never experience. Instead, we are overtaken by a multitude of lower-level competing ‘I’s, all of which are different from each other, yet all of which think they alone are the true self when they are dominant. This fragmented mass-of-selves is often indecisive, ineffective or even chaotic in the face of events and experience, even if it might believe the contrary about itself. There is no abiding Master Self in charge; we are the victims of what Gurdjieff sees as our automatic reactions to external and internal stimuli. His view of the self, then, as a diagnosis of what is found, is pessimistic. Still, in terms of humanity’s potential future development, he seems much more optimistic than Freud – for whom normal, as opposed to neurotic, unhappiness was the ideal. What we can do now is to work on our powers of attention and on integrating mind, body and feelings, so that our higher self will be more active and awake in our everyday experiences; such that both our happiness and our effectiveness (what he called our ability ‘to do’) will be increased and our development, as both individuals and societies, made more harmonious.”

I do not claim to be an expert on Gurdjieff, nor to have read, alas, even most of his works, nor to have participated in any of the Group Work which he believed to be essential to effective development, so if you do claim to be an expert and you take issue with what I write, herein, perhaps, may lie the explanation.

The best free online resource I know about Gurdjieff is the Gurdjieff International Review and it can be found here:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy Christmas.

I hope you have a very warm and festive time with your loved ones; that the Christmas tree glimmers and gleams enchantingly, that only the best carols are sung and that the Queen’s speech, which I will no doubt miss, touches the right spot in the wake of the Turkey; well, if you're British. All the best as well for the next decade.

Oddly, I’ve found it easy to forget that it’s not just a year that is passing. According to ‘Time’, the decade now ending was a ‘decade from hell’. This magazine speaks publically, as it must. Whether your own decade was hellish or not, I hope the next falls upon you sweetly as manna from Heaven, or if that’s not your thing, as ambrosia from Elysium.

Most likely, life will pretty much ‘go on as always’, of course, but what kind of a wish would that be?

This year has seen me continuing to live in Ningbo, China. This ‘small’ Chinese city of 2.2 million people has a far longer, more distinguished history than the much more famous Shanghai three hours to the north. I say ‘more famous’, but I wonder, is Ningbo famous at all? I have yet to find anyone outside China who has heard of it. Maybe this is because they take ‘The Rough Guide to China’ as their source of information, a book that doesn’t even mention it in its index!Whether I think Ningbo deserves its reputation for obscurity can depend on my mood. As expats frequently frustratedly sigh: there is ‘not much to do in Ningbo’. What exactly one is expected ‘to do’ in a Chinese city is rarely spelt out. When it is, it usually amounts to doing the kinds of thing you might routinely do back home (or in Shanghai, alternatively); such as going to international restaurants, clubs, and live music events. To that extent, Ningbo is certainly not all that it could be; for excitement and fun I too appreciate Shanghai and the nearby Suzhou far more. As regards its performance according to cultural and historical criteria, there’s more to discover and find in Ningbo than might immediately be thought. Nevertheless, the ever spreading office blocks and skyscrapers have worked wonders in demolishing Ningbo’s ancient architectural history. Such a philistinism began under Mao's Marxism in the 1960s, when on ideological grounds traditional culture was considered bourgeois, unacceptably reactionary. Now, the destruction proceeds under 'capitalism', with no need to be justified on grounds other than that traditional buildings get in the way of more efficient ways of making money.

What do I 'do' here? I continue to teach English for Academic Purposes at this Chinese outpost of Nottingham University. I can’t help thinking: might it have helped if my students had first learnt to write grammatically decent clauses, let alone sentences, before embarking on the seas we must steer them through; seas of structuring paragraphs and the relationships between paragraphs according to the model of Western style essays. Teaching them the combative joys of ‘critical thinking’, the cut and thrust of dialectic, might also be easier if a general spirit of docility and conformity to received patterns of reflection had not taken such a hold. This unwillingness to think critically is part cultural, the legacy of a communitarian culture rooted in a Confucian regard for ones ‘place in the world’; part political, the product of a Communist party’s zeal to perpetuate its tenure in power.

This is by no means to imply, however, that the Chinese are lacking in charm. By no means. Ironically, it is perhaps the very repression of the individual that prevents those forces in the west that have disintegrated our sense of a common culture, and promoted our atomized society – fragmented now into a myriad of dissociated factions - from gaining a similar foothold. The family remains strong, as do roots. Chinese people belong, and not just to their friends and family. Selfishness and disregard for the common good do not seem cancerous. To me the people smile, seem happy and are kind, helpful to the stranger. No man is an island, but the Chinese man is less of an Island than the European or the American. But everything at a price, and it is indeed sad the Chinese do not more openly think for themselves, and celebrate diversity. Who knows, this might even help their economy (and that they do care about!); defend it from a potential shock, if foreign exports dry up, foreign direct investment is exhausted and China must rely more on domestic consumption and home grown entrepreneurship. Such seem to be Will Hutton's musings in any case (in his 'The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st century).

This year I’ve seen some other countries too. The tender charms of Thailand visited me in January, the more robust, Hispanic ones of the Philippines in May. Each land boasts impressive coastlines, natural beauty and sunshine, but strangely, the Philippines, unlike Thailand , isn’t a prime destination for tourists. I presume this is because the Government in Manila hasn’t developed the infrastructure for tourism as much. Perhaps the memory of Marcos and the widespread corruption also don't help. Culturally, it's a curious cluster of islands. Right bang in the heart of East Asia, but with a Latinate feel that makes you feel you're in South America. Hundreds of years of Spanish colonisation have had their effect. And if you like to speak English to locals on your travels, The Phillipines is definitely your place. Thank Uncle Sam for that, for colonising it for 50 years.

As it happens I'm back in The Phillipines right now, where I'm visiting a friend I met in Kuwait who recently married a Filipino. I might see Mount Mayon explode, though that is in the hands of Gaia.

The summer, after a brief stop over in Kuwait, saw me back in blighty, a country that shines in blessedness when the snows are absent and when you're a tourist with a car. I drove around the South, from the tip of Cornwall, to Bristol, to Portsmouth, to Eastern Kent, to my home village of Kettlebaston (it's on Wikipedia!), to King's Lynn and as far north as Derby. At last I learnt to appreciate The National Trust, but wondered: Stately Homes turned into museums are ghostly mausoleums. Can't an alternative prize for the National Lottery be to swan around a mansion for a month, waited upon by butlers and servants, living the life of Sebastian.

At least it would bring the houses back to life. And then to Slovakia, where the roots still clutch, where many friends were visited and memories stirred. Croatia saw me licked by the sun on an obscure island north of Dubrovnik, and in Bavaria I finally got to see Luwig II's castle, the template for Walt Disney's and the home of the King of Vulgaria (think 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'), as well as the Fuhrer's favourite retreat, in Berchtesgarten, now a wreck, bommed in the 50s to deter Neo-Nazis.

Oh, and I went to South Korea. I saw a solitary North Korean guard, rather slight and slim of stature gazing at me from across the border at Panmunjon. We were under strict instructions to neither point, wave nor smile at him; apparently, lest his regime use such gestures as propaganda tools; evidence, I presume, of the provocativeness or just general weirdness of foreigners. I suppose the North Koreans might also think that to point is to wield a gun. But I thought only Children think that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

An old thought on a topical isssue

Our objections to the existence of God are not founded on an instinctive aversion to the notion of deity-in-itself, but on our offence taken at the nature of the relationship we suppose he wishes to have with us (1991).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Nowadays in China not only Blogger but You Tube is banned. In the past, Wikipedia was forbidden although at present it's being allowed through the wall (I think?). For how long it will be, who can know? Pornography sites are inaccessible, which is odd in a country that lacks our neo-platonic reservations about the means of reproduction; a country, moreover, awash (albeit hiddenly) with brothels and prostitutes. And now, so I hear, Facebook, the friendly, innocent whore of corporate connectivity, has been slain. Clearly, the Chinese Government is frightened of something. But clearly not frightened of actually being frightened - and of how that makes them seem.

The block on Blogger has of course made it difficult to post. Now, however, I'm in Germany, so have lost that excuse. I guess I'm just going through a 'dry' phase, which will last as long as it lasts. Actually, I've been posting a lot to Facebook in the form of the status update, which I find rather amusing, though people tend not to maximise its potential as they might. Though I know many an intellectual snob wince and squirm at the vulgar monster, Facebook has become an integral and very efficient component of my social life. I will be highly annoyed if the block on it is not removed by the time I return to the Red Dragon in September.

Since leaving China and its whole universe behind, I've been on a whistlestop tour through my past, taking advantage of my generous ten week holiday. I haven't done much in the way of actually resting, apart from in the past few days on a remote beach in Croatia. Instead, nostalgia has taken me back to Kuwait, to a school reunion in Cambridge and to Slovakia, where I've been reconnecting with my old world.

Today I'm in Munich and will go on a 'Third Reich Tour'. There seem to be many such trips on offer, and I wonder what percentage of the takers are fellow Brits, whose fascination for the Nazis is legendary (it seems we need an 'other' against which to define ourselves as much as the next nation). Then to Ludwig II's castle, I think, Berchtesgarden at the weekend, and on Monday six hours in Heidelburg before travelling to the absurdly located Frankfurt Hahn airport and on to Bristol, via Stansted, to spend some time with my very good friend Lee, a month before he gets married.

My summer gradually comes into shape as the possibilities for what I can do with it recede as its length ahead of me shrinks. Still, it's very nice to have had, and to still have, such a lot of time in which to do 'nothing' (whatever that means).

Friday, June 12, 2009

If Love Could Save The World

Romantic love’s central limitation is its exclusiveness. By it not more than one person can be loved. Therefore, its nature is essentially centripetal and restrictive. It does not open itself to the stars, to the beyond and, more particularly, to other people. Not by romantic love, to be sure, is the world to be saved. And not in terms of romantic love did Jesus enjoin the virtues of love upon us. One cannot, perhaps, be so sure about John Lennon. When he said: ‘all you need is love’, he stood triumphantly beside Yoko.

That said, if in loving one's lover one recognizes that they are not merely one's lover but another human being like any other (who can deny this?), one can recognize that when one loves ones lover, ultimately, one is not loving them but through them humanity itself, in its entirety, expansively.

In this way they become a gate, a portal, though which the love of others can be realized.

In so far as romantic love is not such a love, I am wondering, how can it be considered the highest type of love?

Another drawback of romantic love is that it is often a love of one person’s ego for another's, not the love of one true self for another. Hence romntic love's conditionality and frailty. Too often we love one another in defiance of Kant’s imperative: as means not as ends, as organic commodities to serve our purposes, only for as long as we do.

Still, you don’t have to remind me that without romantic love, love can be a somewhat disembodied, bloodless affair.

A question: What kind of an understanding of love would there have to be if love were to become an item in political discourse? Not sure, but I suspect love would first have to lose its highly privatized, embarrassing nature (when grafted into the public sphere that is).

This reltes to how talk of a generalized, extra-romantic love in the context of a divine framework had always worked, at least when it did. Here, we love through the medium of a third entity, which removes the pressure, and supplies a shared point of reference and trans-individual framework. In loving one another we are loving more than one another; and this both allays our disappointments with one another and allows us to look beyond.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Memento Mori

Thinking about my death rubs me up against the limits of language. I cannot stretch beyond these limits in thinking about my death. While it is true, if reincarnation be factual, that ‘I’ may have died before, if I did I did not do so as the creature that I am now but only as a different creature.

Nothing is more certain than that I will die. I may not die, of course, just as the sun may not rise tomorrow. Yet, my immortality in this flesh and the sun not rising tomorrow will only happen if unprecedented alterations in the nature of reality occur. These cannot with any confidence be expected. For this reason, sanity dictates – in so far as certainty can mean anything – that I will die and that the sun will rise tomorrow.

In dying I will return to the state of non-existence I occupied before I was conceived, or at least before I was born. Non-existence, therefore, is not unfamiliar to me. But there is a difference, surely, between non-existence preceding and non-existence succeeding my existence as this creature that I am. That difference, however, is only of significance to me and to those who have known me. To the universe as a whole, both these states of non-existence are identical. In both these circumstances, my interactions with the universe – my taking from it, in oxygen, in food, in impressions, my giving to it, in exhalations, in excreta, in activities - do not occur. From its perspective, in both scenarios, my non-existence before and after my life, I constitute an absence. I constituted such an absence before I was born (or conceived) and such an absence I will again constitute after I die.

The universe does not depend upon me. It has its own agenda, its own business to attend to. I became a part of that business in the early 70s and one day, be it tomorrow, next year or decades from now, I will stop being its business, except insofar as I may leave behind trace afterglows in the memories of those who have known me or, perhaps (ha!) in something objective and enduring that I might create (for example, a child, or else some other feat of noteworthy creativity – I make no promises).

It is uncanny to think about my own death. Uncanny because all I have ever known is life. Moreover, it has always been as someone who is alive that I have known anything at all. Therefore with regard both to the object and the subject of knowledge my knowledge on all sides has been enveloped by life. While it is true that I am aware of death, having seen dead animals and indeed lost to death people I have known and loved, this death that I have known has nevertheless been a feature of life, my life; this death has represented the boundary of life, its limit, or rather this death has constituted a doorway to death, behind which death is unknowably located, to which it merely refers. Death, the death of others that is known in life, is not death, but death’s signature written in life. The only way, even potentially, to know death is to oneself die. And yet, if it be true that there is no awareness after death, no existence of any kind, this death even then will not be known since I will not be anyone to know it.

If, on the other hand, there is something for me on the other side of death I will indeed have come to know death, but only as a portal to a new life. Even then I will not know death as we envisage knowing it, as an end, but only as a beginning. And then it remains to ask: What kind of life will this be? It will not be life in any sense that I have known it. I will be very different, if for no other reason than that I will no longer wear this body, which witnesses will see buried in the Earth or more likely turned into ash; this body which I have always worn; no, more than that, which I have always been. And beyond this, I will no longer be the being-in-this-world that I have always been – embedded in multifarious relations with other embodied beings, human and animal, traversed around by innumerable, very uniquely specific and unrepeatable spatio-temporal associations and interactive contacts with the Earth.

The inescapable strangeness and otherness of death is the central fact about death. We deny this strangeness when we say ‘death is a part of life’. Yet, of course, at the same time to say this about death is true, since, as far as we know, every being that has ever lived has died, and every being now alive will die. But that commonplace typicality, that universality, of death makes death not less strange but more strange. For normally, what is strange is also rare; but death is not rare, not at all but is as common as life. Death, then, represents the intimate, necessary marriage of life with the strange, the uncanny. For about death, as an experience, we can know nothing; yet that ineffability is the destiny of us all. Encircled by the strange as life’s limit, heading towards the strange ourselves, we are indeed strange.

Is this why we fear death? Because we fear the strange?

I’ll let you know about death when I die, if I can. But I make no promises

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ten Ways For Women To Keep Their Gentleman Happy

This is the kind of headline one would never find on my Yahoo homepage. Although, if one reverses the genders, it is precisely what I found this evening. And that kind of thing is not rare at all: advice men must receive about how they should improve themselves for women. Sexist? Not at all. Why would it be that? How can women criticizing men ever be sexist?

Anyway, it’s an interesting question. And for the sake of equality – whatever that means- one might as well ask it. How then can women keep us men happy? After all, it’s hardly a sexist question, is it?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What We Are

That which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is not our ego. Yet that which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is not the ‘they’ either.

To my understanding, Heidegger, in rallying people to be authentic by shunning the impersonal ‘they’ of an unchosen, prescribed social conformity, was not, alas, asking us to get in touch with what we are most fundamentally within ourselves. Instead, he was asking us to identify closely and loyally with our ego, that is, with the ‘idea we can choose to have of ourselves’. For this reason, his existentialism created a new problem as it solved another. It solved the problem of inauthentic conformity to ‘essential’ forms of social existence. Yet, in the wake of that solution it ossified our being into a new, rigid straightjacket – identification with the self-chosen ego.

That which we are most fundamentally within ourselves is neither the inauthentic they, nor the authentic ego, but embodied spirit. Or to put it more simply: God found present within and, as it might seem, trapped inside our being. It is not only society, with all its conventions, that is our gaoler. We are our own gaolers too. To be truly free is to have freed God from within ourselves. To do this we must not only free ourselves from inauthentic conformity to externally imposed social roles; we must free ourselves from ourselves, that is, from the very idea, however authentically chosen it may be, that we have about ourselves – about who we think we are.

Such a freedom is a kind of death; such a freedom a kind of resurrection.

And with that I wish you a very Happy Easter.

p.s. there is no Easter in China.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Beautiful Dream - to me

My family are staying at my paternal grandfather’s house. He is still alive, though he died in 1977. My Dad is still alive, though he died in 2006. My mother, brother, sisters and I, and other cousins, are there for someone else’s funeral, though I don’t know who. I think perhaps my paternal grandmother, who died in 1992. Grandad talks to me for a short while – tall, thin and in a suit. This is weird only because I don't think I ever talked to him at all, so I wonder how my brain pieced together a personality, and how accurate it is. Later, we all go to bed. Dad doesn’t want to talk to his father, but my mother asks him to, ‘this time’. As grandad comes towards us, we clear the way to make this possible. He embraces my dad, who begins weeping as he stares up into his eyes, while my grandad smiles down at him reassuringly. This meeting happens on the stairs, and I am directly beneath them. I can’t see this encounter clearly, though my sister can, who is closer. I move round the stairs to try and get a better view, but wake up. I tell myself this dream would not be forgotten but I got up and wrote this anyway.