Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Spero: Question 2

I recommend the definition of belief that appears in the forward to “Essays in the Philosophy of Science by Charles S. Peirce” (viii, Vincent Tomas)

A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.

It follows that a so-called belief that has no practical consequence for the believer’s behaviour can be nothing more than the readiness or disposition to respond “yes” when asked “do you believe in belief X?” I feel that a great quantity of the things that are argued about are of this kind. Their significance to the believer lies in the fact that they have come bundled together with other beliefs that do make a practical difference to the believer’s behaviour, and have been accepted as necessary corollaries on the recommendation of authority.
Rather than ‘believe’, we ought to say either :

“The application of reason to the evidence available to me suggests that such-a-thing may be true true”, or

“I hope such-a-thing is true”.

I ‘believe’ in the ideas contained in this document in that I hope that they are true and I attempt to behave in the way I would behave if I had empirical evidence that these ideas were true.

Spero: Question 1 Part 2

I actually don’t have a part two. The document I am battering into form here for you goes back to before my ideas had been refined in the blogging crucible, and is not as complete or consistent an explanation of the Universe as I remembered. This is one of the lacunae:

I know what kind of experiments to do to figure out natural laws, but I don’t know what kind of ‘experiments’ to do to figure out moral laws or understand God. I hope we do have some capacity, some sense, to do these things, but I don’t really have a theory. I think we can make a good start on moral law with what Lewis called the ‘Tao’. We can work out the ramifications of this as well as we can in specific cases, and in most circumstances get a pretty good idea of what the right thing to do is. Of course the ‘Tao’ has obviously developed with the evolutionary restrictions on humanity setting the boundary conditions, so we won’t have a really good idea of what the moral ‘differential equations’ are until we find some other sentient species to compare ‘Tao’s with.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Spero: Question 1 Part 1

1. How can we find out about the universe?

Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination.’
- Max Planck

I agree with this statement. I happen to like poetry, so I do not feel that it is a pejorative one. I think that there are some things that can only be said with poetry. As the ideas in this work are beyond experimental verification, they too are poetry.

I think with Peirce that science is the natural and original mode of human thinking, with which we all begin. I do not have any specialist knowledge of the very young; I have only been very young once myself, and have been the parent of someone who is very young. I have kept fish, and listened to anecdotes about fish. This leads me to believe that the capacity to put together sense impressions in order to obtain a model of the environment is present in the so-called “lower” animals, as well as of human beings well before birth. I have clear memories of myself back to the age of two (still very old for the purposes of this discussion) and can never remember my reasoning processes being substantially different from the ones I now employ; the main feature of my intellectual life has been the waxing and waning of the hormonal irruptions that have periodically derailed these reasoning processes. When you are very young, you make observations of your environment. You manufacture a model of your environment based on these observations, and make predictions of the effect your actions will have on your environment. To the extent that you are capable, you act on your predictions and observe the effects. If they are not what you expected, you modify your model. Once you have made the inference that the large creatures around you are trying to communicate information which accords - as far as you can tell - tolerably well with the model you have already determined, you will increasingly abandon the method you have been employing thus far - known as science - for the method of authority. (vide Peirce)

Axiom: The universe we see is really there.

Axiom: There is such a thing as truth.

The assertion that the universe is really there, and that there is one true model for it, does not imply that we can know what the universe is really like. We can make hypotheses, and test them, and get an answer which appears to be a good approximation to reality, but there is no short cut which will give us certainty.

I suggest that the only two ways of fitting behaviour to reality are science and natural selection. Natural selection is slow, and unpleasant for the individuals involved. Science is much better. It seems to me highly probable that the more our personal theory of everything is consistent with the rules that apply in the external world, the better we are equipped for survival. It follows that the platitude ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’ is nonsense. People are entitled to their opinions to the extent that they are based on a knowledge of the external world, are constructed in a logical and self-consistent manner, and do not contradict any experimentally verified datum. If certain axioms are assumed in the formulation of their opinions, they should as far as possible take pains to state them at the outset. I am aware that in saying this I set myself up to be hoist by my own petard! I urge you to seek out where I might fall short of my own criteria, and I will endeavour to bear them constantly in mind. I hope this will help me to maintain a proper spirit of humility in this undertaking.

Given that science is the only means of knowledge at our disposal, how can we know anything about God? Moving from one 19th century American Pragmatist (Peirce) to another (James) I would argue that only personal experience of God can give us any knowledge about Him. Apprehension of this personal experience as a real interaction with a person is Faith. I cannot disprove any other person’s Faith, nor can I test my own. There is no point beating anyone about the head for not having this, or to expect them to “believe” in God if they don’t.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

M is for Mark, BTW

M was always going to be Mark the Evangelist. I have said before that I like Mark's best of all the Gospels because it has only the merest trace of what I call 'selfish meme' material, the bits that any ideology accrues in the struggle for survival that basically say 'only this meme is true; believe in this meme, or be punished.' Mark's is supposed to be the oldest Gospel written down, so I feel it is a better connection to the historical Jesus. It is also the only Gospel that I have ever gone right through and studied in a proper Bible study thing, long ago with my Mum when I was young and sensible. Thus not only do I know Mark a bit better than the others, it brings back memories of distant deserts and of being small among larger people like a cottage among mountains.

I like it that Mark says 'whoever is not against us is for us', while Matthew says 'whoever is not with me is against me'. (I am pretty sure that Luke says both. Luke would have to be my second favourite.) I like that Mark's Gospel is so unadorned and brisk and to the point. It is probably an accident of my environment that I find that sort of writing seems more trustworthy.

Here is a story about the Baptism of Jesus which Mum asked me to write the other year. I built it around the version from Mark, pulling in pieces from the other Gospels here and there.

Look at the sunset. My eyes are still good- G*d be praised! See how beauty is poured out on us, though we are wicked, because G*d is good.

My eyes are good, but my memory tells me the sunsets were yet more beautiful over the hills of Judaea when I was a child, in Bethany-Across-the-Jordan. Things today are not like things once were. Everything changes, everything is broken apart and scattered to the far corners of the earth. The world shakes on its foundations, as though abandoned by G*d.
Everything is speeding up, falling down, as the end times draw near. All generations are wicked- all have sinned and fall short of the glory of G*d- but as the end times draw closer so does the wickedness of those who go about on the earth grow greater. Have you heard the news from Ascalon? From Ctesiphon? Everywhere there are wars and rumours of wars, tribulations of all kinds, and men who set themselves above G*d, and mock that there is such a thing as truth.
The temple is cast down, so not one stone remains on another, just as he said. But there are also those who remember that he said those words, from India to the Pillars of Hercules. They remember that he said it, and give praise to G*d, and they remember that the suffering and the wickedness of this world are but tiny things.

I was there at the beginning. I do not know what I would have done, if I had known who he would turn out to be. Nobody had ever heard the name Jesus of Nazareth. He did not look like anything special, except for his eyes. Mostly I remember his eyes. It was a long time ago, but I will tell you just how it was.
You know where it is written, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way: a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the L*rd, make straight paths for him?’’ Those who follow him say those words were written of a man named John who appeared in the desert of Judaea when I was about ten years old. He made his home by the Jordan river. He spoke like a prophet of old, calling on G*d’s people to repent their sins and turn back to Him, and many people came from Jerusalem and all the land of Judaea to hear him speak, and to repent their sins and be baptised with the waters of the Jordan, to show that they were clean in the sight of the L*rd. This John always dressed like a prophet ought to dress, in a robe of camel’s hair, and it was said that he never ate bread or meat, only locusts and wild honey, as a sign to this wicked generation. A brood of vipers, he used to call those who came to hear him speak. But most of them did not seem to mind. Some days there were hundreds of people listening to him; sometimes there were thousands; and on the third or fourth day that they came mother sent me out to them with a basket of figs. Because people need to eat, and not all people pack all the food that they will want, or like the food they have packed when they get where they are going. So every day while this John spoke I would go and sit near where he was preaching and sell figs to those who had come to hear him. I never heard anyone speak the way he did. I never got tired of it, though I got to learn some of his sermons almost by heart. His eyes seemed to shoot sparks of fire when he spoke about the glory of the L*rd, and the Messiah who was to come. He wept bitter tears when he spoke of the sins of Israel, and he closed his eyes in dread when he spoke of the judgment of the L*rd.

‘After me will come one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the breath of the L*rd, and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’

I remember wondering what the Messiah would be like, how much greater he must be than any man I had seen, a prophet and a general and a rabbi all in one, with a sorrow and a fury and a love of G*d even greater than that of John. I saw him in my eye like one of the commanders of the Romans, sitting like a King on the back of a white horse, but a Jew like me, not a Roman, with a deep black beard like our young rabbi of Jericho, and a sword at his belt shining in the sun too bright to look upon, to be used on the enemies of Judah, not on the necks of the Jews like the swords of the Romans. This Jesus of Nazareth did not look like that at all. He did not look like anyone special. Only his eyes, but I did not notice them at first. He must have been about thirty years old. He had come with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and a walking stick. One of the straps on one of his sandals had broken, and he had tied it together with a bit of rope.

‘Will you give me a fig?’ he asked me. ‘I have no money, but I am hungry, and I have walked a long way.’
Well, my mother did not send me to sit all day in the sun to give figs away for nothing, and I told him this as politely as I could. He nodded and smiled at me, and said a word of blessing, and turned away, and as he turned I saw that his eyes were like the eyes of the Messiah I had thought of. Maybe I do not remember rightly, and I only thought that later after everything else had happened, but I don’t think so. There was great mercy and kindness in those eyes, and a terrible hunger and thirst for justice, and something else that I did not understand.
You say you would have given him a fig, if you had been there? You say you would have known him as the Messiah? Do not be so certain.

John spoke that day like he always did, preaching strong words to the learned men of Jerusalem who had come to hear him. ‘How can you say you have repented, if you do not produce the fruit of repentance? The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’ When he was done all the people came up to
him to be baptised, as they always did when he was finished speaking.

There was an old woman sitting next to me, almost as old as I am now, and the first thing I noticed was that she had stood up all of a sudden. Then my ears caught up with my thoughts, and told me there had been a gasp from the crowd just before, like when a man stumbles in a footrace. So I stood up, too, but I could not see anything.
‘What is it, grandmother?’ I asked the old
woman. ‘It is John,’ she said. ‘A man has come to him to be baptised, and he is bowing down before him, but John has bowed down to him.’

‘What is he saying? What is he saying?’ the old woman asked, for John had spoken while she was talking to me. A man who was standing in front of us turned and said: ‘I need to be baptised by you; why do you come to me?’

‘Who is he?’ I asked, forgetting my place.

‘It is the one he told us about. He is the Messiah,’ said the man. ‘Let me lift you up.’

He put me on his shoulders, and I saw John kneeling in the water at the edge of the river, and another man kneeling before him: it was the man I had spoken to before, who had walked so far and been hungry. John poured the waters of the Jordan over the head of the man Jesus of Nazareth, and then Jesus stood up and walked out of the river. I had imagined the Messiah coming on the back of a white horse, or standing at the gates of the Temple with a stick in his hand to break the tables of the moneylenders; but he stepped out of the river looking like a lamb that has been caught out in the rain, and lies trembling on the wet grass. The end of his robe trailed in the wet sand, and his sandals where he left them were dusty from the road. And at that moment- well, I do not have any imagination. You know that. I never saw visions when I was young, and I never
dream dreams now that I am old- but I saw this; and it is written that John saw the same thing. I saw the sky open up like the flaps of a tent might open up to show the sky. And I saw something like a bird of fire diving down from the break in the heavens, and coming down to rest on the man Jesus. As this happened I heard a voice. It was a small voice, and it sounded very close to me, and I could not tell whether it was the voice of a man or a woman. It said: ‘This is my son, who I love. I am pleased with him.’

I looked around for where the voice was coming from, but I did not see anyone. When I looked back, the sky was whole again, and the bird had gone. Jesus of Nazareth put his sandals on, and walked quickly away through the crowd.

What then? That was the beginning. I never got a chance to get close to him in the crush. He walked away very quickly, blessing the people as he went, but no one followed him. He went away into the wilderness, and when he came back he began to preach to the Jews, and to the Samaritans, and to the Romans, and made more of a stir in the land of Judaea than John ever did. So the Romans and their lapdogs killed him, just like they killed John, and you know that was not the end of it, but only the beginning, and his name is spoken now by Ethiopians and Scythians, and men in the Antipodes who walk on their hands.

I can still remember that voice, as clear as if it had just spoken. ‘This is my son, who I love.’ I wish I had given him a fig when he was hungry. But you cannot take back a thing once it is done, or do a thing that you have left undone. Remember that, child. O G*d that made this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Your saints? How long, O L*rd, how long?

The strangest thing about writing this was rediscovering an ancient metaphor. 'Okay, Jesus has just come out of the water, and I want him to look like the farthest thing possible from a great hero and leader, something really bedraggled and pathetic. Hmmm. I know, how about on a wet morning just after lambing, how pathetic the lambs look sometimes hiding under their mothers as I drive by? Yes, that'll do... Hang on...'

Spero: Introduction

[As winstoninabox seems quite keen, here is the introduction to that document I mentioned a little while ago. ;)]

The question I ask myself is a simple one: what to do next? What should I do?

Whatever the universe is really like - whether there is a God or not, whether we are truly finite beings or can in some way be unbounded in time- I will not need to stop asking myself that question.

This document is an attempt to answer it. It is a statement of my own personal religion. It is called ‘spero’, ‘I hope’ rather than ‘credo’, ‘I believe’, since it is not intended to be any kind of dogmatic statement about how the world is. It makes no experimentally verifiable claims, and it demands that no experimentally verified datum be denied. The axiom that my hope is based on is that such a thing as good exists, in the same way that some numbers are prime and some are not, no matter what the culture or species of the mathematician. I acknowledge that many of my fellow human beings manage to exist accepting ethics as a purely human, cultural construct, and accept that to them my view will seem ludicrous and incomprehensible. I can only plead, firstly, that I am personally incapable of accepting this view of ethics - partly from a lifelong contempt of mere “rules made up by men”. “Because it is the law” is for me the best and finest reason to disobey it, whatever it is. Secondly, I feel that relative morality, while capable of maintaining a reasonable standard of behaviour in a stable, well-ordered society, has proven to be of no use in crisis situations. Relative morality is incapable of eliciting saintliness; and saintliness is vital for the survival of the human spirit.

This is intended, above all, to be a positive document, designed to build up a clear and useful picture of my own hopes. I hope that it will never be an instrument for the destruction of anyone else’s faith, and that it will never degenerate into a mere assault on the ideas of someone else. Polemics are easy, but in the end are deadly poison to the arguments and spirit of the polemicist.

These are the questions I will consider:

1. How can we find out about the universe?
2. Does the word ‘believe’ have a meaning?
3. What is Good?
4. What do I mean by God?
5. What is the universe like?
6. Can this universe be reconciled with the hypothesis of a benevolent God?
7. What is the role of intelligent life in the universe?
8. What is the significance of the ‘revealed religions’?
10. What should we do next?

Prelude to a Prose Poem

Over in the wild and wooly world of Marco’s Blog, winstoninabox said he was not getting a clear idea of what Marco and I meant by God from our comments on his comments on Marco’s comments on Richard Dawkins’ comments on what other people have said about God, i.e.:.

In all of these comments I'm yet to get any idea of what God is.

In my own ramblings about Dawkins I offered an alternative definition of God to the one he proposed, namely:

1. At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe.

This is the first essential feature of the God I believe in.

I have been thinking that ‘omnibenevolent’ and ‘omniscient’ might not mean what I want them to mean unless it is also true that:

0. This entity is the fundamental self-existent uncreated thing upon which everything else is dependent.

The next essential feature about the God I believe in is that, although what God is really like is as unknowable to us as what we are really like is unknowable to, say, an electron, in the same way that we can interact with an electron by setting up a particular distribution of electric charge,

2. God can interact with us as a person.

I thought I had a document around here that was a summary of what I thought about God, the universe, and everything , but the latest revision (c.2000 A.D.) appears to have an introduction, a table of contents, a hodgepodge of dot points, and lots of notes to myself to look things up. It strikes me that this might be as good a time as any to get it in order, change things I feel like changing, and set it loose upon an unsuspecting world.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Psychology and Ethics of Spin

That would be a splendid title for a book. It might be about the art of making facts our servants rather than our masters in argument: what is possible, and what is permissible, in this regard. Or, it could be a more esoteric and pretentious volume on the behaviour of elementary particles, explaining the difference between fermions and bosons on psychological grounds.1

Of course, it was neither of these things, just a truncation performed by the electronic gadget for self-checking-out library books, on a par with the well-known spam subject line ‘Surprise your girlfriend with a hug’.

And of course I couldn’t find what I was looking for in ‘The Psychology and Ethics of Spinoza’. Not precisely. So I went to the primary sources as I should have from the start. Was Spinoza a moral relativist? Was he a pantheist? I had a look at his Ethics, which was published posthumously and hence likely to reflect his mature philosophy:

Definition 4.1: By good I understand that which we certainly know to be useful to us.
Definition 4.2: But by bad I understand that which we certainly know will prevent us from partaking any good.
Proposition 4.27: We know nothing to be certainly good or evil save what is truly conducive to understanding or what prevents us from understanding.
Proposition 4.28: The greatest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the greatest virtue of the mind is to know God.

Whatever we understand Spinoza to mean by ‘God’, this is not moral relativism, is it? It is of course thoroughly consequentialist, as is the morality of all sane creatures:

From the Prologue to Part 4:

‘As for the terms good and bad, they indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions, which we form from the comparison of things mutually. For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. E.g., music is good to the melancholy, bad to those who mourn, and neither good nor bad to the deaf.’

And what *does* Spinoza mean by ‘God’?

Definition 1.6: God I understand to be a being absolutely infinite, that is a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.
Proposition 1.11: God necessarily exists.
Proposition 1.15: Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.
Proposition 1.18: God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things.
Proposition 1.19: God and all the attributes of God are eternal.

‘God’ can be translated, and often is, ‘God or Nature’, but the definition given above is certainly much closer to the God of the Abrahamic religions than it is to the finite ‘Nature’ Dawkins finds in the experimentally observable universe. In one of his letters, Spinoza explicitly disavows the identification of his beliefs with pantheism:

I say that all things are in God and move in God, thus agreeing with Paul, and,
perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may be
different; I will even venture to affirm that I agree with all the ancient
Hebrews, in so far as one may judge from their traditions, though these are in
many ways corrupted. The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the
Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the
latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous. (Letter of
Spinoza to Oldenburg- #21 here)

It seems to me that Spinoza is neither a moral relativist or a pantheist. It seems to me that Spinoza teaches an austere monotheism in the Judaeo-Islamic tradition. His universe is filled not with an infinite and eternal absence, but an infinite and eternal presence, before which we are humbled into infinitesimal motehood. All the transient emotions which Dakwins valorises Spinoza sees as forms of slavery. In Spinoza’s morality the free man seeks the knowledge of God above all things. Dawkins ought to read what Spinoza wrote.

1: ‘Electrons may be spiritually inert, they may be something like sensations, they may be good spirits or evil spirits. The physicist, however, can only tell us that they repel one another according to a certain law, are attracted by positive charges according to another law, and so on.’ (JBS Haldane)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

L is not, I repeat not, for Laurell K. Hamilton

I think I am approximately half of the Cyberiad fanfic community, but L is not for Lem either. Nor is it for Lewis.
Nor Lewis.

No, there is a far more significant L who made a major impact on my Weltanschauung long before I had heard of any of those people. L is for Lofting.
When I was young enough to keep track of ‘the longest book I have ever read’, and also ‘my favourite book’, it was Dr Dolittle and the Secret Lake for both of them, for quite a long time.

The Doctor Dolittle books gave me two big things, and a host of lesser things:

1. A Role Model
Dr Dolittle works incredibly hard. He is motivated by the unselfish pursuit of knowledge. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, he is omnivorous in his studies, by no means confining himself to ‘natural history'. He is famously unable to say ‘no’ to any request for assistance. His life is chaotic: it is a continuous medley of multiple projects running in parallel, frequently interrupted, which he is always ready to drop at a moment’s notice to sail off to the other side of the world. He is happy to rough it. He is without prejudice. Like Jesus, his human friends are drawn from the misfits and outcasts. He is usually mild-mannered, but is prone to occasional bouts of righteous indignation. He does not blow his own trumpet. He does not mind looking ridiculous. He cares absolutely nothing for what anyone else might think. He speaks truth to power.
Of course I am not at all like Dr Dolittle. But I should still like to be.

2. A Quandary
Androoo (the other half of the documented Cyberiad fanfic community) once floated an idea for a story set in a world where every living thing was sentient, and there was no perceived wickedness in killing or eating a sentient creature. Even thus is the world of Dr Dolittle. The rats are as sentient as the rat-catching dogs. Dr Dolittle talks to fish. There are even, in Dr Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures, several chapters relating the first-person adventures of a maggot. This makes for an unsettling sort of world. What is ‘good’ in this kind of a world? How ought one to live in it? This is the yawning dark quandary which the whole series meanders around. It is never brought into the open. No attempt is ever made to explain it away.
Dr Dolittle is appalled by fox hunting, yet eats sausages. This bothered me from the very beginning. It did not seem right. I did not know many animals in real life, so it was easy to go on conforming to everyone around me, but the quandary stayed there in the background, ticking over in the darkness. Eventually I had enough self-confidence to become vegetarian myself. There were plenty of other influences, but I think it all started in Puddleby-on-Marsh.

Then there is this urge I get to stick pins at random into atlases. A large part, even after all these years, of my mental image of England. My unrequited fondness for languages. My preference for meandering novels with other stories embedded in them, rather than efficient ones which whisk you along from one plot event to another. My vague disapproval of Noah. Etc.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

This is true:

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself down to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass.
- G. K. Chesterton, ‘Heretics’

This also is true:

Our mental superiority over the animals is perhaps largely due to the fact that we never develop certain characteristics found in most adult animals. Our behaviour is less determined by instinct, that is to say inborn reaction patterns, and we are more teachable. A large proportion of mankind, after a more or less human childhood, become almost unteachable. The know what is right in politics, religion, art, and human behaviour. They are the pillars of Church and State. Perhaps they are a social necessity. But they have grown out of a large part of their humanity. And I sometimes feel that it would be more appropriate if they were hairy all over.
- J. B. S. Haldane, ‘Possibilities of Human Evolution’

Ideally, we don’t make up the rules. And we don’t follow the rules. We try to figure out the best possible framework within which we can figure out the rules. Walk the line, gentle readers, walk the line!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

K is for Kipling

At about the same time I was an undergraduate enthusiastically reading Lewis, I was also enthusiastically reading all of Haldane’s little essays that I could find. I was a little bit surprised to discover that Haldane couldn’t stand Lewis. I can’t find his essay ‘British Anti-Lewisite’ on the web, so perhaps I have misremembered what it was called.

I was going to go on from this beginning to talk about discovering how neither Lewis nor Chesterton had much time for Kipling: but I thought I should go and reread what they wrote first. I found that Lewis’ essay on ‘Kipling’s World’ in ‘They Asked for a Paper’ had much more praise of Kipling than I remembered, and the stark criticism of Kipling I remembered is more a manifestation of Lewis’ terrible angelic charity.1 Again, I can’t find ‘Kipling’s World’ out there in cyberspace, but this is the core of it:

"The pleasure of confederacy against wicked Baboons, or even of confederacy simpliciter, is the cardinal fact about the Kipling world. To belong, to be inside, to be in the know, to be snugly together against the outsiders- that is what really matters; it is almost an accident who are cast for the role of outsiders (wicked Baboons) on any great occasion. And no one before Kipling had fully celebrated the potency of that snugness- the esoteric comedies andtragedies the mutual understanding, the highly specialized smile, or shrug, or nod, or shake of the head, which passes between fellow-professionals: the exquisite pleasure of being approved, the unassuaged mortification of being despised, within that charmed circle, compared with which public fame and infamy are a mere idle breath."

I knew already that my grip on sanity was becoming more tenuous recently, so I was not surprised when I was not in whole-hearted agreement with Chesterton. I think he strains too much to make Kipling a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ who ‘lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically.’ For instance, Chesterton builds a main pillar of his argument on the foundation of the scrap of verse:

If England was what England seems/How quick we’d chuck ‘er! But she ain’t.’

Even if this does mean, as Chesterton asserts, ‘if England really was weak and inefficient, instead of powerful and practical’, it is still just something said by a character. It is irresponsible to go around making pronouncements on what authors think based on what their characters say. In any novel or short story or poem, there will be characters, usually more than one, with different points of view. If it is a bad novel or whatever, it will be obvious which points of view the author approves of; but if it is a good one, you won’t.

Chesterton’s essay was written when he and Kipling had only recently been on opposite sides in the bitter debate over the ‘war of choice’ in South Africa: and I can well imagine how large that difference would loom. It was written long before ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, long before Kipling’s poems about Sussex, and long before Kipling was broken by the First World War. I think, perhaps, if Chesterton had written thirty years later he would have agreed that Kipling had in the end attached himself finally and tragically to Sussex, and was not a cosmopolitan in his bones, but a man who had been seeking a place to belong.

As a migrant whose family has been in motion for many generations, I know how envious I am to meet people who really belong to one spot: who are living in the house their grandfather was born in, who are part of a place. It is great fun to play at being a rootless cosmopolitan, sometimes; it is all very fine to be able to tell anecdotes about adventures in distant places. But we know, deep down, that we want to belong somewhere, and that all the truly great adventures can be had in one place. Like Chesterton says:
"The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men ... The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all, but he is thinking of the things that unite men- hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky."

I think Kipling like Chesterton was in essence a defender of ordinary people and ordinary things. The book of his I most prize is a collected poems, 1885-1926, which I picked up from a huge barricade of uncatalogued books that materialised one day outside the library when I was an undergraduate.2 It must have been one of the last books in the English-speaking world to have swastikas cheerfully printed on the cover to lend it an exotic Hindu flavour. From it I got the quote to put at the very end of my thesis:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken any way you please, is bad,
And strands them in forsaken guts and creeks
No decent soul would think of visiting.

1: ‘…it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all: no least lingering memory of it even at ten million years’ distance, no germ from which it could spring in any future, however remote. Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity’ (Perelandra)

2: Other lootz: Sale’s ‘Koran’, complete Gilbert and Sullivan, and ‘Teach Yourself Cebuano’.

Friday, August 03, 2007