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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

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Saving the AppearancesI read this book with a Tolkien and the Inklings discussion group I’m part of here in Korea. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings – the Oxford University literary group that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. Barfield’s thoughts on semantics and nature apparently influenced his more famous fellows; he also helped develop theosophy and translated Rudolf Steiner. He died relatively recently – 1997 – at the grand old age of 99.

Saving the Appearances starts off pretty innocuously, talking about how perception and reality are necessarily two different things. Barfield uses the example of a rainbow, arguing that the light and the raindrops are not directly perceptible to an observer – they are ‘particles’ or ‘the unrepresented’. He says further that the rainbow doesn’t meaningfully exist without an observer. The emergent phenomenon of the rainbow is a representation – something that can only exist because of the unconscious effect of particles on an observing consciousness.

Anyone who’s ever heard of subatomic particles will immediately understand the logic of this argument. The building blocks of reality are whizzing specks of mostly empty probability and yet we perceive things as solid objects. I couldn’t help thinking that photographic equipment easily proves the existence of rainbow absent a seeing, thinking being (although, of course, someone still needs to look at the resulting photograph).

He goes on to say some interesting things about how the pre-scientific mind may have interacted cognitively with the world. Namely, that, instead of recognising objects, nature itself, as being other entities, it was, to use the cliché, ‘at one with’ nature and things, it saw them as being no different from itself; it was pantheistic. This relationship to the world Barfield names original participation.

From here leads the crux of the book. The rise of Judaeo-Christianity and of science has led humanity to lose all sense of this original participation. Instead of perceiving self and world to be two sides of the same thing, humanity has categorised natural phenomena as other, independent, real, objective. In Barfield’s terms, the representations we perceive have become idols, and we, idolators. The book’s subtitle is A Study in Idolatry.

Original participation is a way of perceiving the world that can never be regained. It would be easy to brand Barfield anti-scientific (and in some senses, he is), but he takes pains to commend much of what science has achieved and he regards the scientific mentality as an inevitable and necessary part of the evolution of human consciousness. The next stage, he argues, is final participation.

I think final participation is not sufficiently explained or explored, but, putting it as best I can, seems to be an imaginitive, creative engagement with phenomena. You might call it a spiritual connection to representations; you might call it a kind of internalised pathetic fallacy.

Towards the end of the book, there’s lots of stuff about Christianity. He appears to regard Jesus as some kind of singularity in history, a fulcrum between original and final participation. Yet the friend who introduced this book to me via the discussion group I mentioned, swears that Barfield is not a Christian, rather a pantheist. Saving the Appearances belies that assertion; he clearly regards Jesus’s life as a divine intervention in history.

Barfield also appears not to believe in prehistory – he continually states that the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of nature have gone hand in hand. The implication being that, in some sense, nature – phenomena – did not exist before there was a consciousness to appreciate it. To put it in a way that I find easier to understand, pre-history is an ineffable wave function that is impossible to collapse without direct observation. Everything we believe about pre-human eras is a model. It’s a useful thing to bear in mind, but the idea that pre-historic plants, animals and geological processes didn’t exist – or can’t be said to have existed – is pretty ludicrous. You might as well say that no one can ever be convicted of a crime unless someone actually observed the perpetrator commit the act.

Owen Barfield

I think there are two main flaws in Barfield’s thinking. One is his anthropocentrism; the previous paragraph highlights this. Nature doesn’t meaningfully exist without people to, effectively, create it by perceiving it. There is some metaphorical truth to this, but accepting this as literally true seems to be far too great a leap of faith away from a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The idea of final participation, that the best way to see phenomena is creatively, empathetically, is also very self-centred. The corollary of this is that how you feel about something is more important than the way something actually is. It’s quite a dangerous tendency, in fact. The sun, for instance, may be regarded as a god-like, life-giving, friendly, golden orb in the sky – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a vast, continuous, cancer-causing thermonuclear explosion.

This leads on to the second main flaw, which is that the book basically urges a synthesis of scientific and creative views of the world – without apparently realising that they’re two different things that exist for two different reasons. Science is a careful attempt to explore and explain nature as objectively as possible. Creativity – spirituality, if you like – is a form of therapy – it’s a way of helping humans feel content in and connected to the world; it’s a way of explaining the world in a way that makes sense to limited human mentality. Science cares nothing for human feelings (except as a field of study); nature cares nothing for its own comprehensibility.

Clearly, both ways of understanding the world are very important for humans; life would be meaningless without art – but it would be intolerable without science. The Darwinian in me wants to point out that science is just an incredibly successful way of regarding the world; spirituality didn’t discover penicillin or put a man on the moon or create the internet.

Saving the Appearances, then, is certainly an interesting book, but ultimately not convincing and not more than a footnote in the debate to which it contributes. Finally, this particular edition – from the Wesleyan University Press – alternates between two (albeit very similar) fonts at random points in the text. Bizarre.

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Hatchepsut, The Female PharaohHatshepsut (or Hatchepsut – Wikipedia favours the former, Tyldesley the latter) lived about 3,500 years ago and was, apparently, one of the most successful rulers of 18th Dynasty Egypt. She was the daughter of Thutmose I (AKA Tuthmosis I) and the sister and wife of Thutmose II, and, when her husband died after a fairly short and unimpressive reign, she took over the reins of power. However, she was always, officially a co-regent with her nephew, Thutmose III; but, as he was only two at the start of his reign, she was able to become the dominant co-king.

Tyldesley points out that, as there is no ancient Egyptian term for ‘queen’ (just titles like ‘pharaoh’s wife’ or ‘god’s wife’), it is appropriate to regard her as a female king – pharaoh was a male position and was only taken up by women in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of her reign, she was portrayed as quite feminine and girlish, but later, as she became the de facto sole ruler, the images she had made of herself became more and more masculine. One photograph shows a relief of the two co-pharaohs and they are pretty much identical.

Hatshepsut and Thutmose III

Hatshepsut reigned for 22 years and, once she came into her own as the senior pharaoh, ruled very effectively, bringing peace and prosperity, initiating successful military campaigns and trading missions. After her death, however, Thutmose III – another highly successful pharaoh – seems to have waged a campaign to excise his aunt from history: her name and image were hacked from her public monuments.

This backlash and the pre-eminence of Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s senior advisor, has apparently led generations of egyptologists to make assumptions and concoct stories of palace intrigue. Thutmose III nursed his resentment for years and may even have done away with his co-ruler then blasted her name from the record in personal hatred and reactionary zeal. Senenmut gained his position from being his mistress’s lover – and may, too, have been murdered when he rose above his station.

Joyce Tyldesley paints a rather more measured picture, saying simply that there is no evidence to support such lurid conjecture. The reali story was probably a lot less fraught and dominated by convenience and real politik.

Joyce Tildesley

There are some interesting parallels made between Hatshepsut and other prominent female leaders from history – Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher all also led successful military campaigns and took on some masculine qualities to better appeal to conservative populations. (Cleopatra, on the other hand is rather dismissed as a Hatshepsut analogue, being a scion of a Greek dynasty rather than a native Egyptian.)

The book is written in lucid and mildy dry style. It’s not too long – mainly perhaps because of the dearth of historical information about Hatshepsut – and covers the background history of the 18th Dynasty, the main periods and themes of the female pharaoh’s life, as well as the aftermath of her reign. I think there could have been a bit more about the sweep of Epygtian history and Hatshepsut’s place therein; and I was often confused about the (admittedly decidely bewildering) family relationships surrounding the woman king. Well worth reading, though.

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Talk about preaching to the converted. I didn’t read Christopher Hitchens’s polemic for any challenge to the way I think about religion, but rather to see what arguments against belief he might cite that I wasn’t aware of. I suppose I also bought the book because the writer had been in the news recently, having revealed that he had cancer. Then he died, and I decided to read the book.

Over its fifteen or twenty chapters, the book argues mordantly and resolutely that belief in god (and Hitchens consistently gives the word a lower case initial) is a force for evil in the world, a non-sensical idea invented by primitive peoples of the Middle East millennia ago, in the name of which atrocities have been and continue to be committed.

Each chapter is an essay arguing this point in a specific area. Subjects include the monstrousness of the Bible (a quotation show the biblical Moses ordering the slaughter of the wives and sons of defeated soldiers and taking the daughters for slaves); the fear and hatred of religion for sex and the condoning of the genital mutilation of babies; the insipid fear of modern western religions of condemning Islamic totalitarian fiats against free speech in non-Muslim countries (Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses is a friend of Hitchens’s); the speciousness of the argument that some of the worst atrocities of history have been committed in secular regimes (Hitchens argues that the fascists of Europe and Stalin’s Russia were not so much non-religious as quasi-religious; their deifications of their leaders, their extermination of all dissenting views, their use of regime-aggrandising propaganda and imagery were all features adapted from religion); and the human heroism and inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr, a preacher fighting against the biblically ordained separation of the races and supported by many communists and rationalists.

As a read, it’s pretty entertaining. Hitchens’s erudition is impressive and there are various anecdotes from his life as a reporter that show that he is widely travelled and has conversed with people of many faiths and backgrounds. He has a sense of humour that often takes the form of presenting some damning information then saying, ‘I’ll leave the reader to decide for himself …’, which is a tiny bit grating. The chapters are short enough to be read in a single sitting, but long enough to explore the issue in some depth and provide some interesting facts.

God Is Not Great concludes with a rallying call for a new Enlightenment based on science, reason and humanism. This chapter was necessary, but feels like an afterthought, as Hitchens doesn’t spend much time describing how this might be brought about – but that would be another book.

The tone struck throughout the volume under discussion is combative and it focuses on extremes of religiosity – primitive superstitions, Islamic terrorism, exploitation of the gullible, textual uncertainty (the seventy-two virgins promised in the Koran to martyrs may, apparently, really be sweet white raisins), barbarous abuses (like African bishops who tell their flocks that condoms cause AIDS) – that most intelligent, moderate believers in whatever religion would agree with Hitchens on. It doesn’t really address the simple faith in faith that many seem to possess. Thus, God Is Not Great may only serve to sway the opinions of those who are already non-religious.

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