Sunday, March 31, 2013

A.C. Grayling's False Dichotomies

Last week a writer friend tried halfheartedly to convert me to atheism by sending me a link to a 2011 talk by British philosopher AC Grayling. The friend in question is not so much strongly anti-religious as incredulous that Christianity or any particular religion can address the complexity of the universe.

Grayling spoke in Sydney to promote his compendium of secular wisdom The Good Book. I'd willingly read into Grayling's book, but was not much impressed by the talk. It's the old "new Atheist" tendency to set up straw men. I replied to my friend:

[for the Grayling talk, search YouTube "A.C. Grayling the Good Book 2011". LeCaNANDian posted it]

Dear ----:

I watched the Grayling talk, and found him obviously very learned and eloquent, but didn't come away much changed by anything he said. For one, I feel he posits too strong a divide being between traditions that are "secular" and those that are "religious." This is something I find true of most figures in the "New Atheism" movement: they assume a strict divide where often there isn't one. Here the issue becomes more salient because Grayling is concerned to valorize ancient thinkers like Aristotle or Socrates as against the "religious tradition."

The problem is that one can't set up a clear border between religious/secular and then put Socrates on one side and, say, ancient "religious" thinkers on the other. Yes, there is a real thing called philosophy, and Socrates fits the definition: "thinking for oneself," weighing and sifting and proceeding by dialectic, etc. But still the Greek philosophers had a very strong sense of the divine--Socrates had his daimon, and Plato certainly conceived the realm of Pure Forms as both transcendent and existent--while much of the ancient Christian tradition, even books in the biblical canon, engage in dialectics similar to those we find in the Greeks. Not to mention what happens when we reach the third and fourth century (cf. Augustine). So, on the one hand, the biblical canon contains masterpieces of skeptical reason (Ecclesiastes, for one); on the other, the Greek and Roman philosophical writers contain religious enthusiasm (as the Platonic tradition develops, for instance). A similar kind of overlap can be seen in the Renaissance and Enlightenment--though it's true that a stronger secular tradition breaks away in the latter period.

Grayling posited another suspect dichotomy when he addressed how we create ethical systems. So: Either 1) the ethical is a response to a requirement from some transcendent source, or 2) it is developed from human reason based on human experience. Again, talking of ethics, I don't think the dichotomy holds up. Or: It holds up only at a very "popular" level, such as when you put a Texas fundamentalist with scant education face to face with a young atheist with scant education. In this kind of debate thinking is scarcely approached by either side. Thinking, so prized by Grayling, only begins once discourse develops beyond a certain level (particularly: once discourse begins to put itself in question). When that happens, the two kinds of ethical "ground," as Grayling might say, often start overlapping. Secular ethics begins positing metaphysical entities that can't be proven to exist, while, in return, religious ethics begins talking about human experience.

Grayling remarked about Buddhism that it was originally a philosophical movement, not a religion: "The Buddha didn't intend to be a god." This is certainly correct, and it led me to think again of a very interesting Christian tradition, namely that represented by the Gospel of Thomas, an ancient Christian text only recently rediscovered during the last century. I'm sure you've heard of Thomas, but don't know if you've read into it (read the text, I mean, or read any commentary). The Thomas tradition does not present Jesus as a god, but more as a charismatic teacher seeking to lead disciples to an awareness of "the kingdom," which is understood as present already but unrealized. The true disciple in this tradition isn't saved by Jesus, as by some divine being of a different essence, but rather awakened by him, whose "twin" he or she is called to become. In Thomas' understanding of Jesus (as is also often true for writers in the Gnostic tradition) you get a kind of deconstruction of Grayling's ethical dichotomy. Because the point for the Thomas tradition is that the "divine source" from which we might get ethical insight is already part of us: it is inside us to be discovered and developed. I.e., to use Grayling's terms, we see in Thomas a "religious ethics" which also depends on a keen awareness and study of the true nature of the "human self in the world." But this latter, according to Grayling's dichotomy, is precisely what a "secular ethics" is supposed to do; it is precisely not what a "religious" ethics does. Does this make Thomas less "religious" and more "humanistic" than the canonical gospels? One might argue so. But my point here should be clear: the divide Grayling seems to want to hold up proves unstable once one gets closer to actual religious, or indeed ancient "secular," traditions.

Further, I believe Grayling's "secular" ethical systems, those created mainly by human reason, are liable to the same kinds of gross superstition and abuse we find in the "religious" ethical systems. Look what happened with Marxism in the last century. And look how our own secular liberalism has become merely a kind of catechism upholding the religion of consumerism and unregulated capitalism. I find similar kinds of fetishization and superstition in popular medieval Christianity as I find in Stalinism. Certainly each had its priesthood and its Inquisition. We in neoliberal society fall prey to like kinds of fetishization, only being lucky in that our own Inquisition hasn't quite developed yet (although I note various trends that way).

I'd really be interested to know your reaction to some of the Thomas-related writing out there. I don't agree with Ron Miller on much as regards his theology, but his book on Thomas is quite good; he gets at an authentic core in Thomas. What's more, you might agree with him:

Ron Miller: The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice



Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Joys of Bitter Laughter

Anecdote has it that when Kafka was working on The Trial he had friends over to read them the opening. According to Max Brod, the writer's friends "laughed quite immoderately" at this first reading. "And [Kafka] himself laughed so much that there were moments when he couldn't read any further."

It isn't often enough recognized that our most despairing and nihilistic writers--CĂ©line, Beckett, Kafka--are essentially humorists. Or at least that there is usually a substratum of humor beneath their bleakest work. What kept them writing was a perception of the dismal hilarity of the world, the ludicrous absurdity of social life, and in particular the overweening claims of language to be able to make sense of or transcend such a world. As Beckett had it: "I can't go on, I'll go on." He was never quite through blasting away at French and English, struggling to dispel the miasma of euphemism that allowed language to obscure the landscape. And the grim humor of the blasting, more than any real hoped-for epistemological gains, is what made the work worthwhile in the rough day to day.

Thomas Bernhard is part of this tradition of gleeful, methodic destruction. His novel Woodcutters is a two-hundred page one-paragraph rant against Vienna and one married couple, the Auersbergers, who host a dinner party the narrator reluctantly attends there. The calculated and recursive bitterness of the narrative voice, after sixty or seventy pages, finally has one grinning and occasionally laughing aloud. The novel follows the narrator's musings as he waits among the guests, people he's been avoiding for decades, for his hosts' "artistic dinner" to begin. I quote the latter part of a long and brilliant passage that lays out the many ways the cultured Viennese around him, and indeed he himself, are almost insatiably mean-spirited in their dealings with one another.

Or else we try to curry favor with them and they push us away, and so we avenge ourselves by slandering them, running them down wherever we can and pursuing them to their graves with our hatred. Or they help us back on our feet at the crucial moment and we hate them for it, just as they hate us when we help them back on their feet, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We do them a favor and then think we are entitled to their eternal gratitude, I thought, sitting in the wing chair. For years we are on terms of friendship with them, then suddenly we no longer are, and we don't know why. We love them so fervently that we become positively lovesick, and they reject us and hate us for our love, I thought. We're nothing, and they make something of us, and we hate them for it. We come from nowhere, as people say, and they perhaps make a genius out of us, and we never forgive them for it, just as if they'd made a dangerous criminal out of us, I thought as I sat in the wing chair. We take everything they have to give us, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and we punish them with a life sentence of contempt and hatred. We owe everything to them and never forgive them for the fact that we owe everything to them, I thought. We think we have rights when we have no rights of any kind, I thought. No one has any rights, I thought. There's nothing but injustice in the world, I thought. Human beings are unjust, and injustice prevails everywhere--that's the truth, I thought. These people have never done anything but pretend to be something, while in reality they've never been anything: they pretend to be educated, but they're not; they pretend to be artistic (as they call it), but they're not; and they pretend to be humane, but they're not, I thought. And their supposed kindness was only pretense, for they were never kind. And above all they pretended to be natural, and they were never natural: everything about them was artificial, and when they claimed--in other words, pretended--to be philosophical, they were nothing but eccentric, and it struck me again how repellent they had seemed to me in the Graben when they told me they now had bought everything by Wittgenstein, just as twenty-five years earlier they had said they had bought everything by Ferdinand Ebner, with just the same tasteless pretense to a knowledge of philosophy--or at least to an interest in philosophy--because they thought they had to for my benefit, since they believed then--and probably still do--that I have a philosophical bent, that I am a philosophizer--which I am not, for to this day I really have no idea what the words philosopher and philosophize mean. (93-4)
Seated in the "wing chair," off to the side and only half-observed by fellow guests (this verbal tic of the "wing chair" recurs as a kind of musical device over the entire text) the narrator thinks through the many bases of his disgust with both his Viennese circle and himself. But this is but a handful of sentences from what is an almost epic rant. The sheer volume of pent up bitterness and hypocrisy, the pages upon pages of it, ever repeating the same accusations or similar ones in the same exact tone, only occasionally taking up new objects of disgust to add to the simmering stew of hate and recrimination--the effect is ultimately comic. It partakes of one of the most important devices of comic art: human subjects fallen into mechanical repetition. Beckett too is a master of this, particularly (as far as the novel is concerned) in his wartime work Watt.

I've recently also been reading a more current writer, the novelist Tao Lin, and it would be worthwhile to consider how his work relates to these great 20th century novels. Tao Lin's disgust plays out in the post-digital and slavishly consumerist America of the new century, and he's especially a master of narrative boredom and how boredom and aimlessness come to underpin a kind of flippant linguistic drift that itself makes for much of the content of the work. His early novel Eeeee Eee Eeee stands apart for this.

Check out:

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters

Samuel Beckett: Watt

Tao Lin: Eeeee Eee Eeee

Friday, March 8, 2013


Those trying to identify the world's most horrific totalitarian state would be hard pressed to argue for any candidate beyond North Korea. Any hopes that the recent generational change in the country's leadership might lead toward reforms have been more or less dashed. The hermit kingdom's latest nuclear test has even prodded its main ally China toward tightening sanctions. Still, in yesterday's paper I came upon this striking paragraph:

The new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has adopted a confrontational approach toward Washington, although he did deign to meet last week with former US professional basketball star Dennis Rodman.
Checking elsewhere online, I found that indeed Rodman and Kim sat down together in Pyongyang to watch some hoops. So yes: the Young Dear Leader may scorn meeting diplomats, don't expect him to give up the chance to hang out with Dennis Rodman. It's good to know that the head of this new nuclear state is basically a 12-year-old.

And that our sports stars are, still and always, basically idiots.

"I love him--the guy's awesome," Rodman said of the young ruler of a nation of brutalized, starving citizens.

Good job, basketball. You should be proud of yourself. I am among those who feel your best players are if anything underpaid.