Friday, 21 November 2014

Blooming buzzing confusion

I'm still not sure if there is a word 'parachronicity' (or even if that is the word I want whether it exists or not). (I had a quick google search which, on a quick scan, threw up one PhD thesis. I suspect that means that it is not exactly colloquial even if it exists.) Anyway, I want a word that suggests the opposite (well, almost the opposite) of synchronicity: the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related. So the occurrence of two or more events that don't appear to be meaningfully related (but do, in a way to be discussed, produce meaning).

I've been relatively silent on the blog recently. Mostly, this is simply having a lot of (proper) work to do. But I'd be disingenuous if I didn't admit that the confusion of the Synod on the Family, the aftermath of the Independence referendum, as well as some personal experiences, the month of the dead and the serious illness of a member of the family haven't been in there in the mix. So that's the blooming, buzzing confusion...

And you can add into that the usual fizz of whatever I happen to have come across intellectually in the meantime. Let's pick something I came across this morning:

So where does the opposition to introducing philosophy into the curriculum at GCSE level come from? The people who are afraid of the open discussion of ideas are primarily those who are nervous whether their own faiths and dogmas will not survive scrutiny, and do not want the discomfort of finding that out. But such people are not really interested in one kind of education rather than another. They are the unimaginative forces of reaction and complacency – the enemies of education.

[Simon Blackburn -here]

Now, I don't have immensely strong views on whether there should be a GCSE (or the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence equivalent) in schools. But to the extent I had to give an answer, I'd probably be against it. I'm not against the open discussion of ideas, but (having children of that sort of age myself) I'm aware of the limitations of 'open' discussion at schools. You have the immense difference in power relationship between teacher and student. You have a a social climate which is very open to discussing some 'faiths and dogmas' and very closed to discussing others. You have the difficulty in finding teachers who are sufficiently wise to replace Socrates. You have the ignorance (inevitable) of the young. You have the limited sense of what 'philosophy' involves. (I'd be delighted to think that GCSE philosophy would involve disruptive interventions such as practicals in Iamblichean theurgy or studies of Heidegger's Nazism, but I suspect not...) It's all difficult enough in the context of a full time university degree in philosophy. But squeezed within schools?

I suspect what you'd get (in a phrase I've only just come across but which I intend using a lot) 'philosophes de service': philosophy put at the service of a certain complacent and 'modern'  worldview rather than a true, Socratic search for wisdom. It all reminds me of that ghastly sense which you sometimes (rather too often) get in the Catholic Church that every theologian you meet is a heretic. I wouldn't mind so much if these were intellectuals who sometimes, at least in the dark of the night, wondered if they might, just possibly be wrong. But too often it's some ghastly blend of magisterial phenomenology (compare its near relation, Oxbridge analyticism), a battering of words from which the student emerges dazed and able to be pointed in whatever direction the psychopomp has decided on. Much better, on the whole, I think, to let reality in and let the dearest freshness deep down things speak for itself: Shakespeare, Homer even science can provide a more reliable escape from Plato's Cave for the young...

A moan, then. But the odd thing from all this (and this is the parachronicity) is that I find myself quite unable not to be a Catholic. It's all ghastly, and yet, it's ghastly within that Catholic space. I find myself emotionally confused, and I pray. I find myself intellectually thrown around, and I read Aquinas. I fear death, and I picture myself dying holding onto a crucifix and the image of Our Blessed Mother. These are not so much remedies (in many ways they don't comfort but structure) as bedrock. One discovers, unexpectedly, that, at least for oneself, Charles Taylor is wrong:

Taylor might say: “I am uncertain and sometimes even uneasy about my own religious ‘construal.’ My doubts are only compounded when I realize how easily I could see the world differently. I do have a sense of God’s reality—it seems a compelling explanation of my personal experiences—but I’m not absolutely sure I’m right, especially when I consider the ‘construals’ of non-Christians, some of which are reasonable and which I could adopt without dramatically altering my life.”

[Matthew Rose on Charles Taylor: here]

We enter the world in medias res. We leave it the same way. However well we master a deep intellectual discipline -however well we master philosophy let's say- there is (or ought to be) an incompleteness. So where do we live out that incompleteness? Oh guess...

So 'parachronicity': that clash of events that makes life appear meaningless, and yet, oddly, highlights the meaningful space within which that meaninglessness takes place.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Love craft: homosexuality, misogyny and being locked in with pigs and cows.

This is going to be a bit icky...

Quite the most revolting thing I've read in a long time was this article by Patrick Strudwick in the Guardian on misogyny amongst gay males. Alongside the admission of a tendency among gay men to describe women's bodies in breathtakingly vile ways, it also does that very typical, nauseating male progressive thing of explaining why they're better feminists than everyone else...

Well, I'm not a progressive, not a feminist, and I'm not even going to bother pretending to be writing this blogpost as a white knight to protect women, something, certainly in this case, women can do better for themselves. (Strudwick's article really ought to be entitled: 'Shut up, Rose McGowan: as a gay man, I know more about women than you do.') This is purely going to be about men and their need for purification.

Although it's very common these days to be advised to 'check your privilege' (a task which numerous, privately schooled, Oxbridge educated successful media types have managed to do with the surprising result they've discovered they're actually more oppressed than plantation slaves), very few people these days bother to check their motivations. That's something that Catholics need to do before confession, and something that really ought to be built into our daily lives. (I've rather got out of the formal habit, but the practice of a daily examen is highly advisable.) On a more secular level, the abandonment of Freudian or Jungian psychotherapy as a major cultural influence in the West has also led to the forgetting that our motivations and indeed character of our actions (and indeed ourselves) is not something that lies on the surface but something that requires careful, constant exploration. Instead, we focus on the externals: the political structure of privilege. Do I have power? Am I part of an elite group? Even setting aside the omnipresence of delusion in answering these questions as illustrated by Strudwick's article, it leaves out the individual and the subjective: what am I doing? Why do I feel so strongly about this? What lies deep in my unconscious that I am denying? These are not easy questions and indeed they are probably not completable in our lifetimes. That, from a Catholic perspective is fine: it is the process of sanctification, probably completed only after our deaths and only by God's grace. But even putting aside the theology, it ought to be perfectly comprehensible to the most secular mindset that the rooting out of delusions, spotting, and then struggling to articulate ourselves are tasks that are essential and yet exist on the cusp of impossibility.

The relationship between women and men and, more particularly for present purposes, how men see women is probably one of the trickiest aspects of this tricky area of self-exploration.  (I would emphasize that in my experience women are just as prone to difficulties here as men, but I'll leave that for them to sort out.) It was perhaps unfortunate that reading Strudwick's article occurred for me at the time I have been in a bit of a Lovecraftian binge, but the combination of Strudwick's piscine fetish with Lovecraft's obsession with hidden horror and marine creatures has made for troubling insights. (Is Lovecraft all really just about fear of women and their cavities?) Male adolescents really don't quite know what to do with/about women (although they spend all their time trying to pretend to themselves and others they do). Frankly, I'm not willing -even under a veneer of anonymity- to go into all the details of my own inadequacies -past and present- in this area. But one that is both true and relatively funny is that I remember that while it seemed quite clear from the (massive) amount of biologically oriented sex education we had received that some sort of penetration was involved in intercourse, such a manoeuvre was clearly so utterly absurd that I concluded I had simply misunderstood and settled on the view that, whatever the precise physical details, the process was clearly more akin to target shooting from a distance.

This sort of physical unease is never entirely separable from a sort of moral queasiness. Old jokes about mother-in-law or wives as 'her indoors', 'the ball and chain' and so on, testify to a widespread male fear of loss of autonomy in domesticity. (And its recovery in the midlife crisis of new cars and running off with a woman marked as less threatening to autonomy economically and by her youth.) Perhaps this all comes together symbolically at least in the vagina dentata: a physical and a moral threat from the space within.

And so back to Strudwick and misogyny. His is a well worn tale: 99% of violence against women is by heterosexuals so they're the problem and we (the good gay men) are part of the solution. But here's the other way of putting it. What do you (me) really think about women? Why do you (and this time it is you) find them sexually unattractive? (And what is it to find someone sexually unattractive: some deep combination of the physical and the moral in my experience...) Why as a culture do we (majority heterosexuals) privilege that sort of camp male aggressiveness against women? What is really going on when we pretend (say) that Conchita Wurst is unproblematically a good, funny thing? (No question at all that he might be, oh, I don't know, taking the p*** out of women? Really? Sure? And the Freudian thing with the name?) Fishiness isn't simply a bizarre manifestation of a gay subculture: that mix of physical and moral queasiness towards women is typical of maleness in general, of which gay maleness is merely an aspect -and one peculiarly isolated from corrective female critical engagement.

                                                       Miss Sausage....

I don't pretend to know what individual gay men would find on pursuing this sort of internal questioning. I say that because, as I've said, what all men will find isn't exactly clear. (But if you've defined yourself as someone who -in some major, life structuring way- doesn't like women, I'd expect some interesting observations over a lifetime, wouldn't you?) But as far as a culture which celebrates precisely the sort of bitchy queenness that produces the vile physical attitudes he remarks on, why do we give it a free pass rather than seeing it as a typical part of a male difficulty in dealing virtuously with women? (And to which the major (albeit not only) solution is the lifetime commitment of matrimony -which is, of course, yet another victim of our culture's unreflective celebration of homosexuality and, unconsciously, the locking into the trench warfare of gender against gender.)

'O what was I doing when the procession passed?
Where was I looking? Young women and men
And I might have joined them.
Who bent the coin of my destiny
That it stuck in the slot?
I remember a night we walked
Through the moon of Donaghmoyne,
Four of us seeking adventure,
It was midsummer forty years ago.
Now I know
The moment that gave the turn to my life.
O Christ! I am locked in a stable with pigs and cows for ever.

[Kavanagh: The Great Hunger.]

Friday, 31 October 2014

Halloween and is spooky good?

I think I've confessed before to a weakness for a 'good' (ie utterly dreadful) horror film. One of the major causes of rows in our house is my insistence on checking out the 'Horror Channel' first in any assessment of a possible evening's viewing...

I'm not entirely sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing or a harmless eccentricity or what. I was reared (parents were entirely 'hands off' liberals in terms of TV and reading matter) on a diet in which Denis Wheatley figured quite heavily both in his novels and in the various film versions on TV. In my more reflective moments, I do wonder whether (or perhaps in what way) this early exposure to supernatural trash literature (and, I'm afraid, my abiding low taste in this area) links up to my conversion to Catholicism. (One can imagine Dawkins shaking his head sadly at yet another young life blighted by an indoctrination in the supernatural. He may have a point in this case.)

Our society is in the odd position of saturating the young in ghosts and vampires, and yet pleading a sort of ironic detachment from that obsession. For a culture which is ostensibly 'secular', the parade of werewolves and the like that rampage across (particularly) young adult entertainment is quite remarkable. Of course, we don't really believe it (do we?) but in many ways, an obsession that we don't really believe is more remarkable than one we do. The current popularity of Zombies (frankly, my least favourite form of the genre) perhaps represent naturalism hitting back. Unlike the supernatural world of ghosts and vampires (presenting difficulties for naturalism in survival after death, curses and odd powers  of physical transformation), Zombies are scary but simply the result of some sort of microbe.

Anyway, I'm basically torn between the thought that the survival of an interest in the supernatural is a reassuring sign of (albeit imperfect) resistance to secularity, and the thought that it's merely another aspect of the abandonment of Christianity, this time in favour of the demonic. Certainly, the sort of 'supernatural' that is the commonplace of this sort of culture isn't one that is subject to the overarching control of God (rather than gods or powers). The universe is not the Christian one where the ultimate reality is rationally consistent and moral, but rather the pagan one where competing very, but not absolutely, powerful entities compete for success. Paganism perhaps even has the advantage over the modern age of taking such entities seriously: if you think that the furniture of the world really contains demons and ghouls, you are, essentially, back in the position of the naturalist who has to explain why contingent things exist, and thus back into the proofs of natural theology. (Thor in metaphysical terms is no more surprising than an extremely fierce tiger.) Modern-paganism-for-entertainment postpones that sort of serious thinking by ironic handwaving: one lives as if one believes in these things but one doesn't need to think about them seriously as, really, one doesn't.

And the final complicating factor for Catholics is that here one is dealing with real malevolent entities and not just ideas. You may think an interest in the occult is just playing with ideas; the demons you address are under no such illusions. (I'll just give a few seconds for secularist readers to withdraw quietly now they recognize that I actually am sufficiently nuts to think that demons etc exist.) I frankly don't know what to say about that: if one looks back at Catholic culture at its mediaeval highpoint, there is clearly a relish and enjoyment in the portrayal of the demonic. Is it better to avoid any mention at all? Or is it better to mention but with the risk of fascination?

A mulling without any real conclusion. I go on reading horror stories and watching horror films, but sometimes with a slightly uneasy conscience. On balance, I'm rather in favour of Halloween and its popular celebrations provided that it's balanced by the proper celebration of All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, and the remembrance of the dead in November. Spooky and a fascination for spiritual danger is probably as natural as a fascination with physical danger. It's the danger of a lack of a correcting balance from the theism of organized religion that leads to the problems.