Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Critique of Christianity part V: Absolutism (2 of 2)

This will be the last in my series of articles on Christianity. Picking up from where I left yesteday, then.

The absolutist register of the NT reflects an anxiety as to whether the potential converts will believe in the doctrine. This leads to some of the most litigious statements in the entire Gospel. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew again, 10:37-38). But why? Why is something like paternal or filial love supposed to be an obstacle to Jesus Christ, or circumvented and controlled as if it were a potential sin? Just to make sure this is clear, we’re talking about love, and it is being discussed as if it had the implications of a sin. Even more importantly, how illuminated or mature can we consider an ideology to be when it speaks of love as if it were a quantifiable object, that is to say, as though you could say ‘I love my dad with 70% of my spirit but I think I love my mom with 90%, so I’ll love Christ with 120% just to be sure.’ I mean, of course our feelings for people change and grow more or less powerful over the time that we are in touch with them, but it’s not like I’ll love my mother less than I’ll love my wife, or my greatest friend less than my brother, I’ll just love them differently. There’s different forms and expressions of love, and they can be more or less powerful depending on the relationship we have with a person, but it’s still love. It’s still the same core sentiment, whether I feel it lightly for a friend I’ve made in the last month or deeply for someone who is my flesh and blood. And the fact that I love someone very much does not imply that my love for another person is reduced – the amount of love for which there is space in the human heart is, quite simply, infinite. It does not detract from itself. The idea that the Word of God could include such pointless bickering as ‘do you love me more or less than this other chap?’ is unbelievable – it sounds more like the kind of thing a sixteen year-old girl would tell her boyfriend over the phone as a way of flirting.

As it endorses the suppression of ideologies only on account of their having a different matrix from its own, Christianity endorses the erasure of difference and therefore richness from the world. It does not acknowledge that as the human spirit grows in infinitely different ways and circumstances, so the solutions that it finds to its problems are infinitely various in form and expression. Some may find illumination in hermitage, others in social life. Some may discover that their vocation is in dancing, others may find it is in writing or cooking, or even in something basically violent like boxing. Some may find that romance works for them when it’s the One True Love, others may discover that flirting and playful seduction with one partner after the other is more their thing. And of course, some may find that their peace in spirit comes not through Christianity but from other religions (if Christianity is imposed on you when you are young, illumination may represent precisely a liberation from Christianity!). I’m not saying that anything goes when it comes to being happy. But I am saying that I don’t buy the notion of one Truth as counterpoised to one Untruth. If Truth were a house, Christianity would be telling us that there is only one path that leads to it, whereas I’m saying that I believe there’s dozens of paths to it, some through the woods, some through the mountains, some through the air or underground, and that it is only walking them, not through doctrine or dogma, which teaches us which one is the right path for us. This is why, to me, the concept that several different Truths can be true at the same time, even if they are contradictory, is so crucial. The paths to Truth and Truth itself are really the same thing. There can be many and one, especially when it comes to the spirit. Heck, even an atheist can find his own way through the woods towards the house of our solitary illumination. The road to the spirit is not restricted to the highways of God.

Since it endorses the erasure of difference from the world, Christianity inevitably leads to conflict between differences – and this is what has led to all the violence in the name of Jesus Christ. People who believe in Jesus Christ think it is correct, and in fact good, to try and homogenize us all into Christianity. Even those who do not enact this belief violently seem to think it. The notion that different individuals require a different good is not one which they recognise – there is only one good, and it is the same for every one. By consequence, anything that does not take part in that good is expendable, if not outright harmful.

It is this hostility to difference which has led, however indirectly, to Christianity’s considerable history of violence. For this reason, we must recognise that said violence is an implicit outcome of the word of Jesus, not a distortion of the doctrine. Of course, the Gospels do not textually state ‘go out there and kill others,’ but by sending out an absolutist message into a population which they know to be ingenuous, they are responsible for the absolutist interpretations which are derived from it. This is the principle of indirect rhetoric – to draw a paragon for Christianity, the Communist doctrine must be held responsible for the dictatorships that derived from it even though it preached principles which condemned tyranny. This is because Communism released a blueprint for liberalism into its cultures without a safeguard against the power dynamics of the societies which received it. Communists must take responsibility for that, rather than take refuge in negation. Similarly Christianity preached love in terms which would necessarily turn the texts into a weapon to be wielded by authoritarian spirits – simply because the terms are themselves authoritarian. ‘He that is not with me is against me.’ It’s as terribly simple as that.

If I proclaim ‘Black people are bad, but we must respect them and love them,’ it will inevitably and eventually lead to racist violence and discrimination, regardless of the fact that the sentence commands to do the opposite. It is not enough to say the word of peace. You must couch it in a voice of peace as well, in an act of peace as well.

The absolutist register also leads, again indirectly, to one of the greatest paradoxes in current Christian rhetoric. When trying to convert you, Christians will often say that you must take ‘a leap of faith.’ You must open yourself to God and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and saviour. You must embrace the revelation. This would be fine if it meant opening yourself up to the possibility of Christ being the saviour, but in its enunciation, what it refers to is the certainty that Christ is the Lord. And this is the great fallacy – treating belief as if it were a choice. Genuine belief is not a choice. It is the outcome of experience. You do not switch belief on or off as though it were a lamp. In the ‘leap of faith’ rhetorical routine, belief comes before the experience which allows for it. That’s like imagining a man who is asked to love a girl before he has met her. Yes, clearly ‘leap of faith’ may have different meanings for other people, but if that is the case, then the terms are just terribly chosen. And I’ve had it preached to me often enough that I know this specific fallacy exists and is widespread among Christian communities. Christians essentially pose a request for belief – and more than that, they frame it as an ethical request, as though you had a moral choice on what you believe to be the truth or not.

I mentioned at the beginning of this long critique that it didn’t matter to me whether you believed or not in God, but only whether your belief was a bridge or a wall between yourself and other people. Learning to read the Gospel must be an act of building a bridge. There are many things in the Gospel which we can learn if we are just open to its teachings and if we are willing to learn. But, conversely, there is a dark side to the Gospel, an authoritarian side which we must learn to be wary of – one which teaches us to believe that only through and from Christianity can something come that is good, and that no happiness is real if it is not Christian. This authoritarian side is the part that I cannot endorse and what keeps me from being a Christian, alongside the issues previously discussed. As for my critique, if there is anything I wished to achieve, it was not to dissuade anyone from becoming or being a Christian themselves. I really hope that’s clear. Only I hope to have provided both believers and non-believers alike with a worthy perspective on the dual nature of the Gospels. That the non-believers may learn to recognise the words of love, and that the believers may recognise the seductive and dangerous side of the absolute, which can lead (and has led) to destruction on the earth we share regardless of our faith.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Critique of Christianity part IV: Absolutism (1 of 2)



I wonder how many people know that the expression ‘He that is not with me is against me’ originates from the Gospel. It’s in Matthew, 12:30 – the speaker is no less than Jesus Christ. That sentence is the fulcrum of the problem of Christianity, one which it shares with all other monotheistic religions that I’m acquainted with. I kept it last because it’s the most important, and it’s so extensive that it’ll take two parts to discuss. Here’s the first one.

The fact that Christianity has led to a great deal of violence all over Europe (and beyond) is generally considered as a paradox – a distortion of Christ’s original teachings, which are all about loving your neighbour. There are plenty of passages about love and pacifism in the New Testament. I’m not going to try and criticise any of these bits because I agree with them wholeheartedly (I would, however, qualify this by saying that they are not exclusive to Christianity. Confucius and to some extent Plato said similar things, and they both predate this religion).

The point that is important is that common readings of the Gospel usually stop at these passages and see nothing else in the text. They are unilateral readings, or at least selective ones. What must be stressed is that there is another side to the Gospel, one which exists alongside the ‘peace & love’ bits but which has a very different function. To spell it out clearly, we must recognise that for all of the discourses on tolerance and humility, the Gospel also possesses an extremely authoritarian register – this is the aspect of the New Testament concerned with legitimising itself as the Word of God.

This authoritarian side of the NT – or, more aptly, the absolutist side – is as real, important and influential as the humanitarian one. An easy (and famous) example from John 14:6 – Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh to unto the Father, but by me. No-one knows illumination except through my doctrine – but why? And how are the implications of this not inherently exclusive and discriminatory? Essentially, with this phrase we are dismissing all that came before Christ, from other countries or other worldviews. In one brush, there go everything that the Greeks and the Romans have taught to us, from philosophy to poetry, and away goes Zen religion and meditation or the works of non-religious thinkers – Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Leopardi, Camus to name but the tip of the iceberg. Any of the millions of people who ever drew inspiration from any of these works must have been deluded. Christianity discounts all of their experiences as irrelevant, because no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (predictably the Gospel does not say ‘no man or woman,’ just ‘no man.’ Perhaps women cannot reach the kingdom of God in the first place, do they lack the qualities?).

Because the teachings of Christ see themselves as the absolute good rather than just an option available to our free will, they end up condemning any choice which does not directly involve Jesus Christ. Those who do not believe in Jesus are the sons of the devil. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because you cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. This extract comes from John 8: 43-44 and has been much discussed. Scholars suggest that it can be written away by context – Jesus is speaking to the Jews who resist him, not to his disciples at large. Personally I think there is no grounding in the text itself to suggest that the sentence is so specific in its addressee rather than more general as the rest of the Gospel is, but even if it were, I still think it’s wrong. Christ’s teaching are striking to me when they say ‘love your enemy as yourself’ – love your enemy, not just your friend. That’s what’s original in the teachings of Jesus. But the above passage is what you get by having a message of love scarved in the ideology of ‘you’re either with me or against me.’ You condemn something just because it’s not like you.

This is brought so far that the Gospel even commends the destruction of cultures of knowledge which are differing – see the Nazi-style burning of books in Acts 19:19 – Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men … [20] So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed. The contingent reference for ‘curious arts’ may be traced to witchcraft, but the text is not specific enough about it, and even if it were, it’s still wrong to burn books, even when they say things we don’t like. Besides, note how the text doesn’t speak of burning books about ‘bad arts’ but ‘curious arts.’ Why is it that if something is peculiar rather than ordinary, it is best erased?

I wish to stress that this authoritarian register is utterly pervasive in the New Testament. Not only in the content of the text, but even in the style. A deal of it surrenders to rhetorical turns which have nothing to do with the pedagogic ‘love’ bits of the Gospel, but serve instead the purpose of validating the text to the reader. See for instance the infantile hyperbole which closes the Gospel of John – And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. (21:25). Right. What is the purpose of telling us this?

This also clashes with some personal convictions of mine because, personally, I hold that the Word of God should not need self-validation. If it is the Word of God, it is convincing enough as it is, without having to state ‘I am convincing.’ The truth does not declare itself – but that’s just a personal belief of mine, and it may carry us too far off on a limb, so let’s leave this as a parenthesis.

This article is getting too long. Part 2 will pick up from exactly where I'm leaving it. I'll post it tomorrow or the day after that.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Critique of Christianity part III: Purity



For my next issue with Christianity, I wish to cite a few passages from the Gospel:

But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. […] Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew, 28-29 and 48).

Quite harsh, isn’t it? Just looking at a woman and thinking that she’s beautiful already means having sinned (it is also an androcentric passage, which is another problem with Christianity throughout, but because I don’t like to fight moral battles that are not my own, I’ll leave the ladies to dissect that). Any man can tell you that if these are the directives, then we’d all have to be blind by now – it is impossible to see a beautiful woman without some form of a fantasy, however brief, taking shape in our heads.

This goes hand in hand with an argument that Christians often made when trying to convert me. When I enquired as to why God was reluctant to get in touch with me, some of them argued that it was logically impossible for Him to do it – because I was impure, and that which is pure can never come in contact with the pure. It is enough, they would say, for one alien particle to enter a glass containing a liquid of a single element, for that glass no longer to contain that element in its pure form. I was the alien particle, God was the glass, and therefore He could not accept me until I took my ‘leap of faith’ (usually variant in its execution according to the speaker).

I’ll pass on the moral debates around the above argument, but I’ll pick up on something which is expressed in Christianity in its original (textual) and contemporary forms alike. This religion is in love with the notion of purity. Obviously one can see how God would be ‘pure’ (or, to use a more common term, ‘perfect’). But why does Christ tell to His human disciples, ‘Be perfect’?

The issue is not whether it’s a fair request or not (it obviously isn’t). A Christian would respond, quite rightly, that it’s not about asking us things which are fair, but things which are good, regardless of compromises or bartering with our condition as sinners. The point that I’d like to question is whether asking us to be pure really means asking us to be good – or more to the point, whether trying to be pure, as Christianity exhorts us to do, really leads to us being good.

Either way, repression – as in the repression of one’s lustful desires by ripping your eyes out – hardly seems the way to go. If purity means desensitizing oneself to something like the beauty of a woman, how does it differ from chemical castration? And how far does it go? If I’m ‘pure,’ will I no longer feel that lovely, sly, smug sense of satisfaction I experience when my rival sports team loses? Will I no longer take pleasure from violent action films, or laugh at coarse comedies? Will all the ‘lowest’ pleasures of my life be erased?

Yes, answers Christianity. And this is one bit where we disagree. To them, the ‘low’ or ‘base’ or ‘vulgar’ side of humanity is to be looked down upon – it is a side-product of the fall from grace, a special kind of dirt that forms over the windshields of the soul. To me, not only is there nothing wrong with these kind of feelings (as long as they are not allowed to flourish into obsession), they form the necessary and healthy counterbalance to those parts of us that are noble and high and idealistic – we couldn’t take the pressure of the latter without letting out steam through the former. We cannot enjoy the celestial music of Beethoven if we are not allowed to occasionally sit on our sofas eating an absurdly expensive Ben & Jerrys while watching Firefly. We cannot be true and kind and intimate to our friends if we are never also swearing loudly together as we joke about each other’s sexual shortcomings (among men that’s the case – women probably have different expressions of ‘low’ behaviour!).

To me, purity is not human. Christianity does not share in this belief – purity is not only fair but healthy as a standard to pit people against. This religion purports to love humanity (or at least man) by putting him at the centre of creation, but it is actually quite selective in the bits of it that it chooses to love, relegating the ‘low’ parts to the influence of the devil instead of recognising their participation in the tree of our self. This position is incompatible with my feelings because, as a humanist, I acknowledge the human spirit in its entirety – in its potential for achievements as well as its potential for blunders, and in its capacity to pick itself up from them. Not in the sense that I love evil, but in that I understand that having the potential for evil (our condition as sinners) is necessary for us to do good. If purity is not human, I don’t really think it’s healthy for us to pursue it, nor do I believe that it will lead to great good. The best way for a person to be able to do good is to keep her faith in her moral potential (pride) alongside an understanding of her natural moral limits (humility), that is to say, that she cannot reach perfection. Thus, instead of expending energy and becoming unhappy by means of self-castigation when one caves in to the pressure of our natural desires (for instance masturbation, or eating chocolate), we may accept our impurities as an expression of ourselves. This lets us place them in the sphere of our privacy, watching violent movies without feelings of guilt, and letting our energy go towards constructive interaction when in the sphere of the public, rather than repression. This is what it means to become a better person; you cannot be a good person within society if you are not happy, and pursuing purity never leads to happiness. Hence purity does not make you a good person, however much Christianity insists that being pure is the only way of being good.

Besides, even in its evangelical description the idea of reaching morality through repression seems dubious. A guy who rips his eyes out so he won’t have lustful fantasies when a woman passes by is not a good person, he is just blind. I don’t know how others read it, but I can’t help but feel that the Gospel itself ends up suggesting (albeit indirectly) that purity is not a moral quality, and therefore that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not so much moral as they are aesthetic.

I wish to stress the point in the above paragraph because it really is important. As long as something is pure, it is divorced from questions of morality. Morality, in itself, is inherently impure. I do believe that spiritual illumination is possible, in this life; however, I also believe that it is the outcome of a torturous, painful path, often through our own sin and mistakes. Christianity agrees with me so far, but it draws a different conclusion from this premise. To me, a greater moral awareness comes from having experienced both poles in the human spirit, the constructive and the destructive one, and learning how to balance both in our lives, rather than learning how to banish either from our experience. It is a balance between light and darkness rather than an embracing of light – and an intrinsic process of learning and absorbing. That’s why the difference between any two poles in our spirit is not one between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ because these are meaningless labels attached to two sides which both need to be understood and absorbed in our experience – and this is where Christianity parts way with my thought. As we have seen in the discussion on pride and humility, Christianity is organized according to dialectical structures, assigning one side to the ‘bad’ and the other to the ‘good’ and then proceeding to a condemnation and demonization of whichever side it chose to deem ‘bad.’ I don’t buy this; both sides of any sentiment in the human spirit are legitimate and true to our own selves, even the ones which might risk hurting others, and both sides have the potential to be un/ethical according to a life’s contingency. The faculty of our judgment to select which pole will be the right one is what we call our morality, and it will be the more advanced to the measure that it possesses enough experience of both poles to choose rightly. As such, our morality will never be pure, but it will only be great because – and not despite – the fact that it has come to know the opposite of itself.

This, then, is another important difference between my worldview and the Christian one. I don’t endorse asceticism or purity, and for that matter I don’t endorse anything that negates the lessons we can learn from the raw world of feeling and the underbelly of pain and sin. My suggestion to you is contrary to that of Jesus Christ: don’t go out and try to be perfect. Go out and pluck those damn apples of knowledge, and find out for yourself whether they taste of mud or not.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Critique of Christianity part II: Demonization of Pride



To begin with, then.

Christian ideology has an underlying dialectical organization, one most explicitly revealed in the opposition of heaven versus hell. The fate that is assumed for the human soul is dual: you are either saved or not saved. There is no inbetween (purgatory is not mentioned in the Gospels and was only introduced at a later date, and anyway it’s only a suspension or transition between the two poles, not an alternative; incidentally the vast architecture of heaven and hell was conceptualised mostly in later periods as Roman and especially medieval imaginations were allowed to run rampant, but the foundations for the notion of heaven and hell are pretty obvious in the Gospel). The dualism which is assumed in such a cosmological organization reflects itself, in Christianity, in its representation of spiritual virtue. In other words, it establishes the opposition humility versus pride, then assigns all good to humility and all evil to pride.

This is my first note of dissent with Christianity. I simply cannot commit myself to such an absolute point of view – more specifically, I cannot identify the sentiment of pride with evil. I have spent a few words on the virtues of humility, but I don’t think these virtues are enough to make of pride an ‘evil’ or ‘unvirtuous’ sentiment. The fact that munificence has some virtues (generosity, anti-materialism), for example, doesn’t mean that parsimony is inherently evil (unless we flip the question through semantics – instead of saying ‘parsimonious’ we say ‘miserly,’ thus inserting the condemnation already in the choice of words. But this is untenable because it can instantly be reverted; what prevents me from changing ‘munificent’ to ‘lavish’ and turning the entire ethical principle on its head?).

Pride can be a source of evil council inasmuch as it can lead us to refuse what’s good (for us, for others) only as a way of preserving the integrity of its sentiment. God gives us salvation and love, but we are too proud to accept it – this is the classical view of damnation, and this is why it is by our own fault rather than God’s that we plunge into hell. And indeed it is wrong to be so proud, and in such a way.

But this view of pride is limited. Much like there is a negative side to pride, one which goes hand in hand with the negative self-deprecation and inertia that results from excessive/formal humility, so there is a different side to pride – one which reminds us of who we are and what the worth of our dignity is. Consider the following three situations.

a.) A guy really likes a girl and makes out with her one night, then a few days later she makes out with another bloke when they are out together. She then feels like perhaps she has wronged him and she re-approaches, offering friendship and warmth. The guy remains civil but he does not respond to her approaches anymore and from then on is cold with her whenever they cross. (The sexes can be swapped – I’ve known it to happen both ways).

b.) Here is a joke, abbreviated: a group of cannibals renowned for killing people and using their skins to build canoes capture an innocent way-wanderer. They tell him they’ll kill him, but they grant that they’ll satisfy any last wish he has, be it sex with a dozen women or a shot of the cleanest heroine ever or the greatest banquet in the world. He simply asks for a fork: when they bring it to him he starts stabbing himself with it, telling them as he dies, ‘You’re not going to make a canoe out of me.’

c.) In World War II, a Russian soldier whose entire family has been slaughtered by the Nazis is fighting in the battle of Leningrad. He is wounded by a grenade and falls in the hands of a group of Nazi soldiers. These soldiers appear to have no problem with the idea that their prisoner might recover, so they don’t keep their medication away from his access. But the Russian refuses to use their medication when they offer it to him and he dies of blood-loss instead.

These three situations all describe instantiations of pride; they all describe a case in which someone is offered something good, yet refuses it because of pride. The guy refuses the love of the girl he fancies, the wanderer refuses the indulgence of pleasures that is being offered to him in exchange for a painful death, and the soldier refuses medication. Pride leads us to hurting ourselves with no good coming out for anyone.

Yet all of these little stories contain a message. The boy is telling the girl, ‘I’m not going to be your toy; you cannot use me, throw me away and then pick me up again as you please.’ The wanderer, by putting his self-damage above his pleasure, asserts the barbarism of using a human body as building material for a canoe. And the soldier asserts the evil of the family-murdering Nazis by refusing their right to offer what is good.

The first story in particular gives an example of the necessity for pride in the human spirit. If the boy had no pride, what prevents him from becoming the object and toy of any girl he becomes infatuated with? This is why the expression ‘Have you no pride?’ is usually employed as a reproach. It recognizes the importance of pride in asserting oneself and preventing other people from stepping all over us. In Christianity, all forms of pride are demonized. Pride is the first of the capital sins and the sin par excellence of Lucifer (admittedly here I’m steering towards later sources than the Gospels, but the traditions have become so engrained in Christian ideology that I feel it’s legitimate to cite them as well; anyway they’re not in contradiction with anything in the original text and they’re quite concordant with teachings in the Old Testament). By taking away the evil inherent in pride, you end up taking away the good as well (much like Dawkins does with religion itself). A man who takes no pride in his work does not do that work well. A man who takes no pride in his culture will not stand up to defend it.
Proud, yeah.

Above it all, a spark of pride asserts one’s agency in whatever the situation. Much like the boy declares by his act of refusal that he is not an object to be played with, and demonstrates this by his own decision to select a trying solitude over pleasing company, so the self-defeating act that we identify with pride is at the core of all free will. Lucifer assumed infinite pride, and first declared free will by demonstration. He assumed an infinite punishment for this. The repression of pride by Christianity then makes sense in the light of an hierarchical system of heaven (it is, after all, called the kingdom of heaven). Something like Christianity could not have sustained itself across the ages if it offered to its subordinates the possibility of independent action that is also ethical; that is to say, the possibility of a sentiment that originates from the self without being attached to or stemming from the kingdom of God, yet is still ethical and legitimate and dignified and right. This is exactly what a feeling of pride represents – the sense that we have a right to exercise our will and that no-one from the outside, however powerful, however mighty, can tell us ‘your feelings are wrong.’ For obvious reasons such a sentiment is not compatible with the concept of a God, and for this Christianity must reject it, painting it as the ultimate evil.

One of the reasons why this is not sustainable is that it fails to acknowledge that being a Christian means, primarily, assuming Christ as a choice, in other words, by an act of free will. There is an element of ‘rejecting the good’ in this choice too, since Christians choose poverty, asceticism, persecution and offering the other cheek over all the possible pleasures of the world, but this is kind of invalidated by the fact that greater good is later promised in heaven. At all events, in rejecting the human element of pride, Christianity unwarily blasts the seed that is at the core of its own promised salvation.

This is why the human spirit cannot be understood in dialectical terms (much less absolute ones), at least not from a moral point of view. Christianity not only contradicts itself by disowning the foundation of pride necessary for the free will which it invokes, it also denies the greatness of the human spirit by failing to account for its inherent ambiguity – its capacity, its necessity to contain and utilise both pride and humility, alternating elements of both in our walk of maturation.

A cursory look at the history of our literature better exemplifies this ambiguity. There’s poems which preach humility and call it the way towards wisdom (Eliot off the top of my head). There’s others which refuse to be humble, assert pride and also speak of its necessity (Baudelaire and Rimbaud, though somewhat erratically). So if two points of view are in contradiction, which one is right? The answer is – both of them, because they speak about different things (the possibility of several contradictory statements all being true simultaneously is important and I shall come back to it). Pride is what we need to face up to the outside world; if someone wishes to use you, your pride will keep you from being used, however seducing his / her offers may be. Humility is what we need to deal with our inner world; by understanding our own limits, we learn how much (or how little) we really deserve, and that measure becomes the wisdom by which we are humble to others and treat them with at least as much respect as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Christianity does not recognise this duality in the human spirit and does not forgive the pride I put in all the things I do. As such, it does not respect a true aspect of my self and my experience, and for this reason I cannot abide to its doctrine.

Monday, 7 December 2009

A Critique of Christianity: Prolegomenon



There’s an issue which comes up again and again when I chat with Christians who are trying to convert me. Perhaps surprisingly, it comes up with persistent frequency even when I speak with atheists who are trying to figure why I share their metaphysical scepticism. Both parties seem to think that I’m not a Christian because I don’t believe in God. The argument does hold some logical merit (I must admit), but it overlooks the question that to me is really pressing, and for this reason I shall expose it today.

You see, I don’t think it’s really important whether you believe or not in God. Some of you may disagree with this strongly, but it’s really not my first priority. What really matters to me is whether your dis/belief is something that leads you to connect and build bridges with other people, or whether you use it as a means to build walls between yourself and the experience of others. This distinction holds for atheists and believers alike, which is why it takes precedence over the more specialised questions of how and why you entertain a specific kind of faith.

This is also why I take my distances from the ideology of someone like Richard Dawkins (I might as well state this now) – not because I think there’s any immediate flaw in his reasoning, but because his reasoning is insufficient. It points out several things which are wrong with Christianity and religion in general, but it does so in such a way that it pulls a blind also over the things which are right. For this reason it is not constructive. Much as I admire the merits of The God Delusion (and I really do, for it combats religion in its discriminatory expressions, which are many and dangerous), atheism cannot take a form which refuses to engage with the principles of Christianity. It simply cannot. If that’s what it does, then it is only closure, and this leads to nowhere. Certainly not to spiritual illumination, which is something more profound than simply believing that yes, there is indeed that big guy up in the sky. Similarly Christians cannot refuse to engage with a text simply on account of the fact that it does not share – or even that it flat-out rejects – a Christian world-view. Much like atheists have a lot to learn from Christianity, so Christians should become aware of how much they have to learn from Nietzsche, Camus, or even Dawkins himself. The act of learning includes absorbing what’s right while filtering out what’s wrong, not blotting out anything that is not ideologically immaculate. In starting to open themselves to these people and reading them, holders of differing viewpoints can start learning from each other. Atheists can learn the humility that Jesus Christ teaches us and apply it in their everyday lives, even if they don’t believe there is a God to punish or reward them for it. Christians can learn from Nietzsche and Camus self-reliance, the joy of being alive and the value of the present, ephemeral moment, a view which loves life through the immediate and not just the transcendental. Atheists and Christians can learn from each other not in spite but because of their fundamental differences in worldview.

On this account my issue with Christianity does not relate to the in/existence of God. I do believe that I share a lot with Christian ideology: it teaches (personal and historical) humility, as I mentioned, and it is the earliest expression of pacifism that I know of. As importantly, it understands that pacifism starts in the spirit rather than being a mere social system – the pacifism and humility of those who see history as the mutilated body of an innocent on the cross, in Terry Eagleton’s words. Ours is a bloody heritage, and the Christian courage to acknowledge this is one of my favourite things about this religion – and, ultimately, one of the principles it asserts which is closest to my own spiritual principles.

So, given that I don’t think that dis/belief is really an issue that can separate two people in their way of life, on what grounds am I not a Christian? What is it, beyond the empirical statement ‘I do not see a God,’ that makes me feel like Christianity is not the path for me? How can we engage with Christianity in ways that go beyond the age-old query ‘is there a God?’ which has so long blinded us to other, equally important questions inherent in the adoption or rejection of a religion?

There are a number of principles which I don’t share with the Christian religion. I’m not saying that they are wrong in and of themselves, but they clash with my own personal sensibilities and my sense of justice, they are disharmonious with my experience and understanding of the world, and as such I feel it would be an act of insincerity if I were to ascribe to them. I wish to spend the next few posts to explore them.

One post every two days, four or five posts. And that will be my critique of Christianity done. See you here, see you soon.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The World Cup Draw!



So I was sitting on the sofa scratching my balls, when some lights on the TV catch my attention and it turns out that there's something I'm interested in: it's the ceremony of the draws for the World Cup group stages! I saw it and wrote a serious article on it which can be found at footballitaliano.co.uk (probably Saturday or Sunday, not at the time of writing). I didn't really have space there to discuss the ceremony itself, so I'd like to dedicate some minutes to it here.

I'd like to do this because I've never seen a process more mysterious as to its purpose than this show. What people were doing there and why is something that I spent most of its duration puzzling about. It started off with some random images of good-natured people in Africa, presumably because the producers thought it would be in bad-taste to open the World Cup ceremony with images of civil-war bombings in Zaire or the Apartheid, and I thought that that was good. It was fun and it made for a sweet introduction. Then we're led to the podium for the spectacle itself, which struck me as remarkably resemblant to the one used for the Oscars (they might have rented it in the haste, unless they were planning on rewarding Thierry Henry's diving skills - they're even better than his recently displayed and much admired volleyball skills, check them out).

Here we go, the draw is about to take off! ...No wait, there's some fat white guy with a guitar who has to play a song or something before we can all start. Whatever. It's pretty dire stuff and his fat-rolls are bouncing underneath his sweat-patches, so it doesn't make for superb television to be honest. When it ends, even the commentators of the Italian TV can't help but remark that "this isn't going to top the charts in Italy." Then Charlize Theron is invited on stage and I obviously start scratching my testicles again - saucy lass. She makes some pointless speech on how excited she is and how she obviously never gave a fuck about soccer herself but she nonetheless hugely respects the sport and the passion and the players and yadda yaddee doo. Not sure why she was called on if she doesn't like football, perhaps for the size of her boobs, which admittedly made me reel when she presented the new football - the jugs are about the same friggin' size!!!! Oh God, marry me Charlize. At that, and as though anyone gave a flying shit, we are shown an ad that has been running on South African TVs for the past year or so and which explains the history of the World Cup in the most cloying rhetoric. Mmmmkay. Are you going to start the draw now?

No! This gigantic barrel of lard of a woman comes roiling on stage like a mammoth sporting a hangover and she starts singing! It reminded me of this. As in accordance with the disney video, the music is a bit better this time, so at least I can get my hand off my balls while a bunch of singers are leaping up and down the stage for some reason which appears completely disconnected from the music.

The musicians get off, what a relief. At that point Blatter is invited on stage. Fuckin' hell. I take it back, I'd rather have the musicians. Blatter is a character I've always found to be INCREDIBLY IRRITATING, not only because his name sounds like the Italian word 'blatta,' which means 'one foocking oogly bug' (so 'blatter' would probably mean 'the mother of all them foocking oogly bugs'), but because he is the dimmest, most arrogant prick in the world of football. Cue his single-handed arrest of the process of five-man refereeing for 2010, something which we all would very much have needed. Until Blatter gets out, there will be no progress in the books of this tournament - and until he's found having his testicles squeezed by leather-dressed Nazi prostitutes like Mosley did, I fear that that's so not going to happen. *sigh*.
Oooohhh, look at me, I'm flirtatious!
Blatter starts telling the interviewing lady how he came to the country and immediately fell in love with it. Then we are treated to the pathetic show of him making a pass on the interviewing lady: apparently he is also falling in love with her. Ooohhh this is painful! Finally he is sent away (to everyone's relief) as some athletes are called onstage to draw from the urns. First there's a marathon runner, then a rugby player, then... hold on a second, David Beckham?? What the fuck is he doing there? Did they even let him through customs with that hairstyle? He could be hiding a frat-bomb in there, man.

Finally we can start with the draw.

...No! Onstage runs a group of guys dressed like Denzel Washington in the dance scene of "Malcolm X" and they start fucking singing! Most embarrassingly, they start asking the audience to clap their hands and all that shit! Unbelievable...But! The face of Domenech as he has to clap in tune like a kindergarden assistant is so priceless that it could probably make it onto a Mastercard ad. Hah!

Then they shut up and, finally, draw the names. The entire process could have been executed in ten minutes. Man, it wasn't worth interrupting the scratching of my balls for that. But Charlize Theron was definitely worth it. Hmm-hmmmm.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

So what's going on, mate?



Things are a bit inert these days, and I think the blog reflects this. It’s not that I’ve lacked subjects to post about – in fact, that I’ve just completed an epic sequence of posts on a really heavy subject, so you can look forward to some bad shit going down.

I’ve given my notice from my job here in Paris and I shall be departing from the country shortly. I leave France with an enormous cargo of good memories. Enough to make me believe I’ll romanticise this place in ten years’ time, but what the hell – if you can’t romanticise Paris, then what else can take that role? My next stopping place will be Italy, where I intend to spend my Christmas holidays looking for my next job. I mean to work at sea, this time around. Not sure doing what exactly – I’ll get on a cruise, a fisher-boat or even a pirate ship if that’s what it takes, but I want to be on the big blue. Call it my Melvillian aspiration.

I hope to find the job before the end of January, because that’s when I’m leaving for India. I’ve got a journey planned over there. Three weeks, and who knows, maybe longer – if I were to find a job down there which doesn’t involve something as gross as swiping the shit from cows off the temples, then I might just stick to it. I’d love to spend a few months in India, though probably no more than that. My future is in Europe, as after all is my past.

At the moment, I have just two days of work left to go before I quit this country, so most of my days I am spending evenings in Paris, each one of them a little more final. Shall I return, someday? Who knows. I certainly hope so. Paris gave me a lot, and I have almost nothing to give in return. It’s not much and not total, but in the meantime, here is the only sonnet that I wrote to this city – one which was on commission (the italics on 'Paris' are there because it's meant to be pronounced the French way).

Paris, Paris, I have not come to light
Or spin you, I’ve not come to sing la Senne,
My throat seeks no refreshment from your night
And I’m not asking where to go or when.
For pilgrims are no conquerors, who come
To seek the root of their humility,
That common street where all their roads are one
Behind the mask of your plurality.
Paris, you’re not the basin of my past;
You are a road, but you lead not to Rome.
– And what is Rome if not a bust (the last)
That honours ashes, cinder dressed as home?
Paris, teach me the junctions of the way
For us to noble or ignoble clay.

There will be others. There will be more. But now I need to metabolise what I have seen, what I have experienced and anything else. City of lights, city of shadows, city of damned poets (and overpriced poetry), city of more than I can tell, I could never find the words – much less the heart – for an adieu. I’ll do it my way: thank you, and arrivederci.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

2012 Review



I don’t usually do film reviews on here unless they’re retrospective ones for old films which need to be reconsidered, but I was taken to see 2012 the other day, and at the time of writing I’m sitting on a train with nothing better to do than drawing Mandelbrot sets onto the seats, so here goes.

2012 is an apocalyptic movie, one of those things where five or six characters are given a string of interweaving stories as a backdrop so that the film to stage its special effects extravaganza and we can all enjoy watching big buildings being blow to cinders. In this case the stories belong, in order, to the following folks. #1. The black guy of the day (there’s always a black guy in these films, you could set it in Nazi Germany and there would still be a black guy), who also happens to be the young idealistic scientist who first finds out about the immanent apocalypse. Two clichés in one character, there must have been a special offer or something. Oh yeah, and there’s some government guy who is fat (and therefore bad) who acts cynical and serves as a counterpoint to the idealism of our young hero, yadda yadda yadda. #2. The President of the USA, also black (how original). Then there’s his daughter, who is there so we can give a romance to the young scientist. The US President ends up being one of only two world leaders who refrains from fleeing and decides to die with his people. The other one is the Italian prime minister (LLLLLOOOOOOLLLLL!!!!!) while the Queen of England is shown to abandon her people and bring her insufferable little dogs with her. Good to see that American screenwriters still have as much understanding of foreign political realities as I have knowledge on fucking sheep (and no, my knowledge on the subject has not gone up since the last time I made that joke).

I’m going to go down by a paragraph here, not because there’s any reason to do so, but because I like the idea.

#3. This guy is in EVERY disaster movie, every single one without exception – the white male who neglected his family to write his book and now finds himself connecting with them again through the catastrophe. His family: boy, girl, beautiful middle-aged wife, and the poor jock who married his wife after the divorce – the impostor, basically, whom we shall refer to as the Loser because that’s all he does throughout the movie – he acts as a loser. 4.) A Russian magnate (and therefore bad) with the funniest accent since someone asked someone else if the CIA ‘add yew pooshing too meny penzils’ (LINK), busy trying to save his sons.
Apocalypse when?
This is the film in a nutshell. As you can imagine, all of these people undergo a number of adventures and journeys in their efforts to reach the ‘arks’ that will save them, a few of them die (most predictably, the Loser), and eventually ‘new hope’ is promised. All good? Weeeellll, not really, and this for reasons beyond the fact that this film is basically the photocopy of the five-hundred disaster movies that preceded it (seen one, seen them all, really). I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up on that at first glance – much like you’ll be able to pick up on the scientific loops of logic, the racist / nationalistic political agenda, and all the other stuff that makes this film so bland and generic. So I won’t go into that, but I will instead point out what I thought to be the major flaw with this film, the thing that makes the whole edifice fall down (forgive the irony about edifices falling down). And I think it’s important because it shares this problem with the gazillion other apocalyptic films that have been made so far.

You see, disaster movies couch their special effects’ cabaret in stories of ordinary people trying to escape the disaster. In this, they stage the typical (male) fantasy, here found in the guy who returns to single-handedly save his family and thus reconquers them (also, less emphatically, in the young scientist who bangs the ‘inaccessible’ president’s daughter).

The problem is that these films portray a world in which it is unnecessary for people to take responsibility for their actions. The film goes to great extents to show how the Loser is such a loser and why the writer is in fact the perfect pater familias (eventually the film kills the Loser off, so nobody has to take responsibility even for abandoning him). But the Loser is in fact central to the most moving part of the film. This is a scene in the pre-Apocalypse bit of the movie when the Loser is trying to speak to his wife and keep the relationship together – by care, patience and effort. Alongside the nurturing and attention that he offers to children who are not even his own, this stands in gigantic contrast to the more obvious, pyrotechnic heroics of the real father, who drives a car through explosions or fixes engines in underwater darkness. The film implies that by means of these ‘heroics’ the father is somehow exempted from his real duties as a father, or from paying for his mistakes at the time – the fact that he neglected them in favour of his book is no longer an issue. He is saved by the apocalypse. He gets his family back. Similarly the young scientist gets the girl – enacting the fantasy of someone who has no social skills but gets laid anyway thanks to exterior circumstances, vis, the Armageddon.

A film like this is depressing, of course, in light of the fact that this planet really is dying. It may not do so with the narrative pathos of these movies, but as long as we keep warming up the atmosphere or building nukes, the prospect of some disaster someday taking place on a global scale is very real – simply because we have the power to bring it along. If there’s ever going to be any way of preventing a disaster at home, then it’s going to be by taking responsibility for our actions – and what’s saddening is that the films which are supposed to warn us about these disasters are telling us exactly the opposite of that. They’re encouraging us to forgo our own responsibility and withdraw into our fantasy of apocalypse. Much like the father who failed in his relationship with his family, these films got it wrong. After all, this is how the world ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Second shot at the cinema



Once I wrote about an attempt at going to the cinema which had ended in abject failure. I feel I need some vindication, so here’s a quick sequel of sorts. My second attempt, I told myself, is going to work. I thought this with a profound sense of determination, one of those feelings which seize you when you’re strewn in mud and nothing sustains you but a spark of immortal pride, so I was certain it was truth. I still believe it would have been true if I had ever done anything to actually undertake that second attempt. Unfortunately I seem to find the activity of parking my buttocks under a palm-tree so enticing that I am barely even brushed by any other desire. I don’t think I would ever have gone to the cinema in Martinique if it weren’t for my innate Casanova powers of attraction.

One day I am walking around with a German friend of mine called Mikhail, sporting my snazzy sunglasses and what not, when these two girls woo at us and ask us to come closer. They want to sell us some eucalyptus smoking leaves, and my friend Mikhail, who is a very sociable guy and feels in a particularly jockey mood that day, takes the chance to start up a conversation. I on the other hand am pretty quiet – and somewhat taken aback too. I’ll admit that my tastes are often quite arduous, but even to the locals these two must look like a pair of combat bulldogs. One of them appears like a midway point between a brontosaurus and a World War II German Armoured Vehicle, the other one has a face which acutely evokes that of a frog. When placed together, they seem as attractive as a malaria epidemic. To top it all, and as I realise after approximately twenty seconds of conversation, they are about as stupid as the plants of eucalyptus they were trying to sell.

In any case I am indifferent to it all until the two girls ask us if we would take them to the cinema and to my astonishment Mikhail replies, all merry:

‘Why sure! What better way of spending the evening!’

I drag him aside for a minute and hiss at him: ‘What on earth are you doing? Have you seen those two walking scarecrows?’

‘Andrea, what are you, stupid? Can’t you see they’re pulling our leg?’

Apparently, according to Mikhail, the girls are trying to con us into going to the cinema on our own, walking away from the appointment themselves for a laugh. In short, they are playing a prank. I don’t know how he has reached this conclusion, but the guy insists and even gets quite heated on it. Eventually I think, ‘well, he’s the one who probably knows women better between us two,’ so I let him accept the invitation and we set off for the cinema which the girls have pointed out for us. It is an ungodly trek but I was really eager to go – my ancient desires of staring at a big screen had been instantly rekindled.

So there we march, wondering what film to watch, and when we get there, what do we see? Yoo-hoo! Les beaux mecs! Those two prodigies were there, happily waving at us. I’ll pass on the rest of the afternoon, and I’ll pass on the organizational skills of local cinema (it took them fifteen minutes to realise they were projecting the wrong film and another fifteen to change the reels, a time which I spent engaged in conversation with the brachiosaurus). When the time came to leave, they suggested that we go out to the city and I politely declined the invitation. I didn’t feel like furthering the interaction. Besides, by the time we were at the bus stop, they seemed to have found a suitably stupid-looking guy with a bandana tied up over his head and a truckload of those gigantic fake necklaces which rappers use to compensate for the size of their penis around his neck. They introduce him as a friend of theirs. So at least they are in good company, and I feel a little less guilty when I scuttle off to go home, completely dissatisfied with my time out at the cinema!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Blind Assassin: a critique of sorts. Wrestling with Margaret Atwood!


An intellectual post today, praise me or hate me for it! Strap your seatbelts on! For anyone who hasn't read the book, this is the stuff: http://www.amazon.com/Blind-Assassin-Novel-Margaret-Atwood/dp/0385720955 Check out the reviews for some proper gushing.

I guess that The Blind Assassin qualifies as a feminist novel. A lot of it is about exploring the ways in which women have been oppressed throughout their history. Iris Chase is married off when she is eighteen, her sister Laura is sent off to different schools and eventually an inhumane clinic as a way of suppressing her extravagance, their mentor Reenie becomes pregnant and has to get married practically against her will, and so on goes the story, littered with anecdotes and interesting facts about how women were treated and/or perceived (cooking, sewing, gardening & the rest of the full smack).

Central to the book (titular, in fact) is the relationship between a blind assassin and a mute girl who is supposed to be sacrificed. The assassin is meant to kill her but eventually they fall in love with each other, so he takes her away and on the run to get out of the city. The image of these two kids is by far the strongest and most brilliant moment of the book. It functions as a superb metaphor for the relationship between man, blinded by his own drives and desires to the pain and damage that he causes, and woman, incapable of communicating her own suffering to the men (further layers are added when you consider that her tongue was cut off by men, but those were the same men who blinded the assassin). The exchange between the two then becomes partial, fugacious, full of stumbling in the dark and silent weeping, but also carnal and primordial. A very rich moment of literature, definitely one of Atwood’s best.

However there are some problems. For a book that is purportedly about gender relations, I found it to be often unexpectedly naïve about its own subject matter. For starters, there is a gigantic problem with Laura Chase, the sister of the protagonist. Iris Chase seems (implausibly) more interested in exercises of linguistic virtuosity than in writing a memoir: Season of chrysanthemums, the funeral flower; white ones, that is. The dead must get so tired of them. – very pretty, but why the sudden curve into esoteric witticism? Thus, she seems to be nothing more than a surrogate for the author, whose interest in showing off with language is much more credible.
This is the lady, for anyone who's wondering.
The problem with Laura is exactly the same – she too is just an authorial surrogate, albeit in a completely different way. Where Iris represents the conscious (or self-conscious) side of Atwood, Laura stands for the side which belongs to the subconscious. According to Iris, ‘Laura was strange.’ Indeed the character is eccentric, but the nature of her eccentricity is so disingenuous that it almost results irritating: Laura is incredibly sensitive and invariably innocent, as well as socially inept. Oh wow. She is also asexual, reaching the age of twenty-something without showing anything like a hint of desire for a man, let alone a relationship (the closest she gets is her Mother Teresa-style attempt to save Alex Thomas, the communist lover of Iris).

Laura is not a character. She is an ideal. She is a subconscious projection of the self in its perfect integrity. For all of her social dysfunctions, she is always stalwart in her confidence in herself and her identity (just like we all would like to be). She is simply the female Tyler Durden. And, much as with Tyler Durden, the protagonist is split into two selves – the present and actual Iris, with all of her insecurities and her self-awareness (even excessive self-awareness, given how circular her style ends up being), and the ideal and transcendental Laura. Hell, she even has the name of the most famous mythical woman after Helen of Troy – hello Petrarch? Laura is a character whose privacy is entirely inaccessible (compare Tyler Durden, who is a man and totally public as a figure, with Laura, who is a woman and totally private as a figure – an interesting and revealing polarisation, I think). In this, she actualises the fantasy of the reader – it’s certainly seductive to think of ourselves as some mysterious and unreachable individual who is totally self-confident and whom others can’t figure out. We are the heroes, albeit ‘misunderstood’ heroes. Predictably, Atwood doesn’t have the courage to attribute this fantasy to the real ‘speaker,’ and she splits the voice from the subconscious ideal into the two sisters. But they are indeed the same person, and the speeches of Iris sometimes even parrot the ones she attributes to Laura in her memoir – for instance, Laura demonstrates an eccentric theological interest. Compare this with Iris’s own journal entry in The Water Nixie:

God works in his mysterious ways his wonders to perform, as Reenie used to say. Could it be that Myra is my designated guardian angel? Or is she instead a foretaste of Purgatory? And how do you tell the difference?

Is the above paragraph not the kind of thing we may expect Laura to say, quite exactly? According to Iris, they even wrote The Blind Assassin ‘together,’ even though Laura’s presence was only spiritual. The two sisters are the same character – both stand as expressions of the same (authorial) voice, struggling with the relationship between what it would like to be and what it is.
Laura's younger brother
Unlike Fight Club, TBA does not acknowledge the tension between actual and ideal self. While Pahlaniuk has the characters finding out that they are the same person and even confronting each other, Atwood insists to the end that the two sisters are two different characters.

Furthermore, for a novel that purports to be about gender relations, it seems to hold the two sexes to very different standards. Of course I don’t have an issue with the story being told from an exclusively feminine perspective, that’s not just legitimate but natural, but the representation of the men is ruthless to say the least. There is not a single man who is likeable in the entire novel. The father of the two girls is an alcoholic who abuses his wife and neglects his daughters, and whose only redeeming feature is a sort of military attachment to his wife. Iris’s designed husband Richard is a heartless monster and he even indulges in child abuse, as we later find out. The teacher of the sisters, Mr Erskine, is a fascist and he too indulges in child abuse (it must have been fashionable back in the day). Alex Thomas, the communist lover, is cynical to the point of nausea, and proud of his cynicism too. Walter, the husband of Iris’s care-taker when she is old, is good to the extent that animals can be good – he’s basically a mindless brute, used for menial tasks like driving her around or shovelling her snow, and Iris frames him by saying that ‘there are some men for whom chewing is a form of thinking’ (I’d love to see how Atwood would react to an equivalent passage about women: ‘there are some women for whom washing plates is a form of thinking’). Then there’s some side-characters who are male – an old French waiter who offers to marry her, people in the cinema who try to harass her, soldiers whom she can’t speak with because they’d ‘mistake her intentions,’ and other assorted folk whose sole occupation of the mind is an attempt at fucking her (or fucking some other girl).

The book disallows for the notion that men are capable of having good feelings, or an intelligence (one which doesn’t express itself in cruelty, at least), or even just an interiority. Her male characters are flat and incapable of ambiguity or paradox. Above all, in TBA men are incapable of possessing sensitivity. This is how Alex Thomas thinks of Iris when he has to part from her:

Her lovely distressed face wavers like a reflection in a troubled pool; already dissolving, and soon it will be into tears. But despite her sorrow, she has never been so luscious. A soft and milky glow surrounds her; the flesh of her arm, where he’s held it, is firm and plumped. He’d like to grab hold of her, haul her up to his room, fuck her six ways to Sunday. As if that would fix her in place.

Let’s roll! I’m sure that when John Clare was taken away from his wife to be locked into an asylum, he was thinking to himself, ‘I’d love to stick it up her ass as hard as I can!’ I’m not saying that this element does not exist in the male psyche – of course it does, and sometimes it can become incredibly pervasive, even predominant. I just wouldn’t reduce the male psyche to this bestial sentiment, which is the only one ever expressed by men in TBA.

The great inconsistency in TBA, then, is that it doesn’t respect its own brilliant metaphor. Women are ‘mute,’ but men are anything but ‘blind’ in this novel. They see all the damage that they cause, and in fact they seem to take pleasure from it. The narrative negates the delicate ethical balance which its central metaphor suggests. To me, the incongruity is so glaring that I find it astonishing that such a novel could have won the Booker Prize (assuming that it is as prestigious a prize as it appears).
Talk about a bitch-slap title. But the question is legitimate.
I won’t go so far as to say that I’m ‘concerned’ or ‘insulted’ by this book. It’s a well-woven story and I enjoyed reading it. But I wonder whether the message it’s sending out is as limpid as it would like. Mainly, and judging by its portrayal of gender relations, I wonder if it mightn’t be a case of using feminism simply as a pretext for androphobia. There does seem to be an undercurrent of discrimination against men in Atwood’s writing, and TBA definitely buys into the tone and structures which characterise texts normally labelled as misogynistic, only it inverts the genders.

I’d love to hear what the ladies think about this. I, for my own part, will take refuge in Atwood’s poetry, which I think is much more aware and ‘responsible’ than her prose, and in my opinion also much more interesting. I say this having read only two of Atwood’s novels, and I’d like to qualify this by stating that I thought Surfacing was a much better novel than TBA, though I did read it quite a while ago. I’ll give a shot at some more of her stuff at some stage, but I’d like to say that I remain a fan – albeit one which she probably is not interested in having, seeing how I happen to be a man.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

American Football!



I’d like to believe that I am a pretty fit piece of cake in the local bakery, but after a while everyone needs some variation, so when choosing a sport to sign up for, I go for American Football. I am not going to be naïve, so I enquire with the gigantic mammals seated at the desk whether a kid with no experience or knowledge of the game can be useful to the team. They respond positively.

In American Football, you scream a lot. More, perhaps, than in any other sport. The introductory meeting alone ends with the entire room standing up like gibbons at a rally screaming the team’s motto – ‘Who are we? Pirates! Who are we? Pirates! What do we do? We win! What do we do? We WIN! WIN! WIN! WIN! [etc.]’ The second thing that I discover is that American Football, like Americans themselves, meets with scarce popularity outside of the United States. By this I am not referring to – or complaining about – the fact that every time the rugby team crosses us in a pub they start hooting and such a scene has to be raised that you’d think their beers had been served by William Wallace in person. Rather the predicament relates to the hours of training.

The more popular the sport, the more comfortable are the hours allocated to it by the administrators of the sport fields. Anything between noon and four p.m. goes to the local football team. Morning hours are for girls who do volleyball and from four to six you get the rugby players (those rabid hounds). Between six and eight there’s cricket or that ridiculous game with sticks where you pick up the ball with an instrument and run it into the opponents’ goal – something like an hybrid between football and hockey, played of course by hybrids between asses and impalas. From eight until the darkness becomes mythological, there’s a slew of cryptic sports, like frisbee or sack-racing on ice. Then there’s us.

On the first night of training, I am presented with a blizzard of epic proportions. On the second night the weather is more merciful, so I am allowed the privilege of seeing the stars, distant and frozen, like the eyes of Greek divinities looking down in pity at my adventure. I reach the changing room, where I meet a host of seals in the fog: my team-mates. Within five seconds they are already barking – who are we, pirates, who are we, pirates, and so on. Then they hand out the armour, and a couple of minor brawls break out when it turns out that some players get helmets which don’t fit them or nut-shields which work like nut-crackers. We undergo a warm-up phase: despite the sport not being very popular among the locals, every single American in the region has come to take part in the team, so there must be four-hundred of us loping around the field in our body armours. Running in that stuff feels a bit like carrying a bag of bricks, meant for a house which you have no interest in seeing built, to the top of a steep mountain inhabited by wolves. It loosely reminds me of the Great March of Mao Ze Dong.

Then comes something which has the semblance of a real session of training: ‘Get into positions!’ yells one of the coaches. Yes, but what the hell is my position? Not everyone has had the chance of studying the NFL tactical booklet since the age of four. I look lost, so they throw me among the receivers. It is probably not a good moment to mention that I am short-sighted.

The tactics for American Football have been devised by the most intricate underground society since the institution of freemasonry. I wouldn’t be surprised if they told me that it once involved sacrificing goats. The rules are assigned and put into practice by means of mysterious codes which one of the players tells to the others when they all gather together in a circle (the only moment in a footballer’s life when he whispers!). Normally the game gets going while I am still lost in lucubration as to where the fuck I’m expected to go and why. On the off-chance that I do reach a conclusion, I set off running into zones which are such a desertification, with all the play going on elsewhere, that one of two things has happened: either my conclusion was off the mark like a parachutist that falls into the storage blocks of a glass factory, or I’m being used as a decoy by some genius tactician.

As time progresses with the team, I discover that my incompetence is of no great consequence. My role in the squad consists in sitting on the bench and yelling ‘Offence’ or ‘Defence’ depending on what the team is doing and whether I can understand this correctly. I also scream the team slogan when the games are over. The scores are also completely beyond me, on occasions ending something close like sixteen to nineteen, on others something ludicrous like losing zero to seventy-five, occasions in which the team is usually said to have ‘played well.’

The parts after the match are, as a rule, much more interesting than the match itself. What happens is that everybody gets on the bus to go home from whichever small city had hosted us with whichever of its small community of immigrant Americans, stopping at some oil-plant on the way, buying wine or beer to scales which would be illegal in any civilised country other than ours, and then doing our best to vomit before the bus has finalised its run to take us home. The drivers are usually aware of the latter intent and for this reason they race like bastards on the highway. This doesn’t help with the stomach and a few of us let go almost immediately. These individuals are dumped at the back of the bus with the armours. Whoever else loses consciousness follows suit

I probably would have dropped out of this society much earlier than I eventually did if it weren’t for the fact that this was the only team in the entire university that placed us in contact with cheerleaders. Best of all, the cheerleaders partook in the bus and the drinking on the way home, even though they seldom gave their attention to people whose task was that of warming the bench (and shouting the slogans). The other thing that kept me there was the socials. As I was about to find out, there were few clubs in the university that organised socials more awkward and quixotic than the American Football society. This is another story, but it is a good enough story to have kept me with the screaming seals for almost the entirety of the academic year. I’ll recount it in one of the next blog-posts.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Remembering graduation



There is nothing as sentimental as anticipating your graduation day, and there is nothing more successful at spoiling that sentimentality than learning how to order your graduation suits. The process in and of itself is actually rather simple – you get e-mails from the university telling you exactly when and where to get hold of them. The issue is in the price. Judging by what they charge you to rent it for a day, you’d think it had been hand-made by Princess Aurora. It’s quite bewildering, given that they do nothing but sit in some mummified wardrobe for the rest of the year. There’s also the option to buy it in case you feel the need for it, but who on earth does that? There is not a single item of clothing on the planet that you’re likely to use less often than a graduation coat, and unlike a proper suit, you can’t even recycle it. I mean, it’s not like you can go to a funeral twenty years later dressed in your old graduation coat, not unless you mean to have everybody there laughing until they spill their fucking kidneys out and their grandmother awakens from the dead (also laughing).

Once you’ve ordered the suit, usually with several months of advance, it is time to invite your family over. In my case, the family decides to come over with the numbers of a national pilgrimage. I have them come down a couple of days early so they can visit my city and all the rest, including of course my house. For the first time since entering that wreck, I even clear up the bottles from the floor and the champagne patches from the walls (the only night in my life that we purchased champagne, I chose to open it above my laptop – and the resulting acrobatics to keep it from spilling on the keyboard meant that the room looked like as in the aftermath of a paintball battle). Then I teach all of my housemates that even though I myself usually swear like a Germanic warrior who just tried to take a shit over a geyser, there is not to be a single ill term spoken in the presence of my family.

The day spent taking my folks around proves to be the most pleasant of them all, spent in shops and tourism and lovely meals which feel like Christmas out of season. The day after that, being the actual day of the ceremony, starts off with a little less panache. In order to pick up your suit from that sprog of blood-sucking vultures who have rented it to you, you must present yourself at the university at some barbarous hour between the blackest pitch of night and the first tremulous rays of dawn. Apparently, if you don’t have five hours of advance on the procession then you’re bound to fuck it up. If we weren’t about to get diplomas, I’d think they were calling us stupid.

I go to campus under the eyes of astonished ducks, who can not believe that I am up at this hour. I reach the building where I’m supposed to pick up my robe. At the counter, the lady puts a green bed-sheet in front of me and I assume that she wants to play billiards. It takes me a few moments to awaken from my stupor and realise that this is, in fact, my robe. No matter that it looks like something my grandmother could have made to save on resources during the war, it still costs like armour commissioned by Bruce Wayne. It comes with a salmon-coloured scarf which might be gratifying if its object were that of keeping you from getting run over, and of course the hat. The hat is the only part of my robe which I really love. I don’t know who invented it, surely someone with a great deal of imagination (a black, square piece of cardboard with a string hanging from it would never have occurred to me as a symbol of the intellect), but it is wonderfully endearing nonetheless.

There are a number of things to be done before the ceremony, presumably waking up the tutors who must have been sleeping until now, so I have the time to go and have breakfast with my family. When the hour comes for the ceremony, I head over to the lecture hall.

I hear that in Oxford and Cambridge they have medieval castles just for these ceremonies, with horns being blown and archers roaming about just in case. Our hall is distinctly less glossy – it used to be a basketball pitch and it is now filled with chairs and used as a lecture hall whenever there are too many students attending. It goes without saying that the place is now packed up to the walls.

I walk my family to their places and let them have a taste of what it’s like to take one of our classes as the Dean starts reciting his sermon. The only difference with respects to a regular lecture is that every tutor is dressed up like they had all been getting smashed at the Carnival of Rio.

When I am done with that bit, I head off to the side-corridor which gives onto the stage, where I am supposed to wait for my turn to pick up the diploma. There, I am faced with a queue so long it could not be handled by three airports. Maybe I should have brought along a Monopoly board, I think to myself. Time passes. I hear the name of every student being called out as they walk on stage in turn, shake hands with the Dean and pick up the degree. Since the conversation isn’t really running rampant (it is hard to formulate statements when you’re snoozing on your feet like a mule), I let my mind wander into reflections of my own. I reason that if I don’t think of something really solemn, I’m going to regret it in the future. So I begin looking back over my time at university and I ask myself what it is that I’ve learned. But it seems like the only spiritual thing for which it’s worth being a student is learning that I’m not interested in being a student – not anymore, at least. At that stage someone trips on his robe a few feet in front of me and I decide to postpone the pondering to distil some laughter from the episode. I’ll think of something wise later on. After all, I reason, I can always tell people that I thought it on the spot.

It is time to walk up on stage. From what I hear, people in Cambridge and Oxford are supposed to do all sorts of stuff as part of the ceremony – kneel in front of the Dean, recite some oath and even execute some somersaults on stage for all I know. I am thankful for the most fleeting of moments that I didn’t get into the elite of education – all I am asked to do is shake some guy’s hands. The Dean looks down into his book and spots my name. As soon as he pronounces it, I am startled by a boom from a section of the audience as I hear my family roar ‘BRAVO’ in unison. I smile, and I remind myself, in the middle of all this pomp and circumstance, that it is them that I have come here to honour, not the university. Why disappoint them, then? As I walk on stage, I kiss my fist like a footballer, then raise my arm and point it to the sky. A gesture of victory. The act is unorthodox and the Dean looks at me a little haughtily, but the old sock doesn’t have to worry. I don’t really intend to be immature anymore.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Anthropology of the Epic Dickhead

This was originally written down as a quiz, unfortunately here it doesn't seem to work that way. Just call it a list of the greatest epic dickheads ever. It was meant for another source, so Scooby Doo picks up some material I've already used on this blog. Other than that, it's really great stuff. Enjoy! :)

ACHILLES

Congratulations: you’re a dickhead. But not just an ordinary dickhead – you are distinct amongst all your peers for being the most egotistical, narcissistic, self-congratulatory, bombastic wanker ever to have walked upon the face of the earth (you remind me a lot of myself, actually). You are unique in this epic round-about because you specialise not in vanquishing dragons or braving seas but in throwing hissy fits. Your story begins when your king Agamemnon chooses to sequester one of your concubines and you throw hissy fit # 1 because you’ve lost the girl, something which is completely retarded because you’re as gay as a pink windmill in a field of Easter rabbits, and you conclude this in the most epic of fashions: you actually GO WEEPING TO YOUR MOM (hissy fit # 2). She gets all of your friends killed in the war (nice going, mate) so the king comes begging for forgiveness and you throw hissy fit # 3 because you don’t like his presents and would rather sit on your ass and ‘play your harp’ (Iliad XIV, a double entendre if I ever heard one). You fall asleep, and while you’re snoring like a cave full of motherfucking elks, the hairless seventeen-year-old pimp you normally bang during the intervals has the great idea of donning your armour and getting himself slaughtered in battle. Cue hissy fit # 4. This *could* just be followed by another hissy fit – and so it is, as you turn to Hephaestus and rant your head off because you can’t fight if your armour hasn’t been polished with camel’s spit and red lobster eyeballs or whatever the hell it is that gay war-lords or war gay-lords wanted on their armour in ancient Greece. Battle at last! Cue two-hundred hissy-fits as you tell each soldier in turn how stupid it was of them to kill Patroclus and how they’ll pay for it YADDA YADDA YADDA PLEASE SHUT YOUR EFFING MOUTH!!!! Your tale concludes with you bartering Hector’s body back in exchange for a blowjob from his father (Iliad XXIV states that Priam comes to his tent at night and ‘hugs his knees’ – make of that what you will).


OEDIPUS

I think this takes the palm as the most epic of all dickheads, and by quite a distance. Your oracle tells you that you’ll shag your momma and kill your daddy, so you leave the country. On the way, you find an old man who is mildly rude to you, so you kill him. Then you proceed to bang his wife, who is two decades older than you are. HELLO???? Do I need to draw a diagram?? I mean, even Roger Rabbit would have figured out that with a prophecy like that you should refrain from killing old men and buttering old women, something which in all fairness you should not be doing anyway, at least if you’re going to have constellations named after you – I’d rather go down in history with the reputation of Adolf Hitler than have a constellation after me named ‘The Motherfucker,’ not to mention having my name constantly vandalised on Wikipedia with lines like “LOLOLOLOL YOU SHAGGED YOUR MOM”. (I honestly was going to make that single line the entire profile for Oedipus). When you finally figure out what you’ve done (go you, Dick Tracy), you deploy all of the wisdom that made you King of Thebes and tamer of the Sphinx by finding the perfect solution: you rip your eyeballs out. (What?). You then go roaming aimlessly around the countryside like one of those end-of-level bosses in Super Nintendo videogames of a decade and a half ago, until eventually you die (I can’t honestly remember how, I think you ‘take a walk into the sea’ or something equally spectacular). A fitting end. You obviously never saw where your oracle was coming from, but it’s a good consolation to know that, before you died, at least your mother saw where you were coming from. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist that).

LEONIDAS

I’m not actually going to talk about the historical Leonidas here because I know more about how to fuck sheep than I do about the real battle of the Thermopylae. But we all know who the man is – the famed king from ‘300’ afflicted with that goofy pathology which makes you swear like an ostrogoth every three seconds inasmuch as whatever you say, you have to SHOUT it. Despite your tendency to walk around Sparta butt-naked save for a cape and for a rugby ball that’s tied around your nut-sack, you are in fact not nearly as gay as Achilles – you just enjoy male depilation for some reason. How do you spend your time? Mainly, you climb hills bare-chested, you ejaculate witty phrases, you fight wolves on mountains, you ejaculate inspiring speeches, you train your son in WF wrestling, you ejaculate into your wife, you ejaculate people into wells, you pick up blond little kids who have just been ravaged by a hoard of black people (that entire sentence sounds WRONG in more ways than I can even think of), you go trekking on snowy glaciers – a feat which, in Southern Greece, is nothing short of bewildering – and you trot out the word ‘FREEDUM’ every four or five sentences. You probably wouldn’t have made it onto this list if it weren’t for the act which made you famous – you waged war against the Persians because otherwise they would have killed all the men in Sparta, raped the women and taken the children into slavery. By the end of the film, however, you and all your men are dead, your wife has been raped and your son can look forward to being sent into a concentration camp where he’ll have to kill other kids or get killed himself – now that’s what I call a fantastic argument in favour of the practice of war! Congratulations. Dickhead.


SCOOBY DOO

Here’s the exception of our list. Not in the sense that you’re not a dickhead – you’re an aerial and flaming one at that. It’s just that you are not particularly epic. In fact, the only epic thing about you is that you’ve managed to go through 800 episodes of your canine series (a TV program which is centred on the only character in the show who doesn’t do a fucking thing), yet even though every single one of those 800 times your supernatural nemesis turned out to be a spoof, somehow you still manage to feel all sniffly and pusillanimous when the next ectoplasmic sardine or lycanthropic marshmallow-man’s-walking-dick comes about. Honestly, what the fuck is wrong with you? It’s like a grown man having watched two-hundred hours of porn and then being surprised when the prostitute he picks up from the M11 starts removing her clothes (we’ve just described the common farewell to celibacy of every single Firefly fan in the world). For the rest, your show is comprised of a trio of Trainspotting yuppies, a stubble-bearing heroin junkie who speaks to his own Alsatian and somehow earned himself the implausible name of ‘Shaggy’ (hahaha I’m already picturing that!) and, in the later series, your son Scraggy – the most insufferable dwarf. Not only does the son possess an elaborate faculty of speech (making you look even more retarded), he also makes himself detestable by being one of the most clever (read: sermonizing) characters in the series. The dynamics of the show then become something like having a man who is more stupid than his own dog, a dog who is more stupid than his own son and a screenwriter who is more of a dumb-fuck than all of them put together. While this still and fully qualifies you as a dickhead, there’s nothing inherently epic about it. I’m sorry, it looks like you’re not an epic dickhead after all.


SUPER MARIO

Italians are famous for a number of things, predominantly pasta, pizza and a population that drives a car the way that a chimpanzee on vodka handles a malfunctioning space shuttle as it bombs into the ocean. Italians are NOT famous, to the best of my knowledge, for bouncing on the heads of phallic mushrooms and frog-leaping towards strange boxes with shiny question marks which yield coins when you brain yourself against them. Are you an epic figure? Definitely, not only because you’ve ventured on a quest to save the princess, but because you’ve undergone it about twenty million times and you still seem not to get it – even though there’s some things in your narrative which I don’t get myself. For one thing, King Koopa picks up Princess Peach with such an ease that you’d think she was a prostitute waving flags in the middle of a highway, which strikes me as nonsensical even in terms of the premise – if you’re a giant turtle, why the fuck don’t you want to fuck giant turtles? Even a human would be a pervert if he wanted to shag a girl who goes around wearing a pink bell from Westminster Chapel and has a face like a seven-year-old’s picture of an onion, let alone an animal. And this brings us to you, O Mario, and to what makes you an epic dickhead. For starters, your apparel. Last time I checked, if a princess is kidnapped, then she is rescued by a prince. You’re a fucking plumber! Worse yet, you’re dressed like one. Not to be anti-democratic here, but couldn’t you at least get changed before going on the quest? Did you really need to bring the red suspenders? Then there’s the people you hang out with – Toadstool (so fucking annoying!), Yoshi, the eternally useless Luigi, Donkey Kong, Wario – for Christ’s sake, WARIO, oh what a clever name to give to a baddy! What sparkling wit! The bottom of the pit is reached I think with his brother, Waluigi. Waluigi? What kind of a fucking name is ‘Waluigi’? What if they did that for other famous franchises – Lord of the Rings, with Wagandalf the Negro and Waragorn. Evil wabbit!! …and despite being able to save a princess, drive a kart, excel at every single sport in the Olympics, employ a hydro-pack, program your VCR and even BLOODY FLY, you still have no more eloquence than to say ‘Mamma mia!’ What the hell.