Atheist Spirituality?

Penguin PublishersAndre Comte-Sponville’s elegantly-written book, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, has occupied much of my thoughts and reading time these past few weeks as I try to grapple with his message. I find I need to re-read sections of it, perhaps more than once, to digest and weigh all of the ideas presented.

I’m more accustomed to the polarizing polemics of Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, and their militant atheism; French philosopher Comte-Sponville’s reasoned and gentle approach quite threw me off guard. Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins may be right (and righteous) in their arguments, but they can be caustic and grating. Comte-Sponville – who also calls himself an atheist – is more conciliatory and willing to concede points to religion that the others are not, particularly in the areas of heritage and culture.

And in death, where Comte-Sponville says religion holds the better hand in dealing with mortality, offering “not only the possibility of consolation, but also a sorely-needed ritual…” that helps us humanize and even civilize death. “The power of religion at such times,” he writes, “is neither more nor less our own powerlessness in the face of the void.”

In the wake of the death of my own mother, mortality has been on my mind somewhat more than usual. Which is one reason, I suppose, I am turning to philosophy with greater frequency to try and make sense of the world.

Calling oneself an atheist has long been a form of rebellion: to challenge three millennia of society, to storm the ramparts of conformity. But only in the last century has that declaration been made without punishment or at least ostracism. No it’s almost chic to do so, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

Each generation has to find its own centre anew, and each older generation has to agonize over that choice. But what happens when the rebels become the establishment, when the challenge becomes the new conformity? Do we repeat the cycle again from the other side?

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Great Minds, Small Minds

Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

mis-attributed quotationThat quote has been attributed online to Eleanor Roosevelt in the images shared by people too lazy to check the facts. And like so many other quotations that circulate on social media, it’s not by the person claimed. As far as has been determined, she never used those words.

The saying offers a valid point, especially when it comes to local bloggers, but it was made by someone else, not the wife of the former U.S. president.

Who, then, gave us these pithy lines? Wikiquote – one of the very rare authoritative online sources of quotations* – tells us that one printed source was an American admiral, writing in a magazine, who made it popular, although he himself did not take credit for it:

There are many published incidents of this as an anonymous proverb since at least 1948, and as a statement of Eleanor Roosevelt since at least 1992, but without any citation of an original source. It is also often attributed to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, but though Rickover quoted this, he did not claim to be the author of it; in “The World of the Uneducated” in The Saturday Evening Post (28 November 1959), he prefaces it with “As the unknown sage puts it…”

Was there really an ‘unknown sage’ behind the saying,? Or was it created, whole cloth, in 1959? Ah, the tale is older than that.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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Chinese Wisdom

AnalectsAs I promised in an earlier post, here are some of the epithets and sayings found in some of the Four Books of the Chinese canon. I think these are particularly relevant to politics, especially local politics. Hence my commentary after several of them.*

Wikipedia gives us an overview of Confucius’ political philosophy in the Analects:

Confucius’ political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion.
“If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6)**.

So how good is the example set for us by council so far? Are the people led by virtue and propriety? Let’s look at the record, so far:

Raising your taxes. Raising your water rates. Giving themselves a raise. Giving $40,000 of your taxes so one of their own could pursue personal political ambitions out of town, with no benefit to this community. Conflicts of interest both material and perceived. Approving sole-sourced contracts to family members. Vengefully bringing back old political grudges (a formerly-rejected IC report) then protesting when the decision applies to one of their own. A standing committee system that operates too often out of the public eye and appears secretive. Backroom negotiations and lobbying emails. Ideological block voting. Letting staff control the budget and other meetings. Accepting damaging and flawed consultants’ reports. Claiming per-diem expenses for regular committee and board meetings. Breaching their oath of office and their code of conduct.

Hardly setting a good example for anyone to follow. And that’s just in the beginning of this term.

Perhaps they have other attributes that would fit the Confucian model of a good ruler, something not yet manifest in the public eye. Something hidden deep inside that needs must be coaxed out slowly. So let’s look at what Confucius and other Chinese philosophers said about government and politics.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Count of Monte CristoMany of us grew up on the stories of Alexandre Dumas; from cartoons to comic books, TV series and movies. And, yes, books, albeit often abridged for the young market, with drawings of swordsmen, women in flowing dresses, and the court of kings. Swashbuckling adventures, romances with honour and swordfighting. We may not have always realized that it was Dumas who was the source, of course. Do you watch The Princess Bride and wonder who inspired it? His ideas and plots were mined by many who came after.

We learned to behave, to be men and women, by reading such tales, by imitating their heroes, by wishing on their stars, learning their manners and their wit and their honour; by being our own Musketeers.

Neighbourhood children made swords out of wooden posts and branches, then rolled around on the lawn playing at swordfights, banging our rough sticks together, bruising fingers, laughing, jumping on imaginary horses and riding off, firing our finger-pistols at the approaching Cardinal’s men. We died, histrionically, at a sword thrust defending our imagined Milady.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Artemis, d’Artagnan –  I knew the names of all four Musketeers better than I knew the historical names in my school textbooks. I knew at an early age about the subterfuge of cardinals and the honour of queens. As time progressed, d’Artagnan blended into Robin Hood into  Lancelot, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and and eventually into Luke Skywalker. Swords gave way to guns and then blasters then computer games.

Years went by. I didn’t read Dumas after my early teens; the comics and the abridged children’s books yellowed, forgotten on the shelves. Other books, other pastimes, other heroes took my interest. I saw a few films based on his works, some TV, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them.  Fun stuff, entertainment popcorn, but I forgot the Musketeers.

It was only last year that I bought Richard Pevear’s recent (and excellent) Penguin translation of Dumas’ Three Musketeers almost by accident. The odd cover art caught my eye and I felt compelled to get it (sadly, the cover art that beguiled me has since been replaced by a poster-type cover taken from a recent movie made of the tale….). It was a good choice…

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Too Many Books?

Too Many Books?Tim Parks* wrote an intriguing essay in the New York Review of Books last week with that title. My first thought on seeing it was to wonder if one can ever have too many books. But of course, Parks – an author himself  – is looking at the bigger picture, not the ever-growing collection that clutters my bookshelves and litters my house. He asks:

Is there a relationship between the quantity of books available to us, the ease with which they can be written and published, and our reading experience?

I worked in book publishing as both an editor and a sales rep for many years, and before that, I worked in bookstores and even owned a bookstore. I understand reasonably well the business and the economics of publishing, and of retail. Because of that experience, I have often wondered these past few years as I wander around in bookstores, how the industry can sustain such output. How many more books on the frivolous gluten-free fad, or cookie-cutter teen-vampire tales, or vapid talk-with-angels books can we add to the shelf before the diminishing return on such investment discourages publishers?

There are more books being published than ever before, and with the internet and e-readers, more ways to access those books; but is that always a good thing? Can we be overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point where we turn away from many – if not all – books?

Can we have too many choices so that we cannot discern the wheat from the chaff?

Yes, of course: all these books cannot be great books; some have to be poorly written, researched or plotted. Chaff exists. A multitude of voices can be a cacophony as well as a choir.

Parks himself asked, in another NYRB piece:

Is there any consistent relationship between a book’s quality and its sales? Or again between the press and critics’ response to a work and its sales? Are these relationships stable over time or do they change?

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Lovecraft’s Tales of Terror

Cthulhu

No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.
Ex Oblivione, 1921.

Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my teenage reading covered a lot of genres, but I gravitated to scifi and fantasy. Fantasy in those days didn’t offer the same overflowing bookshelves of cookie-cutter tales we find in today’s bookstores. But they took me out of the miseries and difficulties of my little world so easily that I made the effort to find them.

Back then, fantasy was an addendum to the scifi section. You often had to hunt for the rare titles in stores and libraries where there were ample selections in all other genres (this is before the explosion of fantasy literature in the late 60s, when J.R. R. Tolkein’s Ring trilogy exploded into popularity. generating all those thousands of spin-offs.) I can’t recall horror even having its own section.

My reading took a darker turn when I discovered the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in the mid-60s. While I have returned over the years to ERB and many other writers whose works I discovered in the 1960s, I have not until recently re-read any of Lovecraft’s works. But his fiction certainly deserves a re-read because it was seminal for a lot of modern horror fiction and film. And last week I picked up an anthology of his more famous works for that purpose.

For a young teen as I was, Lovecraft was a rude, exciting awakening. What a change from what I had been reading before! In the swords-and-adventure books of Burroughs or the gallant, embattled heroes in the Doc Savage series, or even in Howard’s violent-but-honourable Conan, there was morality, definable good and callous wrong, great deeds and immense challenges to overcome, but evil was always defeated by those of strong heart, iron will and a strong moral sense. In all of these tales, there is some sense of redemption and achievement. There is joy in conquering, in winning the heart’s desire, in love, in battle.

Not so in Lovecraft, not at least in the Lovecraft I recall. He has a lot of despair and loss, terror and anxiety, and the sort of nameless middle-of-the-night terror that makes you wonder what’s under the bed.

And he wrote in sometimes florid prose that today seems rather histrionic, even puerile at times. But although Lovecraft seldom followed any of the rules most practitioners preach today on the art of story writing, he still garnered a huge following despite any literary failings.

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Master Shih Te’s Words

I see a lot of silly folks
who claim their own small spine’s
Sumeru, the sacred mountain
that supports the universe.
Piss ants, gnawing away at a noble tree,
with never a doubt about their strength.
They chew up a couple of Sutras,
and pass themselves off as Masters.
Let them hurry and repent.
From now on no more foolishness.

This is poem XI* from Master Shih Te, a hermit on Cold Mountain; contemporary of and close friend to the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan. This verse is translated by J. P. Seaton from his book, Cold Mountain Poems (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 2009).

Only 49 poems attributed to Shih Te (also written as Shi De or  Shide) survive; most have distinctly Buddhist themes, but like this one, have metaphorical resonance outside the strict religious or spiritual framework.

This particular poem struck me as particularly relevant, when I read it in Seaton’s collection, this weekend. How much some people  think their own view alone gazes from the highest mountain, and all the rest of us are below them. How they think their own words are akin to scripture, and those of others are dross. But, as Shih Te says, they are merely ants gnawing at the bark of the great tree of truth, thinking their tiny jaws will topple it.

Foolishness,  he says, just foolishness.

~~~~~
* James Hargett translated it thus:

I am aware of those foolish fellows,
Who support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
Like ants gnawing on a huge tree,
How can they know their strength is so slight?
Learning to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
Their words then become one with the Buddha.
I desperately seek to confess my sins,
Hereafter, never again to go astray.

** Sumeru, or Sineru, is the central peak in Buddhist cosmology and mythology: Sumeru rises above the centre of a ‘mandala-like complex of seas and mountains.’ We use a similar metaphor when we speak of the ‘Everest’ of things.

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ERB and Barsoom

Chessmen of Mars

Tara of Helium rose from the pile of silks and soft furs upon which she had been reclining, stretched her lithe body languidly, and crossed toward the center of the room, where, above a large table, a bronze disc depended from the low ceiling. Her carriage was that of health and physical perfection—the effortless harmony of faultless coordination. A scarf of silken gossamer crossing over one shoulder was wrapped about her body; her black hair was piled high upon her head. With a wooden stick she tapped upon the bronze disc, lightly, and presently the summons was answered by a slave girl, who entered, smiling, to be greeted similarly by her mistress.

So opens the fifth book in the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. I have read that opening – indeed the whole series of his 11 Martian novels – several times. I still have the entire set of Ace paperbacks from the 1960s or 70s on my bookshelves. I periodically read a Burroughs’ tale just to remember the pleasures of reading him.

I recently downloaded several of his novels in audiobook form, to listen to on my visits to my mother, in her nursing home or on my iPhone when walking the dogs in the park. Librivox has many, and some are quire well read.

Last month I manged to hear A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, written in 1912, and the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars (1922).  This month I have books 2,3 and 4 burned to CD and ready to play. Back in 2007, on my old blog, I wrote the following piece about ERB and my lifelong love of ERB and his tales. After hearing these two audiobooks, I thought I should share it again here, albeit somewhat edited and updated.

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Revelations about Revelation

PBSIt’s got treachery, betrayal, politics, violence, skullduggery, sex, war, philosophy, politics, religion, an empire teetering on the brink of collapse, mystical visions, rebellion, emperors and slaves, angry priests accusing other priests, unrepentant martyrs going to their deaths in the arena, and the end of the world looming over it all. What more could you want?

It’s all in Elaine Pagels’ book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation. Reading it has been quite an entertaining experience, as she takes you through the turbulent early church history, through the philosophical and scriptural precedents, the fight to establish orthodoxy and the canon, the bitter confrontation with Rome and into the often violent internecine squabbles within the early Christian faith itself. And what better time be be reading this than at Easter?

If you thought religious fanaticism was a modern invention, you should read the history of the early Christian church. Followers in the first few centuries were torn – often violently and literally – between competing schools and beliefs. They were urged by their leaders to fight other Christians “unto the death” over doctrinal differences that seem barely comprehensible today. Religious leaders accused one another of crimes, of heresy, of vile acts – usually without even a shred of proof (sounds like some modern bloggers, doesn’t it?) and urged their followers to drive them out, tear down their churches and even slaughter their opponents.

And then there’s the fight over the canon: which books were chosen to be included and why – often accepted or rejected for deeply political and self-serving ideological purposes. Among them is John of Patmos’ apocalyptic and very politicized work, Revelation (not, as some people assume, the same person as the apostle John, nor by the author of the Gospel of John, who also was not the apostle, but rather the gospel is the result of a collective authorship).

Revelation was interpreted many, often contradictory, ways, as Pagels describes, by various schools and bishops, usually to bolster one side of a theological stance. Sometimes it was even claimed simultaneously by competing groups, each interpreting it to support their own views.

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Thurber’s Writings & Drawings

James ThurberBooks of James Thurber‘s cartoons and writing were always on the shelves at my grandparents’ home, as well as on my parents’ bookshelves. I read them, as I did everything else on those shelves, when I was quite young.

I still remember his odd, eccentric cartoons with their primitive lines but sharp and bizarre wit, although I can’t recall much if any what stories I read of his back then (and I am looking forward to reading today what I haven’t read since I was in my early teens).

Yet despite my fuzzy memory for literature of my past, I still recall the enjoyment of doing so at my grandparents’ home during the Sunday dinner; a house full of family; uncles, aunts and cousins bustling about. Me sitting in a stuffed chair reading while the adults fussed in the kitchen and drank wine, and the younger kids played on the living room floor. The books were worn, hardcovers well-thumbed and a little yellowed. Some had tattered dust jackets, others none. I loved their feel and their smell.

There were other titles I recall, too from that era: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Boys’ Own Annual, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), Beano comic collections (sent over every Christmas by my English grandparents), encyclopedia volumes, The ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping, a big family bible, some pre-war books on engineering and mechanics. I eagerly read them all.

That redolent warmth of family get-togethers; the shared, noisy space and the pleasures of reading and playing, followed by a homemade meal and then crowding around the TV to watch Ed Sullivan – it all came back to me when I recently found a collection of Thurber’s works in a local used book store – mint condition, too!

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The Bully Pulpit

Theodore Roosevelt“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”

US President Theodore Roosevelt uttered those words in office (reported in the February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine), coining the phrase ‘bully pulpit’ in referring to the presidency as an ideal platform from which to expound his ideas and advocate his causes.

Of course, in his day, bully – a word with which Roosevelt was very fond – as an adjective meant ‘excellent,’ ‘first-rate,’ ‘jovial’ or just ‘good’ – a usage we still share when we say ‘bully for you.’ His bully pulpit, however, was a moral platform.

Roosevelt wasn’t commenting on having a platform of influence from which to bully people in today’s more common use of the noun to describe “a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.”*

Both uses of the word bully come from the Dutch boele, meaning ‘lover’ and it was originally a term of endearment. They migrated to their odd, double meaning in the 17th century.

National Post reviewI came across the term recently in the title of Doris Goodwin’s book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt , William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” which I picked up last week, mostly for its references to the historical development of journalism.** But the politics also interest me and, since I am not as well-versed in American history and politics of that era as I am in other periods, I wanted to educate myself.

Roosevelt is fascinating in that he was a Republican and very progressive – yet it’s a party today we associate with backwardness, the entitlement of the 1%, racism, promoting anti-Christian policies while pretending to be devout and religious***, anti-environmental, anti-science, intolerant, corrupt, petty, mean-spirited spokespeople for whichever industry or corporation buys their votes.

Yet remarkably, in Roosevelt’s day, the Republicans were the progressive party, and it was under Roosevelt that the government put limits on corporate greed, stifled the robber barons, sponsored economic and monetary reform, protected the environment and created national parks, passed socially progressive laws for education and labour… quite the opposite of today’s narrow-minded and suspicious Republicans.

In part, I wanted to read Goodwin’s book to understand, if I can, how the GOP fell from such socially responsible heights to become the despicable, misanthropic and misogynistic party it is today. As the New York Times wrote in reviewing Goodwin’s book:

Let her transport you back to the turn of the 20th century, to a time when this country had politicians of stature and conscience, when the public believed that government could right great wrongs, when, before truncated attention spans, a 50,000-word exposé of corruption could sell out magazines and galvanize a reluctant Congress. The villains seemed bigger, too, or at least more brazen — industrial barons and political bosses who monopolized entire industries, strangled entire cities. And “change” was not just a slogan. “There are but a handful of times in the history of our country,” Goodwin writes in her introduction, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” The years covered in this book are such a time. It makes a pretty grand story.

In his career as a politician, Roosevelt had a very good, close relationship with the media. He engaged them in debate and discussion, created a separate room for the media in the White House, and challenged reporters over their stories – Roosevelt also coined the phrase ‘muckraker’. But it was a relationship based on mutual respect and civility. As Goodwin writes:

…Roosevelt had established a unique relationship with numerous journalists. He debated points with them as fellow writers; regardless of the disparity in political rank, when they argued as authors, they argued as equals. He had read and freely commented upon their stories, as they felt free to criticize his public statements and speeches.

Goodwin calls the relationship between Roosevelt and the media “collegial” – the New York Times suggests ‘symbiotic” as a better choice. As the NYT tells it, Roosevelt

…allowed reporters to question him during his midday shave. Editors and writers who caught his attention would be invited for luncheon conversations that might last until midnight. With his many favorites, Roosevelt exchanged voluminous correspondence, sometimes two or three letters a week. He shared early drafts of his major policy speeches and legislative proposals, and they briefed him on their reporting projects before publication.

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