img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Saturday, 23 February 2008


Yesterday both my flatmates were away and I knew I was safely alone in the house for the night, and somehow as I was mucking around on the internet I realised there were lots of clips from Wicked on youtube. I saw said musical at the West End while I was in the UK last year, and while the story flags a bit in the second half, it's got an utterly superb central character -- gutsy and admirable, and requiring a powerful voice. It's brilliant, the way you end up totally gunning for her even as you can see her scary wicked witch image growing before your eyes (There's also an interesting commentary inherent in the storyline about the differing roles of activists and politicians in creating political change). So anyway, seeing as there was nobody else to mind the noise or think me silly, I sang along at full belt (with the proper technique to try to safeguard my throat, naturally) with a whole lot of videos like this one:

Damn, it was fun.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Humanist Symposium 15

Now up at Cafe Philos, and containing my post Stopping to Think. Yes, that's right, I figured out a way to get the Literati into the Symposium after all.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Stopping to Think

The Nonbelieving Literati -- the atheist book club started by the Exterminator -- had a striking success of sorts this last round. John Evo, choosing the next book for the Literati to read, decided to pick a classic that would be completely new to him, and we loosely associated literate atheists settled down, each in our own corner, to read The Plague by Albert Camus.

The results were stunning -- see the Spanish Inquisitor for an overview. Pick a Nobel prizewinner and you get posts all over the show, some thoughtful, some critical, some on smaller themes, some on larger ones, and nearly all of them making powerful points. I was particularly impressed by the Lifeguard's post, which took some of the scariest ideas in the book and faced them head on, starting with the disconnect between the way we live our lives day to day and the moments when we actually stop to think about the meaning of it all:
Think about it. Every day you wake up. You wonder what you’ll have for breakfast. Should I just stop at Dunkin Donuts? No, I’m trying to lose some weight for the beach season. . . . All of these things cease to matter ten minutes later when a car comes crashing across three lanes, skidding 360 degrees on a rainy parkway just twenty feet in front of you on the way to work.

Life, it appears, has a funny way of reminding us just how irrelevant our everyday lives are.
Sometimes it seems like nobody bothers to ask the real questions. But the truth is, I think most of us do. We don't question our foundations all the time, but every so often, we all have to face the broader questions about where we find our motivation and what we want from life. Philosophy is more common than you think.

Art is more common than you think. When I was a child, for some reason I thought painting and music and dancing and the like were for kids. For kids, because they just might grow up to be good at them, and for the lucky few adults who actually did grow up to be real artists and musicians and dancers. But you know what? A few years back, I found my grandmother pulling out her set of pastels and carefully drawing a vase of yellow flowers. It wasn't much better than the good end of kids' drawings, and I thought it was a little weird for an old woman to be picking up a new hobby, but I figured it was kind of nice, really. Maybe you didn't have to give up that stuff when you got older after all.

A few months ago, I was getting into Nana's car and I had to shift a picture off the passenger seat. It was a wave, in glorious colourful blues and greens, the richness of the pastels in full display. I was impressed. And my grandmother? She smiled in that slightly shy, proud sort of way, as I might smile if you were kind enough to compliment one of my poems, and said "Actually, I'm particularly proud of that landscape on the back seat, there, the one with the red-roofed house. I think it's my best one so far."

If you put the work in, you really can get well beyond what your average mildly talented kid can produce. She might never sell a picture. I might never publish a poem. But we're both doing something worthwhile. Art is not just for those who might earn a living from it. Art is for those who might gain a little life from it.

Religion sometimes sells itself as a source of meaning. The alpha course is a good example. And whilst I don't advocate using your desire for meaning as a measure of the truth of a story, I think there's a lot to be said for organisations that give people the opportunity to explore these sorts of questions together. Here's one interesting example calling itself the School of Philosophy. I only have my brief exploration of their website to go by, but they appear to be refreshingly broad. Looking at this flyer advertising their Cultural Day, I conclude that they're not entirely free of what we skeptics refer to as 'woo', but nor does their entire programme rest on nonscientific mumbo-jumbo. Rather, they appear to be taking inspiration from all manner of thinkers from all times and places. Lack of dogma -- I approve. This sort of inclusive participation in the search for meaning and joy in life is a really good idea.

An atheist who seeks meaning or self-expression might take a course like this, or study poetry, or become fascinated by astronomy as a source of awe in the universe. The sort of philosophy that you learn in a university can be very mind-expanding, too.

If you're thinking of creating an atheist group in your region to discuss these sorts of things, though, might I suggest a book club?

Sunday, 10 February 2008


This is the way it ought to be.
Far from the deepest current rushing
to tug my feet caressingly,
far from the dull dry sand, just brushing
the richly salty laps of sea.

The salt was wept by poets, here,
who knew the waves were unforgiving,
who felt the rush and held it dear,
but still they fought to go on living
in joy, in hope, in quiet fear.


(Feel free to ignore these if you want to just comment on the poem. Edit: I recommend just reading the first one.)

1. I've borrowed a metrical trick from the Onegin Stanza. I mean, it's just so brilliant -- by using feminine endings, you break up the tetrameter so it doesn't jingle too much, but it's still more musical than pentameter. I've always been frustrated by the way iambic pentameter can be so, well, invisible. There are advantages to that, of course -- it can be an unobtrusive scaffolding -- but there's still a part of me that insists that metre ought to be felt as more than a vague regularity in the back of your mind. Heck, sometimes pentameter just feels stodgy. As far as I'm concerned, Alexander Pushkin was a genius to come up with this alternative, so naturally I had to experiment to see if I could use it in a different setting.

2. Boy, this one took a long time! Alterations all over the place. If you're interested, here are some of my variations.

First stanza:

This is the way it ought to be.
Far from the danger of the rushing

tide of creativity.
Far from the dull dry sand, just brushing
the richly salty laps of sea.

That first line was the bit that started me off -- an unexpectedly iambic line in a definite conceptual context. The last line of that stanza was the main thing that made me sure I couldn't give up on this poem.

Second stanza:

We can't quite help but wander here.
We know the waves are unforgiving,
we know we mustn't go too near,
yet still we wish to go on living
in joy, in hope, in quiet fear.

Pretentious as heck, right? This is actually a later version than the one I went with, setting aside the changes I made once I reverted to my original version. I had a go at changing this second idea into first person with more natural language, which made it much less pretentious, but a little dull:

I can't quite help but wander here
I know the waves are unforgiving,
I know I mustn't go too near,
but still I want to go on living
in joy, in hope, in quiet fear.

See, this is better, but it's just not as dramatic as my first sketch (It has a nice bit of wander/wonder wordplay, but wordplay is not a reason to keep something that isn't working. Anyone who has ever groaned at a bad joke knows that wordplay just can't carry things on its own. Besides, I still have shore/sure. I'm not sure if that one works for anyone else besides me, but I like the soft reference I find in it anyway).

To be honest, I think the reason I was able to revert to my original idea on the second stanza is because I'd changed the first stanza. The original first stanza was too weak in comparison with the original second stanza, and the ideas conveyed weren't strong enough to carry the (perhaps overly romantic) lyricism of the second stanza, either.

Anyone who thinks I shouldn't have made the changes I did is welcome to speak up; I'd be interested to hear your reasoning. I think I've made the right choices, but I'm not certain.

3. I agonised over saying 'poets' in the second stanza. I'd've liked to have said 'mathematicians' (or maybe 'philosophers', as the exact meaning of the poem shifted) but they both have a few too many syllables. And face it, 'thinkers' just sounds stupid. But the truth is, poetry actually doesn't feel like it's going to eat me. If anything, it's freedom -- a creative release that my parents don't know about and that therefore belongs entirely to me, to use or abuse as I wish.

I sure other people have felt like poetry might eat them, though. Maybe I just haven't been doing it for long enough. In any case, since anyone who reads this knows it was written by someone who writes poetry, referring to 'poets' has an intimacy that wouldn't be there otherwise. And, heck, poetry can have philosophy in it -- the deep kind of philosophy that can save or submerge you.

In other words, referring to poetry in this context can actually feel right, after all.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

On Using Feminine Cultural Advantage

Via Echidne, we find a superb piece of wrong-headedness -- or quite possibly concern-trolling, as Echidne points out -- from Andrew Sullivan:
There were also, of course, the now famous New Hampshire tears - to evoke sympathy. And the blunt appeal on gender grounds alone. And the refusal to disavow the use of her husband for her own political purposes, even as he told lies and cast racist aspersions about her opponent. And, on the eve of Super Tuesday, the tears again. Can you imagine a male politician breaking down in public the day before a crucial vote - and expecting it to help?

It's time feminists realized that Clinton is a dream gone sour.
I find it hard to choose between the two big democratic candidates, but my innermost leanings are probably for Obama. So you should not consider this a specifically pro-Clinton post. Rather, I'd like to weigh in on the feminist questions raised by Sullivan's piece. There are lots of things wrong with the view that Sullivan puts across, but I want to focus on just one particularly silly bit:
Can you imagine a male politician breaking down in public the day before a crucial vote - and expecting it to help?
Excuse me? The main reason a male politician can't do that is because we have this construct known as masculinity. What it means is that men are restricted in the sorts of emotions they can show while still having people's respect. This aspect of masculinity is not sensible. It is not helpful. Women should not be aiming to be restricted by it! Is Sullivan trying to complain because women have this advantage in that we can use emotion in ways that men can't?

Well, it's true. The ability to show emotion and have people react sympathetically rather than scornfully is a cultural advantage that women have over men. And Clinton should have no more qualms over using it than a male politician should over using, say, a tough-guy image to try to attract votes. That is to say, it's silly image politics, but it happens all the time. Why should it be more wrong to use a feminine cultural advantage? Masculine ones are used every day and nobody blinks. And if the aim is to try to even the playing field, that doesn't mean that women should always try to conform to masculine methods of gaining respect.

In actual fact, a tough-guy male politician is helping to restrict men far more than Clinton's willingness to use the occasional sniffle could restrict women. Clinton cannot afford to be feminine all the time -- hence the 'robot' accusations prior to her show of emotion -- so she can't really be said to be subscribing to a narrow view of what women should be allowed to do just because she shows emotion occasionally. Whereas the tough-guy male politician is reinforcing a restrictive gender construct down the line.

If Clinton was always playing feminine and implying that her worth depended thereon, or if she were obviously implying that her husband's skill matters more than hers, well, that would be anti-feminist. But she isn't. She's blending masculinity and femininity in what I consider to be a rather impressive fashion, actually. This is the way we ought to go, being willing to claim the traditionally masculine without subscribing to the notion that anything we gain from femininity is worthless. The ability to give emotion -- not in an uncontrolled fashion but in a calculatedly honest fashion when the situation requires it -- strikes me as a worthy part of a politician's skill set.

And if men want in on the softer emotions, you should jolly well organise your own damn movement. Because until then, we're going to go on aiming to have it all right under your noses, and if you're not brave enough to stand up for your own, similar right, that's your fault.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Nonbelieving Literati: The Plague

For details of the Nonbelieving Literati, see here.

I have to write this post, because I don't want to read everyone else's until I've written mine, which currently means I'm avoiding some very interesting-looking posts on other people's blogs. It's not going to be easy. I read this book really early, and in the intervening six weeks or so, there have been lots of minor points that I might have liked to use The Plague as an illustration to. Instead, I am forced to write a big post that tries to get something across that relates to the whole book. Well, no matter. I shall make a start, and see how much of the important stuff I can end up fitting in.

Camus wrote this book in 1947, after the end of the second world war. He was writing in part from his own experience as part of the French Resistance, and also more fundamentally about crisis and how we deal with it. Thus we get this description quite early in the book:

[T]hey were humanists; they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogey of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. . . . Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others, they forgot to be modest -- that was all -- and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.

Camus isn't using 'humanist' in the sense of, say, the Humanist Symposium. I suspect he is referring to something closer to Renaissance humanism, and more specifically to the notion that men and women are, or should be, free to control their own destinies. We think we're free, he says, and we go on making plans, but in fact we are not free; certainly not so long as there are pestilences or invading fascists. The use of a plague -- a natural phenomenon -- as an allegory for an occupation -- a human phenomenon -- is interesting here. Whatever he thinks of the moral issues surrounding the behaviour of the German government and army, they are not the focus of this book. This book is not arguing that we should create a world which does operate the way we want it to. This book takes it for granted that there are pestilences of all types, at looks at how we deal with them.

It's most definitely an atheist book. The sole proponent of religious solutions to crisis is Father Paneloux, who suggests that we deserve crisis. The plague is God's punishment, says Father Paneloux, and we must submit willingly to die if that be our destiny -- and indeed take joy from the notion that what is happening is God's will. To this, the good Doctor Bernard Rieux (one of three main atheist characters) remarks with deliberate forgiveness that "As you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They're better than they seem." Indeed, Paneloux is better than he seems, for he does join in with the volunteers who risk their lives caring for the sick rather than leaving the plague victims to their divine punishment. However, consistent with his views, he refuses treatment for himself, preferring to submit to God's will. One gets the impression that the sole saving grace of Paneloux's position is that he allows it to hurt only himself and any others who might be swayed to believe it.

The more interesting viewpoints are those of the atheists [or, at least, the viewpoints that discount or disbelieve in God - edit]. As an interesting pair, we have Doctor Rieux, whom I have already mentioned, and Jacques Tarrou, a traveler and philosopher. Rieux is the simpler of the two. He is a doctor, and the impulse to fight against the plague comes naturally to him. He cannot necessarily justify it, except insofar as he finds it impossible to do otherwise. Tarrou is both more complex and more confident in his viewpoint. It is Tarrou who goes to Rieux and suggests that teams of volunteers be set up to care for the sick, in full confidence that willing people will be found, despite the risk.

Rieux has a simple and uncertain theory of morality; Tarrou has one that he has given a lot of thought to. Both men, however, agree that the right thing to do is to care for the sick and attempt to minimise the hurt and damage as best they may, no matter that they must face the fact that there will be an awful run of tragedy before them that they are powerless to completely halt. By contrast, the journalist Raymond Rambert represents a different viewpoint. Rambert is not interested in the fate of those in the town -- "I don't belong here!" he protests, pointing out that he was only there to write a short article and now he is stuck, separated from his beloved wife because of the quarantine. One should not think of Rambert as an immoral character; he is portrayed sympathetically. Perhaps Rambert's strongest statement is this one:

"[P]ersonally, I've seen enough of people who can die for an idea. I don't believe in heroism; I know it's easy and I've learnt it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves."

Rieux's reaction is very interesting: he agrees with Rambert, and tells him that Rambert's impending attempt to escape the quarantine is right and proper; his only protest is that "there's no question of heroism in all this. It's a matter of common decency." Rieux has a wife of his own who is sick (though not of the plague) and who was sent out of the town before the plague began. He, too, is missing somebody he loves. And, more deeply perhaps, I think if you were someone who was sacrificing and taking risks in order to try to save the lives of others, you might not object to there being those who grasp happiness with both hands. Then, at least, you might know that even if you lose out, others will still have the chance to be happy because of what you did.

Both Tarrou and Rieux are in general forgiving of those who think differently. Indeed, these words of the narrator (who is unnamed until the end) might conceivably convey something of the views of both men:

[I]t is not the narrator's intention to ascribe to these sanitary groups [of volunteers to care for the sick] more importance than their due. . . . [T]he narrator is inclined to think that by attributing over-importance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worst side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance . . . on the whole men are more good than bad.

Bearing in mind the allegorical nature of the book, this is a modest (but entirely serious) utterance on the part of Camus. For, of course, the sanitary groups represent the Resistance, in which Camus played a significant role, and in this passage he may be seen to be disavowing to some extent the hero status that was given to members of the Resistance after the war. I find myself admiring him -- not just for modesty in this aspect of the book, but also for the way he has chosen to tackle a harder question when there was an easy one standing by. The evils of the Nazi regime would have been on everyone's lips, and the heroism of all those who stood up to it would have been being lauded at every turn. In such a situation, to refuse the simple heroic story in favour of a forgiving, nuanced view of human behaviour that faces up to some of the most difficult questions that human beings can ask is an achievement indeed.

As regards the broader theme of the book, the most important analogy between the Resistance and the sanitary groups is that they are those who inspire everyone else not to give up:

These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease, and convinced them that, now that plague was amongst us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it.

This is, I think, a central message of the book. Fight back at the universe. Do not submit. Yet it is a bittersweet message. At the end of the book we are with Rieux, and he is alone. The friends he made during the plague have died or gone back to their loved ones. His own wife has died of her separate illness. He has no-one. And he reflects that it is certain that, some time in the future, the plague will strike again. The victory is never complete.

I told Rieux not to kill himself. I knew he probably wouldn't. And he doesn't even seem to think of it. That, too, is heroism. Rieux is strong enough and hopeful enough to keep going, even when the plague is over and he has nothing to fight for any more.