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Sunday, 23 September 2007

Humanist Symposium #8: Interlocking Ruba'iyat

Within this godless universe, we find
A purpose and a reason to be kind.
So gather round, and read the posts here, sent
To warm the heart and educate the mind.

When Daylight Atheism shines, ascent
For humanists seems quite hard to prevent.
With optimism, what a voice have we!
Look: Atheists at twenty-five percent.

We need a secular community.
So argues vjack. Solidarity
Will take us all significantly far
-- And help our growth as humans, usefully!

Imagine (Is that Lennon, there? Aha!)
Explores the way we show our character
In trouble, we go weak, or bright, or stroppy...
So ask yourself, Do You Know What You Are?

So countries that have atheists are happy?
As skeptics, we've a duty. Don't get sappy.
Greta Christina warns, it would be flawed
To just assume causation, fast and sloppy.

A middle path at Letters from a broad...
There's room for pens that aren't quite like the sword.
But still, we need to make our presence plain.
I read this, and I cannot but applaud.

And Greta's back with more words in this vein.
Let's go with Good Cop, Bad Cop. Do not strain
To silence other atheists. We'll keep
Both types of activism: shine and rain.

Shamanic Visions of Selective Sweep
Explains how schizophrenia can reap
Rewards in partial doses. Read, and see
An interesting speculative leap.*

At evanescent, with simplicity,
We ruminate upon morality.
We do not need a Scripture to invoke
For 'wrongness' to exist objectively.

If someone says "Come on, it's just a joke,"
Can we excuse them from offending folk?
The Atheist Ethicist, with balanced sight,
Compares two statements to dispel the smoke.

"With Paradise swamped in darkness, where's the light?"
An Atheist's Sonnet at A Load of Bright
Evokes a shattered landscape, and then shows
The humble hand that leads us from our plight.

Allow me to explain the form I chose
In echo of the Nightingale and Rose
Built, and re-built, by better hands than mine
The ruba'iyat which every poet knows.

Greta Christina's Blog is next in line.
If to our next Symposium you incline,
October the fourteenth we meet again.
Till then, fare well! Let hope and reason shine.

*I wasn't quite able to include that this post is at The Primate Diaries. Here, for completeness, is the list of blogs and post titles:

Atheists at 25% posted at Daylight Atheism
We need a secular community posted at Atheist Revolution
Do You Know What You Are? posted at Imagine
Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy? posted at Greta Christina's Blog
My passionate secularism posted at Letters from a broad...
Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism posted at Greta Christina's Blog
Shamanic Visions of Selective Sweep posted at The Primate Diaries
My Morality Rumination posted at evanescent
Kathy Griffin and The Comic Defense posted at Atheist Ethicist
An Atheist’s Sonnett posted at A Load of Bright
The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam posted at Elliptica

The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam

Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

A pretty quatrain, isn't it? It's from Edward FitzGerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald's Rubaiyat can just barely be called a translation of a large collection of four-line poems attributed to the eleventh century Persian mathematician and philosopher Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald, in his own words, "mashed together" many quatrains, and given still further that FitzGerald put his translated quatrains in deliberate order and even had them run into each other sometimes, despite the fact that the originals were all stand-alone, it might almost be sensible to call FitzGerald's translation a separate work of art, inspired by and heavily based upon the original. Notwithstanding the looseness of the translation, it is undisputably the most popular one, perhaps because FitzGerald allows his more modern (Victorian) viewpoint to change the original somewhat, thereby creating something that resonates more strongly with us as an audience.

The word ruba'i, plural ruba'iyat, actually means 'quatrain', literally speaking; it's derived from the Persian word for 'four'. Traditionally, the first, second and fourth lines rhyme; sometimes (especially in earlier Persian poems) all four lines end in the same rhyme. Modern poems which continue the form for several stanzas occasionally use a form known as interlocking ruba'iyat in which the third line of one stanza rhymes with the first, second and fourth of the next.

You might think the final line of the verse I quoted above is hyperbole. However, FitzGerald continues:

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Promise go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

Were it not Folly, Spider-like to spin
The Thread of present Life away to win --
What? for ourselves, who know not if we shall
Breathe out the very Breath we now breathe in!

How much of FitzGerald's translation is in the originals? I found this literal translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs quite useful. There is one, for example, that runs as follows:

I need a jug of wine and a book of poetry,
Half a loaf for a bite to eat,
Then you and I, seated in a deserted spot,
Will have more wealth than a Sultan's realm

Or this one:

They say houris make the gardens of Paradise delicious,
I say that the juice of the vine is delicious,
Take this cash and reject that credit --
The sound of a distant drum, brother, is sweet

The literal translations can be quite beautiful in their own right. I particularly like this one:

The good and evil that are in man's heart,
The joy and sorrow that are our fortune and destiny,
Do not impute them to the wheel of heaven because, in the light of reason,
The wheel is a thousand times more helpless than you.

Exactly what we'd expect from a brilliant astronomer. Mind you, distinguishing which poems were actually written by Omar Khayyam himself is perhaps just somewhat less difficult than figuring out which fables were originally spoken by Aesop. To be sure, we have the apparent advantage of several works known to have been written by Khayyam. However, Khayyam's own writings on mathematics and philosophy say little of the sort of thinking given in the ruba'iyat. Indeed, his contemporaries speak of him as religiously orthodox -- and we could have predicted that from the simple fact that he died of old age. It is only after his death that we find writings which speak of him as heretical or dangerous, attributing poems to him such as this one:

Since the Upholder embellishes the material of things,
For what reason does He cast it into diminution and decay?
If it turned out good, why break it?
If the form turned out bad, whose fault was it?

FitzGerald saw Khayyam as a nonbeliever and hedonist with whom he could identify, but some have argued that Khayyam was a doubting believer. There is also a tradition among followers of Sufism that Khayyam was one of their own, and that the references to wine and such in his poetry are entirely metaphorical. The contradictions are strong enough that some have suggested that the poems were written by a different Khayyam who was then confused with the famed mathematician.

So it's partly FitzGerald's translation that makes these verses seem to cry across the centuries:

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side.

That ev'n my buried Ashes such a Snare
Of Perfume shall fling up into the Air,
As not a True Believer passing by
But shall be overtaken unaware.

Pretty, and more than pretty, aren't they?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

On this day six years ago...

Knowing the time difference, it would have been September 12 for me already when I found out. At the time I was cold, I admit. The tragedy was far away, people die halfway around the world from you all the time, and I was busy absorbing the political implications.

They had the TV on in our music classroom, CNN I think it was, with the class sort of crowded around it, and I caught the view of the tower with its cloud of smoke over many people's shoulders before retreating from the crowd as is typical for me in times of stress. Weeks later, I heard a newsreader say "You've seen all those pictures, too many times ... " I hadn't. Just that one glimpse. We don't have a TV at home.

My history teacher from the year before was a wry, sharp-witted man, full of stories and opinions and off-hand comments. We had studied the origins of World War II. "The Japanese made a big mistake, bombing Pearl Harbour," he had said. "It was all very well expanding into the Pacific, but Pearl Harbour was American territory. And the Americans, well, if you hit them, they hit back. You mark my words, they'll take an eye for an eye, and then some."

Pearl Harbour is way out in the middle of the Pacific. The World Trade Center is in the middle of New York. Compare psychological magnitude. I had a sudden vision of the Americans thumping around desperately in their desire for revenge, trying to figure out who to hit. It would take a president with leadership skills of incredible magnitude to reign in that impulse, I thought. Then I remembered the president of the United States was George W. Bush. "This is an act of war," he declared. "Figures," I thought, and held my breath. For a while I thought they might be able to take it all out on Afghanistan.

Ah, well.

And then a few months ago I saw this clip here and realised how cold, how cold I was. And I wished I'd seen and felt the grief of New Yorkers at the time. But better late than never.

Higgaion (in which I become enamoured of another theistic blog)

There are several reasons why this blog has been swinging sharply towards atheism recently. The first is Daylight Atheism and its parent site Ebon Musings. An inspiring post on the former, an addiction to the atheist meditations on the latter... it has an effect on my interactions with the blogosphere. But then add Seedlings in Stone into the mix and we have a Christian source of similarly addictive meditative thinking which pulls my mind back to religion.

I am sorry to say that this state of affairs may have just got worse. Via Pharyngula I have wandered onto Higgaion, a blog written by one seriously sharp-thinking theologian who writes with the kind of clarity that can provide welcome organisation to your thoughts even when you disagree. This site is proof that 'theological sophistication' is not merely 'obfuscation so that we won't have to face the actual issues'. The author's thorough, even sweeping, understanding of the content and context of some biblical texts is beautiful to behold and provides an incredibly necessary perspective on religious issues. Consider, for example, the easy way he is able to draw on his expert knowledge if the Hebrew Bible in a minor point in this post (one of several) of Dawkins' The God Delusion:

Similarly, at the beginning of the section of chapter 2 subtitled “Monotheism,” Dawkins begins with a quotation from Gore Vidal that labels the Old Testament “a barbaric Bronze Age text.” “Barbaric” I can buy, at least for parts of the Tanakh, but Bronze Age? Only the most conservative of biblical scholars assigns any part of the Tanakh to the Bronze Age...
But it was towards the end of a critique of Pastor Wiley Drake's call to imprecatory prayer that I felt my strongest reaction.
As much as the faulty exegesis noted above annoys me, I think the stakes are bigger when it comes to hermeneutics and “application.” Drake seems to think that if a biblical writer spoke in a particular manner (e.g., imprecatory prayer), that’s a divine endorsement command for Christians today to speak in like manner. ... [In] The End of Faith, [Sam] Harris seems to operate on the same supposition as Drake: that imitation is the only faithful way to respond to biblical statements. This reminds me of my own denominational heritage, with its inordinate attachment to the song “Trust and Obey”:

Trust and obey,
for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus
than to trust and obey.

To which I say, “Baloney.” (That’s too mild, but I try to keep the blog family-friendly.)
Oh, boy, did I love that. It gets better.
In sum, even if every single word of scripture was indeed dictated by God (which I don’t believe for a second, based on the bald statements of the biblical writers themselves), then it still would not be the case that the “only way” to respond faithfully to scripture is to “trust and obey.” Resistance can be a form of faithfulness, and indeed, sometimes it may be the only appropriate form of faithfulness. When the psalmists ask God to curse their enemies, we may rightly and faithfully say, “No.” When Ezra tries to break up marriages because of the ethnicities (or merely citizenship) of the husband and wife, we may rightly and faithfully say, “No.” And were we to think that God had said to us, “Go kill all your neighbors and live in their houses,” we might rightly and faithfully say, “No.”
Now don't ask me why, but when I read that part, I could have screamed in triumph. Yes, yes, yes, oh, sweet reason, yes! The author can argue Biblically for this! (Go look).

Look, I'm not a theist. I think there probably isn't a God and in this I disagree with Christopher Heard, whose blog has so impressed me. But the sheer scholarship of it all -- the sheer sense -- it's beautiful. It really is.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

'High Country Weather' by James K. Baxter

I cannot let mention of James K. Baxter pass without bringing up my favourite poem. For a New Zealander, it is a very conventional choice. What can I say? This poem is well-known and beloved for a reason.

High Country Weather

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow mountain shine.

Along the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

I brought this poem up in the first blush of my aching discussions with my former darling love about religion, as an explanation of how my worldview differed fom his. In some ways this was almost a misstep. Archibald Baxter was an unchurched Christian who never mentions praying and barely mentions God. James K, though, was a Catholic convert. How the heck did he write a poem that had such a marked influence on my secular humanism? 'Alone we are born, and die alone' -- famous phrase -- is not the statement of a person who believes himself to be perpetually in the presence of God. But then, 'to be or not to be' is still the question despite the fact that most people, of most religions, believe that not being is not an option!

My point, though, was this. I don't live in a happy manufactured world overseen by a benevolent deity. And I don't need to. As my worldview stands, I have so much invested in seeing-the-red-gold-cirrus-over-snow-mountain-shine! I like it that way. The first line is worth it for the second one. (I have some sympathy as a result for the idea that the best of all possible worlds -- without altering human nature -- might involve suffering. But I'm still pretty sure that this world isn't the best possible one).

And remember, the snow mountain in question is one of those Lord of the Rings New Zealand vistas. Mmkay?

Ride easy, strangers :-)

Monday, 3 September 2007

Archibald Baxter

It's old news: Mother Teresa had far more doubt than almost anyone knew. She expected to feel God's presence; she did not. In public, she professed perfect faith; in private, she called herself a hypocrite for doing so. She spent the majority of her life in an agony of extreme cognitive dissonance.

I may not have the measure of her, but I'd say she was someone who was capable of denying any and all inner feelings in service of -- well -- of the rules; of the rules she believed represented the pathway to supreme goodness. It is presumptuous of me, but I sympathise. Though I freely concede that there are many counts on which she may be criticised, when it comes to the criticism of hypocrisy I, yes, I who love the truth, can only be grateful that it was her and not me.

Ironclad adherence to such demanding rules excites quite understandable awe from some. In the past, I have thought that this is religion's major card: the ability to inspire perfect determination, to declare with such certainty that people will go far beyond what is normal for human beings in an attempt to follow. Such a card can be used either for good or for evil, of course. In adding certainty, religion becomes an amplifier. But is this the only way to achieve a remarkable act of conscience? No. No, it isn't.

In 1917, the New Zealand Defence Department decided to make examples of some conscientious objectors. Fourteen such were removed from prison and shipped off to Europe, there to be forced to take part in the action. One was released, having been transported by mistake (he belonged to a recognised religious sect which advocated nonviolence and was hence a 'legal' objector). Three submitted after 28 days of detention in England which included solitary confinement, forced dressing, handcuffs, verbal and physical abuse, and a bread-and-water diet.

The remaining ten were sent to France. Threatened with being shot, three more broke. The rest were sent to the lines. Three of those were court-martialled, repeatedly threatened with the death penalty, and eventually sentenced to two years' hard labour in a prison in Dunkirk. Conditions were hard; all three were hospitalised with illness of some sort or other. Finally all three agreed to become stretcher-bearers. One was killed in action.

The other four were subjected to No.1 field punishment: morning and afternoon, for a fixed period of time, they were tied to a forward-leaning stake by the ankles, knees and wrists. Crucifixion, if you will. One agreed to bear a stretcher after 28 days of this. Another was hospitalised and became a stretcher-bearer upon recovery. Two remained defiant until the end.

Not my country's finest hour.

The two who held out? Mark Briggs and Archibald Baxter. Briggs was a leader among the fourteen, defiant and uncompromising. By the end of the war he had been declared physically unfit for service as a result of the abuse he received. Baxter, though, is really something else. His autobiographical account, We Will Not Cease, is described by some as 'remarkable for its lack of animosity'. That isn't the half of it. No, the truly remarkable thing about Archibald Baxter is his distinct lack of cognitive dissonance. In his autobiographical account, Baxter is never certain how far he will be able to hold out. He does not set his teeth. He does not set his position in stone and then hold to it. He simply remains in tune with his personal convictions, whatsoever they may be.

Baxter would never have wanted me to imply he shared my atheism, so before I go further let me explain that he was most definitely Christian: unchurched, but Christian. In explaining his objection to war, he says

"To me, Christianity is based on the commandment: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' I do not profess to be able to live up to this ideal, but one can at least go so far along the road as to try to treat other people as one would wish to be treated by them, and war cuts this position at its very roots."

As a freethinker, I find Baxter's achievements remarkable and inspirational. If it is possible to hold out under such strain while still remaining in touch with one's real and human conscience (rather than with an ideal set in stone), then perhaps it is also possible to navigate in life while still in touch not only with conscience but with reason: aware that our views may change, aware that under some circumstances we might be too broken to hold out, but still, for now, following what we believe to be true and good. If we are to aim for heroism, let it not be heroism of the Mother Teresa style. Let us rather trust our own hearts and minds, and have courage in what they tell us.

Baxter eventually passed out from starvation (long story), and woke up in an English mental hospital. Presumably they assumed that someone who wasn't eating was probably mentally disturbed. At any rate, he stayed in mental institutions until the end of the war. The exact extent to which he needed mental attention and the extent to which the English medical people were simply trying to keep him from further abuse by the New Zealand authorities is unclear; in his autobiography, Baxter does not consider himself to have been truly mad. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly true that his experiences left him with considerable psychological damage -- he had nightmares for years afterwards.

Archibald Baxter married Millicent MacMillan Brown in 1920. Millicent was the daughter of Helen Connon, one of the first female BAs in the British Empire. She was educated in Sydney and Cambridge; he was a self-educated farm labourer. When Millicent was 90, someone asked her what she would do if she was sixty years younger, and she is said to have replied without hesitation "I'd marry my husband again." Their second son, James K. Baxter, was one of the greatest poets New Zealand has ever produced.

Humanist Symposium #7

There is a new Humanist Symposium up at Bligbi.

The next Humanist Symposium will be right here at Elliptica. Submissions can be sent directly to me (linnetlynet at or via the Blog Carnival Form.