Friday, March 26, 2010

The Flight of the Intellectuals

There is a good review of Paul Berman's coming book "The Flight of the Intellectuals" on, written by Ron Rosenbaum. Here's the link:
Berman's book is a tirade against intellectuals for their failure, basically, to stand up strongly against Islamic fundamentalism. Part of the controversy centers on Ayaan Hirsi Ali--a Somalian woman who escaped from the jaws of Islamic fundamentalism and genital mutilation, and her book, "Infidel", which received poor reviews from the likes of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash--who referred to her as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist." There is contained in this debate, and around it, a whole web of issues surrounding current world politics and political thought in the twentieth century--a skein that I certainly cannot untangle here. I do want to make a few remarks, however, and perhaps articulate a few of my thoughts (also quite tangled on this issue).
It seems to me that the left wing of political thought in the twentieth century has divided into two prominent strains: firstly, the straight-forward liberals--here I will invoke the definition presented by Isaiah Berlin, in paraphrase, that at its core political liberalism means a neutrality on the part of government toward competing conceptions of "the good," coupled of course with a protective sphere of unalienable individual rights; and, secondly, what I will call, perilously perhaps, the post-moderns--those that take very seriously the political thought stemming from Martin Heidegger, especially in the figures of leading twentieth century French philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Baudrillard. At the center of this strain of political thought is the notion that all cultures--which emerge somewhere from the interstices of a complex of discourses, practices, and institutions--are fundamentally ungrounded: there is no transcendental authority to appeal to in order to vindicate one "culture" over another. Coupled with this cultural relativism is an intense, many think damning, critique of the Enlightenment tradition (and, hence, political liberalism): take, for example, the popularity of the Marquis de Sade amongst these thinkers as an exemplar of the Enlightenment thinker. Foucault, to pick my favorite of these thinkers, has, in particular, undertaken to expose the totalitarian impulses to be found within the very foundations, the archon, of key Western Enlightenment institutions: the clinic, the prison, the insane asylum, etc. Meanwhile, feminist thinkers and critical race theorists have exposed--often quite shockingly--the deep currents sexism and racism to be found in modern scientific practice and discourse.
Now, it seems to me that it is this post-modern impulse in modern political thought that could allow for such a term, and perhaps vindicate it (though not directed at Hirsi Ali, I think), as "Enlightenment fundamentalism."
Ron Rosenbaum finds Berman's book "devastating" to this stance of many modern intellectuals. Moreover, he holds that it is fear--rather than some sort of cultural relativism--that is really animating the flight of the intellectuals, citing the many western writers that have experienced threats and have either gone into hiding, have bodyguards, etc.

"The fact that we so rarely hear a peep about the cumulative terror experienced by these writers and artists from the likes of these intellectuals while they find time to sneer at Hirsi Ali is the real scandal to me. The fact that theological censorship backed by death threats has been installed on the continent of Europe with just about everyone deciding it would be wiser to keep silent about it is once again burying the lede. But to my mind, printing it at all is a service.

A certain kind of irreverent speech once valued in Europe since the time of Chaucer and Rabelais has been, it seems, powerfully threatened if not silenced, and the heirs to that intellectual tradition are too scared to speak out about that silence. Maybe Berman's book will start intellectuals talking, and not just about each other. Maybe some of the previously silent will begin to speak out against the death squads rather than snark about their victims and targets."

I think that, on this point at least, Rosenbaum and Berman are correct: the "theological censorship backed by death threats" that is being imposed by Islamic fundamentalists all over the world (that is to say, not just in Islamic states), simply cannot be tolerated. And we must not let our great tradition of "irreverent speech" fall to the wayside. But does this mean that we have to fully identify with the Enlightenment tradition and espouse, like Hitchens, a "New Enlightenment?" Are we perhaps being offered a false choice here between a soft multi-culturalism that cannot attack fundamentalist religion and a hawkish liberalism?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yet more on "The Great Catholic Cover-Up"

More from the indefatigable Hitchens on the moral decrepitude of the Catholic church. As he suggests, no human being should be above the law:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wallace Stevens: Most Eloquent of American Atheists? (Part I)

Wallace Stevens is now firmly regarded by the community of poets, professional critics, and—I think—the poetry reading public (sadly dwindling every day to not much more than poets and critics) as the greatest American poet of the last century. I will say right now that I share this opinion: indeed I will go further and say that, considered on merely poetic grounds, I believe that Stevens is the greatest poet America has produced—and, unlike his contemporaries such as Aiken, Eliot, and Pound, who emigrated to Europe to seek richer artistic environments, all of Stevens’ poetry was written in America. His competition for this place of prominence can only be challenged, I think, by Dickinson or Whitman: both lack the range of formal ingenuity, though Dickinson is more guilty on this charge, that Stevens possessed, as well as the breadth of raw material to work with—although, in their defense, this is largely a failure of their age rather than of themselves. Atheists should be proud, then, to count Stevens as a senior fellow.

Stevens’ atheism is, it seems to me, not discussed much: it is, as it should be,—at least amongst poets and critics,—overshadowed by the range and depth of his poetic skill and, of course, the sheer beauty of his music (which, though not the overt subject of this essay, will not, indeed, cannot, be ignored by me either). But it is very important that we assert him as one of the greatest of our forefathers, and, as my title suggests, perhaps the most eloquent: here he vies for footing with Lucretius. His atheism is perhaps not much discussed because he did not discuss it: most that assert his atheism do so on account of his poetry—as I will do. I think it justified to do so if we seek the aid of William James. James argued famously that agnosticism is simply a non sequitur: ones beliefs are contained in their actions, in how they live rather than in what they say (Bill Maher makes a very Jamesian argument, which, incidentally, I agree with, when he says that Americans, en masse, aren’t really religious). Hence, one lives in accordance with the belief in a religious system or one doesn’t—the middle ground of agnosticism doesn’t exist in this realm. I tend to agree with James on this point, being something of a pragmatist, and have often used it to argue with agnostics (to lead them into the light of atheism!) if I’m feeling particularly like proselytizing at the moment. Now, to come back to our subject, if one is of Jamesian persuasion on this, one can rightfully assert Stevens’ atheism without a doubt: anyone who has read even a portion of Stevens’ oeuvre will realize immediately that this man’s life—his actions, beliefs, arguments, skepticisms, loves and loathings, his most intimate thoughts and emotions—are recorded here in a remarkable, and remarkably honest, fashion. And this account is, it is beyond doubt, the account of an atheist—indeed, I would argue, that of an anti-theist.

To demonstrate this I will use Stevens’ most famous and, I think, his greatest poem: “Sunday Morning.” The title reveals immediately—to one who lives in a predominantly “Christian” country—that the mise-en-scène of the poem is religious. As indeed it is: for the true mise-en-scène of “Sunday Morning” is not the one of two individual bodies, a man and a woman, sitting together on a lazy sunny morning having coffee and oranges together, presumably engaged in separate enterprises (he reading, say, Poetry magazine, and she the Sunday paper) while enjoying the simple omnipresent, if elliptical, proximity of their bodies:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

The true setting of this poem is in the thought-realm, however:

She dreams a little, and feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

The woman has a religious daydream in which she muses upon matters of faith, God, and paradise, and occasionally gives utterance to her musings. The rest of the poem is the man’s response, presumably after the fact, and gives to us Stevens’ brilliant statement of his atheism.

After her daydreams carry her “Over the seas to silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre” Stevens responds with a stanza that I simply must quote in full:

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and in dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings,

Or else in any balm or beauty of the earth

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Divinity must live within herself:

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

All pleasures and all pains, remembering

The bough of summer and the winter branch.

These are the measures destined for her soul.

What better statement have we in the English language of the absolute futility, indeed criminality, of wasting our time, and our thought, on religion? Jesus is straightforwardly referred to as one of “the dead” who is not worth the thought of a living being in a world filled with such beauty and wonder as the sun, fruit, birds—a world that leaves no room for any possibility of heaven. Divinity as a concept has no extension other than that of conscious animals, such as human beings, as In-der-Welt-Sein. And did Heidegger ever present his notion of being-in-the-world as satisfactorily and convincingly as Stevens does here—twelve years before the publication of Sein und Zeit? Passions are not caused by rain, nor moods caused by falling snow: the “internal” and “external” phenomena are one, obviating the terms themselves. The emotions felt on a stormy night in autumn are not other to the autumn night nor caused by it: the night and the emotions are coextensive. And the extent of one’s being-in-the-world is the only measure of the divinity of oneself: there will be no tabulation of sins, no judgment other than this—and it is a judgment that one can bring only upon oneself in how one lives.

The opening of the third stanza makes what seems a complete change of subject:

Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.

No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave

Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.

The use of the Roman god Jove, however, is quite deliberate: there has been no change of subject, but rather a placing of the same subject within a much larger historical context than that in which it is typically considered. God is Jove, is Zeus, is Mithra, is Horus, is Allah, et cetera: by using Jove rather than God he shakes his readers from complacently slipping into thinking of the Christian God, typically considered timelessly, ignoring the fact that Christianity is a collage of previous religious myths—Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman—and secular sources—Plato, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Porphyry. Indeed, the inhumanity of God is here painted in different shades than those in which it is typically considered. God is a “muttering king,” who seeks our flesh and blood (virgin flesh and blood) as a “requital to desire.” Then follow the questions that have been asked, but unanswered, since the death of Jesus of Nazareth:

Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be

The blood of paradise? And shall the earth

Seem all of paradise that we shall know?

Then Stevens again answers the daydreamers—here with a glimpse of a prophetic future—one without religious myths, without hinterweltlich beliefs:

The sky will be much friendlier then than now,

A part of labor and a part of pain,

And next in glory to enduring love,

Not this dividing and indifferent blue.

These four lines are, I need not tell the conscious reader, Stevens at his finest: he cuts straight through the edifice of mythology to the phenomenon—religion is the ouranian desires of man run amuck; let us return it to what it is: the sky, the sun, the stars, and their relation to the earth. Religion reduces these phenomena to belief systems that produce division and indifference: it need not be so, and, indeed, should not be so. There is—in Stevens’ prophetic future—no offer of a fictional salvation from labor and pain, but accompaniment and solace therein.

The fourth stanza moves from the generality of religious wish-thinking, as presented in the third stanza, to the more particular daydreaming of the actual woman present with Stevens on this sunny Sunday morning, who breaks the continuity of her daydream by speaking finally:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,

Before they fly, test the reality

Of misty fields by their sweet questionings;

But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”

In response to this question,—which certainly must not be foreign to many—, Stevens again restores a necessary contextuality: nothing of the major world religions, “not any haunt of prophecy, / Nor any old chimera of the grave,” not Jesus, or Moses, or Mohammad, “Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm / Remote on heaven’s hill,”—none of these have endured “As April’s green endures; or will endure,” indeed they have not even endured as long as humanity has experienced the “remembrance of awakened birds,” or the “desire for June and evening, tipped / By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.” To think, then, that religion—man-made and finite as it is—offers us some sort of immortality, some sort of constancy that this world does not have is, considered in proper historical perspective, ludicrous. How obvious does it become, then, that religion was created by men without knowledge of the past and without any thought for the future other than an overwhelming fear of their own finitude?

Friday, March 19, 2010

"The Great Catholic Cover-Up"

Excellent article by the anti-theist pugilist extraordinaire Christopher Hitchens on
The extent of the corruption and child abuse in the Catholic church (among others) and, moreover, the lack of interference by our judicial bodies, exposes the extent to which religion is still, sadly, above the law of man--the only law we have--and know that they are. That a disgusting child-abusing maniac holds the highest religious office in the world, rather than holding the bars of a prison cell, shows how morally bankrupt the institutions of religion are. And to think, this is the man that is to be forgiving our sins for us....

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let's Be Candid: On the Panglossian Response of the Christian Right to Haiti

When news broke of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, I imagine that those with some knowledge of the country's history in the last half of the last century were struck by the terrible and tragic irony of the situation: on the world stage, this is the worst kind of irony. John Lee Anderson, in a recent article for The New Yorker, both concisely and graphically summarized the recent past of Haiti, describing it as "a great human slum, governed by a succession (mostly) of thieves and despots" where "cruel military men…sometimes cut the faces off people they killed and left them in the mud of the streets of the slums to terrorize others." Hence the earthquake was, for me and, I believe, many others, a stunning reminder that there cannot possibly be any overarching and transcendent source of justice guiding our world: in short, there cannot possibly be a beneficent divine intelligence immanent in a world where this could happen to Haiti of all places.
That is why, after hearing of the response (and that is not really the right word, because I do not believe he gave any true human sympathy or attention to the situation—'inhumanity' is perhaps more just) of Pat Robertson, I couldn't help but be reminded of Voltaire's great novella Candide. So I took the opportunity to reread this short classic, which I hadn't read in a couple of years, and also to escape from the overwhelming pictures and video footage of the earthquake for a while.
A devastating earthquake figures in Voltaire's masterpiece, and it is not mere fiction. There was a massive earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755 in which thirty to forty thousand people died. Voltaire's description could be used to describe the current disaster I'm sure: "Whirlwinds of fire and ash swirled through the streets and public squares; houses crumbled, roofs came crashing down on foundations, foundations split; thirty thousand inhabitants of every age and either sex were crushed in the ruins." Now, Pangloss, the Leibnizian philosopher of Voltaire's novella, responds thus to the carnage: "all this is for the best, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon, it cannot be somewhere else, since it is unthinkable that things should not be where they are, since everything is well." Candide is in fact a humorous and, at times, vitriolic satire aimed at the German philosopher and polymath Gottfried Leibniz, who formed a totalizing philosophical system in which the world operates under a pre-established harmony because God created "the best of all possible worlds." Pangloss, therefore, sees everything—even the terrible earthquake at Lisbon, even the ravishes of war, even his own hanging and partial dissection—as contributing in some way to God's plan for this, the best of all possible worlds.
I don't think that Pat Robertson has heard of Leibniz or has probably even thought much about theological or philosophical questions, but he—and other mouthpieces of the Christian Right (recall Jerry Falwell's response to 9-11)—nonetheless reacts in a Panglossian way to current events. Everything is reduced to a totalizing worldview in which God is immanent. The good is God's mercy and kindness, the bad—or even catastrophic, as in the case of Haiti—is divine retribution for human transgression. I believe that it is time that we rejected this "metaphysico-theologico-
cosmoloonigology," as Voltaire labeled it, as the pernicious and otiose doctrine that it is.
For centuries humans have been giving their ignorance a name: God. Or Horus, or Mithra, or Zeus, or Jove, or Yahweh, or Krishna, or Allah, etc.,—the list could go on ad infinitum. When humanity didn't understand natural phenomena such as the nature, composition, and behavior of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies, the weather (and we haven't advanced too far on this front), the failure or success of their crops, and natural disasters, they explained them through the use of anthropomorphic gods: gods that were fickle and emotional like human beings, gods that had human jealousies and concerns, and hence had to be propitiated through sacrifice and rigid adherence to rules of conduct. This is convenient for the parties of god, for human beings will almost certainly lack an explanation for certain things. On the other hand, when science or philosophy makes advances in knowledge, such as Galileo's discovery that our solar system is heliocentric, Darwin's discovery of natural selection, and the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson, the theists say, "Ah, look how ingenious our God is!" Or, "Look how incredibly complex the composition of life is! There must be an intelligent designer!"
Now, apropos the first ruse of the theists—that of deifying ignorance: I wouldn't mind if some people wanted to call our ignorance God, or Allah, or whatever, as long as they were content to admit that doing so gives us absolutely no new knowledge. But they are not: they first give our ignorance the name God and then presume that they have proven the existence of some sort of beneficent bearded man in the stars who is immanent in our everyday concerns. A God, for example, that will suspend the natural order to help Billy Bob recover from heart surgery because he has indulged in far too many dollar burgers from cows raised on what was once the South American rainforest, but then turns around and kills 50,000 people in Haiti because of a pact they made with the devil; or a God that rewards suicide bombers with 72 virgins in heaven; or a God that demands genital mutilation.
As to the second ruse,—that of giving God the credit in absentia, for our advances in knowledge,—all we need is Ockham's razor: where we already have an explanation, we don't need another entity in the equation, much less a supernatural one. That would only complicate things and add more questions to be answered (how many a good scholastic mind was wasted on the myriad questions of Christian theology?).
Philosophy has, since Leibniz's time, deconstructed its own extensive—labyrinthine at times—systems and has had the humility not to attempt to rebuild over the ruins, but merely to admire them; and, while a unified theory serves as the ideal end for many scientists, it certainly isn't necessary as a means to the functioning of our everyday scientific practice; but most importantly, both philosophy and science have discarded the hubris that keeps the Panglosses of our world from calling our ignorance what it is. After all, naming a marmosyte "Tullia's ape" or a swan "Leda's goose" is a gratuity: they are after the naming no less a marmosyte and a swan.
So, I say, let's be candid, and let's remember Cadide's response to the dogmatic Pangloss: "we must cultivate our garden." There is no divine intelligence that is going to right the world's wrongs and protect us from the immense challenges that face us, now a decade into the twenty-first century. If there is going to be any justice in the world, if anyone is to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the poor; if there is ever to be anything like paradise, it must come from us: to paraphrase the great American poet Wallace Stevens, divinity must live within ourselves and our being in the world—and being sensitively attuned to the world. It is, it would seem,—with us and all the other myriad and beautiful variations of life,—a singularity in a largely empty and dying universe.
As for the present, there remains—and likely will remain for many years to come—much cultivation required in Haiti. I don't think God will lift a finger, so let us take the responsibility upon ourselves.

In the beginning...

"-- beginning without beginning, water without a seam, or sleep without a dream, or dream coterminous with sleep and the sleeper" Thus begins the story of a journey as recalled by the great American poet and man of letters Conrad Aiken in his autobiography Ushant. I would hope for such a seamless, liquid-smooth, mercurial and lyrical beginning (without beginning) for this blog--and for a journey as long and productive as that recounted by Aiken. To begin the voyage by quoting Aiken is appropriate for me because he was one of the first writers who shook me out of the lotus-eater void of religion (and the sado-masochistic, hinterweltlich, morbid morass it makes of one's life) that I was drowning in for years. Shook me, I should say, out of my familiarity with the world I lived in: a familiarity that is facilitated by an all-encompassing, totalitarian worldview that offers a single explanation for everything: God. No question need be asked by the religious because the answer is given already: God. Nothing need be investigated: all phenomena--no matter how strange, how beautiful, how terrible, how irreconcialable--are explained and ignored under the aegis of a word: God. This terrible familiarity leaves only the hope for death and passage to the next world where eternity and paradise supposedly await: it is death worship.
Let me quote some passages from Aiken's story "Gehenna" that shook my familiarity:
"How easily--reflected Smith, or Jones, or Robinson," the story begins, "or whatever his name happened to be--our little world can go to pieces! And incidentally, of course, the great world; for the great world is only ourselves writ large, is at best nothing but a projection of our own thought, and of our own order or disorder in thought. It was a moment's presumption that led a genius to write that genius and madness are near allied; proximity to madness is not a privilege of genius alone; it is the privilege and natural necessity of every consciousness, from the highest to the lowest; Smith and Robinson are as precariously hung in the void as Shakspeare himself." And a few paragraphs later:
"What in heaven's name are these rugs? What in heaven's name are these walls, this floor, the books on my mantelpiece, the three worn wooden chairs, the pencils in a row on my red table? Arrangements of atoms? If so, then they are all perpetually in motion; the whole appearance is in reality a chaotic flux, a whirlwind of opposing forces; they and I are in one preposterous stream together, borne helplessly to an unknown destiny. I am myself perhaps only a momentary sparkle on the swift surface of this preposterous stream. My awareness is only an accident; and moreover my awareness is less truly myself than this stream which supports me, and out of which my sparkle of consciousness has for a moment been cast up." Startling and dangerous thoughts for a young and ignorant Christian mind! They planted their seed, which would soon grow and flower to crack and ultimately shatter the walls and bulwarks built by years of Christian indoctrination. These words offered a frightening, yet somehow tantalizing, alternative to the cosmological hubris of Christians: no the universe--unfathomable as it is--was not created only that humankind have his faith tested for a verdict either of eternal pleasure or eternal torture, no life did not evolve on the planet for over 4 billion years--in which 99 percent of species went extinct--only that God would send his son to die brutally on a cross in one small civilization of many on earth just two thousand years ago, no we are not the center of the creation of an omnipotent, just, benevolent, loving Creator. No, our existence is far more precarious than all that: for all we know, our heightened degree of awareness is a mistake, a momentary sparkle on the surface of a chaos of elements, an evolutionary dead end.
Only later would I come to trace these ideas to their sources in Freud and Lucretius: two of history's greatest atheists. Then my growing unfamiliarity with my world and my self--part of that process of self-examination and knowledge aquisition in which one comes to realize more and more that intelligence is the growing recognition of precisely how little one actually knows--was connected with a secular tradition of thinkers, poets, scientists, artists, etc. I went through the historical progression in micro: theist to deist, deist to agnostic, agnostic to atheist, and finally atheist to anti-theist: the fullest flowering of the mind's assault on the bars and chains of religion.
I have been in this place, quietly but happily, for several years now, without much of an impulse to take my private bliss into any public place; or, rather, to invite anyone into my wholly secular garden--no effigies of Jesus or Mary here!--invite them into my "green thought" in my "green shade." But, alas, it seems to me now that my garden--and, indeed, our great garden--is going to have to be defended willy-nilly: the parties of god are every day scheming and screaming and blowing themselves and us up in the name of religion. Meanwhile the sizable minority of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists privately shake our heads and go our own ways, believing, de facto and de jure, in freedom of religion and the rest of the first amendment. Yet it seems that the time has come now that this minority exert itself more strongly the life and politics of our cities and countries. It is time that we offer some staunch opposition to the highly vocal and active minority of religious fanatics that threaten our freedoms and our planet. To adapt a phrase from another great atheist thinker: ATHEISTS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!