Christmas tree 2014

Christmas tree (16 December 2014)

Christmas tree (14 December 2014)

On a very busy 16 December 2014, I somehow managed to post this image on my Facebook page, together with the following text: “The Christmas tree went up about five days ago, and I’ve made several attempts at photographing it, but none of my shots are outstanding. I like this one, taken on 14 December 2014.”

Year by year, my ideas about my Christmas tree have evolved, and my collection of ornaments has grown. The majority are blown glass, but there are also items made from wood, paper, and cast plaster. And the tree itself is a cleverly woven cone of bamboo strips wound with a length of synthetic pine – something I’ve been able to re-use, year after year. Readers might recall my taste for eclectic, East-meets-West décor.

This year’s budget for new items is already over-subscribed, but I’ve a hankering for a few touches of gold to warm up the restrained palette I’ve favoured over the past few years.

PS: Here’s a nice Better Homes and Gardens video about decorating Christmas trees.

 

 

Reality: too obvious to be true

Banksy and Baudrillard

untitled (Banksy and Baudrillard) (detail)

Nothing is wholly obvious without becoming enigmatic. Reality itself is too obvious to be true. (Jean Baudrillard)

In hand, a bunch of diverse quotations, most of them having at least some bearing on the nature of reality. The Baudrillard piece seems to have appointed itself chief amongst them, but Einstein can be heard muttering in the background.

Not unexpectedly – given the two words, ‘obvious’ and ‘enigmatic’ – Google Images quickly finds a picture/text version of the Baudrillard quote. But more interesting by far, I think, is this Banksy art piece with which it is teamed up on the Particulate Matters blog.

Clearly, both Banksy and “cosmicdebris” (proprietor of Particulate Matters) are saying something about the teachings of the Christian Church – particularly, it seems, in relation to the indoctrination of children. Look elsewhere on the Particulate Matters blog and you will find links to other ‘indoctrination’ stories: for example, Monsanto indoctrinating kids at the zoo.

Actually, I’m inclined to suspect that indoctrination is integral to every aspect of living – and that everyone is routinely doing it and/or having it done to them. And it wouldn’t necessarily qualify as either brainwashing or catechism. Let’s put it more simply: we’re all inclined to push our ideas on others – and we call it marketing, persuasion, instruction, education, or teaching.

Be that all as it may, it is not really the main point of my post.

A few months ago, on |cross-ties| – the blog of “The Other” – there was a bit of back-and-forth about the nature of reality. A piece titled Taking a cycle trip led one reader to discuss Derrida’s ideas, noting that in language there is a gap between words and things. I would take this further, asserting that there is a gap between what we perceive and what is actually the case.

A similar gap yawns between the words of every witness and the occurrences they describe – what we thought we saw, the way it seems to us, what we believe to be true, and everything that is ‘obvious’. (And, by the way, since it’s that obvious, why can’t everyone see it our way?)

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus begins with the proposition that “the world is everything that is the case” and ends by reminding us that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein isn’t saying there’s stuff we can choose not to talk about; he’s actually pointing out that there are some things nobody can put into words.

Albert Einstein asserts that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Elsewhere, he declares, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking.” He is not saying that nothing is real; what he means is that everything we experience as real is invented. “The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.” (Albert Einstein Essays in Science (1934), p27)

The way science talks about reality and truth is sounding more and more like the words of the ancient religions. For example, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche, a notable teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, says: “The ultimate truth of all conventional truths is their being void of inherent existence. Conventional truths, ie empirical phenomena, exist dependently upon causal conditions, parts and imputation; they have absolutely no existence apart from these conditioning factors.”

But “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true,” wrote Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Called the creator of empiricism, “[Bacon] established and popularised inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method.” (GoodReads)

Ultimately, then, as Baudrillard says, whatever seems obvious is, in reality, the superficial manifestation of a profound mystery: the deeper you go into it, the less you are able to say about it.

In Poetry: This Death Is Incomplete (part one of an essay on poetry and death), Amy King talks about “spinning yarns to name things and claim power over them” – which, she reminds us, is not a new concept. In explication, King points us to Alice Notley’s The Book of Lies. The opening lines are especially apt: “Do you believe this stuff or is it a story? I believe every fucking word, but it is a story.”

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An ever-changing draft of this piece has been in my editor for months. There’s so much more I want to say, but it is long past time I got something posted. 

 

Justice: rough, and getting rougher

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato's <i>Republic</i>.

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century document containing fragments of Plato’s Republic.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time,” I read on Facebook recently. And whose words were they? I wasn’t surprised to find they’d come from the Dalai Lama, who elsewhere goes so far as to assert that compassion provides the basis of human survival.

Perhaps, then, Pope Francis is a radical, too. He’s certainly saying some of the things espoused by that other high-profile radical, Jesus.

Occupying my thoughts lately: the relationship between justice and compassion; I’ve been trying to break through the innumerable cognitive impasses that loom up every time I try to come to some understanding of the chaos that is our world. But I find myself shaking my head and parroting Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

The myriad issues around crime and punishment, original sin, human nature – and whatever else might have just come to your mind – are all well beyond the scope of this post. Or are they?

In Plato’s Republic, the cynic Glaucon posits that justice is a social contract between people who are roughly equal in power. According to that theory, justice operates on the basis that “no one is able to oppress the others, since the pain of suffering injustice outweighs the benefit of committing it.” (Wikipedia: Glaucon) But there’s a hollow ring to all such claims. In matters of justice, the “roughly” far outweighs the “equal”.

Glaucon told Socrates that “people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched,” explains William Saletan, reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 title, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “No man would be just if he had the opportunity of doing injustice with impunity,” says Glaucon, arguing that the just man would do the same as the unjust man if both had the power to get away with injustice exempt from punishment. (The story Glaucon tells to illustrate his reasoning has to do with an invisibility ring (see Wikipedia: Republic (Dialogue)).

In my view, justice is a creation of human societies and cultures, not the outworking of some universal harmony, divine command, or natural law. Furthermore, I come down firmly on the side of those who argue that justice is the creation of some humans, not the creation of all humans (see Wikipedia: Justice). Thrasymachus, another of Plato’s characters, argues that “justice is the interest of the strong – merely a name for what the powerful or cunning ruler has imposed on the people” (Wikipedia: Justice).

Jonathan Haidt’s book has, as Saletan says, made a significant effort to “[challenge] conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum.” Amazon.com describes Haidt as the co-developer of Moral Foundations theory, and of the research site YourMorals.org , adding that his research aims “to help people understand and respect the moral motives of their enemies.” Beyond understanding and respect, however, what can we do?

Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all have different intuitions about right and wrong, Haidt says. And he makes a crucial contribution to a burgeoning debate by “[showing] how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings” (see Amazon blurb). And, cutting short another long story, our gut feelings have been trained by what another reviewer calls “brute evolution” (see Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, Tuesday 7 May 2013).

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells me that “Western philosophers generally regard justice as the most fundamental of all virtues for ordering interpersonal relations and establishing and maintaining a stable political society.”  But then, stirring a dash of Schopenhauer into the stew, I call to mind his assertion that “Compassion is the basis of morality.”

What I am interested in – and, to me, this is crucial – is not how to reason, argue, or persuade someone to vouchsafe “justice as a right” for this or that disadvantaged or disenfranchised group. That simply isn’t about to happen, as far as I can see. Rather, I’m seeing “justice as a possibility”, arising not out of gut feelings or sentiments, knowledge of right and wrong, or anything moral, but out of the same source from which Jesus pulled the Sermon on the Mount.

That is possibly what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he wrote: “I say more, the just man justices; / Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces; / …” (see “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame“,  undated poem, c. March–April 1877)

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” (from God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (The Dalai Lama)

In the end only kindness matters.

Doing as you’ve been done by

golden rule

golden rule

. .

“… ardent feminists … seem so bent on treating men the way they have taken exception to being treated by men.” (klewso, 11 March 2013, commenting on Destroy the Point by Helen Razer)  

Jesus made no copyright claim in respect of the Golden Rule (see Matthew 7:12). In his view, it succinctly sums up the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets. We also have Socrates on the subject: “Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.” And his words carry the imprint of the Vedic tradition: “This is the sum of duty. Do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you.” And although there are those who – for a range of reasons, semiotic and otherwise – take issue with the Golden Rule, it is nevertheless widely accepted as valuable and worthwhile.

Monsieur Klewso’s comment actually begins: “What I find most intriguing about ardent feminists …” Perhaps ‘intriguing’ is not, in fact, the most accurate description of his response to being bad-mouthed; it certainly doesn’t describe my response.

Razer herself pulls no punches: “Women are not nicer. Women are not a civilising influence. Women are just as capable of avarice and stupidity as anyone. … Women are not gifted, either socially or biologically, of anything special. If we believe that they are, then we must also accept the possibility that the gender could be marked with unpleasant characteristics.” (Destroy the Point)

In a more recent post, Razer asks: “Why should we think masculinity is all bad? It is a simple question but WHY are we still trying to privilege ‘feminine’ qualities over masculine ones when so many feminine qualities are shit?” (Paglia, Pugilism and Pants-less Threat, 08 January 2014)

There seems to be a growing public taste for rudeness, vulgarity, profanity, and other forms of verbal abuse – atheists and ‘fag-hating’ fundamentalists, ardent feminists and so-called ‘everyday people’ alike. And it seems to have arisen from the the same source from which we dug up “zero tolerance”, “war on terror”, “rape culture” …

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Helen Razer’s post, Destroy the Point, first appeared on her own blog, Bad Hostess, on 09 March 2013. It was republished two days later by Crikey

The Socratic and Vedic versions of the Golden Rule (together with an interesting and wide-ranging selection from other sources) are to be found on GoodReads

The “golden rule” image appears in an article titled, Hurting Others Causes You Pain: Golden Rule Validated, under the banner, “NLP Discoveries with Mike Budrant”, on Psych Central.  

But wait … there’s myrrh!

But wait ... there's myrrh

But wait … there’s myrrh

The Christian holy day known as Epiphany “[commemorates] (at least in western tradition) the visit of the Magi and Jesus being revealed to the Gentiles” (from Finding a New Way Home) is celebrated on 6 January. According to timeanddate.com, “It commemorates the first two occasions on which Jesus’ divinity, according to Christian belief, was manifested: when the three kings visited infant Jesus in Bethlehem, and when John the Baptist baptized him in the River Jordan. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches emphasize the visit of the Magi when they celebrate the Epiphany. The Eastern Orthodox churches focus on Jesus’ baptism.”

All history is redaction – ie, it re-frames and retells our “old, old story” in such a way as to please the current audience. The past is perpetually being re-examined and reinterpreted.

Recent memes appearing on Facebook – but not including this one from catholicmemes.com – have commented on what three wise women would have done. One version asserts that they would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole … and there would be peace on earth.” (From mickiemuellerart.com)

I don’t think so! (Especially that last bit.)

Another version of the meme adds that “Three Wise Feminist Women would have … lobbied King Herod for gender equality.” In its lower right corner, the image carries the wording: Destroy the Joint. But, according to Helen Razer, “Destroy the Joint misses the point”.

My back is up, my hackles on end. If there is to be anything more than talk of gender equality, then it is blatantly obvious that the faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses of humankind will be owned (and owned up to) by all.