Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art

 

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The death of the soul

The death of the soul

In The Australian this weekend Greg Sheridan, the conservative and perceptive foreign affairs journalist, comments on the decline of religion and its impact on Western liberal mores. He restores Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, who proclaims to an indifferent crowd that God is dead, and then revokes his claim,  but still sees a dark prophecy:

“Finally he threw his lantern on the ground so that it broke into pieces and went out. ‘I come too early’, he then said; ‘my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more remote to them than the remotest stars – and yet they have done it themselves!’” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Sheridan’s article, entitled “Is God Dead?”, poses the question of whether that time has indeed now come. He sees the failing vital signs of the Christian God all around him. The last Census in Australia found that only a small majority identified as a Christian, and a third of us professed no religion. Sheridan sees an assault on the Church, brought on by its own weaknesses, including above all its tragic failure to respond to child sexual abuse. But this attack grows ever more shrill, until it chases the Church from the public square, ignorant of the thousand acts of kindness, humility and compassion in hospices, in churches, on the streets that make us a society, not a market. The assault of the progressive world on the institutions of traditional morality has grown more venomous, Sheridan implies, when liberalism or progressive modernity forgets the deep reservoir of holy water from which we all drink. Religion, which once was a spiritual foundation for liberal and progressive beliefs, has become a discriminatory and embarrassing constraint on the dreams of efflorescent identity, beloved by our society of consumption.

Against this forgetting, Sheridan poses the Churches’ long history of charity, of education, of nurturing the very foundations of the culture, which this blog watches mournfully dying in flames. Sheridan refers to the work of Larry Siedentrop, Inventing the individual: the origins of Western liberalism. Siedentrop traces to the monasteries of the Middle Ages a birth of an alternative way of living, or in Sheridan’s words “an early expression of human freedom.” “People chose to be monks,” Sheridan writes “and therefore to have a life beyond that dictated by circumstances of birth and family.” By conserving their symbols, music, texts and religious objects and sacralising their lives in a cherished institution bonded by rules of tradition, they were midwives to a great and vital culture.

Without knowing Siedentrop’s book, the thought resembles my reflection on our impending dark ages, and the reasons for hope in these times:

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?

Nietzsche’s madman had asked his liberal crowd, thoughtlessly wiping the blood from the dagger plunged in the heart of God:

“What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” (The Gay Science s. 125)

Festivals of atonement indeed. Is this a way of describing the modern parades of virtue signalling and spasms of shaming of the people who are uncomfortable with ready-to-wear sexual and political identities? And these festivals of atonement have created a new authoritarianism, as we know from the rainbow guards who police sentiment itself in the new politics of identities.

Identity politics troubles Sheridan, as it troubles me, despite being my thoughts made from a different, more secular cloth. Identify politics reflects “a certain moral panic at the existential emptiness of atheism,” and this panic drives the new liberal authoritarianism. “Everyone must genuflect to the same secular pieties.”

“Nothing is more powerful in Western politics now, and in the long run more destructive, than identity politics. This sells itself as a means to empower and to help disadvantaged minorities. But everyone wants a slice of identity politics.” (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

Donald Trump is as much a manifestation of identity politics as the campaign for gay marriage – it is the demand of resentful American whites demanding their identity politics too. The public square has descended into the melee at Charlottesville; one side shouting black lives matter, the other shouting back white lives matter. Neither side speak to each other’s reasons.

The significance of this polarisation of politics to Sheridan’s broader argument is:

The abandonment of the universalism of citizenship, which was the civic expression of the universalism of humanity as understood in Christianity, is a dreadful wrong turn for Western civilisation.”(Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

At its heart is the dissolution of the soul in modern culture.

Of course people can be good and charitable without religious motivation. But even Dawkins admits that without God there is no ultimate way to define good and evil. This leads… ultimately to the perverse worship of power for its own sake. This disability is evident in the unravelling of contemporary liberalism. It is driven insane by contradictory impulses it can no longer control or balance. One is antisocial self-absorption…. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017)

This leads, I think, to Sheridan’s deepest observation.

But the soul – the embodiment of our deepest sense of integrity and destiny – gave way to the self as the therapeutic age replaced the age of belief. Now, in our postmodern times, even self has been supplanted by brand. Soul to self to brand is a steep decline in what it means to be a human being. (Greg Sheridan The Australian 26 August 2017, my emphasis)

Sheridan, of course, is not the first to see this withering of the soul, this paradoxical abandonment of the depths for the shallow celebration of trinkets and baubles.

“But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?” Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazov

We have lived 137 years under the shadow of that question. Perhaps those years are no worse than the millennia before them. Religion has, after all, been an ark of grievance as much as a cowl of faith. Sacred violence lies at the heart of what it means to be human.

But for at least some of those 137 years, the archive of our culture was not burning.

How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts. How do we live well in the face of such losses, we who have never had a religious belief, but have consoled ourselves in the word-hoards of our culture? How do we write the Benedictine rule for our times?

Image credit: A scene from GÖTTER­DÄMMERUNG, Wiener Staatsoper

Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “

Mr Dylan’s bad language

Mr Dylan’s bad language

I like to check out the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world of books in our highly literate world is so vast that any pointers to quality oeuvres that speak of different histories is welcome. It is how I discovered Symborska and Transtormer and a few others.

You can imagine my shock then, late last year, when the Nobel Committee declared the 2016 winner to be the over-celebrated bard of the 60’s, Bob Dylan. 

Shock grew to doubt about the Nobel’s claim to award distinctions, and then to searching questioning about what this meant about the culture. It was not the first unconventional choice by the committee. The year before a Russian journalist won the prize; but at least her deep testimonies of the experiences of post-communist Russia were unequivocally her own work, and she showed up to accept the prize.

Mr Dylan struck out on both counts. He did not go to his award ceremony. He had other commitments, a schedule full of the kind of unbreakable commitments made by aging rock celebrities. A rather sheepish American ambassador appeared in his stead, and duly read what she had to say was Mr Dylan’s speech.

But it gets worse. The Committee insisted that to claim the prize, and the substantial money attached, Mr Dylan must give an acceptance speech. So he did, a mere couple of days before the deadline, when he would have lost his cheque. But the aging rolling stone could not make it to Sweden; he posted his speech to YouTube, a 30 minute ramble about the great literary traditions from which he sprang, including Moby Dick.

Perhaps this is innovation? Perhaps it is a sly parody of formality from which he chooses to stand apart. Or perhaps it is lazy, arrogant and incompetent contempt.

On investigation it appears Mr Dylan was not capable of giving an authentic account of his literary craft, and too narcissistic to believe he would be found out for his failure. His speech contained dozens of sentences cribbed like a lackadaisical student directly from Spark Notes, that well known den of scholarly scoundrels. Andrea Pitzer at Slate makes the case, complete with laid out comparisons of Mr Dylan’s and Spark Notes texts on that US high school text, Moby Dick, and puts the compelling question: is the current Nobel Laureate a not very literary plagiarist?

So what does this mean for the culture? What does it tell us about the destructive flames of contemporary life that threaten to burn to the ground our precious archive of memory, history, tradition, literature and culture?

I fear it is another sign of the death of culture. I fear it is a sign of a new bourgeois stupidity that we not yet know how to fight, as Flaubert did in another age.

But perhaps I could speaking to the twisting nether, and ask this of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize: take the prize back from Mr Dylan’s slack and begging hands. It is time for Culture to mutiny against Mr Dylan’s bad language.

On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time?

Vaclav Havel

A premonition of blogging? No, but part of a profound essay on culture as the freedom of the human spirit.

Read more at http://wp.me/p6tMLx-Dx

(I am experimenting with curating my own material here. I hope readers don’t mind)

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.