Friday, December 15, 2006

Black Water Anthologies

There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a Miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.
-John Donne, from LXXX Sermons

Anyone interested in fantastic tales, a la Saki, Borges and Aickman, should check out the two thick Black Water anthologies compiled by Alberto Manguel in 1984 and 1990. I have been perusing the second volume again over the last few days, and am amazed by the wide range of authors represented, from Melville to Lampedusa to Eliade to Satyajit Ray (director of the wonderful Apu trilogy) to my old classics professor at the University of Texas, Peter Green. Really, there are over fifty authors in this volume alone, and it's a shame to single out only a few. If you like stories with an element of the weird and supernatural, you might want to find a copy of one of these books.

The George Tooker paintings on the covers fit the mood of these books quite nicely.

Manguel has also compiled Dark Arrows, an anthology of revenge stories (including William Trevor's deliciously sinister "Torridge", in which a family learns some secrets about Father's boarding school days from one of his victims) and the very readable A History of Reading.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Accumulated Wisdom

Echidne's Paradox

There are two kinds of people: Those who find the universe irreducibly complex and those who prefer simple but false dualisms.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Amazon Links

I have been resisting all temptation to discuss politics on this blog, now that the November elections are behind us. I originally set this up to post about books that I have read that might be not be particularly well known outside a small group of aficionados. In the event that anyone actually reads this and has an interest in some of the books discussed, I have decided to add Amazon links to those books. If you order through these links, I will get a small reward for leading you to them. I probably won't get rich, but it can't hurt, right?

Let's start with one that certainly will not be obscure, but which I am looking forward to reading. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chatwin's Travels

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin.

Bruce Chatwin died of AIDS early in 1989. Almost 50 at the time of his death, he came to literary life and fame relatively late. It is part of his legend that he announced his departure from the (London) Sunday Times in 1975 with a short telegram: “Gone to Patagonia for six months.” In Patagonia is, I assume, his first book, and it is quite an excellent traveler’s tale. Chatwin was a keen observer with a dry (but not precious) wit and a well-developed sense of the absurd.

His curiosity regarding one of the ends of the earth, the southernmost tip of South America, was instilled early in his childhood by a piece of “brontosaurus” skin given to his grandmother by a distant relation at the turn of the century. Charley Milward’s specimen may have been the excuse for Chatwin’s journey, but the story is not confined to it. Along with some history of 19th and 20th century Patagonia as related by various quaint inhabitants, we also learn of immigrant Welsh sheep ranchers; Butch Cassidy’s South American adventures; the Sect of the Brujeria (socialist sorcerers with gruesome, if improbable, rituals); a rumored plesiosaurus which set of a brief frenzy in the scientific community of two continents; an anarchist rabble-rouser named Simon Radowitzky; Jemmy Button, a native Fuegian who knew Darwin and whom Captain FitzRoy sought to “civilize”; a destitute but persistent Frenchman who tried to forge his own Patagonian Empire; Henri Grien, aka Louis de Rougemont, the charlatan; and the corpse of a suicidal barber with a hidden past.

Patagonia, a seemingly desolate land at the end of the world, seems to have attracted an endless stream of dreamers, eccentrics, and exiles over the centuries. Chatwin brings together a plethora of stories and personalities, scattered in time, into a seamless narrative, compulsively readable. And we even learn the rest of the story of Charley Milward, the unlucky sailor, and that little piece of skin.

Bruce Chatwin’s finest collection of short prose is What Am I Doing Here. The Songlines, in largest part a work of fiction set in the Australian outback, reflects Chatwin’s lifelong interst in nomadism and is also a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Isaac Newton

In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times
By Gale E. Christianson

One of my literary heroes, William Blake, implores God to “keep us from single vision and Newton’s sleep.” In my personal list of times to which I would wish to have been witness, Isaac Newton’s Cambridge would rank with my dreams of being present on Alexander’s campaigns. I would love to have seen Newton’s lodgings – his scientific apparatus, experiments in progress, the notebooks filled with musings on religion and alchemy, and the rest of the shabby scene.

Christianson’s biography of Newton deserves every superlative. I savored it from beginning to end, and can think of few more engrossing biographies with which to pass a few winter’s nights. I don’t pretend to know much about either mathematics or physics (I am what an educator several years ago described as innumerate – the mathematical equivalent of an illiterate), still, the evocation of Newton and his milieu is fascinating. In grade school, I won a magnet for knowing the fairy tale about Newton and the apple tree. Later, I was aware that Blake and the Romantics deplored him for taking the mystery out of the rainbow. This was more or less the extent of my knowledge of the man who redefined science at the beginning of the modern age.

Newton was a complex and difficult person who decidedly did not mellow with age. His reticence to publish his most significant discoveries, made when he was a young man, led to others (particularly the philosopher Leibniz) gaining recognition with similar, but later, discoveries. When Leibniz publicized his own discovery of the calculus (which Newton left out of the early editions of the Principia), Newton cried plagiarism, leading to a long, rancorous fight to establish primacy. This was an experience which Newton had more than once, and some of the most outstanding intellects of the day, such as Edmond Halley (of comet fame) and the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed, learned the bitter lesson which came from crossing Newton.

Newton felt that the great secrets he had become privy to came directly from the Godhead, and that he himself had a singular relationship with the Creator. Small wonder that he could not abide anyone else who, to his mind, infringed upon that relationship. (It is a little known fact that Newton’s religious and alchemical writings, tedious as they are, far exceeded his scientific works.) He was, truth be told, a man who could carry a grudge to the grave.

Personality quirks aside, Newton was quite simply one of the few true geniuses of human history. He refined the scientific method of verification through carefully controlled experiment, he brought about a rejection of Cartesian assertions regarding how objects influence each other through his thoughts on the nature of gravity (although the secret of gravitational attraction still eludes us), he outlined the nature of light and conducted groundbreaking work on optics (through the nauseating conjunction of a knitting needle and his own eyeball). He also, predating Leibniz by several years, did in fact discover the calculus, to the eternal chagrin of generations of high school students. Christianson’s biography, if you can find a copy, is highly recommended.

For insights on Newton’s lifelong preoccupation with alchemy, see the Nova presentation “Newton’s Dark Secrets,” available through Netflix. See also:

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare is an old favorite, a modern classic of horror/fantasy, written by a medievalist. A short review can be found at

Presented by Washington Post book Michael Dirda columnist as an answer/rebuttal to Edward Said's Orientalism, Irwin has just published Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. It looks to be a nice meaty (409 pp.) history of Western perceptions of the Middle East. I look forward to reading it.

Dirda's review can be found at:

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Blind Owl

Some notes on an old favorite.

Sadegh Hedayat was born "of an aristocratic family" in Iran in 1903. He committed suicide, in Paris, in 1951. His best known work, The Blind Owl, was published in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1937 and in Teheran in 1941. An English translation was published by Grove Press in 1957. This small, repetitive book is as exquisite a portrait of madness as one is likely to find.

The narrator, a pen-case illustrator, lives in a small house in a decrepit suburb. Addicted to opium, he is obsessed by visions seen through a chink in the wall, high up in a closet. He sees a beautiful woman and a harsh, mocking old man with a "hollow, grating laugh, of a quality to make the hairs of one's body stand on end." There are gestures between the two, a cypress tree, and a small stream, images which recur throughout the narrative. The artist seeks the source of the scene, but it exists only when peered at through the aperture, not in the objective world.

The artist obsesses over the repetitive vision, painting it on his pen-cases. When the visions cease, he sinks into despair fueled by wine and opium. The mysterious woman appears to him one night, remote and spectral. On his bed, she turns cold and inanimate. Her eyes open and shut, and then her beautiful body begins to putrefy. In panic, the artist dismembers the body and stuffs it into a suitcase. He leaves the house with the gruesome luggage, and encounters the old man, face covered, sitting at the base of a cypress tree. With derision, the sinister old man offers to help dispose of the body...

At this point, the narrative takes a backwards turn. We learn of the narrators betrothal, at his mother's insistence, to a woman he despises as "the bitch, the sorceress." His anger and misogyny explode with bitterness at the hated woman. The elements of his vision- the gestures, the tree, and the woman- reappear repetitively. We find clues to the opium vision, fears of mortality, and the horrors of eternal recurrence, life as a dark ride and a closed circle from which there is no escape, neither through death nor madness.

The Blind Owl is a masterpiece of existential horror, a portrait from inside a mind deranged by obsession. It is an angry, uncomfortable book, a Persian descendant of Poe, prefiguring Beckett, with touches of central Asian Buddhist imagery. For those intrigued by this text, Hedayat's The Blind Owl Forty Years After, edited by Michael C. Hillman (University of Texas Press, 1978) is an excellent resource for examining its intricacies.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Metaphysical Club

In my collection I have a fat 2-volume work called Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, first published in 1901. Louis Menand mentions this work in passing in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Metaphysical Club (2001). A quick look at the list of contributors confirms that many of the people discussed in Menand’s book had a hand in the creation of the Dictionary: it is a snapshot of the intellectual climate in America at the turn of the century, and those contributors developed their ideas over the previous few decades.

The theme of The Metaphysical Club is the effect that the Civil War had on the thought of the Americans who lived through the experience and on those who came after. The lives and thought of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce, John Dewey and others is examined. I found the earlier chapters on Holmes, James, and Louis Agassiz the most intriguing, although Agassiz’s mental processes come off as so antediluvian that it is hard to believe that anyone took them seriously, yet he was perhaps the most influential scientist working in America before the Civil War.

Charles Darwin’s ideas concerning evolution and natural selection hit the American shores in the mid-19th century and made a profound impact on the debates about race in social and intellectual circles. Combined with Darwin’s ideas, the horror of the Civil War blew away the naiveté that had previously characterized American thought. Originating in Boston and Cambridge, new currents of thought radiated out to touch every aspect of American intellectual life – theology, biology, psychology, education, the law.

The chapters on William James (a man legendary for his indecisiveness) amusingly illustrates how he would come to organize some of the ideas of Charles Pierce (who had been ostracized from society for lapses in his “sexual morality”) into the new philosophy of pragmatism. The Metaphysical Club is an exercise in “six degrees of separation”, as the work and lives of a variety of thinkers intersect and influence each other over a 100 year period. For many of these thinkers, the Civil War came to represent the danger of belief in abstractions, an understanding that specious, unfounded concepts (such as those relating to race) could lead to horrendous results. The book begins and ends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose jurisprudence combined his personal war experience with the ideas which evolved from a number of sources after the war.

In the end, there is a message for our time, the idea that ideas can thrive only in a society that sees its freedoms as more than abstractions:

The constitutional law of free speech is the most important benefit to come out of the way of thinking that emerged in Cambridge and elsewhere in the decades after the Civil War. We do not…permit the free expression of ideas because some individual may have the right one. We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity. I tolerate your thought because it is a part of my thought – even when my thought defines itself in opposition to yours.

A brief examination does not give justice to the wealth of ideas and personalities represented in this book. One mourns the loss of an intellectual climate in which new ideas can flourish.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I Used To Think There Was No Such Thing As "Bad Art"

I was mistaken.

Have a look at this and tell me that this isn't documentary proof that we are on a slow Gibbonesque slide into depravity. What kind of sleazy, cheesy nouveau riche white trash crap is this? Who would want to "immortalize" their family with one of these phoney tributes to dysfunctional family alcoholism, complete with fruity drinks? Oh, wait, isn't that George Allen?

And why are the boys looking at Mom like that? Ewww!

Ok, maybe it's not the end of civilization as we know it, but you must admit, these paintings are pretty damn weird.

Lifted from a Crooks and Liars comment referencing Wonkette that I am too lazy to track down. Hat tip to you, in the unlikely event that you will read this.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Big Fish

It looks like it's gonna be smooth sailing now, just like when we caught Uday (and not-Uday), Saddam, Zarqawi, and a plethora of al-Qaida second and third-in-commands. I expect the violence in Iraq will stop any minute now...

Thursday, August 24, 2006


This makes me sick.

So apparently this "regular guy" who met with Bush to express his gratitude for Katrina relief is a Republican pol, who had a White House meeting on his calendar before he even left his teenie weenie trailer. Another Potemkin Village to distract us from the fact that the Emperor has lost all interest in the Gulf Coast, except as a photo op in an election year.

And the old "I'm a regular guy, he's a regular guy" schtick is insulting. Rockey is a sellout to the thousands who have been ravaged and forgotten, their lives torn apart. What's he hoping to get out of it, a double-wide? Screw him for being a shill for this morally bankrupt regime.

Rockey wishes the Emperor could have another term? Pardon me while I throw up.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Love, Theft, and Modern Times

On September 11, 2001, I was having breakfast with my 10 month old son, looking forward to buying the new Bob Dylan cd, due to be released that day. On NPR, there was a short announcement that an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I turned on the TV, initiating a day of fear and chaos as all hell seemed to be breaking loose. My thoughts that morning were only of my wife, working for a Federal agency across the river from the Potomac, as rumors swirled in a general state of panic (a bomb outside the State Department, smoke hanging over the city). Great relief when my wife arrived back at our suburban Maryland home, having paid a D.C. cab driver $200 to get her there. That afternoon, we walked along the C&O canal, surreal beauty all around as we held each other with relief and contemplated the horrors of the day.

A few days later I bought the Dylan cd:

I got my back to the sun
cause the light is too intense
I can see what everybody in the world is up against
Won't turn back, can't go back
Sometimes we push too far
One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where you are

In those days before Bush/Cheney began to openly and blatantly break their vow to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States", Dylan wrote:

Tweedledum and Tweedledee
They're throwing knives into the trees
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grindstone

They got a parade permit and a police escort

Is there a better characterization than this?

Tweedledee is a lowdown sorry old man
Tweedledum will stab you where you stand
"I've had too much of your company"
Says Tweedledum to Tweedledee

Tweedledee and Tweedledum
All that and more and then some
They walk among the stately trees
They know the secrets of the breeze

Neither one gonna turn and run
They're making a voyage to the sun
"His Master's voice is callin' me"
Says Tweedledum to Tweedledee

And a few years later, we are treated to another spectacle of Imperial neglect

High water risin' the shacks are fallin' down
Folks lose their possessions and folks are leavin' town
Bertha Mason shook it - broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says "You dance with who they tell you to or you don't dance at all"
It's tough out there
High water everywhere

High water risin'
Six inches 'bove my head
Coffins poppin' in the streets
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pouring into Vicksburg
Don't know what I'm gonna do
Don't reach out for me she said
Can't you see I'm drowning too
It's rough out there
High water everywhere

And an eerie echo of Emperor George's bravado

George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
You can't open up your eyes, boys
To every conceivable point of view
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5
Judge say to the High Sheriff
I want him dead or alive - either one I don't care
High water everywhere

Love and Theft is a masterful pastiche of American minstrelry, folk blues, and gentle crooning, but some tracks evoke a sense of prophecy, a foretelling of the subsequent five years, and still give me chills when I hear them. Dylan has always been celebrated as a prophet: he is certainly a man with uncanny insights into the madness of modern life and the darker aspects of human nature.

Dylan's new album, Modern Times , will be released next week.

Monday, July 24, 2006


For Pynchon fans, this gives us something to look forward to:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Thomas Pynchon fans, the long wait is apparently over: His first novel in nearly a decade is coming out in December.
But details, as with so much else about the mysterious author of such postmodern classics as "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow," have proved a puzzle.
Since the 1997 release of "Mason & Dixon," a characteristically broad novel about the 18th-century British explorers, new writings by Pynchon have been limited to the occasional review or essay, such as his introduction for a reissue of George Orwell's "1984." He has, of course, made no media appearances or allowed himself to be photographed, not counting a pair of cameos in "The Simpsons," for which he is sketched in one episode with a bag over his head.
This much is known about the new book: It's called "Against the Day" and will be published by Penguin Press. It will run at least 900 pages and the author will not be going on a promotional tour.
"That will not be happening, no," Penguin publicist Tracy Locke told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Like J.D. Salinger (who at one point Pynchon was rumored to be), the 69-year-old Pynchon is the rare author who inspires fascination by not talking to the press. Alleged Pynchon sightings, like so many UFOs, have been common over the years, and his new book has inspired another round of Pynchon-ology on Slate and other Internet sites.
Late last week, the book's description -- allegedly written by Pynchon -- was posted on It reads in part:
"Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
"With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."
The description was soon pulled from the site, with Penguin denying any knowledge of its appearance. According to spokesman Sean Sundwall, Penguin requested the posting's removal "due to a late change in scheduling on their part. We expect the description to be reposted to the book's detail page in the next day or two."
Locke declined comment on why the description was taken down, but did reluctantly confirm two details provided by Sundwall, that the book is called "Against the Day" (no title is listed on and that Pynchon indeed wrote the blurb, which warns of more confusion to come.
"Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur," Pynchon writes. "If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction. Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck."

I hope to post my notes on "Mason and Dixon", a pure delight (the book, not my notes) sometime in the interim.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Here's to the Children

Thinking about my eldest son today. He is a remarkably gifted 5 year old: he learned to read at 3, and reads and comprehends at an advanced level. He is a joy to be around, so imaginative and aware of the world around him. I picked him up from summer camp a couple of days ago and the rest of the day was slightly difficult. Some days he has the attitude of a teenager, a bit churlish and contrary. "Knock it off," I tell him, "you're not supposed to act like this for another seven years!" Later that night, I was getting ready for bed and peeked in on him. Among his Lego knights and Playmobil castle, there was my big boy, sleeping blissfully, his teddy bear in his arms.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

The recent death of the author inspired me to read Thesiger's Arabian Sands, a book which has long been on my reading list. I am happy to note that it completely lives up to its reputation as a masterpiece of travel/adventure literature. Thesiger traveled the Arabian Empty Quarter by camel in the late 1940's, and was among the first Europeans to get an in-depth view of this remote and inhospitable area. The journeys were difficult, with thirst, near starvation, and risk of attack from rival tribes as constant themes, but Thesiger's enthusiasm carries him through, and it rings true when he writes that he would rather die of thirst in the sands than live a pampered and uneventful existence in England. His resentment of the modern world is a constant theme in this book. He prophetically deplores the advance of the oil companies into the Arabian peninsula, knowing that it will mean the certain end of a way of life that has endured for centuries. The Bedu (aka Bedouin) with whom he traveled are shown in the starkness and material simplicity of their lives, but also as a people wholly integrated into the landscapes in which they live. They may not be lovable, but they are certainly admirable in the way that they have physically and culturally adapted to a most inhospitable region. Thesiger himself is not particularly lovable either: he is prone to annoyance and misanthropy (except for, how should I say, the certain interest with which he describes some of the younger Bedu men). Published in 1959, this memoir is an enduring testament to a lost way of life and to the man who sought to preserve it, at least in words.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: Weaver of Tales

One of my favorite contemporary authors is the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. His works have a delicious intricacy that I won't even pretend to describe here. As the old cliches go, he weaves his tales like a fine tapestry, with a depth that is profound but which doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of his stories on a simpler level. I have to admit that I have enjoyed earlier books like The Black Book, The White Castle, and The New Life more than the more recent novel, but the recently published memoir, Istanbul, is one of the finest autobiographies I have ever read, running second only to Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

Snow, Pamuk's most recent novel, is set in provincial Turkey in the 1980's. Its issues pertain to the dampening effect of the secular military on daily life in the Turkish hinterland, as well as the growing influence of a more fundamentalist Islam as a reaction to western influences. A group of young women in the town of Kars has been compelled by young fundamentalists to wear the Muslim head scarf. The question is one of choice: some girls choose to wear the scarf as a sign of faith, others are compelled due to threats of violence. A wave of suicides follows when the girls are forbidden to wear the head scarves by the secular government. A formerly exiled poet, Ka, visits Kars, ostensibly to write about the phenomenon. During his visit a snowstorm effectively cuts off access to the town and facilitates a minor military seige masterminded by the head of a travelling theater troupe. In addition, Ka begins an affair with the ex-wife of an old school friend, the beautiful, strong Ipek. The events of the visit are recounted by Ka's friend Orhan, who seeks to understand just what happened to Ka during his visit to Kars. Not my favorite Pamuk, but with a fair amount of suspense.

Istanbul: Memories and the City is a memoir of youth and coming of age in a decaying metropolis. Pamuk emphasises the melancholy (huzun) which permeate the city of Istanbul and underlies the lives of it's inhabitants. Lovely passages on the backstreets of the city, which Pamuk explored obsessively as a boy. The Bosporus, in its ever-changing constancy pervades the memoir. There is a gloom and tension in the book similar to that in Pamuk's first (translated) novel, The Black Book, and if one is new to Pamuk, I would suggest reading the two together. Istanbul comes to an end in Pamuk's early 20's, at the point when he abandons the visual arts for a life as a writer. Clearly, the door is open for future volumes of autobiography.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Oh, Yes: Books

I'm planning to go into my notebooks in the near future and post some thoughts on books read over the past few years. Not reading anything too obscure lately, but enjoying Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, a fascinating account of two journeys across the Empty Quarter back in the wild and lawless 1940's.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Cylinder Recordings

Early sound recordings from the turn of the century have been digitized and made available at the site below. I have a fairly large collection of lp records which I am loathe to turn loose of. My family enjoys music and we dip into the collection daily. For me, lp's have a visual and tactile quality as well as a warmth of sound that I just don't hear on cd's (although I have plenty of those as well). I think of my lp collection as a 1000 pound Ipod. It's always amusing when anyone born after 1980 comes into the house, and I have to explain what these relics are!

These cylinder recordings are a real treat, with an amazing range of musical styles, from vaudevillian ethnic humor to arias from popular operas. If you're interested in this sort of thing, this is a great resource for music from a bygone era.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Loosening The Ties That Bind

The conflict between science and religion has undoubtedly had its fiercest battles in the realm of Christendom. It is irrelevant for most Buddhists, for instance, whether the universe was created by a supreme being (or indeed whether such a diety exists at all), and I can recall few Jewish scholars, at least in the mainstream, with a profound antipathy towards the idea of natural selection. Outside of the evangelical/fundamentalist nexis, it seems as though most Americans regard science and religion as separate, rather than conflicting, modes of thought. But one must be careful not to speak too much in generalities.

For my part, I have spent at least 30 years of my life exploring religion and spiritual traditions - from Islam to Eastern Orthodoxy, from Greco-Roman mystery cults to shamanism, and from Zen to Zoroastrianism. I delight in human inventiveness, in the rise and extinction of cosmologies, and in the stillness of contemplative discipline. Many interpret that stillness as the breath of God, because we have been conditioned through centuries of repetition to think in such terms. Unfortunately, despite these beautiful fictions, conditioning and habit are not truth.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel C. Dennett laboriously explains such conditioning in terms of evolutionary biology. The little popping sounds you hear are the apopleptic fits running through the neural pathways of those who consider such an explanation as a hideous affront to their cherished beliefs (in his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett caused similar consternation by demonstrating that the idea of a center of consciousness, the "soul", if you will, is, alas, illusory). With no strong grounding in evolutionary biology, I take Dennett's argument for what it is- an attempt to explain the origin and processes of religious thinking.

In the latter portion of the book, Dennett (to me, anyway) stands on firmer ground. Here there is a striking critique of why some of us continue to believe in religious systems when all evidence and rational thought point, at best, to agnosticism. Many of us are simply unwilling to cast aside our cultural conditioning in favor of what we believe to be the bottomless abyss of unbelief. Others, like Pascal, opt for the intellectually effete viewpoint that it's best to keep our bases covered for fear of missing out on the rewards of some glorious afterlife. Then there are those who relish the feeling of power that comes from the certainty that they are among God's elect - apparently immune to the hypocrisy inherent in such self-aggrandizement.

My only real complaint in this book is that Dennett takes such pains in the early chapters to appeal to those he will certainly offend. Better, I think, to just say what he means to say and let those who can't stand the heat leave the kitchen. This conciliatory tack seems pretty much abandoned by the end of the book, although Dennett still hopes that his work will stimulate a dialogue between believers and non-believers (the "brights", in Dennett's curious terminology) that will lead to a rational approach to religion. Now that's a leap of faith!

Accumulated Wisdom

"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

Herman Goring
As told to psychologist Gustave Gilbert (Nuremberg Diary [1947])

Monday, May 08, 2006

I Have Always Been Here Before

"Call me Ismael...." "A screaming comes across the sky...." "He's got a head on him like a rabbit!"

Oh, how to start a new blog? What will it be about? Mostly, as the title suggests, about books that I am reading or have read, with an emphasis on books I consider obscure, but which most probably have huge underground followings. With a personal library estimated at 8000 - 10,000 titles, that should be easy enough. But also about politics, consciousness, and why I don't have pets. Greetings to anyone who stumbles onto this page. I will take a breath and collect my thoughts...Watch This Space.