Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Passage Through: A Ritual

I have an idea for an antidote to present to those people who have been so seduced by James Cameron’s 3D Avatar that they would rather take their own lives than be denied a world where you get chased by killer rhinos, are subjected to the rule of a supreme leader, wear the same clothes every day and can never read a book or watch a movie.

I suggest nationwide screenings of Stan Brakhage’s Passage Through: A Ritual, which was screened in London for the first time ever last night thanks to Close-Up and The Dog Movement using Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club as a venue.

It intensifies the film experience by taking away much of what you would expect, i.e. images. Five minutes will pass during which you’ll see nothing on the screen except the visual equivalent of white noise, like white fire flies dancing around a dark light. Then there’ll be an image – a haystack, a dandelion, a kitchen, a glow of red above black card – which disappears after a couple of seconds, and the fire flies start dancing again. All the while, Philip Corner’s music (Through the Mysterious Barricade, Lumen I - after F. Couperin) sustains the experience, but what’s stayed with me are the images.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Biologically Moral?

Baroness Susan Greenfield was dragged through the press last week for knocking up debt at The Royal Institution through her ambitious renovation project. Reports said she was “escorted off the premises” and locked out of her grace-and-favour flat:

I have to say The Royal Institution is looking fabulous (I’ll admit I didn’t see it before its revamp) and I have never sat in such a conducive lecture hall as the one I sat in last night. They should build more lecture halls after the fashion of anatomy theatres, fit them with purple cushioned seats and allow for plenty of leg room. (I don't mean more anatomy theatres at The Royal Institution, though, but elsewhere.)

So, Dr Guy Kahane, Research Fellow at The Oxford Centre for Neurotics, gave a lecture on evidence supporting a neural basis for morality at The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, London, last night. He argued that a radically different picture of morality has been emerging since 2001 and that it is still too early to determine whether ethics will be revolutionised by the findings of neuroscience.

Dr Kahane showed us images of activity occurring in different areas of the brain when people make moral decisions based on Utilitarian principles (Mills and Singer) and non-Utilitarian principles (Kant). To give an example: a Utilitarian would be interested in the consequences of an action; so a Utilitarian would lie if it were for the greater good, forming a decision based on counter-intuition. A non-Utilitarian would not lie under any circumstance; a non-Utilitarian’s morality is intuitive.

Dr Kahane said that neuroscience does not favour one way of thinking over another, but there was vocal support from some audience members for Utilitarian principles and James Crabtree, managing editor of Prospect Magazine, who chaired the lecture (and did a great job), added his magazine’s support to Utilitarianism.

I was interested to know what the work of neuroscience would mean for the subconscious. Dr Kahane asked me what I meant. I said I meant the subconscious in terms of its psychoanalytic definition. There was an immediate default to Freud (which irks me slightly as psychoanalysis has had mothers since Freud). “We are studying the subconscious, but it is not necessarily in the way Freud would approve,” Dr Kahane said. Hmm. I can’t see why he would disapprove. Freud worked on a scientific model for his theory. I am interested to know whether neuroscience will ignore it or not. I hope that the origins of emotions won’t be oversimplified in researchers’ pursuit to identify their neural locations.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Women Bishops - Where Does the Church of England Go From Here?

I imagine the fight for women to be accepted as bishops across the entire scope of the Church of England attracts only a niche pool of interest in the wider world because it isn’t the sort of issue that concerns or affects many people - and those people may view a progressive result as ultimately meaningless anyway. But I still find it amazing what reactions a relatively uncontroversial question can spark among a distinguished theological panel debating: Women Bishops – Where Does The Church of England Go From Here?

Bishop John Gladwin, Bishop Martyn Jarrett, Revd Dr Michael Ovey and Revd Lucy Winkett were at Westminster Abbey last night discussing the question in a debate chaired by Revd Dr Jane Hedges.

During the debate, audience members were invited to flag down a steward for a piece of paper and a pen to write a question for the panel to answer at the end. There was no request for questioners to identify themselves so I remained anonymous.

The anti-women bishop debaters used the word “traditionalist” a lot in their arguments, but didn’t push the lingo further than that. So, my question led on from Revd Dr Michael Ovey’s fear that liberals and conservatives may not be able to find a fabric to hold their fellowship together. I asked whether conservative evangelicals were worried – not just that fellowship would be jeopardised – but that patriarchy in the Church is in danger.

Revd Dr Ovey turned to the audience and asked whether the questioner could help define what they meant by patriarchy. I kept silent because I think patriarchy has a definition that is pretty much self-explanatory. When no one said anything, Revd Dr Overy raised a laugh by saying, “Ok, I’ll just waffle”. But his answer got me a bit closer to the lingo. He said that 1 Timothy 2 was an “inconvenient text” and conservative evangelicals fear disobedience to God.

Revd Winkett said that she dealt with 1 Timothy 2 through the story of Jesus telling Mary Magdalene to go and teach disciples. Revd Winkett also told us that she has experienced people telling her that she is “spoiling the church of my youth”. (Why is it that since time memorial, humans have always thought things were so much better when they were young?)

Bishop Gladwin said patriarchal cultures create matriarchal cultures and both are disrupted by the Gospel. I was hoping that someone might say something about the idea of women bishops reflecting the female face of God, but it wasn’t really that kind of debate.

I’ll leave you with the cold light of day from 1 Timothy 2:

1I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
2For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
3For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;
4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
5For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;
6Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.
7Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.
8I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.
9In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;
10But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works.
11Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection.
12But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.
13For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
14And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
15Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Greta Garbo Came To Donegal

This is a great play, superbly acted and not "overly long" as some critics have charged.

But just one thing: If someone had wielded a gun anywhere near Greta Garbo, I don't think she would have stared at the weapon as if it were an obscure flower that could bring God down from the sky. I think she would have thought it was an omen of bad luck.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


Excitement at the British Library last night: All of a sudden the PA system went into overdrive and the same automated voice that booms “the reading rooms will soon be closing” repeatedly told the building manager to “report to reception immediately”. Then the fire alarm went on, then off, then on again and a security guard shouted “evacuate the building!” while the siren continued to scream. So we all got up and made for the front door of the reading room but another guard shouted “the backstairs!” and we were led down a hidden passageway. If a crook had been plotting to rip pages out of a valuable book and sell them on the black market, now would have been his golden moment.

Outside in the cold, library staff handed out thermal silver foil body wraps and we all huddled together.

I got talking to two academics from the States, one of whom was a professor with a special interest in romanticism. As Ayn Rand was on my mind from these blog posts I asked him his thoughts on the Romantic Manifesto. He said he thought Ayn was a fascist - or a phase you go through when you're a teenager. He said he and Ayn approached romanticism from opposite directions. So there you have it: Ayn Rand, the rational supremacist oozing contempt.
But just watch this clip of Ayn talking about her husband as interviewer Mike Wallace smokes his cigarette:

Anyhow, the fire brigade arrived and after about 10 minutes another voice, a live one this time, came over the outdoor PA system and said we would soon be able to go back in. It turned out there was smoke issuing from a lift because of an electrical fault.

I kept the silver cape and took it home with me.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Romantic Manifesto

I have been asked to recommend a work by Ayn Rand, so I recommend The Romantic Manifesto, which would stimulate anyone with an interest in the arts.

It has a purist thrust and an intellectual vigour and integrity that is admirable. I do not agree with everything she argues, for instance, her disapproval of the historical novel, which she dismisses as a work by a writer who does not possess volition; a writer incapable of abstract projections and confined to "representations of concretes" because of his (she uses the male pronoun throughout) crippled intellect. This is not a universal truth that should be applied to a historical novelist, or playwright for that matter. Any historical figure acting as a muse becomes an abstract projection; it does not necessarily follow that a historical novel denotes a biographical or journalistic style that will diminish both its subject and the reader, offering only second rate metaphysics.

The Romantic Manifesto doesn’t discuss the make-up of the imagination at length, but Ayn does talk about a subconscious process of emotional abstraction that gives man his individual sense of life. If his value judgements develop in the integral, rational manner Ayn believes they should, then this sense of life reaches maturity in the form of a conscious philosophy where the mind leads and emotions follow. This should have happened by the end of adolescence. Sadly, Ayn believes only a few of us achieve a conscious integration of reason and emotions, of mind and values. All sorts of neurotic afflictions cloud the minds of those who don't. Many of us are walking around tortured by contradictions or guilt or delusions. An example of a work of art created by a man whose mind has not reached a normal, fully focused, mental state with a clear-cut identity is the recreation of a fog of feelings in which A is not A but any non-A one chooses; where nothing can be known with certainty and nothing is demanded of one’s consciousness.

I have challenged the idea that a rose is a rose is a rose, or A is A is A, in this blog before by pointing readers in the direction of Rachel Campbell-Johnston's review of this year's Turner prize winner (Ayn would have loathed Richard Wright’s work anyway because she despised all genres of modern art). Yet you can even find the building blocks of the “A is B” argument played out in The Romantic Manifesto. In an anecdote, Ayn writes that when she was 16 she attended an art class where she fell in love with the artistic style of her teacher who taught that every curve must be drawn, not as a curve, but as broken facets of intersecting straight lines. So, a curve is not a curve, but a tapestry of intersecting straight lines; A is B.

Read this book for its attack on mysticism, its insightful definitions of art forms, the images used to describe literary experiences, its love of America, but most of all for Ayn's definition of love.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Ayn Rand

I have just discovered footage of Ayn Rand in conversation with American talk show hosts which I recommend watching because Ayn is charming and beguiling.

Aside from that: Ayn believes in the superiority of reason over every other faculty of the mind. So it would be evil, in her understanding, to place emotions and desire over what your mind actually knows (this would include the idea of God existing) or let yourself be guided by emotions. Would this mean, then, that imagination is governed by reason? Reason may act as a translator of the imagination, but, in my understanding, it is not the origin of the imagination. If it does precede the imagination, then it is in agitation.

Equally, it follows in Ayn’s philosophy that reason governs love. So we love someone based on our understanding of the value of that person. If we love someone at first sight, for example (Ayn was attracted to her husband by his looks in the first instance), then how does reason explain this? I can only think that reason would explain the psychological motivation for that aesthetic judgement.

Perhaps she has addressed this apparent conflict between creativity and reason and I have yet to come across it.

Monday, 4 January 2010

A Word In Time

My background is literature, not theology, but I have had a go:

There's a week's worth of posts running from December 27 to January 2.