May 2009

Dear P


Yes, the Plantinga paper is delightful. I love the scrupulous steps of his arguments. Thank you for sending it. But no one is ever convinced by an argument. One is put in mind of Oscar Wilde: “It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.”


The work of two scientists ─ one a believer, the other not ─ may be compared and found of equal merit. Indeed they may dovetail quite satisfactorily. From this it follows that the universe may be absurd but it is not random. That is, all manner of empirical reality is compatible with the hypothesis that God does not exist. This will frequently induce in some people a state of mind akin to despair. Why should God do such a splendid job of appearing not to exist? What if the universe really is empty? But to say that, bereft of supernatural meaning, life is absurd is not at all the same thing as to say that it is random. Second by second, like the ticking of a clock, events emerge that confidently appear to be part of a pattern that we cannot yet see, like a fragment of lace, elements in a sequence that we hold but cannot yet parse.


Of course, the existence of God is the whole argument. But granting for a moment that ‘He’ exists, the more stupendous thing is that He enables Himself to be known. Surely, given our finite nature and limited circuitry, the least breath of heaven should devastate us and blow all our fuses. And the sheer fact of God’s existence is so shattering, to believer and unbeliever alike, that we shall all stand, united with our opposites.Flew - There is a God - cover


Thus for me all matters of faith are originally existential. People are convinced, not by arguments, but by experiences. God is not a theory that explains anything. God is the recognition of reality. We are all participating in the joyous miracle of the creation.


I personally feel that all the most important things cannot be verbalised at all. So I am reluctant to enter into pointless argument. Nevertheless, I recently bought (but have not yet read) a book by a philosopher friend of mine, Tony Flew, who has recently changed his mind: There Is A God. The book seems to have caused a stir.


Perhaps of equal significance to Dawkins and others is the fact that religion, far from fading away according to the European model, is actually making a global comeback. Indeed, I suspect this is a large part of what Dawkins is motivated by: the feeling that there is a need to fight a planetary battle against black superstition! There is a brand new book that looks, from a neutral perspective, at the failure of the European, and the success of the American, model: Micklethwait and Wooldridge, God is Back (subtitle, How The Global Rise Of Faith Is Changing The World). John Micklethwait was interviewed on Radio 3 the other night here.



All the best to you both





Apparently Philip Larkin was racist, sexist, imperialist and … what else? … oh yes, Very Right Wing, according to Paul Farley (“born into a working-class Liverpool family”) and Kate Clanchy a.k.a. Royal (“born into a middle-class Edinburgh family” but not sounding much like it as she brightly recognises the “characteristic smell of buttoned cushion-cloth” when the pair investigate a 1950s carriage in the Didcot Railway Centre). They are exploring for BBC Radio 3[1] the poetry of Philip Larkin (“Children of the Whitsun Weddings”), often rather well. At one moment Tom Paulin, who, like Terry Eagleton, is one of the few remaining, poetically plausible, exponents of the politics of my generation, says he regards it as perfectly possible to admire the poetry of someone with whose political beliefs he disagrees.


Leaving aside for a moment the utter unconsciousness of mediocrity of our two poets, chucking around these categorical bricks[2] as if the house of the long Blair-Brown era of mediocrity were not already crashing resoundingly down all around us; and leaving aside, too, the insincerity of Paulin, who means in fact that he wants to admire the poetry of people he finds utterly repugnant (it would not occur to me that some ideological mesh should obstruct my liking the poetry of Pablo Neruda), let us pause and have a look at what is going on here.


Larkin has never been a particular enthusiasm of mine. He has been a bit of a football between UK-style anti-modernism or neo-formalism and US-style Whitmanesque freedom (some converting with encroaching age from extremely free verse to Larkinism, like JG, who claims not to “understand” the former any longer, presumably including his own, excited earlier work). But when his excellence is pointed out to me, or I notice it (I bought but scarcely read his Collected Poems), I admire it.


And here’s the thing. I can admire the verse without liking the person; I can love the person (Betjeman) without admiring the ─ yes ─ verse. But the idea that you can morally separate the writings from the writer and his or her character seems to me to be a mistake ─ and one highly characteristic of the Western aesthetic tradition. We may not know anything about the author (but the attitudes spring forth in the poem); we may agree to overlook resolutely the biography (because the biography is often a welcome diversion from the works themselves); we may, in all insincerity, force ourselves to like or dislike an author’s aroma (or conceal the fact, and call ourselves critics).


But the real reason for reading Neruda or Larkin or Auden is not that they were brilliant political analysts, but that they were fine poets. There is a whole genre of poetry written by people known for other reasons (John-Paul II, Margaret Mead, Richard Wagner, Harold Wilson’s wife) which would otherwise be forgotten. In most respects the aristocratic views of Yeats or Rilke or the anti-Semitic views of DH Lawrence, the xenophobia of Larkin or the fellow-travelling views of Picasso or Neruda were entirely unoriginal, indeed conventional. As Auden later said, “We wrote about things we knew very little about.” Our authors were period-bound and in their general views and their ability to blunder mistakenly through life they were just like all the rest of us.


But somehow we exempt their work, with which we want to stay connected, which itself connects to a node or two of the great upper world with which we wish to remain connected. This work, which we are free to love, hate or admire, bodies forth the person in ways that are permanent; though it, too, remains ultimately period-bound and subject to the condescension of posterity.


[1] Sun 24th May 2009.



[2] The war engines of the left, though everywhere derelict and defeated, still emit the colourless and odourless gas of political correctness.

One must remember Lexi. She who was so silent, so overlooked, so brave in accepting the world as it is, for the most part without judgement.


One must recognise Lexi. Her Mennonite family had come from “southern Russia” (actually Ukraine) via Latvia, London and Liverpool to the St Lawrence Waterway in winter. Behind them in 1919 lay the turmoil of the civil war period in Soviet Russia, with gangs of marauding and only faintly political warlords. One of these, the ‘anarchist’ Makhno, had plundered their homestead and village (because they were unresisting pacifists and, thrifty and industrious, had accumulated a little wealth) and raped Lexi’s beautiful mother.


The family was broken. Leaving behind precious aunts and newly buried uncles, they emigrate at the invitation of the benign Canadian government. Lexi is only nine. She remembers the smell of home-made watermelon syrup filling the house she has left behind; but she also remembers it wantonly spilled on the floor, amidst torn flour sacks, by Makhno’s men.

Watermelon Syrop

This gives its title, Watermelon Syrup, to this wonderful book. A first published novel, written by an author now dead, after great suffering, from cancer, Annie Jacobsen’s work is a masterpiece of sublime understatement. We are shown things, not told them. The longest word in the book is probably cacophony. It is hugely readable and moving. When we meet our heroine, Lexi (Aleksandra), she is 13. She has three older brothers, only one of whom we get to know; and three younger sisters, one of whom turns out to be another trouper. Lexi’s mother, who has not smiled since 1919, dies slowly and stubbornly, but with her last words counsels Lexi to avoid bitterness.


Lexi’s father, a Mennonite minister who has bad luck, lives inside his Bible. A religion without love cannot possibly be mistaken for Christianity. If it were not for occasional references to this Bible, one would never guess that the Mennonite community was a Christian sect. A remote, principled figure, Papa too has suffered. On the day of that rape, in which his Mennonite principles, not to mention self preservation, prevented him from intervening, he stood in the shadows behind a door. The shame and silent, biological suffering of that moment stand behind all the doomed, inevitable inaction of subsequent years (“It is God’s will”). He tries and fails as a farmer in the wintry, inhospitable prairies of Saskatchewan. He tries and is injured as a worker on the railways. Gradually this ex-teacher becomes again a teacher of his religion to the young of his community. But poverty deserts this family much more slowly than the families of other emigrants. The cause is emotional blight.


One brother, Willi, keeps a notebook. Lexi feels an affinity with him. Ultimately they both escape at least partially from the cramp of clan. Papa seems to have a supply of yellow notebooks brought from Russia. Willi writes in one of them about their journey of emigration and, later, with terrible conflict, about the rape which he has witnessed as a young child. When we first meet her, as an old lady with a “diagnosis” in the Prologue, Lexi is writing in another the words Watermelon Syrup. As a 17-year-old she has accidentally come across Willi’s notebook and read its account of their family. She has understood the absence of happiness. Before she dies, Lexi’s mother gives her a message to pass on to the absent Willi: Tell him I did not burn the notebook. The three of them, dead and living, thus achieve a bond of unity and terrible knowledge.


One must respect Lexi. An aunt takes up an opening for her in the household of an affluent Waterloo family, a doctor and his wife. Lexi’s eyes are opened to the world of clothes, drink and chain-smoking in the secular world which she has never encountered. Mostly it proves all too true her father’s static dicta. The wife appears to be neurotic but, as is often so skilfully the case with this accomplished storyteller, it is not made quite clear what form her problems take. She seems to drink plentifully and to go out for long periods in the car each day, leaving her young children in Lexi’s care. We are not shown more than this, because things that happen beyond the range of Lexi’s awareness are not described. Lexi proves to be a dynamo of housekeeping, childcare and organisation and the doctor husband gravitates towards her as a desirable entity. Lexi sees and understands, reacts with gladness or horror, fear or amazement, but does not relapse into the categorical thinking that has surrounded her hitherto.


One must appreciate Lexi. We know from the Prologue she will eventually marry somebody called Ted Bauer, so when we meet him on a train we are encouraged to discover a sensitive and tactful trainee Lutheran minister who is wickedly reading The Way Of All Flesh. We are not shown how they get together or, in the Epilogue, more than the bare bones of their life together. Lexi has outlived him for a few years but they have had a child, have been happy, and diverged from Lexi’s family, sadly without any further contact. Ted has appreciated Lexi. In the body of the narrative, only Lexi’s sole friend, Georgie, and the couple’s children, Sally and Simon, have appreciated her. She works like a bullock day and night both for the Olivers (the doctor and his wife) and for her own family, when she has to return to Saskatchewan. Perhaps one should add that her younger sisters appreciated her, at least at the time, but they seemed destined to remain in the rock pool.


One must feel for Lexi. As a girl in her late teens, she finds herself sexually responding with a faint tremor to the practised advances of the doctor, her employer, under whose roof and protection she falls. There is a second rape in the book and it is of Lexi. Other maids before her have departed in circumstances we can only guess at.


Throughout this story, Lexi is for ever opening her mouth and beginning sentences that never get beyond “I …” In the way of things, Lexi goes on to have a life but every rape, and the second as much as the first, is a kind of death. We long for justice but the appalling doctor is never accused or brought to book (this is the 1930s). On one occasion only, when they meet for the last time, Lexi speaks out in her mild way to Dr Oliver:


“I come from good people,” she began, “people who believe in non-violence and…” She almost said “forgiveness,” but she would never forgive him. “God will look down on you and judge you.”

He had a strange look on his face, like he might either start to laugh or start to cry.

“We were respected in Russia. My grandfather was the Mayor of Blumenort. He represented all Mennonites in the Russian Parliament during the reign of Nicolas the Second. I am named after the Czar’s wife. I…”


Only once before has she gone so far, when her father was about to ‘shun’ her for wanting to leave home, continue school and become a nurse (all of these things she manages to do). She confronts him with the fact, without making it explicit, that she knows about what happened during Makhno’s raid.


The rage in his eyes disappeared and was replaced by something that looked like fear. He winced and stepped back away from her, as if she might strike him.


One must admire Lexi. These little speeches don’t seem to affect the outcomes and events of her life in any way, but they truly shift the heavens and the earth. Her spontaneity and wordless faith suffuse these artless, artful pages. She is a heroine of meekness and the resilience of hope. She is quite right: she has had no childhood, no upbringing, no education, no opportunities to expand intellectually and develop occupationally, but she comes from good people. The strength of her ancestors is in her limbs. She knows nothing of self expression but she expresses herself through work, goodwill and the kind of developmental search that always remains blind.


So compelling is this vivid, simple story that one stands in awe of the superb craft, flair and unobtrusive skill of its author, a Jungian analyst and tutor. The book[1] is published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press and emerges from the world of ‘life writing’. In the UK, where it is established in Masters courses, Life Writing means autobiographical exercises for would-be writers of fiction. It helps to get the pen moving if you write about something that happened yesterday. To judge by the publisher’s series list, where of 31 titles listed only one is by a male, Life Writing in North America is adjoined to a feminist subculture, half a world. Feminism, although it espouses worthy causes, makes itself objectionable in the same way that the anti-racist movement makes itself objectionable. There seems to be a secret law at work ─ one comes to resemble one’s enemies.


Watermelon Syrup deserves to be set free from the trappings of such confinement, but sadly it is laden with a Foreword and ploddingly sociological Afterword. Of course the manuscript was unfinished and had to be put in order and “polished” by devoted hands. One hopes that some sentences in the Epilogue are by such a hand:


And she could do all of that because of the help she had at home. Because of the maids. That was never lost on her; the fact that she had been able to accomplish so much because other women had supported her.


Of course, this is not wrong in itself, but it is a false note. The fact is that this is a superbly accomplished flowering of a mature talent, subtle, unspoken, implicit and understated ─ could it be the quietest book ever written? Yet there is nothing in it except being, no discussion, no ideology, no editorial intrusion, no judgement, no explanation, not even comment. Things speak for themselves with a rare eloquence.  It is an astonishing and moving work of art that deserves a great deal more than praise: it deserves the love it evokes.


It deserves to be much better known. Recommended to me by my daughter, who was fortunate enough to have Annie Jacobsen as a mentor, it proved extraordinarily hard to get hold of. The US Amazon and Amazon UK knew nothing of it. I had to have recourse to Amazon in Canada and even they had parlous few copies.  Fortunately, one was to be had.


One should remember Lexi but one is hardly likely to forget her, a prodigy of nature. 


[1] Jacobsen, A. Watermelon Syrup. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-55458-005-7.

Suffolk 037In the battle between nature and art, art always wins

and nature always has the upper hand.

Are we in a painting or not?  Bystanders and passers-by

mill around, holding forth copies of The Haywain,

moving with the fierce sloth of Giotto’s angels,

photographing themselves in front of Flatford Mill.


The sun dutifully sparkles on the lily pads

as we recognise ourselves in the painting,

newly transformed into art lovers:

here is the scene we step into or progress through

in wheelchairs with sandwiches and cameras,

even a velvet dog or two.  Home at last ─


to Willy Lott’s House, with the wisteria at our backs,

wistful in a balmy way for more rugged times

when splinters from the barges were cursed and forgotten,

pond waters stagnated less from a working mill

and bark and canopy still waved above

the wool-backed flocks of mellow silver.


Now tea is served at the National Trust’s

Bridge Cottage, bedded in borage and comfrey.

One can stoop inside a dark shed, glossed for visitors

and, as befits a shrine, with memories glassed.

These are forgotten in the sunlight at picnic tables

when couples plan their way back to the M25.


Five abreast, each fretting with his or her ice cream,

families are agencies of banality. It was always thus ─

even when the mud clung to frocks and boots

and the fires roared in vain through summer damps,

when wealth was visible and mattered more

and yahoo meant something else entirely.

Often a small detail can be as telling as a shelfload of description.


I have a horror of generalisations


wrote Henry James. Abstraction is the characteristic weakness of the modern mind and nowadays the receiver of information ─ that is, each of us ─ is habitually averse to high level generalisations. A small personal detail, a look of surprise or its reverse, an absence of surprise where surprise would be expected, can be more revealing than a torrent of speech; this is why the modern voter or blogger is influenced so much by short videos of politicians seen on YouTube.


Not all journalists yet seem to understand this, since in the heart of every journalist lurks an editor. Even Ryszard Kapuściński, in his classic short study of the disintegration of the ‘Empire’ of Haile Selassie, The Emperor, at length, towards the end of this book of only 164 pages in the Penguin edition, editorialises and to some extent reveals his hand as regards the rights and wrongs of feudalism. Jonathan Dimbleby had visited Ethiopia and unexpectedly produced a short film, Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine, which was shown on the BBC in 1973. Kapuściński, with his characteristically Polish interest in autocracy, set about interviewing former courtiers and inhabitants of ‘the Palace’ after Selassie’s fall a year later.Haile Selassie - smaller


Many had been shot by the incipient Marxist regime of Major Mengistu; others were untraceable; all were frightened. Kapuściński’s book was published in 1978 at around the time another autocracy was crumbling, this time the Peacock Throne. Kapuściński would go on to write another book about another King of Kings. But by this time we have grasped the essentially naïve and simple-hearted nature of the feudal autocracy, in which rumours and denunciations circle like doves, factions struggle, loyalty is prized above ability and condescending bribes are received as grateful tokens without in the least casting a shadow on any conscience.


Even with more liberal applications of torture and emptier pretensions of dynasty, the story of the fall of the Shah of Iran is essentially the same, the demise as ultimately predictable within the fashionable Marxist terms of the 1970s, even though a different kind of totalitarianism ensued. In fact, Kapuściński’s earlier tale of gradual disintegration, with its sense of inevitability, brings to mind The Last Emperor of China, albeit with the dimension of a Palace imbued by Kafka with inescapable infinitude.


But I have already added vastly more editorial content than Kapuściński allows himself. He interviews palace servants and allows them to speak in their own words, though it is inconceivable that they should have expressed themselves quite as artfully as Kapuściński would have us believe. The author does a great deal of artful listening and, of course, there is a hinterland ─ a land of hints ─ between journalism and literature which permits the role of the imagination to be expanded beyond the limits tolerated by editors.


The majestic presence here is that of VS Naipaul, for instance in his Among The Believers of 1981, which describes the author’s encounters in revolutionary Iran. Kapuściński does not quite approach this degree of impartiality ─ the three slender sections are larded with epigraphs and there are some obviously authorial italicised interludes ─ but he works to a higher tolerance of economy. There is virtually no analysis, and such historical analysis as he might have added in 1978 would, today, be as outdated as most of the other peri-Marxist discourses of that day and age.


What Kapuściński does achieve is timelessness. He allows the deepest, most heartfelt beliefs of devoted servants of the Most Extraordinary Monarch to be expressed in full ease, allowing us valuable insights into traditional customs and attitudes which prevailed until quite modern times, when those who comment and describe have been quite suddenly afflicted with amnesia.


While the Emperor is away on a visit,


The Palace servants did their laundry and strung their wash on clotheslines, the Palace children grazed their goats on the lawns, the masters of ceremony hung out in local bars, the guards would chain the gates shut and sleep under the trees.[1]


Eventually the cows of peasants would invade the Palace lawns on a more permanent basis; but Kapuściński treasures these revealing details for what they tell us about the cumbersome, maladroit and financially impenetrable ways of an ancient empire.


I am not convinced that Selassie was actually literate. There are reports that in the last few months of his life, when he was in captivity, he read books incessantly; but this is at variance with numerous reports of his magnanimous memory and his consistent aversion, throughout his reign, for all forms of reading and writing. He governed by conversations conducted in whispers.


It is hardly to be doubted, as Ascherson notes in his Introduction, that Kapuściński has


“enhanced” his notes in a creative way … [to produce] a selective distilling of words and events into literature.


The purity of the reporting makes this a work of literature. Indeed many more literary works are far less chaste in terms of the analytic scope they allow themselves. What is to be doubted still less is that the result is a masterpiece.


[1] Ryszard Kapuściński, The Emperor: downfall of an autocrat; tr. from the Polish by WR Brand and K Mroczkowska-Brand, with an Introduction by Neal Ascherson. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983-2006, p. 43. 

While it is delightful to recall this enormous debate of the early sixties, it is chastening to locate it in today’s wider context. It is clear from research into abilities that students doing science A-levels are brighter than those doing humanities, a fact acknowledged by pupils themselves, who are agreed that science A-levels are harder. Humanities essays often succeed by means of invention.


Moreover the humanistic culture that Leavis was defending is everywhere in retreat. All the existential disciplines – those that depend in some important way on subjectivity – religion, literature, art ─ are in the throes of a protracted crisis. Faith is in decline; literacy standards are in ruins; art is still in a tail-spin of modernist nihilism.


Has science triumphed in the dualistic contest? Hardly. The discipline and methodology of the sciences are barely understood in an age of rampant superstition. The popular appetite is for woo-woo.[1] Perhaps it is precisely the modest, provisional spirit of science that makes it so ambivalent a guest in the public square dominated by today’s militant and ungovernable media.


True, lip-service is hourly paid to apparently scientific reports and statistical surveys; and Ben Goldacre receives expressions of support from all quarters. But Goldacre seems to be a lone voice battling against individuals and corporations with a vested interest in bad science and a valid philosophy of science seems far from bedded in at an educational level in the population.


[1] Superstitious hostility to rational and scientific beliefs; uncritical acceptance of philosophies such as those supposedly derived from aboriginal or eastern cultures; proneness to ‘alternative’ or ‘New Age’ ideologies and practices.

Each time we move
the clouds overtake us.
Close up, each wisp passing the window
is clear as a tree.

From the sky the shallows
drift by like a calming story,
the parcels like famed marquees
at which the clouds feast.

The little burls of cloud
stop at the shore; over the sea, nothing.
But each peninsula and tidy island
has its tuft of halo-like cloud.

Time lurches overhead
with crushing indifference.
The clouds stain the ground.
Each shadow remembers its crop.

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