Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad Reviews

Something I've been doing more recently is seeking out negative reviews of stuff I love. Positive reviews all sound alike ("such a wonderful piece of work, it moved me deeply in ways I am only beginning to explain"), but negative reviews can help you suss out what's really going in the experience of viewing a movie or reading a book.

I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The last few minutes left me bawling, sobbing uncontrollably. So I was really interested to hear from a friend that a friends of hers had hated it, had felt she was being manipulated, and that finding out it was the same director as Forrest Gump suddenly made it all make sense.

The point I take away is that any work of fiction has that manipulative quality to it: the author sets you up, the author puts the puck neatly between your legs. The question is, can you see the system of pulleys by which the puck actually travels into the net? And in the end, it's the willingness to be taken in we bring to the experience. What visible strings are we willing to ignore, and which ones just leave us stranded outside the movie, looking at how it was constructed.

Ingrid and I are working our way through Mary Rose O'Reilley's books. We've both finished The Barn at the End of the World, and loved it, and now she's mostly through The Love of Impermanent Things, and likes it too. I'm waiting my turn.

I doubt I would have read it without knowing Mary Rose from Meeting, without our friend Kit saying she was one of her favorite writers. And I fell for the book, fell into it, fell over it. So I went hunting for the negative reviews.

They were remarkably like the negative reviews for War is the Force That Gives Us Meaning: not enough structure, non-rigorous use of quoted literary material, and a general lack of direction. Which is absolutely right in both cases. Hedges and Mary Rose do not build rigorous arguments. In Hedges' case, his argument just builds in momentum until it's kind of overwhelming. For Mary Rose, there isn't an argument really, except perhaps an argument for sprituality as experiential, and the argument proceed not by any unifying rhetorical device but by the accumulation of 99 little chapters. Many of them feel like spoken ministry in Friends Meeting.

Something I value in what I read is a writer's approaching things from an experiential rather than a formal point of view, which is so totally opposite of what I do in my cartographic life. I enjoy the experience of formalizing and structuring the information (or more properly, coming to understand the underlying formal structure of the data), and of making that structure clearly visible and understood. But what I love to consume as a user of information is this purely experiential plunge-over-your-head-and-paddle-around stuff.


Monday, January 19, 2009


It's been a little overwhelming, frankly, the amount of new stuff I've absorbed this last few weeks. Thanks to all the regulars, new and old, who have really opened some new ideas and ways of seeing/listening to me here. I'm kind of playing catch-up...

I recently read Chris Hedges War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which came out in 2002. It's premise is that war is Hell (nothing new there) and yet deeply seductive, even to those who have lived it. It is not an especially structured book, but that's OK. It swept over me.

One thing I was reminded of in reading Hedges' book was the character Destruction in Neil Gaiman's Sandman. The premise of that series of graphic novels was a bickering family of "Endless," embodiments of forces which are within us and yet out of our control (cutely all have names beginning with D: Death, Destiny, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delerium (who used to be Delight), and Destruction). Destruction is the embodiment especially of war. But the character abandoned his work sometime in the early seventeenth century, as war came to be seen as a "science," instead of as a horseman of the apocalypse or Dulle Griet (in my mind's eye I conflate Dulle Griet with another Breughel painting, The Triumph of Death). It was no longer a force beyond human control.

Or so people wish to believe.

Hedges book to me effectively bridges that gap between war (and us-and-them conflict in general) as a force we are somehow unable to control, and the sort of scientific brutality that cartography (see, I knew we'd get back to cartography some time) has at times been party to. In particular, he looks at war's addictive qualities, and the ways in which frankly violent criminals are able to harness the seductive qualities of war for their own ultimately disastrous purposes.

As you can tell, I recommend it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed

My senior fine arts project was called something like "Fragments of a Religion That Never Existed" (I can't find anything with the title printed on it). It consisted of the text of Tales of the Tattoo-Rumba Man, with some artworks illustrating the text.

It's become clearer to me that one of my challenges as someone who does not identify with most traditionally "religious" texts or practices, is that I need to make clearer what I do identify with and what I do hold instead. I think that not only have I historically made a straw-man of orthodox practices and beliefs, but I have used that straw-man to deny the places those practices and beliefs hold in orthodox religious people's lives.

What I mean: the conventional view of non-theists around religious ideas like "scripture" and "prayer" and "sacrament" is that these are "superstition," things that can simply be discarded like Tiny Tim's crutch. But I believe that these and other religious forms are present in most adults, whether we call them by their religious names or not.

Take "scripture."

Scripture in its usual sense is the sacred text at the heart of a religion. In most Christian sects, this is the Old and New Testaments. Interestingly, while early Quaker texts are regarded as essential to our heritage, they are not regarded as scriptural. Quakers have long argued about the centrality and the role of scripture (it's one of the main points of contention in the 19th century schisms that rent the Society for Friends). But never did Friends seek to raise Fox's Journals or Barclay's Apology or Penn's No Cross, No Crown to the level of "word of God" reserved for at least the Gospels.

But there is a special class of scripture that varies from person to person—scripture taken to heart. It is the group of particular passages that keeps coming back as a reminder, a support, a running theme. And this special class in fact funtionally breaches the bounds of the Bible. Friends absolutely take passages from Quaker classics to heart (Fox-as-reported-by-Fell saying "What canst thou say?" is a common favorite. One of mine is Fox's answer to Penn on sword-wearing, even if it is urban legend).

What I'm interested in here is the idea of scripture not defined by its innate qualities (e.g. dictated by God), but by its functional qualities. What does scripture do? I find scripture-as-community-glue interesting, but my sympathies lie with scriptures-taken-to-heart. I do have a series of books, passages from books, poems, some formal religious texts, ballads, and films that form what I believe is similar to the sort of scripture-taken-to-heart that orthodox folk might have. Except I do not have a community that draws from the same set of texts.

And, in fact, the creators of those texts may object strenuously to their being taken as scriptural. But I think a big part of that objection is the sense that scriptures ought to be treated in certain ways, they they themselves are inherently different.

My thinking is this: if we take the Universalist idea that our goal as Quakers is to abolish not the clergy, but the laity (a view I think has a lot of resonance in Friends circles), then wouldn't the scriptural variant be that in some ways, the qualities some seek in traditional scripture are in fact present in all texts, that what varies is the accessibility of those qualities. This is not placing some sort of special responsibility on authors' shoulders, which I think is perhaps what makes writers least comfortable about the idea of their work being "scriptural."

It's like saying "namaste" to the text and to its author. And it is holding and appreciating texts, regardless of where they come from, that open us up in some way.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Horizontal and Vertical Trajectories

I'm just throwing this idea out there. Maybe in comparative religion studies (Joe, you out there?) there's already a term for it.

Back in high school I worked summers at the Princeton University Press. One of my jobs was researching the photo permissions for the paperback edition of Joseph Campbell's The Mythic Image. I got to know the book pretty well. One part that intrigued me particularly was the section on the Kundalini yoga system of chakras (much of the text in question is available starting on page 30 here [typo correction: should be 330] , but almost no illustrations are).

Now anyone who's spent time around New Age groups knows chakras, the light-filled centers of energy based in different parts of the body. Campbell went specifically for the symbolic meaning of them, and included illustrations from a variety of sources that really made the point.

In Kundalini yoga, the object is to train the Kundalini, the snake, to rise up from the root chakra (down by the anus), through the other six chakras and out through the head. The meanings of these chakras have a clear "higher" and "lower" hierarchy: the root chakra is about basic survival, the chakra based in the genitals is about sex, the one based in the belly is about consumption or devouring. The remaining four have more esoteric meanings in Kundalini Yoga, involving increasing levels of connection with the divine: the heart, the throat, the brow, and the crown of the head.

The goal is "up," vertical.

[And I know there's
a lot of philosophical disgreement about what I just wrote, that the Theosophical aproach is a distortion of true teachings, etc etc...]

Freshman year in college, Religion 101, we read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I had read it once before for religion class in high school, but this time saw the book in a structural way, looking at how the central character goes through a life path of ascetic devotion to prayer, alternating with a life of the flesh, and finally finds himself in a simple, happy life of work as a ferryman, where he truly does achieve a sense of oneness with the universe.

My reading looked at the book from the point of the chakras, seeing the top chakras not so much as steps on a ladder, but (from what I realize now is a western standpoint) as "heady" aspects of self. Where he finds peace is not climbing up the vertical ladder, but in deeply loving his work, in being open to the world before him. In my understanding of the chakras, he had found a sense of balance in the center, at the heart.

In other words, he isn't aiming up, he's aiming among.

I think religious impulses form along both of these basic structural lines. Ecstatic religious experiences look up, meditative ones look across. Philosophies based on judgement tend to look up, while those based on balance tend to look across.

And I think we all have some of both in us. I know I do. Among my peak religious experiences is going to sung services in English high-church centers: Westminster Abbey, Kings College... last year Ingrid and I got to go to evensong at York Minster, and it was really lovely.

Yet, I am philosophically diametrically opposed to high church. I'm with Phillip Pullman in going for the Republic of Heaven. Down with the Priestly caste! Off with his head! Sorry, I get carried away. Taoist ideas of balance and harmony appeal to me. That of God in everyone, that kind of Universalist thing.

My point is, there tends to be an emphasis in the vertical or the horizontal in any given religious community or system or individual, but there may be a strong countervailing tendency elsewhere in the same place. My own take on Friends has been that they are radically horizontal, but it's been interesting and instructive in recent blog discussions to see how this opinion may even be a minority one. Our practice and our social teaching are decisively horizontal, but there is a strong sense of the vertical in the historical sense of seeking for God.

I don't know, is this a reasonable tree to be barking up?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Nothing but the Truth (guest post by Marshall Massey)

Marshall Massey posted a response to a previous post that I think warrants a posting of its own:
You quoted me where I wrote, "Truth, as Friends have historically understood it, is neither tolerant nor intolerant; it simply is." You then commented, "That view has been carried on largely over the last 400 years not by religions but by science."

I understand why you might say such a thing, but actually, you are misreading what I wrote. For the sentence you quoted comes from a paragraph in which I consistently used "Truth" with a capital "T", and this was to signify that I was not using the word in the sense of factual accuracy, but in the sense in which it was normally used by early Friends, and continued to be used by traditional Friends of later generations, when they spoke of being "Friends of Truth", "Publishers of Truth", and the like.

Back in the days of the first Friends, "factual accuracy" was not yet the dominant meaning of the word "truth". Let me quote two older meanings from the Oxford English Dictionary that had greater currency in those days:

1) "The character of being, or disposition to be, true to a person, principle, cause, etc.; faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, constancy, steadfast allegiance."

2) "Disposition to speak or act truly or without deceit; truthfulness, veracity, sincerity; ... sometimes in wider sense: Honesty, uprightness, righteousness, virtue, integrity."

It may be easier to grasp these meanings if I illustrate.

The first of these meanings uses "true" in the sense of an arrow "flying true", i.e. faithfully, to the target at which the archer aimed, or a lover "being true", i.e. faithful, to his beloved. For Friends to be "Friends of Truth" in this sense was for them to be "Friends of Faithfulness", friends of faithfulness to Christ and the Gospel as the churches in apostasy were not, and friends of faithfulness to the Inward Guide which the worldly around them were not obeying very well.

The second meaning uses "true" in the sense of "true witness", i.e. honest reporter of what happened, or "true parent", i.e. parent who does what is really right for the child. "Friends of Truth" in this sense meant "Friends of Doing the Right Thing, the Thing that the Relationship Really Needs, In Every Circumstance".

Neither of these senses of "Truth" are senses in which fans of science speak of "truth". Even today, they are more the province of religion.

You go on to speak of "imperfect understandings of truth". Such things are inevitable if we're speaking of factual accuracy, because accurate perception and accurate articulation are very difficult things in relation to messy real-world phenomena. In terms of faithfulness, though, or of doing what a relationship really needs, accurate perception and articulation are often easier. We may faithfully follow the teachings of the Inward Guide even when we're not sure what's going on; the Guide may, in fact, instruct us to wait until we know more, and we can agree that we are being faithful in doing so. Or we may do what a relationship requires even when we don't fully know what the other person is going through, simply by caring, listening, giving hugs, or providing food and shelter if need be.
I won't respond here except as a separate comment, and I will also repost James' response to Marshall as a comment, so as to keep this thread intact.