Friday, January 29, 2016

Au Revoir, for now...

Just to see how it goes and to freshen the look a little bit, "Small Wrinkles..." is being put out to pasture, at least for a while. She has been migrated to Wordpress, just to see how it goes. For my followers, perhaps you'd be kind enough to redirect here:

New address and new name:

johnvagabondsblog.wordpress.com or, click the link.

The puppy says 'thanks'...




Thursday, January 28, 2016

Caesars and Popes


I had never been to Rome, that pastiche of a  city of ancient empire and High Catholicism, where the latest wearer of the shoes of the Fisherman shepherds his billion-strong flock in the hope of maintaining humility amidst magnificent opulence and ceremony. Romans seem determined to build, add to or repurpose almost all of their ancient buildings, and walking through the streets is a living tutorial in history and architecture. Even the Colosseo is being partially rebuilt.
A three or four day tour reveals the tip of one of many icebergs, but little else. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to the University monastery of San Anselmo and listening to Benedictine Vespers with a congregation of three in Capella San Anselmo was quite a delight. The hotel was a converted villa in Aventino, once a very exclusive part of town, far out of the way of the tourist scammers.
Our lodging was a beautiful macédoine of old and new, much like the city itself. After several nights, I still could not discern with certainty how all twelve shower nozzles could be simultaneously turned on, and the jacuzzi settings in the overly luxurious black and white marble bathroom were manifold, various and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, tea and biscuits were served free of charge at four o'clock in the peaceful, old-world lounge, a slightly wistful echo of England.
Much like Florence, the sheer weight of Roman high art is a sensual overdose. Every church seems to have its own private masterpiece, donated by a Pope, a Cardinal or a jurist and there are rather a lot of churches. 
San Pietro, atop the prison-like walls surrounding the Vatican, is, of course, the hugest and most aggressively splendid beast of them all. Piercingly beautiful, exquisitely ornate, the interior gives the impression of emptiness, as if someone very rich and important once lived here but they just... left.
Of course, there are nuns scurrying, sombre monks, hands clasped inside their habits, with that religiously determined walk so many seemed to have, a purposeful swarm between the myriads of corridors to chapels squatting like beehives on its perimeter. The pearl is, of course, La Sistina, Michelangelo's masterpiece of young, athletic and half-naked men in Renaissance poses, body doubles for various Scriptural luminaries. People often forget that it is a chapel not a museum, so a black-clad Nigerian priest was in constant attendance to ensure solemnity. I spoke with him on the subject of confession, and we found common ground.
I have quite a short attention span for fine art, but tracing the sparse, erratic footsteps of Caravaggio to St Augustine's near Piazza Navona is an exercise in humility. This image does no justice to his 1604 masterpiece of chiaroscuro, the Madonna of Loreto, or Pilgrim's Madonna.
She stands, barefoot, just as the two kneeling pilgrims are. The original shows the dirty, wrinkled feet of the pilgrims and the exquisitely worked head of the kneeling woman, old and wizened. The Carmelites, for whom it was originally painted, rejected it in disgust, not least because he had used a famous prostitute as a model for the Virgin.
The swaggering Caravaggio left Milan for Rome in 1592, doing a runner, it seemed, after "certain quarrels" and the wounding of a police officer. He arrived in Rome flat broke and of no fixed address. Eight years later he became the city's most important painter, almost a Tarantino, shocking the public with grossly realistic images executed to perfection and a worthy successor to the mighty Raphael.

No, it wasn't just about art, or food, Caesars or Popes. We both enjoyed the sense of ‘otherness’, the ubiquitous old Latin and Roman numerals, even the drain covers have SPQR - Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Roman Senate and People - stamped on them.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sweet and Sour




I haven’t commented – much less reviewed – movies in a while. Not because I haven’t seen very many, I have. But, perhaps because too much blockbuster type stuff has had its share of ten-cent reviewers like me and people go to see things because they happen to fit with their other, more pressing schedules. Also, there has been a quite wearyingly predictable newsround in recent times and I am not going to remark on the similarities between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, North and South, right and left, chalk and cheese, sweet and sour.
In reference to polar opposites, I wondered if an iTunes rental of “Still Alice” was going to disappoint if the trailer and plot spoilers were to be believed, but, not so. Being, er, over sixty, thus eligible for certain privileges like a guaranteed seat on the Métro, tends to cast a long shadow sometimes, in particular, the possible, if not imminent threat of some debilitating disease or other. People of my age occasionally give passing thought to being introduced to the grim reaper. Julianne Moore, in the role of a lifetime, plays a successful professor of linguistics, who finds herself initially unable to capture a word, as if it is just out of reach, and she is subsequently diagnosed with a rare familial form of Alzheimer’s disease. I found myself trying to remember how many times I had been caught without the right word, as if it had slipped between the cracks in my memory – a quite normal ‘senior moment’ I suppose we all get from time to time. The story revolves around the inexorable progress of the disease as she tries with less and less ability to hold on to her identity and the reactions of her immediate family. More and more, thoughts drop out of her head, which is both sad and almost unexpected. So, we are led into a solitude of twilight paths we’d prefer not to have to face with a bittersweet, perfectly timed ending.

By contrast – brutal contrast, as it happens - Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” was also showing at the cinema this week. Echoing “True Grit” with broad, snowy Wyoming landscapes and a frontier mindset of careless bloodshed, this would have almost worked as a stage play – Tarantino moves his pieces around virtually a single set as if under stage direction. Again, the intimidating Samuel L Jackson, with improbably perfect dentition, incidentally, provides masterfully adroit manoeuvres around an incendiary and sadistic script, a company of perverse men betrayed by money and false causes. Tarantino imbues each of his characters with a distinct and complex personality, interweaving a plotline of feral brutality and post-Civil War distrust with considerable final trademark blood-letting. As it turns out, this, together with some of the more gratuitously anti-racist themes, is what doesn’t quite work – a flabby ending with dead or dying; the only nice people having a brief candle of a moment before being remorselessly snuffed out.
Two very different takes on departing this life. Both not very reassuring but one much gentler than the other. Your choice.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Skeletal Prose


A week late, but, you get the idea

It’s so well-intentioned of people to resolve to do things differently
Me, I don’t make resolutions for New Year. Mostly. Except, perhaps, one. Polonius’ remark to Hamlet’s parents, is brief, and to the point. ‘…brevity is the soul of wit…your noble son is mad....’ Little room for doubt or misunderstanding, then.
William Strunk. Once heard, a name not easily forgotten. He was a professor of English at Cornell, and had a student, one E B White who enlarged his 1918 magnum opus ‘The Elements of Style’ into almost a set text for authors. If White's name sounds familiar, he wrote ‘Stuart Little ‘ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’. I haven’t read Dr Strunk. But, if I had, I expect he would have taught me the necessity of brevity. He wrote, somewhat caustically: ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’ Riveting stuff. Keeps you awake till the wee small hours.

Skeletal prose, so beloved of the well-paid writer, not counting James Joyce. Here's a fifty-dollar word, a free gift*, if you like. Pleonasms* are a redundant excess of words, the authors’ revenge on people who pay by the character who’d like them to write less of them. Literature overflows with people who didn’t follow this doubtlessly sound advice. Shakespeare again, this time from the third act of “Julius Caesar”: ‘This was the most unkindest cut of all.’ Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep": ‘Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs.’ And finally, Samuel Beckett: ‘Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil...’ (Molloy).

The law, well known for ponderous prose, has its own little stylistic vices, using little pleonasms like "null and void", "terms and conditions", "each and every" – two-for-one words which say the same thing.


So, therefore, and so forth and so on. This year will see a paring, a slenderizing of the prosaic moi. No more flowers, no more multiply-verbed sentences in close proximity, (ha!) no burbling descent into doggerel. Instead, the crispy meme, the mot juste. Or whatever.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

People of the Book

A Wheaton College politics professor who wore a hijab over Advent in solidarity with Muslims was suspended last week for asserting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She argued that the Church had affirmed this belief for centuries, including most recently by Pope Francis, nevertheless the strongly evangelical authorities at the College felt she had strayed too far from the orthodoxy required from tenured staff. Having lived in the Middle East in predominantly Muslim countries for a number of years, I found myself reviewing whether or not I agreed. It is all too easy to intellectually sweep under the carpet any misgivings that one might have, and fuzzily labeling us all as ‘people of the Book’, thus if we don’t agree on a few things, it doesn’t really matter very much since, by God’s grace, we’re all headed in more or less the same direction.
The praxis, however, may tell a rather different story.
Both Christians and Muslims ask similar questions, most basically, “who, or what, is God” and frequently we both may find ourselves first looking for differences rather than similarities. The concept of God in Islam differs in important ways from classical Christian theology, most obviously by a rejection of the concept of the Trinity. Many allegedly Christian denominations, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do as well. The Qu’ran, however, goes further and teaches that Jesus is not divine but is “…a messenger of Allah.” Iranian Islamic scholar and perennialist Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, “The Qu’ran continuously emphasises the Unity and the Oneness of God, and it can be said that the very raison d’être of Islam is to assert in a final and categorical manner the Oneness of God and the nothingness of all before the Majesty of that One.” Islamic emphasis on the oneness of God suggests that it is closer to the pantheism of Spinoza-everything that exists is (a) God - than to Christianity.
Consequently, the Islamic concept of divinity contains little reference to personhood. Only within a relationship can God express interpersonal attributes such as love, sympathy, intimacy, self-giving, and communication. Furthermore, the Islamic understanding of God’s character doesn’t include his command to love, which is central to the Christian view. Only between distinct individuals can there be reciprocities such as give and take, initiating and responding, sharing and self-revelation, union and communion.
For God to be fully personal, then, capable of love and community, plurality of attribute is within the divine being itself, which is a foundational belief in Christian theology. C S Lewis wrote: “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love, but they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons - a lover and the one in receipt of love. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”  The inference is that there was no ‘one’ to love. Only a God of love is fully personal. Thus the Trinity is crucial for maintaining a fully personal concept of God. As Presbyterian pastor and theologian Robert Letham writes, “Only a God who is triune can be personal. A solitary monad cannot love and, since it cannot love, neither can it be a person.” Therefore it “has no way to explain or even to maintain human personhood.”
Arabic and classic Islamic philosophy does not have a concept of the person in the sense that Western philosophy interprets the idea, appearing to lend weight to the importance of the specifically Christian origins of the term. If it’s true that Islam lacks even a clear concept of the person, this would explain why it tends to be fatalistic, emphasising submission without necessarily understanding the will of Allah. This also explains why a great deal of Muslim worship consists of near-mechanical rituals; worshippers recite the Qu'ran (its meaning is ‘that which is recited’), in unison, word for word, often by feat of memory, in the original Arabic. Muslims are not required to understand what they recite, indeed, most are not Arabic speakers. Two Muslim authors write: “It is not uncommon to meet people who know a great deal of the text by heart but have not the slightest understanding of the world view that permeates it.” But this is acceptable, the authors say, because in Islam “understanding is secondary” to recitation and ritual. Furthermore, for some, the lack of worth placed upon the individuality of human life and dignity makes the call to martyrdom very much more logical.
In summary, it could be argued that Islam is reductionist in that a lower view of God leads to a lower view of the value, status, and dignity of man.
But this does not finally answer our initial question. The Qu’ran openly states many times that Allah is the 'best deceiver' in contrast to the Christian belief that the ‘father of lies’ or ‘deceiver’ is Satan. The root Arabic used in these verses is makr, meaning deception, and is almost always used disparagingly. However, even this may not be enough, until we find the following: “And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the messenger of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.” Qu’ran 4:157-158. This looks like a rather clumsy orally inspired refutation of the Resurrection by someone having had access to the Gospels. Nevertheless, in conclusion, we might return to Pope Francis, whose view is supported by Catholic orthodoxy and whose remarks were probably made pastorally rather than theologically, as a worthy attempt to build interfaith bridges. It seems that the subjective intention of Muslims is to worship one God - moreover, the one God from the line of Abrahamic revelation. Whether or not their version of that revelation is tainted, authentic or correct, that’s what they “profess to hold to". Furthermore, some of the attributes of the God to whom they address their worship are comparable to the Christian God’s: He is one, merciful, omnipotent, and the judge of the world. Just as clearly, though, we cannot say that the God in whom Muslims profess to believe is theologically very similar to the Christian God. Most obviously, their God is a “lonely God,” as Chesterton put it, whereas ours is a Trinity of of one with three attributes. Beyond that, in the divine economy, our Gods are different: most pointedly in that ours took human nature to himself and lived among us, whereas the Muslim God remains purely transcendent. To Muslims the idea of an incarnation is blasphemy. 
Whether indeed such differences are valuable or relevant in the polarizing debate in Europe and the US, remains for the reader to decide. 
I am grateful to Nancy Pearcey's 'Finding Truth' from which a number of excerpts were taken.






Monday, December 07, 2015

Officially Pagan



It's official. More than half of the Brits are no longer "Christian, according to this data 
from the British Election Study, 2015. We've all watched the apparent slow fizzle or  "general decline" in its Christian affiliation and the powers that be are  now proposing that something is done about it. The time has come for public life to take on a more "pluralist character", according to an official report. Major state occasions such as a coronation should be changed to be more inclusive, it said, while the number of bishops in the House of Lords should be cut to make way for leaders of other religions. The recommendations from a panel chaired by the former High Court judge Baroness Butler-Sloss  (Anglican, 82) come in light of 'major changes' in British society.
So, what should be done? One possibility would be for the bishops to leave the Lords entirely. The other would be for everyone to be given a fair thrash at it, which would mean a few Christian bishops, the odd Papist, representatives of all the chapels, Third (or is it Fourth) Wave plus a fundamentalist or two, a Sunni Imam, a Shia Imam (keep these two well apart),  a gaggle of Rabbis, a Sikh guru, a Hindu priest able to represent Krishna, Vishnu, Ganesh, Durga, Lakshmi, Kali and all the rest of them, a couple of Buddhist Lamas to cover both the Red Hat and Black Hat sects, a Witch Queen, a Nordic Skald and a selection of Druids to represent the Pagan religions who were here before all these strange Eastern imports arrived, a Jedi complete with ceremonial lightsabre, a representative of Steikhegel, God of isolated cow byres, whose job would have to include representing anyone I’ve left out, and finally Richard Dawkins, bringing up the rear and forlornly bleating “look at me, I’m the only one in step here”.  Debates - or should they now be more properly called 'interfaith dialogues' - would be televised, of course and aired between endless reruns of the Muppets Christmas Carol and Spitting Image. Can't wait.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Elusive Gratitude


Those who know me well will be aware of why I have to pay attention to gratitude. The remembrance of gratitude is an oft-repeated mantra and it was coincidental that I read a piece in the NYT on the eve of this year's Thanksgiving which set off a few parallel trains of thought. Firstly, do we actually have to feel grateful, thankful, or whatever, in order to actually be grateful? I stumble over this. On the one hand I think one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seems somehow dishonest or fake; a kind of bourgeois insincerity that one should reject. Surely it’s best to be emotionally authentic, Or, is it? Sincere fakery might achieve just the same result, if it does sound a bit oxymoronic. Doing the best for ourselves does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather, rebelling against them and taking a stand against negative impulses tends to cause us to act right even when we don’t feel like it. In brief, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.
For many people, including me, gratitude is difficult, because life can be difficult. Having said that, to accompanying snorts of disapproval, how could my life be so much more difficult than, say, a rickshaw driver in Mumbai, but even for me, days of endless azure thankfulness doesn't come easily to the melancholic personality. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude is elusive, an old fish that refuses to take the bait.  Focusing on tragedy dissolves a grateful heart, as one pundit put it. Watching beheadings does not make us feel good.
I have been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner - hence this post - and events like this can all too easily be ruined by a drunken relative who always has to share his political views, usually at bellicosely high volume. It's supposed to be a delightful, entertainingly warm fuzzy of a party, but...
Beyond rotten circumstances, or just a few too many "slings and arrows" having found their uncomfortable mark, some people are just naturally more grateful than others and there appears to be some science behind why this is so.
A variation in gene (CD38) seems to be associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know, the perpetually glass half full types, who seem grateful all the time may simply be, well, mutants.
But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practise gratitude — and that doing so makes us happier. This is not just the usual self-improvement hokey-pokey, much as it might appear. For example, research carried out over ten years ago randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed frustrations, hassles or even neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others - my first question being 'how was it measured'. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.
Acting happy, regardless of feelings, appears to coax one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi which create “crow’s feet”. They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions. If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a deranged psychopath isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead, again whether you feel like it or not. Tell someone something affirming, for example. It stimulates the hypothalamus which helps to regulate stress and the ventral tegmental area which is part of our reward circuitry that produces the sensation of pleasure. In so doing, we become conditioned to repeat it.
But what if we can't actually see anything that's worth being thankful for? This is harder because we have to to some extent make it up. The reason why people put pictures of cats on skateboards on Facebook is because they stimulate pleasurable emotions. If this is a bridge too far, as an exercise, write down five beautiful things. They could be objects, places, memories or people.
It’s common sense as well as being scientific: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.