Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fictional Reality

The line between fiction and non- fiction is less finely drawn than we sometimes choose to imagine or care to admit. Fictional characters uniquely clothed in our own numinous imagination take on substance and humanness which we ourselves weave around them. Fictional ideas, attractive and morally consonant, take root as an alternative but believable reality. Sometimes, political writing that claims to be non-fiction is just 'made up stuff', a morality tale, a fable,  yet its political clout is undeniable: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” an antisemitic hoax which purported to reveal a plan for world domination by the Jews stoked the fires of European anti-Semitism in the decades before the Holocaust. Indeed, it was studied as factual in German classrooms in the 1930's. The power of the novel, unvarnished by political corruption, pales in comparison. There are exceptions, of course. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is said to have hardened opposition to slavery; Eva's long, innocent ringlets and Uncle Tom's patient Christianity , steadfast in the face of Simon Legree's bestiality set in motion the war that led to slavery’s abolition. Most novels can't be directly attributed to starting wars but fiction as life imitation is capable of instigating change, since good fiction is a mirror, sometimes deliberately blurred, holding a warped culture up to a more pitiless light than political correctness allows. Fiction can speak out, where bare-faced fact dare not, giving voice to the coerced silence that is a favoured weapon of the powerful.
Last year, while looking after a class for an absent English teacher, I picked up “Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe's response to "Heart of Darkness" where African culture's advanced social institutions and artistic traditions prior to exposure to the juggernaut of white colonialism are contrasted with their subsequent culturally impoverished fate. How infantilising the experience of  such colonialism must have been, how it must have choked off  the adulthood of generations of parents, made children of them, made the coloniser into the adult, the colonised into the children of children. The fact that he chose to write in English was a political statement, an internalised form of resistance.
The current Palestinian narrative has to some extent been shaped by fiction and parallels between, for example, African colonialism and the status of the West Bank can conveniently and totally fictitiously be drawn for political advantage, which the world under the leadership of the UN has so very successfully done. Fictitiously, because there is very little by way of  historical, generational culture to overthrow. Amongst others, Ghassan Kanafani's short stories with their far-left, revolutionary themes shaped a largely fictitious Palestinian story of victimhood whose very simplicity gained it wide acceptance, portraying Israel as a colonising and consequently hateful power, seeking to extirpate all traces of Palestinian identity. Those without the pen resort to the sword, but their infantilisation is no less complete because unless the Palestinians take responsibility for solving their own political problems, made all the more severe by a blockade of religious intransigence, blaming the Jews serves only to perpetuate their own sense of powerlessness.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Truth to Power

Recently, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry was asked on Irish TV what he would say to God if he met him face to face
So very, frightfully clever.
Fry’s eyes narrow. Clearly angry, he rages like a Hebrew prophet about bone cancer and insects that burrow into children’s eyes. He pulls out an arsenal of blame, dumping it unceremoniously at the doors of Heaven because if God is the creator of everything, he’s therefore all-powerful and consequently jolly well ought to have known better. He could have done something but chose not to. 
I found myself thinking that Stephen holds life to be worthy and precious. Why then did he get so very cross with a creature in whom he does not believe? It's like getting angry with a garden gnome.
If Fry is right about God being an omnipotent and capricious despot, then in spite of his courage in speaking truth to power, he can hardly expect a reward for his honesty. He apparently tells the truth then burns in hell.
In churches, lots of songs are sung about the greatness of God. This is why the Jesus story is revolutionary because it imagines God and power separated. As a deliberate act, God laid aside his majesty. God as a baby. 
Detail: Titian - Madonna of the Rabbit, 1525 (Louvre)

God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with an ironic crown of thorns. Furthermore, it is this very powerlessness that subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we imagine a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – meaning we’re forced to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant and uninvolved observer but suffers with us all. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he and he alone has the authority to whisper in our ear that all will be well.
Actions speak louder than words
The other problem with Fry’s argument is philosophical because there is no such thing as the God he imagines. His is the flying teapot orbiting a distant planet and such a nonsensical, flying-spaghetti-monster God doesn’t exist and Fry is right to insist that it does not. Thomas Aquinas observed that existence itself is a questionable predicate to use about God. C S Lewis argues similarly – “…as if God had nothing better to do than simply ‘exist’.” For God having metaphysical shape and form is a narrative woven from human dreams and fears. God is the shape of reality we try, sometimes fearfully, to make of our lives. God is the poetry and the music, not a command and control player responsible for some wicked hunger game.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Heavens Revealed

A long time ago, I used to take people on school trips. The comfortable chairs in the Greenwich Planetarium, elevated for skyward viewing, plus Heather Couper's delectably seductive voice gently steering everyone through a year of constellations, is a fond, if hazy memory. Planetarium in the morning, plus waxy Astronomers Royal in fusty eighteenth century clothing peering into telescopes, followed by the National Maritime Museum or the Cutty Sark after lunch in the Park. 
Hamlet's 'brave, o'erhanging firmament' has always held a certain wide-eyed fascination. As a jobbing physicist who has taught astrophysics as examination fodder, I know what a Cepheid variable is. I know about apparent and absolute magnitude. The fate of the Sun as it expands into a Red Giant - not a problem. As to being asked, off the cuff, where Betelgeuse is tonight, no clue. Not one.
Celestron Skymaster 25x70 binoculars
I had made up my mind that when I retired, I'd learn a bit more, principally because in the South light pollution is at a minimum and on clear nights the frosty ripple of the Milky Way is clearly visible and thousands of bright objects, some bluish, some red, keep watch during the night hours. Further north in Paris, the atmosphere is less forgiving but there's still plenty to capture the imagination.
Turns out, astronomers were Internet junkies almost from its inception. There's quite a body of astronomical knowledge out there and a very long observational history since people have been gazing heavenward in awe and wonder pretty much since we left off fraternising with the Neanderthals and struck out on our ownPtolemy of Alexandria lived 1900 years ago and his geocentric model of the Universe remained virtually unchallenged until Copernicus. My hero, for quite a number of reasons was the guy we always address by his first name, Galileo. Apart from standing up to the Pope - stout fellow for that - he was an observer of the heavens, which I am trying in some small way to become. Heeding the advice of seasoned astronomers, therefore, I have equipped myself with a decent pair of bins rather than a full-fledged Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, since I'd like to get a bit of practice finding stuff before I waste a ton of money on the optics. A camera tripod completes the setup, for now, since holding a pair of 25x70's still is a near-impossibility.
Tonight, I'm hoping the clouds roll away to reveal Jupiter who will  be in “full moon” phase when it ( or is it 'he')reaches closest opposition tonight, a mere eight hundred and fifty million kilometres away, rising east-north-east and remaining visible all night until setting around sunrise, exactly like a full moon. As I write, he's there, peeping shyly out from behind the neighbours' winter trees with moons trailing behind in a line, like the tail of a kite.
Just at sunset, facing the other way, Venus is bright in the southwestern sky, fading Mars a little higher and more to the west. Perhaps I'll catch a glimpse as she settles down behind the tree-line.
Winter moon with Jupiter, 2008 (naked eye)
The Universe is a panorama in space and time. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, barely visible amid atmospheric pollution at this early hour tonight on the southeastern horizon and just over eight light years away. We see her as she was, eight years ago. Most of what we see and beyond vision is aeons older; of the three brightly diagonal stars in Orion's Belt, the middle one is twice as far away than either of its neighbours, the light from it left it a few years after the Resurrection. I found it interesting that a star in M42 - the nebula in Orions' Sword, just visible with the naked eye - still has unnamed stars in it. Fascinating.
The ancients believed that the firmament was a blanket covering the Earth at night. Imperfections in the blanket produced starlight, where the light of Heaven shone through.
Stargazing has a habit of bringing one down to size - the vastness of space, extending almost fourteen billion light years is, in some small way, comprehensible by a life form made of twisted nucleic acid and protein with the capacity to wonder at it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Eucharist and Euler

Today, in Paris, it is cold with scattered showers. A very two-dimensional day, in fact. 
Celebrity wedding and the Georges V up the road
In a moment of binary indecision, I elected to catch the first available train, the crawler which stopped conveniently at Charles de Gaulle Etoile whose Champs-Elysées exit heaves to outside the Montblanc shop. A ten minute stroll just squeaked me into the American Cathedral for the Sunday morning bunfest,  entitled Holy Eucharist – the second binary decision, rather than a Metro ride to ACP as usual. The upside is that it's in one of the most prestigious streets in town, the down being that it was unfortunately the day of the Annual General Meeting, where officials who do impenetrable jobs are elected, shanghaied or otherwise hauled like recalcitrant infantry or eager ensigns into position. A lady Venerable conducted proceedings, a species I've not encountered before, with a musical voice and a sadly prescribed sermon – apparently she is forced by some by-law to explain proceedings to the unenlightened. Amidst the candelabra, Proper Psalms and an enthusiastic organist, it felt a bit like school chapel, forty-five years ago, Stanford’s Te Deum being the Eucharistic prelude.
I was sitting at the back behind a man in an overtight suit who bobbed up and down to some deep ecclesiastical rhythm of his own, kneeling bolt upright, sometimes bowing. I felt a bit seasick, thus left during a desultorily Episcopalian version of the Peace, to go see a film. Third binary decision – which? Conveniently, “The Imitation Game” with the breathy but slightly improbable Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke and a tortured Benedict Cumberbatch as the enigmatic, impenetrably brilliant Alan Turing, was on.
Was that Meccano? As in, did it exist in 1941?

Four geeks and a spy
 Turing broke Enigma, with never a crack on his own varnish of narcissistic, humourless singleness of purpose, and with so little outward material on which to base a character, we are left with Cumberbatch’s interpretation of a man with the emotional intelligence of a child surrounded by idiots, rather like Russell Crowe in 'A Beautiful Mind', but with far less violence. For a moment, one got to watch as the greatest cryptanalysts, crossword enthusiasts and mathematicians Cambridge in the early 1940’s was capable of producing attempted to crack the Enigma Code, using a hand-built logical machine, the precursor of a modern computer.
Young Alan at Sherborne. Lonely and in love
The film swung between Turing as a child (with a spectacularly deep and believable performance from Alex Lawther, whose filmography includes “X+Y”, the story of a young prodigy and his place on the British Mathematics Olympiad team), Bletchley Park - conveniently downsized – at its height, over 9,000 people worked there, and his postwar years as a lonely soul with just a machine for company. Plus a conviction for indecency for which, in order to escape jail, he had to undergo stilboestrol treatment – chemical castration - which may have contributed to his mental condition prior to his suicide a year later.
It’s fairly obvious Oscar-fodder for Cumberbatch, less so for Knightley – even she can’t make herself sexy enough for mathematics and for one with a double First, being unable to correctly pronounce “Euler” was a bit unconvincing.  Tightly layered screenplay and enough not said to maintain interest, the film will certainly win something – everybody loves films about clever fowk what’re a bit odd. Especially when they’re trying hard not to be queer when everyone knows that they are.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Brief Histories

The Champs-Elysées is quite crowded on a Sunday afternoon, but the cinemas are not. Fewer than thirty people were in the theatre for the Theory of Everything, despite five Oscar nominations,  the story of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde the arts student he fell in love with whilst studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. 

Hawking was a bright but unfocused and rather socially inept student of cosmology, scraping into Cambridge and given just two years to live following the diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease when only twenty-one. 
The trailer shows his first major fall, a real smackdown on an unsympathetically hard surface in a Cambridge quad. The story follows the love story between himself and fellow Cambridge arts student, Jane Wilde. Over the course of their marriage, we watch Stephen's body collapse as his academic reputation soars, and fault lines were exposed that tested the boundaries of their relationship and dramatically altered the course of both of their lives. There's not a lot of physics - it really isn't a quantum mechanical primer - the stuff about black holes is fuzzily vague and the blackboard equations aren't on-screen for long enough to check their accuracy. It's a good people drama, a bit schmaltzy and Britishly uptight, a nice glimpse of what Cambridge might have been like in the late 1950s. The male lead - who was he again - is definite Oscar bait and Jane's primly C of E middle classness evoked a personal shudder or two.
Jane and Stephen

I did find some of the editing bizarrely careless and they took a few serious liberties with the history of physics. Jane scribbles her phone number on a napkin and thrusts it into Stephen's hand after a party. The 0223 prefix written on the napkin didn't take effect until some time later. There's a beautiful image of the two of them at a May Ball where Sagittarius is clearly visible in the starlit firmament, impossible to see at that elevation and time of year. Irritatingly, when the family goes to Bordeaux on holiday, they seem to have bent time a little too far, driving a model of car that was not released until five years later. 
Hawking, like so many scientists, is brilliant when addressing the "what" and the "how". He is on less certain ground, however, when talking about the "why".  He cannot explain where the laws of physics came from or why they work, neither can he explain his faith in the non-existence of the afterlife, for example and attempting to do so via reductio ad absurdum uses metaphysics rather naively. Science is universal, faith is of necessity personal. He asserts his uncomfortable atheism early in the film and one can't help but wonder whether as his ideas hardened into a more securely held and more strident version, that this in part contributed to the failure of his marriage. OK, enough nitpicking. Six and a half out of ten, a 2:1 but not a First.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Funny! Ha, Ha!

This post is part of a piece to be published under a pseudonym.
Longer ago than I care to remember, I lived in a place called England. One or two of you might have heard of it. It’s overcrowded there and it pours with rain. Rather a lot, as it happens. With a name like Peregrine, of course, this should come as no surprise – not the rain, but my birthplace. My dear old mother, not, I have to admit, the sharpest chisel in the toolbox, adhered to the delusional belief that if she gave me what she perceived to be a name redolent of wealth and privilege, I might somehow in my maturer years actually get to move in such exalted circles myself. The result was, people used to make faces at me at school and call me ‘pelican’ and I still catch the bus home at night. The neighbours often remarked, in the words of Mae West, that “she should have thrown me away and kept the stork.”

But, back to England and my mother. She had a phrase – used tiresomely often – from which the title of this little offering is taken. She used to say… “Funny! Ha, ha!”. This was as close as she ever got to a breath of sarcasm, to which my father, a self-made man who worshipped his creator and, well-trained Pavlovian that he was, would rumble “No. Funny peculiar” from behind his newspaper, to gales of merriment underlain by the grinding of my pre-adolescent teeth. Which probably accounts for the horrendously awkward overbite which I now have the misfortune to suffer from.

Never let it be whispered that old Perry has a political bone in his body. I haven’t, and the thought of tramping about waving some species of placard bearing some outrageously simplistic meme does turn the old stomach a bit. Especially when accompanied by large women wearing glasses with a revolutionary gleam in their eyes and a hedonistic desire to be hauled off to the calaboose by the local constabulary. Nevertheless, in common with what appeared to be half the population of the republican Shangri-La where I now make my home, in response to the well-documented incidents in Paris, where people were actually killed because of a cartoon, I turned up the other week, and milled about anonymously for a bit, more out of idle curiosity than anything else to see what all the fuss was about.
A fat French bloke
Now, I want you to hear me clearly. In the soul of every Frenchman is the instinct to do two things. First, to pee wherever he pleases, whether in a public place or not and second, to think, say and even draw whatever he likes. It’s generally believed that this is called Free Speech.  You may not agree that this image of the grossly overweight French actor Gérard Dépardieu with the caption “ can Belgium welcome all the cholesterol in the world?” – he left France to live in Belgium in order to reduce his tax bill – is remotely amusing, but some people think that the right to say it is the important thing. It pokes fun at Mr Dépardieu’s excess poundage and it ridicules his decision to leave for a cosier fiscal climate.  The joke is supposedly satirical. The Purists among us refer –rather grandly - to Satire as a ‘genre’ of literature or art, in which all manner of vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to wider issues in society.
On the other hand, so my mother told me, satire is when people poke fun at their elders and betters to make a point and is a nasty, low form of gutter entertainment much like watching people being torn limb from limb in the Roman amphitheatres. She once referred me to this, without a flicker of expression.
We do live in an age of the quick-fire riposte, the headline tweet, the unforgettable meme. It’s never been easier to show off our satirical skills on social media and magazines. No, I’m not going to draw a cartoon, although we might notice that just about every newspaper known to mankind has a resident cartoonist. Perhaps a statistician might disagree, to which my response would be in the words of the anthropologist and literary critic Andrew Lang: "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts - for support rather than illumination." For myself, I’ve always rather admired those who use the written word, irony and sarcasm with the skill of a master fencer but whatever happened to the art of the glorious, perfectly timed, off-the-cuff insult?

Before the English language got boiled down to four-letter words and textspeak and emoticons were a figment of depixellated imagination, you duelled verbally with the satirist at your peril. Imagine this, in the British House of Commons. A Member of Parliament once said to Benjamin Disraeli: "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." Not a bad opening gambit, but what about this for a response: "That depends, Sir," said Disraeli, "whether I embrace your policies or your mistress." Disraeli clearly had what Walter Kerr once described as “delusions of adequacy."
Winston Churchill was a master at the put-down.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw was no admirer of the Great Man but it was politically expedient to include him. "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one." Bernard Shaw wrote. Churchill’s response was masterly: "Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second, if there is one." After the performance, he might have quoted Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a wonderful evening. But, this wasn’t it.”
"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire" Churchill once remarked in reference to Sir Stafford Cripps, whose Marxist sympathies brought WSC out in a rash. He might have come up with this on the same subject, but it has been attributed to the American lawyer and wit Clarence Darrow: "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."
Writers are often the most scaldingly abusive about fellow-members of their profession – after all it is their job to use words in ways others might shrink from.  William Faulkner was quite scathing about Ernest Hemingway, being quoted as remarking: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." Hemingway, not slow to respond, replied:  “Poor Faulkner. Does he think big emotions come from big words?” Hemingway might easily have been the butt of Oscar Wilde’s famous funereal quip: “he had no enemies, but was intensely disliked by his friends.”

One of these days, I might get around to writing a book, as long as I can find a way to get over the suicidal disappointment of rejection from any and all publishers who might receive an unsolicited copy. Imagine how one might feel if Moses Hadas, the American teacher and classical scholar upon receiving one’s manuscript had replied: "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it."

Returning momentarily to Oscar Wilde: "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."  So, this might be a good time for me to go, too. If I have upset anybody, by word or implication, I am sorry, perhaps I have Van Gogh’s ear for music. If I have, in the words of Mark Twain, “why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?”  Say something!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Ah, Praxis

Satire, together with mindless slaughter, is quite popular these days, or "trending steeply", as we technophiles are apt to put it, so in the timeless words of Monty Python, "...and now for something completely different." 

I went to an Alpha Course launch party last night including free wine and nibbles. I was made to wear a name badge; in light of which, I found myself musing on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant instead of watching the video, a kind of reverse praxis. It left me thinking that church needs remodelling to improve user experience, like Facebook. In the grand and relatively newly-discovered liberal belief system, the spiritual equivalent of the Sky Fairy, there’s no such thing as a silly idea, just an idea whose time has not yet come. And, ideas that never will be because some hegemonic pensioner has blocked it at the committee stage. Not forgetting, of course, ideas that just piss people off. So, here’s a few suggestions of my own.
Bring your own pebble

Liturgical clog-dancing to a trance-like, hypnotic beat to encourage the practice of inner spirituality. This to include pebble-holding with closed eyes and Theravada chanting. Once a month, replaced by Adult Church with mud and optional wrestling.

Much noisier worship, to include throwing paper aeroplanes in the shape of doves to encourage younger worshippers. This to include a visit from the liturgical panda, complete with mitre, when passing the Peace – an idea I got from visiting Disneyland – there’s a nice ecology tie-in here.

Replacing the prayers of confession with a short aromatherapy session, so everybody feels better about the things they’ve done wrong without getting all grovelly about it. As an incentive, a points system for sin, in the style of traffic violations, including public naming, shaming and in serious cases, tarring and feathering. Might be an opportunity for a bit of interfaith dialogue, instead of a prayer closet at the end of the service, a shari'a court could be made available to implement punishments.

All female church greeters to be dressed in matching bikinis in colours consonant with changing liturgical seasons, to give people the impression that they're visiting Abercrombie and Fitch.

This is a work in progress, really, so I welcome ideas from kindred souls. Or not.