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 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.