Sunday, April 18, 2004

More Reading

More reading to catch up on from the past few weeks. This is probably very boring for any other poor soul who happens upon it, but it is very helpful and worthwhile for me.

1. Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved

This is a beautiful novel, describing love, loss, art and a host of human experience. There were three passages that caught my imagination especially. The first deals with resurrection as the return of life after an experience of bereavement. “I had avoided resurrection because I must have known that it would be excruciating. That summer, light, noise, color, smells, the slightest motion of the air rubbed me raw with their stimuli. I wore sunglasses all the time” (p. 148). I think the way that this combines the positive experience of the return of life with the pain this causes is profoundly moving.

The second passage sums up the book for me. It very gently manages to capture and describe beauty, even in mundane and terrible things. “When I walked outside the building on Central Park West, I looked across at the trees that had burst into full leaf and had a sensation of ineffable strangeness. Being alive is inexplicable, I thought. Consciousness itself is inexplicable. There is nothing ordinary in the world” (p. 233).

Finally, an encounter with a monstrous person that refuses to treat them as other than human. In this it reminds me of Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler. “I knew that by some definition both Teddy Giles and Mark Wechsler were insane, examples of an indifference many regard as monstrous and unnatural; but in fact they weren’t unique and their actions were recognizably human. Equating horror with the inhuman has always struck me as convenient but fallacious, if only because I was born into a century that should have ended such talk for good” (p. 346).

2. Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities

Not the book it might appear to be (RW’s take on the situation of the Anglican Communion at present), but a collection of essays on leading figures in Anglican history. A fairly arbitrary selection, at that – a list of the missing would be all too easy. Nevertheless, full of insight and understanding. Williams sees a continuing thread of “passionate patience” (p.8) – and here the contemporary Anglican situation doesn’t seem too far away.

I was particularly taken with his essays on B.F. Westcott and John A.T. Robinson, not least because they are full of reflections on what it means to be ‘liberal’. Westcott, Williams suggests, was meticulous in reflecting on Biblical texts and thus regarded as ‘liberal’ by those who wanted to take shorter paths to clearer teaching. It is his refusal of closure that makes him a liberal. “Westcott’s liberalism is the claim of a liberty within the given structures of Bible and doctrine to decline closure: these are the words we cannot but use, but we cannot prescribe precisely how they are to be understood, because just that is the unending ‘labour’ which is God’s gift to us through the medium of this sacred vocabulary” (p. 82). Thus Wescott’s liberalism is not about what can and cannot be believed on the basis of a prior commitment to a philosophical position.

Williams’ account of Robinson and Honest to God makes sense of both its theological weaknesses and its huge cultural appeal. Despite Robinson’s rhetoric of change and clarity, Williams sees the book as a muddle and explains it as such. It transpires that it is this muddledness that saves it from the worst charges levelled against it, but also means that it depends upon a more traditional theology and spirituality for its more radical elements. Robinson is closer to Westcott that he (or we) might have thought.

3. Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement

This is an account of the growing anti-globalisation movement that emphasises its diversity and its challenge to conventional politics. The former is well documented, even if Kingsnorth seems to link everything to the Zapatista movement in Mexico and Sub-Commandante Marcos. The Zapatista slogan, ‘Ya Basta!’ (‘Enough is Enough’), does seem to have resonated with a host of different groups. I found much in this that resonates with me, much that challenges me about my own stance, and much that moved me. Nevertheless, there was more than a little sense that this was a form of ‘protest-tourism’.

What I find less convincing is Kingsnorth’s defence of the ‘one no, many yeses’ position. To describe the anti-globalisation movement as ‘one no’ is telling of the way in which so many things are lumped together as all being part of ‘the system’ or of ‘globalisation’ which is never properly defined or understood. The mixture of anarchists and socialists seem to find it hard to articulate what it is that they oppose, as well as what they stand for. ‘Many yeses’ too is problematic – it makes the political process redundant. Ultimately this is undemocratic. Kingsnorth tells of one occasion when James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, offered to come and talk to an activists training school. He was refused, and Kingsnorth comments that “They have turned us away with tear-gas and armoured cars so many times; now we turn them away with a polite refusal … It’s a golden moment” (p. 236). I remember that before the World Bank meeting in Prague in 2000, officials offered to meet with activists to talk about disagreements. Jubilee 2000 sent representatives, but the large and organised group of protestors did not. They did not have any leaders to send, and it would have been against the spirit of their non-organisation to choose any. This is the politics of the playground. It refuses to listen to the voice of those it opposes.

Kingsnorth describes the problems faced by the movement as including infiltration by Trotskyite groups and a division between reformists and revolutionaries (see especially pp. 229ff). He describes the anti-globalisation movement as “A movement inspired by Zapatismo and radical democracy that speaks a new language, promotes new ideas and wants no party or vanguard to lead it” (p. 233). I’m not convinced by the ‘radical democracy’ part of this, and I fear that power that is not openly talked about is power that operates in a clandestine fashion. Refusing to talk or engage in any form of dialogue is not democratic. The whole point of democracy is that even those we dislike have a voice.

I’m clearly a reformist, and I’m put off by the puritanical rhetoric that Kingsnorth uses. There is too clear a division into right and wrong; them and us. There are ideals and morals galore in this movement, but little actual strategy. This is not ‘a new form of politics’, it’s not really politics at all.

4. Alexander McCall Smith, Morality for Beautiful Girls

Anyone who hasn’t read The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency should do so immediately. It is a wonderful, gentle and charming book. Morality for Beautiful Girls is the third in the series, and the best so far. The characters develop and we get a deeper insight into some of the second tier of regular characters. It’s superb.

One quotation that I record for myself: “Mma Ramotswe had no time for those who decried marriage. In the old days, marriage had been a trap for women, because it gave men most of the rights and left women with the duties … Mma Ramotswe did not support any of that, and thought that the modern notion of marriage, which was meant to be a union of equals, was a very different thing for a woman. Women had made a very bad mistake, she thought, in allowing themselves to be tricked into abandoning a belief in marriage. Some women thought that this would be a release from the tyranny of men, and in a way it had been that, but then it had also been a fine chance for men to behave selfishly. If you were a man and you were told that you could be with one woman until you got tired of her and then you could easily go on to a younger one, and all the time nobody would say that your behaviour was bad – because you were not committing adultery and so what wrong were you doing? – then that would suit you very well indeed” (pp. 138-139).

5. Diarmaid McCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700

This is a superb book, with a wealth of detail and interest. It’s impossible to say everything about it, so I’ll make do with some highlights. The first is the way that McCulloch sees the Reformation (in as broad a fashion as possible) as a set of competing claims to be ‘catholic’. “there were many different Reformations, nearly all of which would have said they were simply aiming at recreating authentic Catholic Christianity … ‘Catholic’ is clearly a word which a lot of people want to possess” (p. xix). McCulloch calls Protestants ‘Evangelicals’, because Protestant is a word used as an insult, at least at first. My own feeling is that ‘Evangelical’ is a similar word to ‘catholic’ – all sides would have claimed that they were being evangelical in the sense of being faithful to the Gospel. Perhaps we need to recapture the sense that these words belong to us all.

Having said that, there is a great deal of interesting material about the Bible and its use (or lack of). We learn that publishing the Bible in the vernacular was banned in Italy, and that the first English translation for Roman Catholics “was not for ordinary folk to read but for priests to use as a polemical weapon” (p. 585). Pope Paul V is even recorded asking the Venetian ambassador in 1606, “Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?” (p. 406). Not the most edifying part of Roman Catholic history. (I should record that it was spending time at the English College in Rome that revitalised my reading of Scripture. Clearly Roman Catholicism has moved a great deal since Paul V.)

McCulloch writes that the advent of syphilis in 16th Century Europe has many parallels to the advent of AIDS in the 20th. “Like AIDS … the French Pox developed its own literature, because it became the uninvited guest of the powerful and the articulate – which then meant noblemen and clergymen rather than people in Wall Street, the media and the arts” (p. 631). Like AIDS, some debated whether it really was a disease and it had ramifications on the religion of the day. Job became its patron saint, and hospitals called Incurabili were founded to treat sufferers. “Charitable ladies held fund-raising drives (‘World Pox Day’?) to pay for it [treatment] and for the work of the Incurabili generally” (p. 632).

Finally, McCulloch cites the late Herbert McCabe’s suggestion that “God may be the question” (p. 707) posed to the miseries of human existence. A footnote records that “Herbert McCabe made this observation to me late in an evening of wine, whiskey and argument” (p. 780, n. 61). That seems a suitable place to finish my notes on McCulloch’s book.

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