Amanda Lewis has written a hagiography of the novelist Haruki Murakami, and apparently believes he deserves the Nobel prize. Let’s overlook that the prize is historically a badge of ephemerality, of middle-brow worthiness, of mediocrity.

Lewis believes Haruki Murakami became a more important writer when he got a message to convey. She helpfully summarises his message: individuals are more important than groups, individual perception is more important than historical truth or fact, violence is caused by depersonalisation of individuals. Well, that’s handy. Now we have the message, we don’t need to read the books.

One point of Haruki Murakami’s that Lewis emphasises near the end of her essay is that fact is near-worthless next to hearsay. It is somehow more “true”. Well, of course we are familiar with the idea that a poetic truth has more value, or is more profound than a mundane fact of reality. But it’s not necessarily true. Things that we call profound SEEM important; their actual importance is another thing.

For example, in Murakami’s “After the quake” he says (says Lewis) that the only person emotionally affected by news of a distant earthquake is a four-year-old girl, who has “hysterical fits” after watching news reports, because she has not yet learned the apathy of adults. Wow, what a deep truth about the innocence of childhood and moral degradation of adulthood. Except that a girl who had such fits would be extremely unusual, as four-year-olds feel very little empathy except for people who are close to them. The author’s great “truth” is a cheap poetic device conceived by someone who doesn’t know much about how people’s minds really work. The fact that he is “socially conscious” does not vindicate him. His “truth” is vacuous and inane.

At the end of the essay, Lewis relates some anecdotes about encountering the “Japanese mind”, but is unable to relate this to Haruki Murakami’s thesis in the obvious way: he has developed concern for the value of overlooked individual experience, contrasted with his previous self-professed contempt for the “masses”. But Lewis’s anecdotes show that most people don’t want to be individuals as much as they want to be like everyone else.

Instead of delivering a message, Murakami should be asking questions: What is the value of the individuality of a person who despises this quality in themselves? Of what value is that person, compared with a person who does not think their opinions and beliefs have universal qualities? And is “individuals have value” enough of a take-home message to entitle the novelist to a prize?
 

This linked article collects short pieces on the reconciliation of religion and atheism:
After God: What can atheists learn from believers?

The title is a bit of misdirection, as it’s not suggested that atheists can learn anything useful from what believers in religion may tell them. Rather, the main subject is ways in which the lives of the godless can be improved by elements of religion.

The backlash against the blinkered aspects of the “New Atheists” has in fact been quite blinkered in itself – yes, the NAs may not know every nook and cranny of the theology they are arguing against, and the history of the USSR shows that a (supposedly) godless nation may perpetrate all the horrors of the religious state and then some, but underlying the backlash argument is the thought that, because the NAs deny the existence of God and the spiritual, they are obviously wrong, and any specific citings of St. Augustine are more for the sake of form than necessity of argument.

In terms of cognitive development, both groups are stuck at certain points analogous to those which children pass through. The religious are at the stage of believing that morality comes from authority (i.e. murder is wrong because God forbids it/it’s against the law), of wishful thinking (willpower and prayer can affect the world), and magical thinking (events occur due to will of supernatural entities, morally-determined providence or karma; non-sentient things have moral qualities).

The atheists are at a later step, where they understand the distinction between the world and the self: the world is distinct from the individual’s mind and body and so cannot be moved by will alone; events in the world are not necessarily directed at them personally by benevolent or malevolent powers; the moral status of a thing or event derives from the judgement of the observer, not the thing itself. From this stage naturally arises disbelief in divine will, souls, magic, ghosts, and moral absolutism (not the same as rejecting morality, but rather understanding that other views may exist).

When it comes to intellectual and moral development, we always imagine that we have reached the final stage. The atheists are a step beyond the believers, but there is another step to take: There is no use in knowing the world if you do not know yourself.

It is a fallacy to attribute religion to religious institutions. Obviously the belief came first. Also, I think that if atheists are honest they will admit to the weaknesses of which they accuse the believers. I’ve observed in myself, precisely due to my desire to be a strict atheist, all sorts of thoughts which are supposed to derive externally from religion or superstition. Have you ever willed a car to start or a computer to work faster? Have you ever prayed to get to a destination on time? Do you believe deep down that certain moral standards are indivisible? Have you ever felt that a dead person was somehow still present?

We all think like this, even Richard Dawkins. From this, I think we must conclude that our minds are mystically inclined, even if the world in which we live is not. This is something that Carl Jung recognised and explored (though I think deep understanding of the situation will have to wait for radical advances in neuroscience). Jung suggested in The Undiscovered Self that being denied overt religious experience would cause mental collapse, but I think the mind is more adaptable: if the idea of God is consciously rejected, something else will inevitably fill that mental slot, be it Communism, nation, family, sports, or even the idea of “nothing” itself (to paraphrase The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, some people go to church, some keep birds, and some join the Communist Party). In a similar way, monotheistic religions inevitably develop a crypto-pantheon of prophets, saints or similar venerated figures, because this fulfills an inherent psychological need.

Several secular religious forms have already been observed: performances of Beethoven’s 9th symphony have long been regarded, not always consciously, as a kind of eucharist, if not a downright ecstatic mass ritual. English literary culture rests on both the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare (I recently watched a documentary in which an actor talked about audiences speaking Hamlet’s soliloquy along with him, which certainly has something of the church about it, and elsewhere the extended analysis of the play texts was nothing less than hermeneutics). In the U.S.A., the national Constitution is revered on a par with the Ten Commandments. In Russia, the great novelists are regarded as something like national prophets. Experiences like childbirth and mountain-climbing have been called “spiritual” by people who’ve never given thought to the condition of their souls. None of these have been accorded the overt recognition given to the institutions of religion.

(Should these be called secular religions or secular cults? Technically, because they are smaller, more personal and less externally dogmatic, they are cults, whereas totalitarian creeds like Communism and Fascism were religions.)

Can we consciously establish broad-based secular religions, as Daniel Dennett and Alain de Botton have suggested? There are some tricky obstacles to overcome, the trickiest of which is: How can you believe in something which you simultaneously don’t believe? But then, there are plenty of paradoxes in the orthodox religions. They are called “Mysteries“.

First, we must acknowledge what is in our minds, perhaps by a catechism – “I have no soul, and yet my soul is everything. The world has no meaning, and yet is utterly beautiful and profound. Ritual is mere action, and yet it connects me to people, places, and myself. There is no “Good” nor “Evil”, and yet kindness is the greatest virtue, and cruelty the foulest sin. Death is the end, but I feel everything somehow eternally remains. I am an animal – and yet I love, and my mind encompasses the universe.” That’s just an improvised suggestion.

Texts of faith: there is something unsatisfying about religious texts created to be such by an individual. Apart from the problem of personal idiosyncracy being transformed by authority into unanswerable dogma, the work of one person rarely has the richness and sheer size that make older religious canons seem so profound. Whatever the new Bible might turn out to be, it must be complex, and the work of many authors (or an author who contains multitudes).

As for secular ritual, there are plenty of things which serve as ecstatic experiences, but few that offer regular solemn observance, and none that offer forgiveness, acceptance and transformation of pain into transcendence. Perhaps such a thing could not exist until a secular faith is consciously created.

Here is an article in the New Yorker, on belief, atheism, and the populous realms between: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2014/02/17/140217crat_atlarge_gopnik?currentPage=all

Particularly of interest to me is the discovery of Auguste Comte, a French Humanist who indeed founded a Humanist “religion”, the Religion of Humanity. His development of strict and complex doctrines for priests and rituals seems rather oppressive, and therefore a mistake, but I like the idea of Humanist chapels.

Perhaps if I was rich I would build a Hall of Humanity in the centre of the city. It would be a beautiful space, like a cathedral or a great museum, but warm and welcoming, surrounded by a simple garden and with chapel niches containing statues or busts of great people, each with a plaque describing their achievement. Statesmen and public figures would strive for remarkable feats of altruism and expansion of knowledge, in the hope that one day they too would have a place in the hallowed Hall (all appointments would be posthumous, of course). On the other hand, they would be fearful of ending up in the basement of the Hall, where mass murderers and those who have suppressed knowledge, health and opportunity for the sake of doctrine would be placed (I’m thinking now of Tony Abbott and his war on science (and his Health Ministry staffed by alcohol and fast-food lobbyists)). The lighting here would be dark and fearful, and the smell of the sewer would waft up through vents in the floor. Every religion needs its devils.
 

Butch / Femme Bullshit

26 March, 2013

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with society’s gender expectations. It’s probably because my parents tried to raise me and my sister gender-neutral – at least, that’s what I was told. Despite the party line, my sister had Barbie dolls, and once when I was very young my sister and I swapped clothes – Dad came out into the yard and told me off: “You know what they call boys who wear dresses, don’t you?” Actually, I had no idea, and he didn’t clarify the issue for me.

But this isn’t going to turn into some story about transvestitism or sex change, or using trendy words like “ver” and “cis”. I’ve never had a problem with my gender or sex. Sex: I have XY chromosomes, so I’m male. Gender: I’m not masculine or feminine, I’m ME. I really don’t understand the issue everyone else seems to have with gender – “OMG I’m too/too little masculine/feminine.” It’s like worrying that you like or don’t like tomatoes – it doesn’t matter, and it has no moral implications.

But I’m the only one who thinks like that. Gay or straight, progressive or conservative, everyone seems to buy into the fundamental importance of gender. The only difference is that some people flip the usual sex/gender alignment. So what? It’s still the same old game: one is assertive, the other is receptive. This is assumed to be the only possible sexual model.

And yes, although having no interest in gender roles has been inconvenient for me (being bullied or dismissed for being “queer” because I don’t play the masculine game), the saddest implication of all this plays out in the bedroom. The mandatory masculine/feminine roles mean that sex always has to be about power. The truth which we are not permitted to deny: you can’t have sex without the ruler and the ruled, however liberal or queer the participants may claim to be. I play these games only grudgingly and never with real pleasure. My partners sense my disinterest in the game, and GTFO ASAP.

I have noticed some dominance games in my sexual imagination in recent years, which I think derive from porn. Porn is based very much on the gender game – male = predatory brute, female = exhibitionist victim. Feminists complain about the sexual victimisation of women and the feminine, but usually blame it on men, maleness, masculinity, patriarchy. They don’t take into account that these roles are enforced just as much by feminine-identified people as by masculine.

You are probably struggling to understand my point of view. It’s okay – I’m coming to accept that I am in a minority of one. Insisting on being myself without regard for the demands of gender roles (apart from fairly conventional dress, for defensive purposes) inevitably alienates me from society, plus means I don’t get laid. It’s lonely, of course, but I couldn’t live with the empty falsity of the alternative.

[This post was written because I tried to talk about these issues in a forum thread called “Delusions of gender” – I was banned for “narrow-minded bullshit”, because I mocked the whole butch/femme game that even “genderqueers” play (I did not criticise any individuals). Are people who take gender roles seriously an oppressed minority? Very fucking far from it. I guess I just touched a nerve.]

I last took this test years ago, when it was on a different site, but my result hasn’t changed, right down to the equal bard-thief ranking. In the detailed stats, it’s nice to see I am not at all evil. 🙂

I Am A: True Neutral Gnome Thief Bard

Alignment:
True Neutral characters are very rare. They believe that balance is the most important thing, and will not side with any other force. They will do whatever is necessary to preserve that balance, even if it means switching allegiances suddenly.

Race:
Gnomes are also short, like dwarves, but much skinnier. They have no beards, and are very inclined towards technology, although they have been known to dabble in magic, too. They tend to be fun-loving and fond of jokes and humor. Some gnomes live underground, and some live in cities and villages. They are very tolerant of other races, and are generally well-liked, though occasionally considered frivolous.

Primary Class:
Thieves are the most roguish of the classes. They are sneaky and nimble-fingered, and have skills with traps and locks. While not all use these skills for burglary, that is a common occupation of this class.

Secondary Class:
Bards are the entertainers. They sing, dance, and play instruments to make other people happy, and, frequently, make money. They also tend to dabble in magic a bit.

Deity:
Callarduran Smoothhands is the True Neutral gnomish god of stone, the underground, and mining. He is also known as the Deep Brother and the Master of Stone. His followers enjoy mining – especially for rubies. Their favorite weapon is the battleaxe.

Find out What D&D Character Are You?, courtesy ofNeppyMan (e-mail)

Detailed Results:

Alignment:
Lawful Good —– X (1)
Neutral Good —- XX (2)
Chaotic Good —- XXX (3)
Lawful Neutral — XXXX (4)
True Neutral —- XXXXXXX (7)
Chaotic Neutral – XX (2)
Lawful Evil —– (0)
Neutral Evil —- (0)
Chaotic Evil —- (0)

Race:
Human —- XX (2)
Half-Elf – X (1)
Elf —— XXX (3)
Halfling – (-2)
Dwarf —- (0)
Half-Orc – (-4)
Gnome —- XXXX (4)

Class:
Fighter – (-6)
Ranger — (-2)
Paladin – (-5)
Cleric — (-6)
Mage —- XXXX (4)
Druid — (-1)
Thief — XXXXXXXXX (9)
Bard —- XXXXXXXXX (9)
Monk —- XX (2)

It occurred to me recently that the moral sense and the aesthetic sense might be related, or possibly even be the exact same thing.

Experiments with infants have shown (debatably) that the “fairness instinct” is indeed inborn. Somehow from this simple base all the diverse and mutually loathing moral systems of the world are grown. We disagree about what may be called right, or wrong, but either way we sure feel strongly about it, because it’s in our genes.

Now look for example at internet forums, where matters as trivial and unprovable as the validity of a musical interpretation can stir us to righteous fury. It is an aesthetic issue, but it can stir emotions as strong as any political or religious debate. It is in fact a moral response.

If we accept this premise, where does it take us? Well, for a start it validates moral relativism. (I mean that in a philosophical sense, not a prescriptive sense.) It also suggests new methods of social influence. We already use aesthetic considerations to influence moral judgements, e.g. calling someone “crooked” or “dirty”. Possibly this approach could also work the other way. For instance, if the populace is exercised by a political issue, they might be diverted from action by a related aesthetic issue, e.g. a debate over the design for a new flag.

Possibly this idea has been developed before, and by someone with more substantial credentials than mine. But I’m less interested in producing material for a thesis, more in developing better tools for understanding human thought and behaviour.

A definition of art

22 August, 2011

A work of art is a beautiful, made object.

I arrived at that definition while trying to clear away the Romantic and Modern dross that has accumulated around the concept. In essence, art (deriving from the Latin, roughly meaning skill, craft or technique) is a thing created by a person (so a sunset may be beautiful, but it is not art). It is created to be beautiful, i.e. its function is aesthetic, not practical (hence Wilde’s assertion that art is useless). And its virtues proceed from its being an actual thing that exists in the world, not a concept or ideal.

What do I mean by ‘beautiful’? Obviously there are artworks which we can enjoy which don’t necessarily fit the conventional idea of beauty. But if they stimulate us in a pleasant way, then I would call them beautiful. (And if we find them genuinely unpleasant, we avoid them.) But still, what is beauty?

Recall Pinker’s description of music as “cheesecake for the mind”. I think that fits with my materialist idea of what art actually does. In the case of music, patterns of vibrating air are received through the senses, and stimulate electrochemical activity in the brain which we find rewarding. Proportions and textures and interrelationships are arranged in patterns which we perceive to be “right”, for whatever psychological or biological reason.

As you can see, I don’t believe in a literally spiritual dimension of art. I don’t think that a great artwork exists somehow beyond time, space and conventional morality. I also regard “profundity” as a product of perception, and not as a special mystical insight. I can reach the end of Bruckner’s 9th with a sensation of intellectual and emotional ecstasy, profundity and insight – but what is this ‘insight’? The world has not changed, and neither have I (except perhaps in becoming more sensitive to aesthetic experience).

I don’t think this way of looking at art diminishes it or my experience of it. Art still affects me; it’s just that I don’t proceed from that effect to the notion that I have received mystical (or sociopolitical) insight.
 

I’ve been thinking about architecture, prompted by watching Grand Designs and reading this thread.

I don’t want to go into a long rant, so I’ll just state some basic principles which underlie my tastes:

Architecture is not sculpture. We’ve been sold a bill of goods as far as “human”, “playful” postmodern architecture is concerned. A provocative sculpture is not the same as a good building. I call these things “gimmick buildings”; they are amusing in the short term but banal and annoying in the long term – and the long term is what architects should be thinking of. In fact, in practical experience, these are generally bad buildings. You can’t make a comfortable home out of a concept, however “visionary” that concept may be. (Nor can you redeem a Modernist box by pasting a sneering caricature of a past style over the facade.)

Modernism was wrong. Critics and defenders alike of Modernist trends usually overlook that Modernism was an intellectual trend imposed across society, not confined to any one area of life. The Modernist impetus to wipe out the “redundant” past, and create superior new forms from nothing except abstract ideology, is visible in Communism (and, disguised, in Fascism), architecture, music, writing, education, etc., etc. A few worthy creations labelled Modernist do not justify the eradication and derision of all the old ways; we see that the best of culture usually arises from organic development, and not by reinventing the wheel.

Flat roofs are stupid. Unless you are building in a place with NO precipitation (and with no massive duststorms), flat roofs are impractical, expensive to keep up, and more liable to fail disastrously. (They also often are eaveless, so that modern “pure” box buildings are streaked with grime from the run-off, and in hot countries the lack of eaves means you use more energy keeping the interior cool.)

Doors are for closing. Sure, you may feel, in some hippyish way, that living without the artificial barriers of doors and walls will lead to some sort of freeing of consciousness, spiritually and politically and environmentally. But do you really want your kids to hear you fucking (or you to hear them) from the other side of your open-plan communal dwelling? Do you want to smell someone frying garlic while you are having a shit (or, God forbid, vice versa)? Do you want to try figuring out the household finances while listening to the kids playing on the X-Box and the spouse watching a movie? The invention of the door was one of the major events of civilisation, because it was a revolutionary machine for keeping bad air (and predators) out, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and getting silence and privacy in which to think for yourself. Don’t throw that gift away.

Windows have consequences. Just in the last year or two, a new building went up at Sydney University which is basically a glass box suspended in the air. It will cost a FORTUNE to keep cool in summer, and warm in winter. The advantage of this design? Well… I suppose it’s cheaper to build a giant greenhouse than to drop a billion dollars worth of gold bricks into the ocean. There is that. Oh, and, of course, it has a flat roof.
The opposite approach is also used – great concrete bunkers (often university libraries) with tiny slits for windows that are practically useless, and make the occupants feel like prisoners.
This is also the place to mention that great hypocrite Mies van der Rohe, who berated his clients for installing curtains or blinds in their windows, which should have been kept pure and bare, and meanwhile, in his own home, Mies was surrounded by bourgeois chintz.
Nowadays, many commissioners of domestic fish tanks architecture have drunk the Kool-aid, and, like self-flagellating monks, willingly expose themselves to the glare of the sun and the gaze of their neighbours, all in the cause of Modernism. As with open-planning (see “Doors are for closing”, above), it seems that Modernists regard the desire for privacy as something shameful. Like Victorians trying to prevent masturbation, Modernists are horrified at the thought of a person going about their business without the constant supervision of their family or co-workers or neighbours or random passers-by. What have you got to hide?!? Take all the doors off their hinges, confiscate all blinds and curtains. Be Healthy and Clean and constantly visible to all. I suspect all this enforced openness has a deleterious effect on the psyche.

Apart from the above approaches to avoid, here are some positive suggestions:

Subtle ornament. All the great buildings of the past use elegant, repeated motifs to make them seem organic and alive. However, please note the word “subtle”. Giant flashing lights installed at one metre intervals across a bare concrete plane are not subtle.

Regularity, but softened. The human eye loves symmetry and regularity, but this should not be overdone. Patterns of regular repeating features should be occasionally broken up with an element that complements, not contrasts, the overall scheme.

Human scale. Low ceilings and narrow corridors are oppressive, because the person feels confined and restricted; towering ceilings and huge doorways are also oppressive, because the person feels dominated and lost. If you are a human being, you will know what the happy medium looks like. Apply that to your buildings. Remember that the ratio of height to width determines scale, but the amount of light in a space is also an important factor.

Sun and shade in 3:2 proportion. This is a rough ratio for designing outdoor spaces, so that people can shelter from the elements (and not feel exposed like ants on a rock) without being mired in gloom. For indoor design, I’d suggest reversing the ratio – certainly not exceeding it, because a degree of shadedness makes people feel safe, and this shouldn’t be sacrificed to an abstract notion of “openness” (see also the above section “Doors are for closing”).