Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Marriage - what's new?

It's no secret, I've been married before - 3 times. It's also no secret that, last Saturday I got married for a fourth time. I don't look on the first 3 marriages as total failures but, to the extent that they were failures, I'm bound to ask myself why someone with my matrimonial track record finds himself embarking on a fourth marriage, with all those solemn undertakings, some of which I have previously failed to live by.

Previously, I thought I meant those undertakings, particularly in the case of my last marriage. Given that even I wouldn't be stupid enough to knowingly drag someone else or myself through the same gradual realisation that the necessary commitment was absent, What's New"? Last Saturday was the culmination of 2 years, during which Ann and I have wrestled with our differences and the pain we would visit upon others. During that time, love has emerged for me as much less of a balance sheet, concerned with how many planks of the dream platform might be present. Mysteriously, getting in touch with Ann via her blog (see blog roll) marked a rekindling of my interest in religion, and the extent to which my feelings about the reality of a spiritual dimension might amount to something I could call faith. At the same time, and prompted by Ann's lucidly written struggles with her own persistent faith, I've joined my local Quaker meeting, which suits me very well.

And so to what's new. Since we're both currently in the American Mid-West, last Saturday evening, I was prompted to fancifully observe that we had "Hitched our wagon to the power of transformative action". And that's the point this time. "Love In Action" is a big thing for the Quakers, and it seems to me like a major reason for believing in anything. To me, there's no point in professing something if it makes no difference to our aspirations and our lives. So, as I contemplate this fourth marriage to a woman who has already made great changes in my life, neither of us stands alone. If we try to be the best we can be, we believe that help and support is available. I hope and pray I now have a better understanding of what commitment means, and I, perhaps pointlessly, regret the suffering caused by my earlier failure to grasp it. Last Saturday, I made that commitment, not only to Ann and our family and friends, present and absent, but the Divine, "The Light", call it what you will, is now involved. This I believe, and that's "What's New".

Monday, 18 October 2010

Our craving for certainty

Certainty, and people who are certain, keep coming up. Once again, I'm reminded of one of its side effect by another MOI post.

The face value of certainty is obvious. We all want a simple life, in which X is true and Y is not. How are we ever to get anything done if we're always hedging our bets against the possibility we may be wrong, or to placate others? But these "others" may have their own certainties, opposed to ours. Does this mean I must face passivity and abject surrender? No it does not, because opinions and our view of what is right is much less the problem than is certainty itself.

The best science is the elucidation of uncertainty, by presenting a better approximation of what the truth may be.

A small example might be my personal take on religion. I believe in something which I call God, and very vague, but very marvellous it is. I feel my beliefs to be true but, even in so doing, I have to acknowledge the fact that my sense of god as some kind of distillation of the best of which we are capable, may simply be an externalised version of my conscience on a good day. I have no means of proving this not to be true. This makes a crucial difference to my attitude to my own version of truth.

Certainty is the enemy of humility, and without humility, the various ideological log jams which currently bedevil humanity can never be broken. Even the smartest human being is a creature of finite intelligence. In some measure therefore, we all possess the potential to be wrong. If our disagreements are born of the uncertainty inescapably part of the human condition, can we not take common cause in the preservation of the planet for all its people, and the future welfare of our grandchildren? If we can't be certain of the disease, let's start by treating the symptoms. You never know, we might all get along better in the process.

Friday, 10 September 2010

"The Other Woman"

To put it briefly, the other woman is routinely cast as the villain in instances of marital break up, and I think this is neither fair nor reasonable.

It has been suggested to me that a woman, especially a self-proclaimed feminist, has a duty of care towards her married sisters, which should oblige her to keep her nose - or anything else - out of their marriages. As a male, it is tempting to be offered a way of avoiding some of the responsibility for one's own actions, but it really won't wash. Even if a man is a stereotypically spineless creep, driven by his own poorly understood sexual urges, nobody except him is compelling him to act in this way. He cannot hide behind Eve like Adam and say "She made me do it".

I am not a student of Feminism, but from my understanding of it, on a point of ideology, feminists believe that men exercise disproportionate patriarchal power. This surely doesn't sit well with a view of women which would ascribe to them the power to act as the guardians of other people's marriages.

No, I'm afraid, men or women, those of us who have been instrumental in breaking up our marriages must take responsibility for having done it. I cannot hide behind the skirts of the other woman.

The impulse to blame a third party is understandable and touching; the refuge of love for those who cannot easily hate us. We are shielded from the full force of our former partner's rage by the luckless third party who gets it, in my view, undeservedly, or certainly disproportionately.

Now nobody would advocate the deliberate undermining of another's marriage. To deliberately disrupt a relationship by stirring things up, or to put pressure on someone to go beyond their own inclinations, would constitute unacceptable interference. Simply to find oneself in a relationship with someone, leaving them to decide what the consequences of that might be, is not interference at all. Undue interference is engaged in by other men as well as other women, and it is an issue completely separate from some imagined female duty to safeguard the sanctity of marriage.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Personal and national responsibility

Confused as ever, this is triggered by me, us, and Mr Fahrenheit451 Jones in Florida burning Korans.

The confusion in this case is not I think limited to me. If individuals or societies think it right to regulate the behaviour of others, it doesn't follow that they are therefore responsible for behaviour which they might condemn or declare illegal.

Societies which regard themselves as democratic often place limits on free speech. There are both ethical and practical arguments for this. We take action to foster a political discourse not based on ethnic, religious, or sexual hatred on principle; and/or we see the impossibility of living in communities while they burn down around us.

So Pastor Jones Et Al decide to burn some Korans as if every follower of Islam were implicated in the 9/11 attrocities. We can voice our disapproval, or someone can stop it if it's illegal. So far so good. Then I just heard on the news that the Indonesian government are saying that if this act takes place, it will damage relations between Islam and The West. But this is not The West, this is Pastor Jones Et Al doing their bit to exacerbate conflict, hastening the final battle when they get raptured up into heaven, while the rest of us provide them with some divinely approved mayhem and torment to enjoy from their celestial vantage point.

It seems to me that the Indonesian government is being as irrationally hysterical as Mr Jones. I can't be held responsible for the actions of a few loonies burning books just because some Moslims want to feel globally persecuted. Members of all religions have had, and continue to have, enough suffering on a personal and local basis, without others trying to capitalise on it by turning the action of every bigot into a harbinger of global catastrophe.

Friday, 3 September 2010

"There's none so blind as those who won't see"

Without descending into self pity, it's fair to say that, in spite of technical advances, there are many frustrations in using the Internet for screen reader users like me, particularly in Blog Land.

It is MOI who provided me with the spur to take these on for my own greater good. To illustrate what this means, and to get to the point of this post, she likes this article, as do I, and as I hope will you when you've read it. She also likes "Get Over It" by The Eagles.

The article and the song are both critiques of different kinds of miopia. One seeks to legitimise a sense of superiority and special righteousness, while the other seeks to blame someone else for everything that's wrong with our world.

It staggers me that the proponents of Mr beck's view don't seem to pause for one moment and ask, "isn't this just a bit too convenient for me personally?" I'd love to be one of a chosen people, and to have a special place in the scheme of things.. There's even a form of verse named after the man who wrote:
How odd of God
To choose the Jews".
I don't know if it still exists, but there used to be a group here in the UK called The League Of British Israelites. The idea is that "The English" are descended from the 12 lost tribes and therefore, guess what, we're the chosen people.

Glenn Beck's thesis implies to me that the God of the old testament temporarily chose the Jews while he was waiting for a random bunch of merchant adventurers and religious fugitives to colonise the land mass which later became the USA. And because it later grew to be a rich and powerful nation, the rest of us have good cause to be grateful that many of its original founders were not selfishly miopic, being people of faith and good conscience. If a version of Hitler had come "Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born" with the USA as his power base, who knows what might have become of humanity.

The fact that we'd all like to be special is totally unsurprising. It's the fact that so many seem to forget that in the very act of proclaiming their specialness that astounds me.

We have what we have, and we are born where we're born purely by accident. Everything we have can be taken away by a Hurricane Catrina, a river Indus in flood, or a bunch of Goths coming over the hill, who have finally lost patience with those whom they think have more than their "fair share".

We deserve nothing; certainly nothing we haven't personally earned. If we're tempted to believe that we do, we should "Get Over It", and just be grateful for what (and whom) we have in our lives.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Off and on line shopping and the individual shopper

People usually have a ready opinion about shopping, and how they feel about doing it, either alone or with others. When asked such a question, most would, I think, assume you were asking about store-based pedestrian shopping, a feature of which is that you can customise your own approach to it.

There are those who go out resolutely to find a particular thing or things and, the task being accomplished, they stop shopping. There's an intermediate category of those who set out with all kinds of good intentions, but are seduced by plenty, and all the stuff they never knew they wanted. They may well get home to find that they never knew they wanted it because they really don't, it just seemd like a good idea at the time. Lastly there is the true stuff junky. They love to buy stuff, individually or in packs, but they also get high on just contemplating stuff, whether they buy it or not.

As we all know, modern consumerist economies rely on our buying more than we need, beyond our ability to pay for it, in order to function. This has required the transformation of debt from a response to emergency into a means of instant wish fulfillment.
"I don't hold with it", says my mother, whose generation saw buying things they couldn't afford as a sign of moral degeneracy.

This transition is highlighted by the on line shopping experience. Naturally, it's set up to exhibit and, hopefully, therefore sell the maximum amount of stuff. So my category1 person, the seeker after particular things, has to negotiate a sea of irrelevance in order to reach their goal. On line shopping is set up for the window shopper. This is an obvious tactic, but it may be a simplistic one, since frustration at wading through the unwanted to reach the wanted may drive away those who just came to get what they knew they were looking for. In fact, it definitely does, in my case at least. I'm frequently bemused and enraged by sites like Amazon, which seem determined to enlighten me about everything my fellow shoppers bought, which apparently means that I might do the same. Now I wish all Amazon customers long and happy lives, but I am not remotely interested in their CD or book collections. With this in mind, I think on line retail sites should seriously think about providing more fast track and targeted links to a particular item for my kind of shopper, sparing me the contents of others' baskets. "This is the range of items within your specific search". Perhaps, "Click here for more choices", but that's all.

I may appear more than averagely (if that's an acceptable adverb) exercised by all this, and that's because I've held off on the blind stuff. Now for the blind stuff.

As a totally blind person, I use screen reading software, which outputs the screen to me as either synthetic speech or Braille. Both speech and Braille offer very welcome access of course, but it probably doesn't strike the sighted reader that both these methods are essentially linear. I can't cast my eye over a page, see what I'm looking for, and stick the mouse on it. I can use on screen "find" commands if I know very precisely the exact words I'm looking for, or there are "place Markers" for previously visited pages if I can be bothered to set them up, ETC. But it's time consuming and, to return to my original point, it's time wasting imposed on me by the retailer to tell me about things I know I don't want. Vast choice feels much less like a cherished human right if you don't want it. Can I choose choice when I want it?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"People of good will"

That plain and simple phrase struck me when reading a post by Frank Schaeffer, in his crusade against all forms of fundamentalism, including atheism.

This - hopefully short - post is not about religion, but I can't read anything that Mr Schaeffer writes without realising how much I admire the strength of will and basic integrity required by all those who, drawn into fundamentalism by birth or circumstances, have the courage to understand and walk away from its seductive negativity.

But the phrase "people of good will" leapt out at me yesterday as the story of BP, the US President, the devastation visited on animal and plant life, and those just trying to earn a living, began to get its predictably hysterical skates on. We hear the sound of those with a personally fulfilling credo to launch beginning to rub their hands at the prospect of scoring some points against their tribally defined opponents - liberals, conservatives, capitalists socialists ETC.

Now this is all good mental exercise perhaps, and gets those who need it an adrenalin fix, but what does it actually achieve? Does it stop the spill? Does it solve the inherent problems of needing to extract fossil fuels from increasingly difficult locations? Does it rebuild the eco-system, and the lives of the fishermen and tourist industry workers who depend upon it?

Our world is currently set up for this adversarial bullshit of course. Most of our problems are long term problems, and politicians think in 4/5 year cycles, and industrialists think of short term profit for investors. To get elected, you need to make yourself distinct by espousing some "ism" which will save the world and the whale, or which will preserve your freedom from the ravenings of "big government", or save your wages from being consumed by taxes.

This is essentially fiddling while Rome burns, and the more unlikely it seems that "people of good will" will emerge through this fog of polarised rhetoric, the more essential it is that they do.

Narrow self-interest doesn't work in the long run. People can be oppressed and enslaved, but not indefinitely. If we hang onto everything we have, sooner or later, the dispossessed will come and get it.

Enlightened self-interest is co-operation. It involves diverting our considerable brain power away from school yard insults, and into defining and solving the problems we all face.

If I have to choose between what might sound like idealistic claptrap, and the prospect of the progressive disintegration of an ever more divided society and world, I think I'd at least have a go at the claptrap.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The language of love

It was while reading this post by Aaron Ben-Zeév, that I started thinking about the language of love, and the inevitable gap between what we say and what we may mean.

In making his points, I think Mr Ben-Zeév is being a tad literal, bless his philosopher's heart.

It is true that we need warning against unrealistic expectations, and the potential of unhealthy obsession for sucking the life out of a loving relationship. But, when attempting to apply language to describing how it feels to love someone in the romantic sense, we are grappling with the difficulty, or impossibility, of describing a feeling. This is why we have developed art - music, visual art, or, specifically the heightened language of poetry, non-literal prose ETC.

So, I would suggest, when someone says "you are everything to me", we shouldn't immediately send them off to counselling. They may be, perhaps for the first time, experiencing how it feels to have someone impinge on their world in a way which feels unique. Words best describe the concrete and rational. I think love between two people is more than a by-product of mutually ticked boxes. Now there's nothing wrong with a relationship based on mutually ticked boxes, but if they aren't, or don't remain, mutual, watch out! But such a quasi-contractual relationship isn't love. What love is, however, is very mysterious, hence the need for vague and perhaps hypurbolic language when we try to talk about it.

Aaron Ben-Zeév draws parallels between the experience of romantic love and religious experience, which make a lot of sense to me, since faith doesn't depend on rationality either - it's a conviction we "feel", wonderfully unprovable, and not, in my opinion, amenable to transmission to anyone else.

I would go so far as to say that love, as we may be lucky enough to experience it between us, and religious experience, are aspects of the same thing. Just as we can't be too literal about the language of love, so I think we shouldn't get too hung up on the detail of our individual numinous experiences. They speak to us through the lens of whom we are. Whether we do the processing, or whether the Spirit does it to suit our needs or our best channel of receptivity, I have no idea. For what it's worth, my feeling is that Spirit is external, as something like Tarot is based on our internal response to our consciousness - everything we know of ourselves, like dreams.

So how could so many versions of what feels "true" be true? That's because we all see through a different glass darkly. This is OK because, if there is some kind of absolute truth, and I suspect there might be, I have no expectation of being able to understand it, even if confronted by it. Better to do my best to be the best goldfish I can be, only dimly aware of the possibility of some super being who throws me dried insect eggs and changes the water. (Only spiritually speaking of course. A physically interventionist Divinity makes no sense to me.)

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Thought and feeling again - a personal perspective

I need to write this. Whether anyone else needs to read it remains to be seen. In case anyone who doesn't know me reads this, some personal detail is required if it is to make any sense.

In the last 18 months, I have, increasingly intermittently, visited two different counsellors. The idea was to get help with understanding, and hopefully managing, occasional outbursts of anger. I wasn't aspiring to sainthood, I don't think there's anything wrong with righteous anger, if it turns out to be righteous, and simply repressing anger can make it worse in the long run.

My problem is anger that pre-exists, and is really happy when it finds a target on which to vent spleen and spite, almost always way disproportionate to the perceived misdemeanour of the luckless target. Even worse, this is more likely to happen with someone with whom I feel safe, who deserves it even less, and whom I would do anything not to hurt when in my right mind.

OK, so off to counselling to find the source of this anger. The usual approach is that we're angry with someone whom we don't feel we should be angry with - typically a kind and loving parent. As a 5 year old blind child, I'm sure I was devastated by being shipped off to a special boarding school, even though, I knew my parents acted for what they thought was the best. Anyway, the point is that there's plenty to be angry about, and any counsellor will tell you that. Also, being blind can be frustrating, and I know I get angry about that sometimes. But a sighted counsellor is inevitably putting her/his sighted self in my position, which they have no way of understanding, since blindness is, to them, dark and terrifying, whereas I don't know what darkness is, and my status quo is not particularly terrifying to me (most of the time).

I did get something from examining my relationship with my parents, and the damage that boarding school inevitably did to it. And examining how I feel about blindness is something I hadn't bothered to do much, because it is just how things are.

Finally, I get to the point. This morning it struck me that, for all this searching for specific targets, parents, blindness ETC., what I'm really angry with is things that can't be changed. And the very pointlessness of being angry about what can't be changed is what makes me angry, because there's nothing to be done.

Now when I say "it struck me", I'm sure this idea had previously occurred to me as an idea. But one of my problems with counselling is that I'm definitely someone who says "yes I can see how that might be true". that's a totally non-emotional response of course, and I'm good at those thanks to boarding school, and getting beyond that rationalisation is the hard part. I'm saying that because I may be appearing to state the extremely obvious about the primary source of my anger. But, talking as someone for whom feeling is something of a novelty, I actually felt a very small penny drop.

In my last post, I was musing about thought and feeling, and here's a personal example of what I was talking about. Our reason is crucial to us of course, but its limitations are just as great as the limitations of that part of us which some would dismiss as mere wooly psycho-babble about emotions and spirituality. Wherever our faith, love, or potential self-awareness come from, it feels qualitatively different to me from the chemical stuff. And, unfamiliar territory though it is to me, I'm certainly coming to value it greatly.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

"The Ghost In The Machine"

Hardly an original title, but it sums up my current preoccupation.

Two posts on one of Ann's blogs got me started. And please don't follow that link right now. If you do, as I did a couple of years ago, you might never come back, and I haven't finished yet. Today's prescribed reading list is this post, in which she cites this one, and this post, in which she cites this one.

OK, got all that?
The themes raised by all those posts are interesting in themselves, and very well expressed; so I certainly don't propose to attempt to gild those lillies. But they got me thinking about humans as reasoning machines and as spiritual beings. Do the latter exist? If so, can they be in any way separated from the former, or how do we synthesise these two constituent parts of ourselves in daily practice?

Our powers of reason are brought to bear as soon as we seek to describe anything. We may feel prompted to make a particular ethical choice. Does that prompting come from the same source as our attempt to answer the question "why was I so prompted?" It may do, but I don't feel it does. We should use our eason to scrutinise such feelings as best we may, but as with religious faith or love, we can't deny the reality of a feeling or impulse simply because we can't precisely explain or define it. We yearn for neatness, for tractability, for what Writing Kaye calls "One True Wayism". This is great of course as long as we are the pilgrims on that particular "True Way" (see Ann on the fundamentalist Christian moral position).

Neatness elludes us. To take Ann's 2 posts as examples, we strive for clarity in our ethical choices, perhaps wanting to get closer to scientific standards of discussion, in order to avoid the common confusions, such as someone insisting that you must accept the inerrantcy of scripture simply because they believe it. And yet, when thinking of her creative aspirations, Ann finds herself inexorably drawn into metaphysics again, as Susan Yanos talks about the transformative power of writing, or creativity in general
"Although the writing process is not the only place to engage in such transformational dialogue with the Spirit, it is a powerfully effective place because of its concern both for questions of meaning and for questions of technique:
what we know and how we have come to know it."
"The Spirit" refuses to go away. We may simply be the result of brain chemistry and learned experience, but it seems that most of us don't feel as if we are. This may mean nothing of course but, however unscientific in a narrow sense, I think we cannot simply ignore our convictions because we can't prove them to be true.
I should perhaps say that, in taking examples from Ann's posts, I wasn't seeking to expose inconsistency so much as pointing out that the rational and the metaphysical are endemic to the human condition. We try to consider them as if they were completely separate, but they both inhabit the same person, and refuse to be dealt with separately for long. We seem to need both. When wearing our rational or our spiritual hats, we may appear to deny the other. Synthesis is the hard part. Perhaps we should devote our prime attention to living life, and demote tryin to make sense of it to the category of things which are merely very interesting. But that search for synthesis is, persistently, very interesting.

As an after-thought, if the question of whether our brain chemistry gives us access to our spirituality, or whether it simply creates the illusion of spirituality, were not confusing enough, you might take a look, and have a listen to this audio magazine on current research into mystical experience, accessed by hallucinogens or non-chemical techniques. It may surprise you. Let me know.

Monday, 31 May 2010

The alienating power of scientific progress

I've just been listening to this week's edition of Start The Week . As usual, there was all kinds of discussion, constrained, as it has to be, by the time available.
Here's the synopsis:
"The philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford, who argues that satisfaction comes
from skilled manual labour. Iranian artist Shirin Neshat discusses her new film,
Women Without Men, Sheila Rowbotham muses on the role of women in transforming ideas
about work at the turn of the 20th century and the President of the Royal Society,
Martin Rees, explores scientific horizons and discovers the limits of our understanding."

That got me thinking about the role of science in society, and how we feel about it. It seems to me there's a case for saying that, as science has become ever more crucial to the way we live our lives, our estrangement from it as something exciting and at least generally fathomable has increased. This is dangerous.

How science is taught is obviously very iimportant, and we all know how much a matter of sheer luck it is if we happen to get the kind of experience, and the kind of mentor, who fires us up about an aspect of knowledge.

But progress itself is a stumbling block. for a start, as Martin Rees pointed out this morning, science has enabled us to examine areas far beyond those which our brains have evolved to understand, such as sub-atomic particles, or conditions millions of light years beyond this little planet.

But my main thought this morning took me back to a recent conversation with a friend about how much more exciting electronics, hifi audio, and the wonders of stereo sound were to us growing up. This is not just a consequence of aging I think. When I was growing up, electronic devices were made up of discreet components, and it was not difficult to get at least a general understanding of how it worked if you were interested. If you had the skill, you could take an amplifier to pieces and rebuild it, or go out and buy the bits to build a new one - huge cudos to anyone among your friends who did this.
Now, there are no discreet components. The curious child now stares at a circuit board containing very few items, most of which do multiple tasks, which it would take advanced knowledge and a microscope to understand.

Children are now famous for being able to tell you how the VCR or PC works, but that's "how" it works, not "why" it works. Getting results is now the important thing, because you have no chance of understanding what you're doing. I meet kids who are evidently confused between the difference between hitting the "Demo" button on their home keyboard, and maybe singing or playing something over the top of it, and being able to really play the whole thing. They have no real grasp, technically or musically, on how that demo was put together. They can learn of course, and I hope there are educators out there to help them do that. But being more and more spoon fed by things we don't and, increasingly can't, understand, divorces us from what used to be the electrifying excitement of understandable science, as it divorces us from another aspect of controlling our own lives.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Sex And The Single Thinker

Too much thought is undoubtedly the enemy of enjoyable sex. Too much introspection, or allowing well-intentioned solicitude to get to the front of the mind can transform the fires of passion into an internally conducted solo seminar in inter-personal etiquette:
"Am I being too rough? Would she tell me if there were something I could be doing that she'd enjoy more? Is she faking it?..."

But after the event, earth-moving or not, there are few human activities more thought about and picked over.Sex also provokes high levels of anxiety, and there's nothing so enimical to clear thought as anxiety. We take refuge in statistics. Sometimes we want to be "normal" (please tell me I'm not weird), and sometimes we look for measures of performance to prove that we're above average, or, if not the best, that there are poor souls below us in the striking rate, orgasm rate, or measurable pleasure stakes.

I have some recommended reading for you.
Try this or this if you have a taste for ratings and classifications, serious or more light-hearted.

Desperately hanging onto those numbers in search of some clarity,
even those trying really hard not to "rate" sex in general, or their own performance in particular, find it a difficult temptation to resist. But it's a temptation worth resisting because it leads to muddle. What other sources of pleasure might sex be "better than" or "worse than"? How does it feel? How do the orgasms of men and women differ? How do we measure those differences? When someone pronounces themselves "aroused" what do they mean? Is an account given after the event reliable? The sex might be mixed up with all kinds of feelings about intimacy and love. "Ay there's the rub". Well if sex is the rub in the mechanical sense, love is one of the many complicating factors which make for a pretty damn good rub in the Shakespearean sense.

However, I'm not taking any kind of serious issue with the number crunchers. It's interesting, analysis can always get more sophisticated and explained to the rest of us, and people like me are not going to pick arguments with statisticians. I'm just saying it's complicated and can't be relied upon to reveal any great absolute truths; not least because there may not be any absolute truths, at least not comprehensible by mere human beings.

However, once we cast our raft adrift in open philosophical waters, with no numbers to steer by, we have to be extra careful, and the most surprising people can become careless (or I think so anyway).

I've read some helpful and wise articles by Aaron Ben-Zeév. But, unless I'm mistaken - always a possibility of course - in this article,
Mr Ben-Zeév seems to have been overcome by the confusion which is always a risk when attempting to wax profound on the subject of sexual morality. He's asking "Are love and sexual desire moral?" I don't think this is a question that could be given house room even in the humble abode of this non-philosopher. Can romantic love or sexual desire be moral or immoral in and of themselves? Surely not. Desire is just a drive, and romantic love may mark the height of human aspiration, but it doesn't seem to me to be codifiable as required by anything I would associate with rules of morality. To give an obvious example, for a theologically correct Christian, love and sexual desire are only moral when practised within a monogamous marriage. But love and desire are notoriously good at destroying such marriages when coming in from outside them. Someone whose morality was more relativistic would start talking about consequences. Again stressing my lack of philosophical credentials, I think that if we ask a question, and our first answering thought begins with "it depends...", then we're not asking a sensible question.

We desire whom we desire. We love whom we love. The morality part is what we choose to do about it. And that morality is our morality. Asking ourselves "should I be having this sex?", when we're already having it is rather late, and will probably result in bad morality and bad sex.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Feelings, Reality and Imagination

When I say "We" in this post, I mean that (see my final paragraph). I'm telling myself off as much as anything else.

If we have strong negative feelings about other people, if, for example, we feel angry or ill-used, what should we do about it? What should those who love us do about it?

Anger can be quite enjoyable, and we all relish being right, or feeling right. But supposing we have it wrong, or perhaps partially wrong. Does that mean that the relish, or some of the relish, will have to stop? Far better, our demons may say, to obstinately cling to those feelings as our sacred right, without regard to their justification in fact.

If those we love are in the grip of such feelings, whether towards us or others, what is our duty to them? Should we try to point it out if we think they're wrong. Does that depend on whether their feelings are making them suffer or whether they're in some sense glorying in their righteousness? Overall, either way, I think we have to try and reason with them. First, because we don't want those we love to suffer needlessly if we think they are suffering needlessly. And second, because if we think they're nurturing feelings without regard to their basis in fact, because they just need to have that feeling, and don't care against whom it's levelled, or what its consequences might be, then we may think that they've lost their way, spiritually or otherwise, if they put their right to have feelings ahead of everything else.

I speak as someone who has caused pain by relishing disproportionate anger. It can displace love and rationality, and I must resist it if I wish to be capable of either, and I know I am.

Friday, 12 March 2010


I am very bad at self-promotion, which is why I'm so gratified by the interest which people who command my respect have expressed in my music. So I'm slowly beginning to get some stuff on Reverbnation. At the moment, there are a couple of demos of 2 of my more recent songs. I'll be adding some more soon, both played and sung by me alone, as are the current offerings, and played by my trio - Blind Black & Breathless. I'll be adding some studio stuff later - tracks we thought were finished at the time.

As you listen, remember that the next song will almost certainly be very different from the last one, so I don't think there's anything about what I write that could be described as "typical" of me. This is why my flirtation with the music business was so unsuccessful, because, however necessary for commercial purposes, I don't seem to be able to package myself.

All feedback welcome as I put new (or new old) stuff up there, and the plot thickens.
This link should allow you to listen.
Thanks so much for the encouragement.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Art and purpose

""Art doesn't help anyone," Garp said. "People can't really use it: They can't eat it, it won't shelter or clothe them - and if they're sick, it won't make them well." This, Helen knew, was Garp's thesis on the basic uselessness of art; he rejected the idea that art was of any social value whatsoever - that it could be, that it should be."

I'm currently reading "The World According To Garp" by John Irving (that quote comes from chapter9). Irving's central character, Garp, is himself an author. At this point in the book, he's going through a confidence crisis about his writing. Irving portrays him as a character who believes literature, however determined his impulse to write it, is "a luxury item". So, with the addition of the confidence crisis, Mr Garp feels that he can't even do something of no practical account very well - as we might imagine a purveyor of bad truffles might feel for example. His mother is a nurse, entirely matter of fact, straightforward and practical; so, even when he felt at the height of his powers, we might imagine him always trying to out run a sense of uselessness - the shadow cast by his ever vigilant and caring mother, the role model, the quintessence of usefulness.

Enough about Garp (read the book), but he, or rather his creator, got me started.

Recession permitting - although they tell me it's over - I try to earn my living as a musician, and have done so for the last 39 years. I write my own music as well as performing that of others, so I have some pretensions to creativity. My father was however a very practical man, not without an artistic side, but great at making things. And, guess what, however much applause I get, and however gifted someone may tell me I am, somewhere there lurks a sense of uselessness and incompetence, which is why Irving's fictional author made me pay close attention. My blindness gives my sense of limitation an edge, but not crucially, since my father was also blind.

Enough about me, but that was my next thought.

So we have here a fictitious and a real person, both in thrall to the same irrationality. My head knows that I'm not as useless as I sometimes feel, but "feel" is the operative word. Some kind of home made behavioural therapy might perhaps cure this, whereby I would act with all the self belief exhibited by the denizens of reality television. But I don't think, in all conscience, I could inflict this sham version of me upon the human race. We've all met people who are trying to be something which they are not. I was once close to someone who decided it was high time to become empowered and assertive, when they had previously been quite shyand retiring. This eventually worked, but the transition phase was jarring and abrasive. Someone who is unsure about their physical strength may lack the confidence in their ability to subdue an opponent in a fight. This could lead him or her to kill the opponent first, if the opportunity presented itself, driven by fear of what might happen to them if the attack could not be stopped.
An extreme example, and a big digression, but I don't think a personality transplant is an option - less drastic management is the answer. In fact, I already do this, since every gig I do is a potential chance for a reassurance fix. It's clear that a lot of the motive force behind our irrationalities is personality driven. But, just in case it helps, what of the facts? Garp says art is, in a practical sense, useless and, with my father looming in the background, I know how that feels. But to proclaim that as a fact is paradoxically arrogant, because we are in no position to know whether what we do is useful, or of service, or not.

So, finally, what about art? We can discuss what art is, how it relates to the aesthetic sensibilities of those who create it, whether it should involve skill, like the Latin word "ars" from which it derives. the boundary between art and so-called craft is hopelessly blurred, as is the boundary between music written as a work of art, and music written to entertain. On all levels, art strikes me as, superficially and profoundly, "useful". Dumbing down literary and artistic education in this country is having very predictable results. And if you are content for people, who already feel disenfranchised, to live in an environment that looks like a concrete fortification, the outcome is equally predictable. So art of all kinds is as useful as the person on the receiving end of it thinks it is. Music enriches my life enormously, from Pete Johnson to Claude Debussy; from William Byrd to James Taylor. Shakespeare probably thought he was just a jobbing playwright. We cannot judge ourselves, either in terms of value or purpose. We just have to put our sense of what's wrong with the things about us which everyone else says are OK on the back burner and, as the Eagles say "get over it". We'll be rendered much less productive by worry than we ever will be by a suspiciously irrational sense of being useless, or, in contemporary jargon, "not fit for purpose".

Friday, 22 January 2010

The US - how to avoid a sense of despair

I've been in the US for the last 3 weeks and, although I know what Rufus Wainwright meant in his song "Going to a town" where he says "I'm so tired of America", that's not it for me. I'm far from tired of this country, whether in it, or out of it back home. I happen to have had that song on the brain, and it prompts me to assk, if not "tired of America", then what is my sense of discomfort at the state of things here? Before attempting to answer that, might I add that I don't much relish the state of things back home in the UK either, but that's another story.

Everything about this country is big - most obviously, geographical size, economic power =financial and political influence in the wider world. To the sheer clout created by massive natural resources and industrial might, was added the high moral tone associated with the country's formation - one thinks of William Penn, the constitution, the Civil War, the Marshall Plan ETC. The result is a readily justifiable national sense of self-importance and righteousness - the implication that God is a capitalist, and the United States is his prophet. This opinion should be taken as an assessment not a criticism. I'm sure that, had I been born in the States, certainly in the first half of the last century, there would have been little to discourage me from this conviction if I had chosen not to go looking for it.

Particularly within the warmth and relative security of "The Homeland", there are two marvellous traits in the American character, which make for a chink in what could be the total armour of that self-importance. American hospitality and generosity, particularly on an individual level, is second to none, as we have seen with the relief effort for the recent Haitian earthquake. And, like most of us, Americans want to be appreciated; they want to be loved. Without these traits, US capitalist fundamentalism could simply run riot in the world, with no vestige of conscience. While some may think that it has, there is some unease in the american soul, as shown by their reaction to anti-Americanism exhibited by foreigners. It drives them crazy. Why can't these damn foreigners be as grateful as they sould be? "Why don't they love us?
"I'm just a boy whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."
If they didn't want to be loved, they wouldn't care, and I love them for that. As those of us in personal relationships may know only too well, there's nothing more gut-wrenchingly infuriating than the feeling of having what one believes to be one's most sincere good intentions interpreted as altogether something else. This is where both parties to the relationship need the insight to appreciate that our intentions may indeed be more selfishly motivated than we're prepared to admit, or, on the other hand, to acknowledge that we may be too cynically dismissive of real sincerity in our partner. Both things are possible. So it is, I think, with nations.

So that's the background to my reaction to this country. The sheer scale of it and its actions means that the things I like about it, I like a lot, and the things I dislike about it, I dislike a lot. Notably, in the latter case, financial self-interest thinly disguised as democracy.

The "despair" of my title stems from a feeling that elements in the American system and psyche are in danger of cancelling each other out. The conviction of what americans don't want is counter-acting any ideas about what they do want, so nothing happens. Scott Brown was swept to victory on a traditional anti "Big government" agenda. In the area of health care reform, he talks about getting things that need fixing put right slowly by private enterprise. Given the history of health care reform in this country, how long is that likely to take? and, as long as health care remains primarily about profit, is there any prospect of a universally affordable solution? Meanwhile, everyone who has been uninsured will continue to be uninsured and at risk. Those who pontificate about how private enterprise can fix this have perfectly adequate health insurance of their own, so they can afford to argue until another president comes in, and there's someone else to blame for nothing having happened.

My sense of despair is with the american electorate, which, no doubt for reasons of history, appears to fear government more than anything. Apparently, anyone who can touch this raw nerve doesn't actually have to put forward any workable proposals, they just have to stop anyone else doing anything in case it might be the tip of some terrible bureaucratic iceberg which could fatally hole and sink all personal liberty. Now the invasive bureaucratic State is a problem, as we know only too well in the UK, but, eventually, the electorate has to ask itself the question, given the perils of excessive government, which we wish to avoid, what needs to be done, and how is it to be done? I have little faith in governments, but I have even less in corporate insurance companies. The American people must free themselves from always falling under the spell of these libertarian snake charmers, and espouse politicians who at least are prepared to make a stab at achievable policy. They had a flirtation with change when they voted for President Obama, but, faced with an inexperienced president, whose agenda could only ever have been accomplished through the co-operation of his political opponents, fear in the US seems to have reasserted itself as a much more reliable winner of elections, while its politicians appear to cynically embrace this fact for the sake of gaining power for themselves and their corporate masters.

I think the president's detractors would add much more force to their arguments if they allowed him to fail in action, rather than paralysing the process on which action depends, and then saying "there, we told you it wouldn't work. And this goes for Democrats as well as republicans.