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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Magic, Puppy Dogs and 'Post-Truth'


"To cure a headache, tie a thin bag of mixed foxglove and fennel around the patient's temples and have him recite ten Ave Maria. This cure is especially effective during the gibbous phase of the moon, or when his sign is in the ascendant."
If you're anything like me, the foregoing sounds completely insane. The fact is, though, that this is one of many headache cures recorded in various medical volumes across thousands of years of human history. Luminaries and authorities such as Galen, Aristotle, and others are known to have proposed similar cures, and it can only be assumed that they were widely trusted. We do have records of some controversy regarding the astrological aspects of physiology, but on the whole, astrological, occult, religious and downright loopy medicine was widely accepted and decidedly mainstream.

It's very easy to look back on the credulity of our ancestors with a certain degree of smugness. A commonly used cure for colic, as late as the eighteenth century, was to "hold a live puppy on the belly". Which is frankly ridiculous, until we remember that meaningful physiological analysis as we know it was not available until very recently, and that this treatment is based on the ultimately sound empirical observation that heat treats pain. Unless we have this thought, however, the tendency is to laugh at the puppy while privately viewing our forebears as critically stupid. Not at all like us.

A great many authors have bewailed the death of magic in the modern age. From Dickens to C S Lewis, there is a frequent tendency to view the simpler, mystical mentality of the past with deep nostalgia. Science, technology, and discoveries in both have frequently been seen as making fatal inroads on the liminal or fantastic part of our lives. It's reasonable to see the great revivals in mysticism and spiritualism of the early and middle twentieth centuries as rebellions against a rising wave of rationalism and skepticism. Arthur Conan Doyle's belief in mental telepathy and faery folk, and the general drug addled new-ageism of the sixties and seventies probably have their roots in this reaction against a perceived destruction of mystery.

I'd contend that none of this was really necessary. I really don't think our 'natural' capacity for reason is any better now than it was then. Sure, our frame of reference has changed, but I think that closer examination will reveal a lack of any substantive change. In the secular west, we claim to base our world view on science, but how many of us really understand the principles on which the relevant sciences are based? We all know the Big Bang Theory, but given the average level of understanding, I'd say we mostly know it in the same way that our ancestors knew the story of Adam and Eve, and that the fundamental basis of that knowledge is, for most people, equally mystical and faith-dependent in each case.

And then there's the fact of the staggering numbers of people who believe in the existence of various interventionist gods, conspiracy theories, alien origins, the ability of various commonplace foodstuffs to cure everything from cancer to AIDS, or all of the above. I say nothing about whether any of these beliefs is true or not, but what they certainly are not is based on any recognisably valid process of evidence-based reasoning. In short, our minds are just as wired for magic and delusion as they've always been.

Sure, we might be better equipped to fight this tendency in the modern age, but I think it's demonstrably apparent that we're not bothering. The bizarre realities we can access through the internet are not created by the new medium, but rather revealed and magnified by it. This is what annoys me about all this talk about 'post-truth' times. The underlying assumption is inherently invalid, as it's impossible to find an epoch in which 'truth' has ever been primary.

While we clearly have some ability to transcend our stupid monkey brains, only a few ever come to believe that this transcendence is our primary business in life. The vast majority of us use our capacity for thought solely in order to rationalise and justify our feelings and biases, a behaviour designed to perpetuate, not defeat, our tendency to view the world as 'magical'. Forever and ever, amen.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Zen of Freedom to Act



Buried deep in the Hagakure is a snatch of commentary which captures, almost perfectly, the essence of the mentality of the whole. It appears in the popular version as a curt, almost redacted looking item, and in the manuscript is buried amongst dozens of similar comments and dialogues. In both cases, it sits with virtually no explanation

The passage runs thusly:
"Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall was this one:  'Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.' Master Ittei commented, 'Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.'"
There is a surprising amount of internet discussion surrounding this little quotation. It appears it's not just scholars who have sensed its fundamental importance. It's indicative of the modern mindset, however, that the most accepted interpretations are based around "matters of great concern" being understood as complex anxieties, and the quotation as a whole being taken as a recommendation to pursue simple answers to problems we tend to overthink. I believe there is a much deeper meaning to both the maxim and the commentary - one which requires some synthesis and contextualisation to grasp, and which goes beyond Tsunemoto's somewhat crude interpretation of the maxim as being in praise of the value of research before action.

It's fair to say that the Zen mind can be seen as profoundly transcendental, in that it is underpinned by a belief in the illusory nature of the tangible universe. Put simply, the world which we perceive is seen as a trick played by the senses on our conscious mind. This isn't, of course, exclusive to eastern philosophies, and is well attested in a great variety of other schools of thought. The great majority of the arguments regarding immanence and transcendence in western philosophy, for example, centre around the question of whether the 'veritas rerum', or the real truth of things, is or is not accessible to our consciousness.

It can therefore be posited that a world seen in this way is one in which that which is most important - the veritas rerum, or that which is 'of great concern' - is not just beyond our understanding, but also our agency. Basically, the core of things and existence is something which we cannot comprehend consciously or consciously affect. This is an uncomfortable doctrine for the western mind, I think, being in direct opposition to the deep roots of enlightenment thinking and Aquinas' old idea that the 'veritas rerum' is not only accessible, but a path to truth through observation.

For a mind geared to the absolute necessity for action, which basically includes anyone who dedicates their time to some type of work or other, this world view is balm to the soul, for what it means is that the ineffable truth of things is not only inaccessible, it's also irrelevant. What a philosophy of this kind provides is the freedom to act. There is no necessity to weigh or predict the effects of our miniscule agency - all that really matters is the application thereof. It is the tiny, insignificant actions of our ant-like lives which are the 'matters of small concern', and yet, despite their ephemeral unimportance, they are still the most significant aspect of our limited selves.

This is best appreciated in conjunction with this idea:
"The way of revenge lies in simply forcing one's way into a place and being cut down ... By considering things like how many men the enemy has, time piles up; in the end you will give up. No matter if the enemy has thousands of men, there is fulfillment in simply standing them off and being determined to cut them all down, starting from one end. You will finish the greater part of it."
How often are we paralysed by the contemplation of things we can't control? Why should I act when my effects will be so tiny? Why should anyone do anything, given the high likelihood of failure and the certainty of pain and death? It's simple - it's because what we do is one of the very, very few things over which we have any control at all. So while it may be a matter of small concern, it should therefore be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Deep Narratives of Childhood



One of the first books I ever read in English was a children's version of the story cycle of the great Irish hero Cuchulain. Cuchulain remains to this day one of my favourite heroes, the bloody comedy of his origins and early career, and the intensely heroic fatalism of his end, literally dying on his feet and fighting to his last breath, made a deep and positive impression on my forming mind. Alongside this was an illustrated and hideously expensive leather-bound tome of Sir James Knowles' interpretation of the King Arthur stories which, though far from being the best iteration of the Arthurian legends, is still a moving and evocative account.

What these books did for me as a child went far beyond the juvenile escapism usually associated with fantasy. These stories provided me with my first introduction to the concept of honour, the importance of good faith in our dealings with others, the reality of absolute obligation, broad principles of the limited and justified use of force, and models for living fiercely and well in the face of certain mortality. Of course, I'm not claiming that my infant mind identified or understood these concepts in these terms or anything like them, but what's important here is that these stories fundamentally influenced the shape of my inner world. They provided the beginnings of shape and definition to my notions of society, and of the nature of good and evil. This, I believe, was largely due to the way that myth is generally based on some kind of deep truth - the perception of this truth made these stories feel utterly real to me, and thus, by extension, the values and precepts contained within them. 

There are quite a few people who are of the opinion that these stories were a shockingly inappropriate basis for such ideation, but that strikes me as being beside the point. The point, as I see it, is that the earliest and most important step in a child's understanding of the world comes through narrative. Stories are fundamental to the human experience for many reasons, and their etiological role in the education of children is one of the most important. 

This being the case, it's important to recognise the critical role fiction in book, film and game form plays in the formation of world view. Western culture is notable for having shed tribalism, ancestral veneration, oral history and, to a large extent, God. While I firmly believe that shedding all of these things has been to our net benefit, there remains the fact that it leaves a worrying gap. With myths, legends, family or clan mnemo-narratives, and even bible stories largely absent, we are faced with a situation where the world view of our children is founded on Pixar films and picture books which don't really seem to have any deep content at all. 

I think it's important to remember that the primary model for any child's world view, and therefore the shape of our future world, is to be found within the stories they're told. This is one of the reasons for my unreasonable hatred of the monocultural superficiality of Disney/Pixar 'family movies', and the blatant propaganda contained in most cartoons and children's fiction today. I think there's a strong argument for retaining at least some of the core narratives from humanity's history. I don't really care which ones, just so long as the dominant voice is not puerile, breathtakingly shallow, trend-driven, mass produced garbage which, though reportedly brilliant as entertainment, is deeply suspect as early education. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

How to Peel Off a Dead Man's Face - Information and Meaning



Within the Hagakure, sitting rather oddly amongst its spiritual and social exhortations and aphorisms, is the following passage:

"If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured."

A great many people have expressed serious confusion over the apparent incongruity of this passage. There's a wealth of groping and ill-informed commentary floating around in internetland, as none of the commentators seem to be aware of two important facts. The first of these facts, accessible by simply reading the introduction of the popular edition, is that this version is heavily abridged. The MS form of the Hagakure is more than 1000 pages long, and seriously eclectic. The popular abridgement is a thin paperback focussed on Zen teachings and parable-like reminiscences. The editor/translator points specifically to this passage and says it was included as a representative example of a whole volume within the original. The second of these facts is that the Samurai, at various stages in their history, were in the habit of collecting trophies, especially heads, from their fallen foes.

Given the knowledge of these two facts, the passage above and its inclusion need not present an enigma at all - understanding of the source and context result in its meaning becoming perfectly comprehensible. And this is my point, really - more often than not, understanding what something actually means requires more than just reading it.

Quite a few people have been talking about the 'post-truth' era, where facts don't matter, apparently because Trump. I think this is flawed thinking (and not a little bit of sour grapes). The truth of the matter is that Trump is not so much a cause as he is a symptom. Facts have never really mattered - they have always been a more or less secondary concomitant to interpretation and meaning.

There is a worrying tendency these days to absorb a fact and then immediately interpret it through a rigid ideological lens, and then, more often than not, to proceed immediately to hysterical outrage. A single incident, such as somebody saying something in public, is immediately warped to serve some orthodoxy or other, and the loudest shouters win, thus setting immutably a current 'truth' which is generally absolute, juvenile, laden with dire consequences and, most worryingly, so ephemeral that it is essentially uncorrectable in that by the time proper analysis is applied, the reactionary juggernaut has moved on and forgotten it.

This, above all else, is the primary malaise of the current era. This refusal or inability to actually think things through is by far and away the most toxic aspect of our current dialogue. And it's worth noting that the responsibility for this does not lie with politicians, mainstream or alternative media or anyone else - it lies solely with us, the public. As long as we persist in this angry, reactionary obtuseness, we will continue to be burdened with exactly the quality of leadership, public discourse and society which we deserve.