Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crimes against nature

Apropos of poets laureate, I was the other day listening to a recording of Ted Hughes reading February 17, which describes in horror-porn detail the botched stillbirth of a lamb.

I pulled against the corpse that would not come
Till it came
And after it, the long, sudden, yolk-yellow parcel of life in a smoking slither of oils and soups and syrups
And the body lay born, beside the hacked-off head.

An impossibly tough (in all senses of the word) act for Andrew Motion to follow, Hughes. I admire him, though you couldn’t describe his poetry as enjoyable. A brilliant wordsmith but with more than a hint of what you might call The Hemingway Syndrome, ie. an over-eagerness to proclaim his rugged masculinity, presumably as compensation for his unmanly vocation.

But I do like Hughes’s brutal, unromantic take on nature. I have mentioned before the idea for a TV programme cooked up by me and my old man called Isn't Nature Disgusting?, in which the anti-Attenborough host would encounter various of God’s excreting, stinking, parasitic, disease-bearing creatures, and would greet each one not with wonder but with undisguised repulsion. Come to think of it, that nature-nausea is what Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist is about.

You could argue though, that Hughes’s mangled lamb kebab is not about ‘nature’ at all. Farmed sheep are no more natural than hedge sculptures, if you define ‘natural’ as being ‘all that in the world which is not man or created by man.’ Of course, this definition may not leave us with very much that is natural, at least on Planet Earth. ‘Rural’ would be a better word for the Hughes world, and rural is terrible enough for city-slickers.

One of the countless ways you can divide up religions and worldviews is between those that Buddhistically see man as fundamentally part of nature; and those that draw a critical line between man (above nature, and with a soul) and animals (all soulless, even dolphins). Interestingly, whichever line you take, the ever-increasing scientific revelations about the natural world present problems. For unless you’re someone who happens to find excreting-stinking-parasitic-disease-bearingness wondrous in itself, it is a lot easier to feel one with nature from a distance.

Which brings us inevitably to the ichneumon wasp, that astonishing creature which goes around laying parasitic eggs and robbing people of their Faith. The ichneumon, as all good Darwinists know, kills its caterpillar prey in such a uniquely repulsive and indifferent way that Charles himself finally gave up on God, saying “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”.

The ichneumadon wasp sure is a cold, nihilistic bastard, but he’s undoubtedly Natural. Darwin couldn’t reconcile that with a Nature-creating God, even if man is separate from nature. And who wouldn’t want to be separate from nature, if nature is that meaninglessly cruel wasp? Screw Buddhism, we’re better than that. But of course Darwinist science itself has humbled man by putting him firmly back into nature, which means we’re fundamentally made of the same stuff as the ichneumadon. But we must be different, mustn’t we? And if we are different, then what are we? And if we’re not, whence comes our disgust?

Alas, all we can do is weep at the wasp, as the Sea of Faith drifts out of touch,
Well yes, says the caterpillar,
but that doesn’t help
me much.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Philosophical pondlife

No sooner have I left the big house than it is invaded by crazed philosophers. I know a thing or two about crazed philosophers. There were plenty in the University of Bristol Philosophy Department (mid 1990s).

The majority of the undergraduates were as all majorities are: passable, unobtrusively eccentric, sitting shtum in seminars, hanging on for the holidays. But in that little intellectual pond swam three Big Fish, warily circling one another while pretending not to compete.

Each was very different in character. The showiest of the Big Fish - the puffer fish, if you like - was a huge, garrulous, likeable Jewish lad who I will call, for the sake of argument, Max. Max dominated every seminar, frequently overshadowing the actual professors (a mostly shy bunch, wholly unsuited to public performance) by filling the air with long, formless streams of verbiage, punctuated not with any clear full stops or commas, but with his catchphrase "so to speak" (pronounced sotespeek). Max was a constructor, an architect of grand, elusive theories that encompassed all areas of political, religious and metaphysical endeavour; dazzling intellectual mirages that vanished as soon as you tried to grasp them.

Max was the housewives' favourite, but the smart money was on the second Big Fish. Raj was the antithesis of Max; a diminutive Asian boy-man with a permanent grin. Raj spoke only when necessary, and when he did he was deadly. A no-nonsense and viciously sharp mathematician, Raj was born with Occam’s Razor buried in his frontal lobe. He was the pike of the pond.

The third Fish was me (well why else would I be telling this trueish story?). Lacking both Max’s improvisational genius and the concise brilliance of Raj, I was able to compete by being a generalist (degrees are very general), but more importantly because very early on I was fortunate enough to glimpse how philosophy, as it is taught in universities, works.

Though this is never explicitly stated, Western Philosophy is taught as a history of ever more ingenious failure. After the initial nods to Plato and Aristotle (easy, those), we jump hugely forward to the meaty epistemological stuff which begins with Descartes. From here on, all you need to know is that everyone showed that the last guy was wrong.

Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, every new theory is pregnant with its own refutation and the next thinker in the chain acts as midwife, until finally you end up with Wittgenstein and philosophy turns into hopeless poetry. The key is simply to apply this insight to every area of philosophy as it branches off – political philosophy, philosophy of mind or language or science or physics – mankind’s greatest minds only find ever more complex and narrowing ways of being wrong.

Do not become attached to any theory, each is but the warm thick slobber of frogspawn that grows like clotted water in the philosophical pond, waiting to be eaten or transformed.

Poor Max, he never saw this. Wasting his time on constructing what he thought were Theories of Everything, he mistook philosophical history for progress, when all philosophy is heading towards is an infinitely detailed Theory of Nothing. Which will be wrong. For the degree, the only things you need to construct are original versions of old refutations. You can't out-construct Spinoza, you can only demolish him. Raj and I saw that the Profs were looking for destruction; so Raj used a razor and I a clumsy sledgehammer, and we two alone ended up with Firsts. I had to share the prize with Raj, damn him, but at least Max only got a 2:1.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Enderby writes

Over on Thought Experiments I was challenged by a passer-by to write some verse about the broke bankers. I intended to do something in the sort of ‘torrent of doggerel’ style of The Art Snobs or Gymnasium, but instead this gewgaw emerged. Never mind. Since I appear to have been blocked for about a year, I’ll take what’s given to me.

Song of the Hedge Fund Manager

I reject the imputation
That we built a babeltower of credit
on no foundation
of reality. Well, I mean,
How green. What is real anyway? Time isn't.
Nor is information, nor photographs.
Money never has been.

Every clock and wristwatch hazards at
its own approximation of the time:
None are right, none can be. There's only the gaps
And the hedging, inbetween.

Some disapprobation for over-selling
I accept. But get real:
This was coming since the first Lydian
Stamped his face on foil.
Even Croesus was crunched in the end. Money wasn't.
Those towers built of glass and steel,
Herons and Gherkins, those are real,
And will remain so, and will fill again,
While between them the clocktowers, obsolete in brown,
Dwarfish, and embarrassing as old uncles,
Count themselves down.