The Perpetual Forge

On the 27th May 1564 the French theologian and pastor John Calvin died. He was a man who remained deeply committed to his religious and humanitarian vision. He maintained his beliefs in spite of being lambasted by the Catholic hierarchy of his native France. His legacy endures in the philosophy that he inspired, Calvinism.

Calvinism is a distinctly Protestant Christian ideology which maintains that all mortals are sinners and only God can judge them in their last days. This belief continues to be at odds with predominantly Catholic nations which state that the clergy are specially endowed to judge the congregation, and they have the unique power to absolve all mortal sin. One central tenet to Catholic dogma is that the Pope is infallible.

Calvin was exiled to Geneva along with his congregants who were also French Protestants seeking asylum. Calvin railed against idolatry, including what he perceived as the shameful God-like status that was bestowed upon priests. Priests were after all mortal men with flaws like every other human on Earth.

Calvin spent his later years in Geneva preaching and writing, before he succumbed to fever and died. His example in his life and work emphasises that humility is preferable to self-righteousness and that whatever ill fortune befalls us in our earthly life, there is a guarantee that the life hereafter will eventually release us from our suffering. Many Calvinists also emphasise the dignity of hard work for its own sake, not for any personal glory or material acquisition.

Unfortunately the modern world is increasingly secular and centred upon human perfection. It has even imbued into our politics, where our representatives are revered, in what Calvin prophetically termed “the perpetual forge of idols”. We have forgotten that sickness, poverty and misery have always been a blight upon humanity throughout history and no politician has ever been able to solve these perennial curses. In fact it is impossible.

Katherine Anne Porter put this notion across powerfully and succinctly in her short story “Old Mortality”,

“There was then a life beyond a life in this world, as well as in the next…the nobility of human feeling, the divinity of man`s vision of the unseen, the importance of life and death, the depths of the human heart and the romantic value of tragedy”.

The Earth is Always Shifting

As Morrissey is about to celebrate his 63rd birthday and an incredible 40 year music career, this nation should revere his achievements. However the opposite appears to be the case, there is instead more invective, more personal attacks and insinuations. It is perhaps a sad reflection on England itself, which regards any artistic expression of earnestness with suspicion and contempt, and shamefully seeks to destroy any individual who dares to display any hint of eccentricity.

These spiteful attacks of course mean nothing to his devoted fans, but it is pertinent to consider the diminishing role that popular music plays in our lives, especially as a transgressive art form. In fact pop music as an art form does not have the emotional impact that it once had in our lives.

There has been a shift towards a technological and purely materialist future. Pop music has been cleansed of its potency and danger, the two most successful British singers of our age are Ed Sheeran and Adele. Their music is reassuringly pleasant, but it is bland and meaningless. Music like this is so vague, dull and sanitised that it is used in supermarket adverts.

Music journalists are often characterised as frustrated and bitter, and entirely motivated by jealousy. There is some degree of truth in this, many of them enter the profession after musical failures of their own. They are especially contemptuous of success and seek to destroy it, either insidiously or directly.

Again this should mean little to the artists or their fans, whoever they may be, but it is something that should be frowned upon because this just encourages coarseness and vulgarity. Society in general has become much more coarse and vulgar and ugly personal remarks only perpetuate the situation. Journalists of course are part of the huge corporate machinery which only sees value in profit, rather than the real meaning and substance of the art that is produced.

The corporate music business, including its PR wing, has always been ruthless. It is very difficult to survive with any integrity in an industry that is so profit orientated and reliant on marketing. If an artist has a particularly unfashionable image then they are divested exceedingly quickly and their complicit associates in the press often feel vindicated.

Music, of course, is totally subjective. It has a different meaning depending upon the taste of the person who is listening to it. Most people enjoy music because it has a powerful emotional resonance. When John Denver`s folksy Americana was popular with audiences the critics sneered. His harmless romanticised evocations of a lost American Eden attracted the worst reviews, and by the end of the seventies his “country boy” persona was jeered at because it wasn`t edgy enough.

One spiteful reviewer even quipped that he hoped a bald eagle would seize him and peck him to death on the mountain. At the time Denver was wounded by the viciousness of that remark but he was always comforted by the letters from his fans who told him how much his music meant to them at various stages in their lives, when they got married, or had their first child.

We should always respect musicians for the role that they play in our culture, even if the music that they play isn`t to your taste there is no need to destroy their lives and careers.

Border, Breed and Birth

The tumultuous state of the current world has brought once more into focus the almost permanent battle between Western and Eastern civilisations. It is, to say the least, an unsettling situation. This situation has aroused an uneasiness which, in the relative peace of the twenty-first century, we are unfamiliar with, but we must always remember that our ancestors were forced to endure this harsh reality.

The German philosopher Oswald Spengler understood this, and he was often filled with dismay when his pessimism about the state of the world was challenged. He wrote,

“(books that state) no more war, no more distinctions between races, peoples, states, or religions, no criminals or adventurers; no conflicts arising out of superiorities and differences, no hate or vengeance anymore, but eternal comfort through the millennia. Even today, when we experience the last phases of this trivial optimism, these idiocies make one shudder.”

I share Spengler`s distaste for those who proclaim the notion of universal human values, when history has proven that these do not, and cannot exist.

It is ironic that people who advocate the most vociferously for these non existent values believe that they are “humane” and morally superior. However they are unaware that the idea that all human beings living across the globe are the same is the most dehumanising philosophy that imbues all authoritarian political movements from Nazism to Communism. Any political regime that condemns the citizens of the world to abide by a universal creed is cruelly doomed, as it fails to acknowledge the meaning that people place in their language, religion, history and nationality. When the early explorers from Europe ventured into Eastern countries there were attempts to persuade others into believing that their Western customs were superior.

However in hindsight we now realise that what constitutes cultural superiority is actually subjective, but in the West some commentators are still attached to this fantasy vision of a universal human culture. This is bizarre and dangerous because this just isn’t how the world works, and many of the problems that we continue to encounter are the inevitable product of cultural misunderstandings, some of which are hundreds of years old or even older.

This is being perpetuated in the rather simplistic coverage of the Ukraine conflict, a battle which is being framed as a progressive, righteous war to reclaim Western values. The implication behind this appears that as Russia is looking for support from its allies in the East, that it is an inherently backward and barbarian regime. It is deeply unsettling to see the ignorance on display in these reports. Russia is a complex and unique country, a hybrid civilisation of Viking and Slav and traditionally a “God bearing people” after experiencing waves of imperialism. It was once a place of grandeur but in the last two centuries it experienced humiliation and defeat.

The mediaeval kingdom of Holy Russia is a glorious myth for a demoralised people. It is difficult to emphasise the depth of sincerity proclaimed by this God bearing people when most of the West has become entirely modern and secular. People in the West now perceive themselves as superior because they feel that they have resisted older beliefs, often castigated as superstition.

However, Russia became a cruel victim of communism, an inflexible dogma that originated in Western Europe. In the dark early days of the Soviet Union no sensibility was spared. Orthodox Bishops were shot or crucified upside down. In Siberia, the followers of ancient beliefs were mocked mercilessly and faced humiliating deaths. Siberian shamans were kidnapped, taken onto planes and thrown out mid air to prove their magical abilities to fly.

Many people believe that modern secular values triumph over older spiritual ones because they are rooted in material reality but this misses a vital point about the human experience, that the true meaning of our flawed lives comes from difficulty and suffering. Older societies acknowledge this and it should be respected.

England, My Lionheart

(Roman Mosaic depicting two hunters against a big cat)

On Saturday St George`s Day will hopefully be marked by a communal sense of love for the country of England, and the history, myths and legends that make it unique. England as a political entity is just over a thousand years old, but it has been inhabited by humans and animals for a much longer period. Only a few English people seem to feel a powerful emotional connection to the country and its very ancient past, and even fewer are prepared to defend it.

I count myself among those now unlucky few and I continue to resist all the brickbats from ignorant people who pour scorn upon Englishness which, to me is as immutable as my female gender. There is a kind of race memory attached to my sense of Englishness which is very real.

The heraldry of England, namely the 3 lions motif is more than symbolic, it actually pertains to a time when native lions stalked England. In 2009 Oxford University research revealed that 13,000 years ago there were lion species living in parts of London, Yorkshire and Devon.

Scientists discovered fossils that revealed that these animals were believed to be 25% bigger than the modern African lion.

(Paw print from an unidentified big cat in ancient England).

They also discovered that they would have weighed 50 stone, compared to the average weight of an African lion which is 39 stone. Our ancestors revered but also feared these big beasts and they were eventually hunted into extinction.

Lions are also part of heroic myth. Dragons, though not literal creatures are an essential part of explaining our island story. Dragon stories are an inherent part of English tradition which is why the apocrophal tale of St George has been subsumed into our identity as a people. Shakespeare evokes this in Henry V to explain this atavistic longing.

Tolkein also understood that our ancestors were superstitious and feared the wrath of fiery, fearsome beasts. One story from the eleventh century details the deadly visitation of a dragon in Christchurch after the local people refused to give money to a pious order of monks.

Tolkein was also a veteran of the First World War when an old order was violently overtaken by a new one. Arthur Machen created the legend of “The Bowmen” which is an almost direct homage to Shakespeare`s St Crispian`s speech. The story details the victory of a battle of Englishmen when a vision of St George vanquishing the dragon appeared to them.

I believe that it is treasonous to sneer at our traditions, it is time to show a greater respect.

The Promised Land

On the 14th April 1939, the American author John Steinbeck published his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”. Since its publication it has caused controversy, mainly from misinformed activists who are notoriously ill educated about literature in general. Steinbeck’s intention was not explicitly political, even though the book was widely interpreted to be so, and it continues to be read as a comment on American social and economic policy. This basic interpretation of his work is simply demeaning and shallow.

On a purely superficial level it is a narrative about the hardships of poor tenant farmers living through the Great Depression. However to categorise it as a polemic about the iniquities of capitalism is to dismiss its deeper significance as a uniquely human story of exile and loss. It is a book which is a powerful testament to the human spirit and has parallels with Steinbeck`s singular family history.

John Steinbeck`s grandfather was a devout Protestant from Prussia called Johan Grossteinbeck. His religious beliefs were similar to the English Protestantism professed by the poet John Milton. Milton loftily pronounced that the English were a lost tribe of Israelites and he idealised a kind of Zionism for the English people. Whether Milton and his fellow English Israelites literally believed in a promised land is questionable, most people now understand that he was using this biblical story as an allegory.

However Grossteinbeck took Zionism as a literal truth. In 1853 he travelled to Palestine to fulfil a prophecy. He was accompanied by other Protestants who shared the same ideal. They set up a farm called Mount Hope and recruited Jewish labourers living in Jaffa to work and pray, in time for the second coming when they believed that they would all be redeemed by God. Five years later this noble plan was destroyed when an Arab gang attacked the farm. One man was murdered and one woman was raped. Grossteinbeck emigrated to the United States to seek out another promised land.

Since its inception, the United States of America has been a beacon for idealists all over the world. Its whole identity has been predicated upon opportunity and freedom. Many sought religious freedom, like Grossteinbeck, who shortened his surname to Steinbeck as soon as he received US citizenship. Although Mount Hope was in tatters, he maintained a pioneering ethos that drove so many of his compatriots to find fortune in a new continent.

Life for these new Americans was hard, it was an unfamiliar frontier but what is remarkable about their stories is the composure and dignity. Steinbeck had a huge respect for his grandfather`s generation and honoured the legacy of men like him. Contemporary Americans often lose sight of the pride of their ancestors and it seems that there is now a concerted effort to tarnish history. This is grossly unfair as they owe so much to this maligned generation.

Sweetness and Light

(Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dressed as Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, at a fancy dress ball on 12 May 1842).

Nineteenth century Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, an age of technological innovation that brought a huge amount of wealth and social change to the populace. However the increase in manufacturing purely utilitarian goods also led to a decline in the production of art, a fact that alarmed the poet and educator Matthew Arnold.

Arnold was perturbed by the ignorance of the Victorian middle classes and was the first writer in English to attribute the word “philistine” to a specific kind of person who declares that they are disinterested in the arts. Philistines are incapable or unwilling to appreciate the virtues of the arts as they have no practical or monetary purpose.

The stereotype of the philistine is still broadly true in this country today, but this observable character was engendered by social and economic change. The English middle classes were people who had earned rather than inherited their wealth through the mercantile system. Consequently they were comfortable with their lifestyles and their outlook on life had become distinctly narrow. Many had moved into non descript towns and developed a dull and uniform philosophy that we now characterise as provincial and suburban. Arnold disliked this smugness and snobbery, and the obsession with materialism. He found it vulgar and insisted that the creative and imaginative industries still had a place in a mechanised world, if only to remind these people that they were still human and emotional beings.

Arnold maintained that a country without culture is a dark and forbidding place. A country that is purely designed to cater for the functional needs of its people is just empty and meaningless. He argued that there should be a place for the sublime, and everyone in society should have the opportunity to access it. He loathed the pedantic nature of education, and believed that a more enlightened and liberal approach would improve the dire state of English culture.

The English middle classes have always been renowned as a people reluctant to reveal any emotion and deride the “sentimental”. However sentimental has negative connotations in the modern definition of the word. Sentimental in its original definition just means art that focuses upon real emotion. Charles Dickens was a novelist who revived the tradition of the sentimentalists to appeal to the nobler and finer aspects of the human condition. Wordsworth and Coleridge were the poets who set the precedent with the publication of “The Lyrical Ballads”.

Modern manifestations of sentimental art deliberately manipulate the audience for financial gain, and these practitioners have more in common with the cynics of the Victorian age. Unfortunately Arnold`s pronouncements have been ignored and cynicism, philistinism and the prevailing notion that “stoicism” should be encouraged has meant that England has not innovated artistically.

It must not be forgotten that the stoic philosophers declared themselves indifferent to pain and placed reason as the highest virtue. This has meant that the majority of the population has to endure an existence devoid of beauty and that any attempt made to ameliorate the situation is just stifled or mocked by the modern day philistines.

100 Years of the Cure

In the winter of 1924 the German author Thomas Mann published his epic and startling novel “The Magic Mountain”. Ostensibly it is a story about the lives and deaths of tuberculosis patients at a sanatorium nestled in the Swiss Alps. However there is a deeper philosophical narrative at the heart of the book, which has eerie parallels with the current and disturbing events of our contemporary world.

The main protagonist is Hans Carstorp. Carstorp is a young man born into wealth and privilege but he is a youth wrestling with his conscience. He is like many young people who question the nature of the world and their role within it, he is unsure of his destiny but his life is changed irrevocably when he decides to visit his ailing cousin Joachim at the sanatorium.

The story is set in the 1910s, a decade which lead up to the first world war. Europe was in a state of peace, if a little fragile. However its identity and civilisation was far from solid, in fact it was breaking apart. Even in the relative safety and tranquillity of a mountain hospital there is an unsettling fear that its future is on a precipice. Mann highlights the sickness at the core of every great civilisation, and the tragedy witnessing its decline and fall.

The young patients are encouraged to attend lectures and challenge the conventions of their society. Instead of enlightened thinking Mann observes that there is a nascent anti semitism and other kinds of prejudice fomenting in the discussions. There are mutterings about Tatar influence and the febrile isolation only serves to magnify the paranoia. Castorp is not immune to the contagion, and is admitted as a tubercular patient alongside the others. He finds himself locked down in a community cut off from the rest of the world and reduced to an institutionalised existence with no hope of return to normality.

Carstorp`s vitality gradually saps away as even hospital routines have little meaning for him. The only glimmer of hope amongst despair is that tiny thread of connection to civilisation, which lies in the form of his gramophone records. It is an onerous task for him to find meaning in life when he is stuck in an atmosphere of great suffering and death. He finds a degree of salvation in the daily lectures on science and literature, but a sense of hopelessness envelops him particularly as winters on the mountain are so severe that most of the inhabitants are trapped under snow for months.

Carstorp`s condition is mild by comparison, and his symptoms are managed. He can see that many are not so fortunate, some patients are forced to endure tracheostomies. The tracheostomy patients form their own community as the only hope for recovery.

In the final chapters Carstorp falls in love with a woman with an alluring background and his thoughts focus on the beguiling nature of women in general. He believes that there is at least a future with this beautiful and fascinating woman, but fate intervenes to spoil his dreams. Carstorp recovers from his illness but within months of his discharge he is sent to the battlefield to defend the country he loves.

It seems like a perverse twist of fate that this young, cultured man who loved the finer points of civilisation dies in a maelstrom of violence. It is a paradox that we are ultimately facing right now.

Sons and Daughters of Erin

(Illustration by the Irish artist Henry Patrick Clarke 1889-1931)

Ireland has a unique history and culture that is far too often overlooked. St Patrick’s Day should be an occasion where people celebrate a great European civilisation but instead it has become a festival of mindless drunkenness indulged by people with no ancestral connection to the country at all.

Also, in Britain particularly there is a glaring ignorance about Irish culture coupled with a demeaning and stereotypical attitude directed against Irish people. These dehumanising stereotypes focus on the supposed childlike character of the Irish people and their dependence on their British masters. This is a false stereotype that was entirely concocted by the British state.

Ireland had a long and tortuous struggle against British rule, finally achieving independence in 1922. It retained its dominion status until 1937 when a new constitution was drafted and it effectively became a republic. Douglas Hyde was appointed as President the following year.

Hyde was an esteemed scholar and linguist. He was a modern language graduate from Trinity College Dublin with a particular interest in Irish, and he was fluent in his native tongue. He was determined to reclaim Irish history, folklore and traditions and ultimately divest British, but especially English influence from the country by “de-anglicising Ireland”. He was one of the greatest proponents of the revival of the Irish language and was the first Irish leader to declare St Patrick’s Day a national holiday.

According to an early Irish myth, a prophet called Goidel Glas was bitten by a venomous snake but was miraculously brought back to life by the staff of Moses. The mark of the staff on the snakebite was green which prophesied that his descendants were destined to settle in Ireland. This myth was later subsumed into the legend of St Patrick crushing the last surviving snake of Ireland with his staff.

These myths and legends have inspired Irish artists and writers for centuries. Ireland has a long and proud literary tradition which can claim great luminaries like Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and the horror writer Bram Stoker.

Dublin, as the capital of Ireland is a cultural centre equal to Rome and Vienna. However it is unfortunate that there are still Britons with prejudices and paternalistic values that need to be challenged.

The Path of Mankind`s Woe

On the 8th March 1908 the Dutch writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden outlined his philosophy in a speech at Carnegie Hall. He made a bold declaration, claiming that utopia was not just admirable in theory but evidently possible in practice. He was a learned and respected man, but seemingly unfamiliar with the niceties of political and economic theory.

He was renowned as a visionary and idealist, maintaining that humanity could not continue to survive through the pursuit of money. Instead he advocated a philosophy which now sounds extreme and unrealistic. He was convinced that people could be persuaded into living a purely ascetic and altruistic life. He thought that happiness was a state of mind only realised through selfless dedication.

In one of his famous moralistic essays he stated,

“Where mankind is, and her woe, there is my path”.

Dr. Van Eeden`s motivation for utopian societies derived from the often intractable problems endured by his patients. Many of them were afflicted by trauma, addiction and insurmountable depression.

Van Eeden opined that a world driven by materialism neglected the spiritual needs of its population. He established his own version of utopia in his native Holland, in a town called Bussum in the north of the country where the residents produced their own food and shared all of their goods. They also chose to eschew any luxury or comfort, as their lives were only dedicated to the well being of each other.

The community at Bussum was designed to resemble the self-sufficient dwelling of the American writer Henry David Thoreau, who famously built a hut in the wilderness of Massachusetts. However Thoreau`s dream project was only realised through private funds. The money question is the central dilemma obstructing the development of any utopian society. Also other questions arise whenever anyone suggests alternative communities. Many people would feel uncomfortable if they were forced to sacrifice their familial or individual identities.

Utopia literally translated means “nowhere place”. It is apt that the literal definition clashes with the ideology. Wealth has to be generated and earned to fund other people’s lifestyle choices. Not one innovation has been created in societies where the wealth is controlled by the state.

However many thinkers from the late nineteenth century onwards only saw the iniquities embedded within materialist societies and dreamed about alternative ways of existing. They lacked sufficient foresight to perceive the pitfalls of communitarian societies, and enthused lyrically about their vision of this mythical paradise.

In 1890 the British artist and writer William Morris wrote a fantasy novel on this subject. It was called “The News from Nowhere” and it imagined a socialist utopia. In Morris` fantasy there is no hardship, nor any crime because the only driver in this society is to do good to others. It now seems ridiculous to modern readers that such a sanitised version of reality was presented, and that Morris envisaged a set of flawless characters that appear hollow and barely human.

Van Eeden died in Bussum in 1932. Even in his later years he never stopped believing in the potential goodness of all human beings. His belief was admirable, but impractical. However the Bussum example has been proven to be a useful template in treating troubled individuals and has paved the way for future therapeutic communities and for this we must be thankful.

Dangerous Minds

On March 1st 1940, the African American author Richard Wright published his novel “Native Son”. It was a book that gained both instant attention and notoriety. Owing to the contentious subject matter the writer’s intention was widely misunderstood by critics.

It is a book about the short and tempestuous life of a young African American man called Bigger Thomas. Thomas is deliberately painted as a morally ambiguous character, his existence is neither romanticised nor patronised.

Thomas is born into an atmosphere of poverty and oppression. As he grows older he is increasingly frustrated by his lack of education and opportunity. He becomes an aggressive bully and a misogynist, and in the closing chapters he is sentenced to death for rape and murder.

Wright`s narrative details how the inchoate rage that burned in the opening chapters tempers into self pity and he solemnly accepts his fate. Many of Wright`s contemporaries loathed the book and castigated him for his stereotypical portrayal of a black man. However Wright sincerely believed that he was just representing the realities of a violent and prejudiced society.

It is uncomfortable to confront reality in its unvarnished state but the most profound pieces of art focus on the darker episodes of human experiences. Bigger Thomas is a fictional character in a work of literature, but other representations of this character have filtered into popular culture.

Tupac Shakur was a real person who had lived experience of poverty and oppression but in many ways he had greater educational and artistic opportunities in 1990s America than the writers of Wright`s generation. Shakur was initially a performing arts student with prodigious talents in acting and music, but grew up in the shadow of real danger as the son of prominent Black Panther activists. He was under the radar of the police authorities since his birth.

When Shakur was in his late teens he moved from New York to California to explore a career in rap music. Shakur was distinct from other rappers of that era, as his college education meant that his material was fiercely articulate. He was conscious of issues like police brutality and street gangs. His stage persona was unlike the shy bookish young man that he really was behind the scenes.

However his alter ego was nihilistic and anti-social, an artistic rendering of the “thug” that so many people feared or respected depending upon his audience. It was also an image that was extremely lucrative but had sinister implications when art began to blur into reality. Shakur was arrested numerous times for misdemeanours, before ending up in jail for sexual assault.

Shakur maintained that the incident involving a female fan was a consensual encounter, but there were suggestions that alcohol and drugs had blurred his judgement and admitted there were times when he was guilty of extreme chauvinism but never violence.

Shakur was serving his sentence when a rap label run by a shady individual called Suge Knight offered a deal. In exchange for bail he gave him a recording contract. Knight had known connections to real gangsters.

Shakur felt that he had no choice but to accept Knight`s offer. But his experience of incarceration had changed him, and he wanted to use his music to transcend the caricature of the thug. Still his reputation for rattling conventional society never left him and he was shot dead in suspicious circumstances.

It is a sad reflection of society that bright, young artists can be manipulated by opportunists and then die in circumstances beyond their control. It is also tragic that we are still having the same arguments about racial stereotypes in art and we haven’t really learned anything since Richard Wright started the conversation back in 1940.