Made up

Freud: The Making of an Illusion, Frederick Crews, Profile.

Anti-Freud campaigner Frederick Crews’ relentlessly negative but engrossing biography has been criticised as a character assassination, but there is much to dislike in Freud’s character. In Crews’ account, Freud was a charlatan. He had little regard for his patients’ welfare, yet drew out their therapies in order to make more money. He made friends in order to benefit from their support before stealing their ideas and turning on them.

He switched theories to explain his patients’ troubles, made up case histories and used dubious methods and medications. An atheist, he was never-the-less susceptible to numerology and the paranormal. His dream interpretation theories were so vague as to render any extrapolation plausible, and he made the circular argument that his patients’ refusal to accept his wild diagnoses simply proved they were in denial. (Crews is not much kinder to Freud’s disciples.)

Freud’s prescription of cocaine for his patients was problematic. While its dangers were not widely known, there was evidence from his own patients that it was not doing them any good and yet he continued to promote its use, often based on the assumption that it wasn’t doing himself any harm. (Eventually he came to regret its use.)

Of course he is more famous for grand theories than rigorous clinical practice. He was important for identifying what formulates us and how we contain a mix of competing conscious and subconscious desires. His identification of darker, subconscious forces mirrors Christian notions of original sin, but he was perhaps too quick to apply particular diagnoses to the population in general. His portrayal of religion as wish-fulfillment and the result of problems with one’s father ultimately says more about Freud’s own issues than that of humanity in general.


Signs and wonders

Miracles: A Very Short Introduction, Yujin Nagasawa, Oxford University Press

You may know a miracle when you see one, but they are not so easy enough to define. Or so it seems from this book in Oxford’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series. For a small book, philosopher Yujin Nagasawa spends a lot of pages discussing what are not miracles, but that is because he is carefully winnowing potential cases and moving towards the definition of a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent and has religious significance’.

That explanation may indicate, correctly, that the book is less a celebration of miracles and more an attempt to figure out philosophically what miracles are, and, crucially, whether they are possible and why people still believe in them. Nagasawa writes that they are impossible from the standpoint of the laws of nature, but logically possible. Whether they actually happen is a question he leaves somewhat hanging, perhaps reflecting the fact that in the modern world we are not sure exactly what to make of them. After-all, one can be religious and reject miracles. Conversely, more Americans believe in miracles than they do in life after death.

It would be almost miraculous to discuss miracles without discussing eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who famously made the somewhat circular argument that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen, though he also sniffily discounted them because they tended to be believed by the lower, uneducated classes. It’s good to be sceptical about miracles. If they happened every five minutes their currency would be devalued. But then again it is no good to suggest that the laws of nature prohibit miracles, because that would be to misunderstand that miracles are by their very nature unnatural.

Miracles can take many forms: levitation, teleportation, bilocation, transfiguration, walking on water, controlling the elements, transforming matter and finding the image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast (supposedly). Jesus was known primarily for his miracles of healing and exorcism, as noted by the ancient historian Josephus. But Jesus also warned not to get carried away by signs and wonders, which prompts Nagasawa to go somewhat off-topic again to suggest that what is most remarkable about religion is, even if it is not exactly miraculous, its tendency to inspire altruism.

(Originally reviewed for Insights and Crosslight magazines)

Unintended consequences

Rebel in the Ranks, Brad Gregory, Harper One.

The Reformation might be sometimes thought of as, yes, creating the proliferation of churches we see today, but otherwise as concerning religious matters that have little relevance for the majority of society outside the churches where believers still cling to dogmatic nitpicking.

But for Brad Gregory, the Reformation is still with us, as it ultimately created the individualistic society with pluralist views that often cannot be reconciled and that flare up in so-called culture wars. In this, Rebel in the Ranks is a distillation for popular audiences of his large and important The Unintended Reformation. This latest book is one of the many publications to ride on the coattails of the Reformation anniversary and tell Luther’s story, but its point of difference is Gregory’s insistence on and elaboration of what the Reformation means for the world today, beyond the life of the church and the state of the soul.

Unlike current, often atheist, champions of the Enlightenment who think the modern world began then and everything before was impenetrable dark ages, Gregory traces modern pluralism and freedom back to Luther’s questioning of the Catholic Church’s authority (triggered by his deduction that indulgences simply had to be money-making charlatanism), and its replacement with the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. Luther would not have put it that way exactly, and the word ‘unintended’ recurs in Gregory’s narrative because Luther, Calvin and the other Reformers would throw up their hands and ask ‘how was it come to this?’ if they surveyed the modern separation of church and state, the decline of public Christianity, the compartmentalisation of spirituality and the freedom to even reject religion altogether. Instead of the spiritual penetrating deeper into the everyday (as it arguably did for a few years), the opposite has occurred.

It had to, in some respects, because the affirmation of the right to believe what you liked was, ironically, the only way to hold society together, after the horrific wars of religion that accompanied the Reformation. And, although this history is complex, Gregory suggests that overall as religion gradually became a private matter it was not Enlightenment values that took the driver’s seat, but consumerism, led by the Dutch Golden Age. Religion, Gregory decides, lost out to money.

The sea is space

On the Ocean, Barry Cunliffe, Oxford University Press.

Barry Cunliffe is an archaeologist familiar with both the broad sweep and the intricate detail, and his books are rewarding sites for the archaeologically and historically inclined reader to dig. His most recent books have a distinctive style, in between coffee table book and popular history, with carefully selected illustrations and maps, and non-specialist readability. Usually he considers what happened between the oceans (as the title of one of his books on Eurasia has it), but here he concentrates on what Europeans did on the oceans.

In more reflective passages he conveys the tension for land-dwellers on a planet dominated by oceans. As he says, land is a place – a home, safe – but the sea is space – a region to explore, with opportunities. To set sail required bravery and skill, and Cunliffe’s book records the developments in technology that kept pace with human beings’ curiosity and determination, from paddles to sails, and from hollowed out logs to intricately constructed plank-sided vessels.

They also needed special awareness – mental maps aided by stars at night, and landmarks and memorised distances during the day. This to offset the forbidding nature of especially the Atlantic, the ‘Sea of Perpetual Gloom’ (hardly a glowing travel recommendation). The Greeks thought the exceptional Phoenicians, who had ventured into the Atlantic probably by 600 BC, were mad. For Julius Caesar, the Atlantic shore was as far as the Roman Empire needed to go, though ever practical, he noted for potential future naval battles the superior characteristics of the Atlantic people’s boats. Arabs likewise feared the sea, and one Arab leader rode his horse into the Atlantic, not as a Canute-like show of hubris, but to indicate that the Arab armies had reached their limit.

In the Bible the ocean is generally out of bounds. Quite literally, to the biblical writers, ‘here be monsters’. No wonder, as the Jews had no decent sea ports, and with little familiarity with seafaring, they turned their backs on the sea. For others facing the Atlantic, it inspired the imagining of distant lands, exotic peoples, myths and gods. The ocean was a liminal space between heaven and earth, and the dead were often farewelled in boats, pushed out toward the afterlife which surely lay beyond the watery horizon. Yet for the Portuguese, the Danes or the Irish the Atlantic beckoned. It was dangerous, yes, but held potential.

Why did people take to the waters? For some, it was the sheer adventure and the potential for fame. Wanderlust, says Cunliffe, is a persistent human characteristic. The challenge could also reap material reward. There was the simple issue of sustenance – fishing was an early lure, pulling fisherman further and further out. It is likely that fisherman after cod discovered North America long before Columbus.

And there was trade. Cunliffe maps out in detail the pottery finds that confirm the large trading networks of Neolithic peoples. Wine, spices, leather, silk and gold flowed into Britain, in exchange for wool and tin. Forays down the coast of Africa produced ivory and slaves. Later, of course, the Indies and their spices enticed the Spanish and Portuguese to head west (rather than the longer route around the Cape of Good Hope, which was named by a Portuguese king hoping for riches from the East). Contrary to popular belief, they had long understood the world was round, and from quite sophisticated calculations reckoned China was an easy sail across the Atlantic. And if you couldn’t trade, you could always steal, as the Vikings proved.

Patterns of trade and migration led to cross-cultural pollination. Along with the ills of Spanish conquest of the Americas came the desire to evangelise. Irish monks had a contrary idea. The search for isolation led them to make challenging sea journeys to uninhabited islands. They were called peregrini, related to our word peregrination (or wandering). It is beyond the scope of Cunliffe’s book, but crossing the ocean became for the American pilgrims the only way to ensure their religious liberty.  Like coconuts, Christianity was carried by the ocean waves to the corners of the earth.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church magazine Insights)

Getting out

George Monbiot’s recent How Did We Get Into This Mess? is a worthy book, not what you would call enjoyable exactly, but a series of chapters on what ails us in the modern world, penetrating and clear. But the cumulative effect of his litany of ills is a metaphysical bludgeoning, and the diagnoses call for a prescription, as he notes in his latest book, where he writes that his editor at Verso pressured him into writing this sequel of sorts, Out of the Wreckage, which, as its name suggests, offers some advice on getting out of the mess.

As he rightly suggests, getting out of the mess requires not just recognition of the mess, but a new narrative to inspire the getting out. He suggests that information per se (‘being informed’) doesn’t really help us in our politics – it usually just reinforces cherished beliefs. It is where we get these beliefs from that matters. He begins by suggesting that the success of neoliberalism, in such comprehensive fashion that most of us don’t recognise the extent to which neoliberalism has seeped into our bones, means that we unquestioningly accept economic models that assume innate selfishness and individualism as opposed to altruism and community spirit. And therefore we accept all the neoliberalist ideology of free markets and less regulation and efficiency and not inhibiting competition because it fosters innovation (could, for example, cooperation alternatively foster innovation?). Just like how F1 racing improves car design, so the fierce competition of the market improves… well, more competition. (And what about the pollution?) His simple quoting of neoliberal icon Hayek (he doesn’t even have to infer or ‘interpret’ Hayek) should indicate to any reader with any inkling of fairness just how diabolical this philosophy is.

The alternative, one might rightly gather, is community, honesty, shared prosperity, justice, cooperation, and the like. And if the quasi-neoliberal reader happens to be skeptical of such utopian talk, he goes on to offer examples of just where in the world and how these things are being undertaken in alternative politics and governance and community enterprise and how we can learn from them. (Not to mention be heartened by them.)

Of particular note is his analysis (the essence of which is not exclusive to Monbiot, to be sure, but it is a model of clarity) of the US election, where Hillary simply offered a watered down version of Republican policy, backed by big money, not an alternative to the current mess, which is why many responded to Bernie Sanders in hope, and why many others threw their lot in with Trump, who at least wasn’t going to give them the same-ol’. (Though of course in many ways he is, being from the same moneyed monopolist class that so influences American politics.) Monbiot suggests that the (reasonably successful, if you think about how radical his ideas were) example of Sanders’ grassroots, populist campaign uncorrupted by compromising for the sake of rich donors means there is actually an alternative to media manipulation, spin and the like, which is real people responding to real people.

Confronting nothingness

Milosz: A Biography, Andrzej Franaszek, Belknap/Harvard

Poetry may seem like a quaint pastime these days, but in the twentieth century literary art, like faith, was seen as a counter to totalitarianism, an upholding of the nobler aspects of life that cultivated goodness in humanity, against the inhumanity of war, and a vehicle for truth-telling against lies from governments and other tyrannies.

Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian-born Polish poet, won the Nobel Prize in Literature partly for championing the worth of individual lives in the face of the twentieth century’s horrors. Milosz lived through World War II, where he witnessed first the Nazis then the Soviets rolling through Poland. After the war he defected to Paris and then the US, and was criticised by both left and right for leaving Poland, though decades later, after years of feeling alienated, he discovered his poetry had been an underground inspiration during the Soviet occupation years.

He became famous for The Captive Mind, one of the best criticisms of Stalinism in book form, though he was also disgusted by the materialism and inequality of capitalism and the spiritual emptiness it generated in the US. As his friend Thomas Merton noted, Milosz tried to tread the necessary but narrow middle path, partly inspired by his Catholic faith. His relationship with the Polish Church was rocky, but he treasured it as a counterbalance to the forces that were suppressing truth and individuality. Although he made his own translations of parts of the Bible into Polish for the sake of freshness and relevance, he was a traditionalist in some ways, regretting the change to the vernacular mass.

Clive James writes in his Cultural Amnesia that Milosz loved the language of the Church but couldn’t believe its doctrines, but this is rubbish. Milosz wavered at times, but affirmed his belief, among other places in a letter to John Paul II, a figure he admired, in such traditional doctrines as the resurrection. He was dismayed at the American modernisation of the faith, which included dropping belief in Hell and the Devil. Affluent Americans saw little relevance in such medieval doctrines, but Milosz believed he saw manifestations of evil first-hand in Europe and felt that the shallowness of American faith showed a certain naivety towards evil.

Andrzej Franaszek notes in this biography that Milosz confronted the grand themes of twentieth century history, but was wary of generalisations, which is why Milosz’s poetry contains striking details. For Milosz there is dignity, wonder and significance in the way an individual lives life, rather than in just the cumulative effect of many lives. He was wary of the Marxist idea of life being boiled down to historical determinism. (Mind you, he also hated the determinism of capitalist consumerism.) Poetry for Milosz was more than just aesthetic technique, but it was also not to serve the purposes of ideology. Poetry should capture beauty as apprehended by individuals in order to validate the individual and the human. His poetry continually suggests that there are larger forces at work in the universe but human beings are not just flotsam in the currents of these forces.

His faith reassured him of that fact. He counted theology as the most important influence on his poetry. Faith for him was not merely ethical behaviour but a comforting metaphysical response to an encroaching nothingness (a feeling so prevalent in the twentieth century and in twentieth century art), with which Milosz seemed to be dealing for most of his life.

Hunger for talismans

The Cross: History, Art and Controversy, Robin Jensen, Harvard

We associate the cross with Christianity, so it is surprising to note, as Robin Jensen does, that for the first decades, even centuries, of the church other symbols were far more prominent – fish, anchors, ships, doves. And frescoes were more likely to feature other episodes from Jesus’ ministry and life, such as his baptism, rather than his crucifixion. Scholars Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker tell us that it was not the crucifixion but paradise that was the key image of the early church, representative of God’s kingdom bursting forth on earth.

For the earliest Christians, both Jewish and pagan in origin, the cross was a reviled image, as it was reserved for the worst criminals, which is why St Paul has to persuade his readers not to be ashamed of it but to see its significance. For Paul, paradoxically, the means by which Jesus is humiliated becomes for us a celebration. But the adoption of the cross as a symbol simply proved to pagans and Jews how nuts these Christians were.

Once it became a well-used symbol, it was malleable. It could be associated with ships and builders’ tools, and it represented the four points of the compass. It would also be closely associated with Eden’s Tree of Life, a symbolism refined and embellished over the centuries. In the Middle Ages a legend developed that the cross was actually made from wood from the Tree of Life, because, says Jensen, it was thought the wood itself must have been in some way special.

Origen wrote that the cross shouldn’t be thought of as magical, but after Constantine’s conversion and his mother’s implausible discovery of the relic of the True Cross, this is exactly what happened. It seems the hunger for talismans is almost inextinguishable. Pieces of the True Cross, which could magically duplicate, were used for healing, taken into battle and housed in elaborately jewelled containers.

It seems impossible, writes Jensen, that crucifixes only appeared after the ninth century, and then they featured a defiantly living rather than dying Jesus. As the importance of focussing on Jesus’ suffering developed crucifixes became more realistically gruesome. In the East, they thought this was a problem, as these crucifixes took away from the importance of the resurrection.

Luther thought contemplating Christ’s suffering, as our liberation, was appropriate, but for Zwingli and Calvin crucifixes were part of what they termed Catholic superstition, and their followers burned and smashed them along with the statues of Mary and the saints.

Jensen’s book covers mainly the ancient and medieval worlds, with modernity glossed over in a mere few pages. But the cross remains a controversial symbol. In China the government recently removed external crosses from churches, only to have lawyers challenge the practice. As has been well-publicised, wearing a cross on the job can get you fired in Europe. And in our mainstream media the image of a cross silhouetted against the sky inevitably refers to dark, scandalous behaviour within the church, turning the cross once again into a symbol of pain and shame.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church.)