Starting with the body

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women takes its clever title from her art criticism, but the heart of the book is a long, compelling, riveting, thoroughly researched and intricately thought-through essay on the mind/body philosophical problem, with personal touches often missing from discourses on the subject. She attacks it from a feminist angle, in the sense that she starts with the body, especially the female body, and the bond between mother and child, beginning in the womb, and unravels the masculine bias often submerged in Cartesian or evolutionary approaches (such as that of Richard Dawkins, whom she labels, interestingly, a Platonist). Importantly, she criticises over and over the stridency of arguments and the lame assertions that evidence for particular points of view (that consciousness is an illusion, we are just machines, etc., that we will soon create AI) will be forthcoming, just you wait and see. (Such lame ‘we don’t have the answer yet but we will, therefore our hypothesis is correct’ arguments are also roasted by, amongst others, David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God.)

Instead she pleads for recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the problem, and argues for the need to genuinely express doubt (perhaps another masculine area of weakness), especially, she says, since doubt is often a catalyst for innovative thinking, and not merely a weakness in argument or a reluctance to learn.


Giving hermits a bad name

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel, Simon & Schuster

One day in the 1980s a young man fed up with the modern world abandons his car by the side of the road and disappears into the woods of the northeast United States, where he remains for the next 30 years, living in isolation in a makeshift campsite.

Christopher Knight, described as the last true hermit (a problematic term as becomes evident), sustains himself by breaking into nearby holiday cabins and thieving food and clothing, sparking a decades-long investigation. The Stranger in the Woods opens with the heart-racing account of his arrest by a policeman increasingly frustrated by Knight’s panther-like elusiveness. Before his entry into the woods Knight worked as a security alarm installer, and this knowledge enables him to elude detection. Upon his eventual arrest he becomes something of a celebrity, the subject of marriage proposals and songs. Michael Finkel finds Knight in jail, from where this intriguing story unfolds. (Knight is eventually released to perform community service.)

The back cover of Michael Finkel’s book suggests that ‘occasionally [Knight] would have to venture to holiday cabins in the dead of night to pilfer a bit of food’, but this is a gross understatement. Actually he did this regularly, also stealing clothes, bedding, reading material and, crucially, gas canisters for his camp stove. Upon his arrest, he replied that virtually everything he ‘owned’ was stolen. Rainwater was the only provision he didn’t steal. He didn’t grow or hunt any of his food.

Finkel suggests Knight’s ‘back was fully turned to the world’, but Knight did not live in the wilderness. He lived, his campsite camouflaged in the forest, within three minutes’ walk of civilisation (a form of it, anyway), and even stole a flat screen TV which he powered with (stolen) car batteries. He read (stolen) books and magazines and listened to a (stolen) radio. Like the Japanese individuals whom Finkel mentions and who stay shut in their rooms, interacting with the world only via the internet, Knight simply turns his back on face-to-face interactions with living, breathing people. He describes himself as ‘kind of an isolationist’.

Finkel ruminates on how a thousand years ago we lived in small communities, in the bush, in a quiet environment, and opines, ‘This is who we truly are’, forgetting for the moment that Knight can only survive in his patch of peace and quiet with the modern conveniences of a gas stove, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and manufactured, long-life food. Knight does, however, show extraordinary tenacity and survival skills, many learnt on the job, because, Finkel explains, Knight lacked any training in bush survival before going bush. To survive the harsh Maine winters Knight rose at 2am, did exercises to stop freezing and thawed out precious drinking water on his camp stove.

Hermits, typically, are rather high-minded about what they do, and though living in isolation, they tend to make some communication to the world, particularly in a sage-like capacity. Knight himself, though, is puzzled by the ‘hermit’ label, preferring to think of himself as normal. He makes no attempt at manifestos or communicating his experience to the world. It is as if he made an impulsive decision and then, increasingly, finds it impossible to go back. Despite his thieving, of which he is ashamed, he has principles – he doesn’t steal expensive or obviously sentimental stuff, and he is a polite house-breaker, re-sealing doors and windows. He is not uninformed about the modern world and is a devourer of books, discerning in his reading unless, Knight says, the alternative is nothing to read. He admires Socrates for his recommendation of hermiticism, but detests that great populariser of back-to-nature principles, Thoreau (above), because, as Knight sees it, Thoreau only pretended to be a hermit, and still went to town on the weekends for dinner parties. This is somewhat ironic, considering Knight’s own lifestyle.

Knight describes Finkel as his Boswell, but reading between the lines, Finkel is an annoying journo who is after the major scoop and who is constantly stepping over the line from familiarity to intrusiveness, despite knowing that Knight and his family value privacy. But Finkel is intrigued in, as well as full of admiration for, someone so determined to shun society. Locals are not so forgiving. Some hate Knight for ruining their idyllic peace and quiet. Others see him as a minor inconvenience. The last word should go to the online hermit community (yes, there is such a thing), who, after much deliberation, decide that Knight is not a true hermit, but a thief who gives hermits a bad name.


London fog

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is a memoir and a piece of nature writing, like Katherine Norbury’s Fish Ladder, that describes Liptrot’s upbringing in the Orkney Islands, her moving to London and her intoxication with it, her literal intoxication as an alcoholic, her rehabilitation and return to the wind-buffeted northern islands of Scotland. She says, of clouds, that she likes ‘the idea of pollution creating something beautiful’, and this could stand well as a description of her illness and subsequent writing of the book. Throughout she intersperses descriptions of her personal London fog with the gradual clearing of her head through her immersion in the stark nature of the islands. She is honest about the process of recovery, about the demon on her shoulder whispering to her to just relapse and burn out gloriously, instead of plodding gradually to recovery.

She describes the need for the obsession of alcoholism to be redirected elsewhere and here it is in observations of birds, wind, clouds, geology, walking, snorkeling and island life. She maps her walks with GPS, she monitors shipping websites, she uses her phone to scan the night sky. She describes how as a drunk she increasingly obsessed over her phone, just as her illness correspondingly created a decline in the communication coming back to her. In the Orkneys her attention turns to how her phone (and the internet) can enlighten the non-human world. (The same technology allows you to find the cottage she stayed in on the island of Papay on google maps.) The lack of people focuses her attention on the wild, or at least on the simpler existence.

Incidentally, we often think of the world as becoming increasingly overpopulated, but that tends to be in the cities. The islands at the north of Scotland are far less populated than they used to be, says Liptrot. The complexities of modern life, that have supposedly made life easier, have, rather than encouraged and enabled people to live in more remote settings, drawn them away.

Bums on pews

Why God? Explaining Religious Phenomena, Rodney Stark, Templeton Press

As religion supposedly declines in the West, those on the outside increasingly want to understand why belief persists. Rodney Stark’s book is not a work of apologetics. It doesn’t aim to explain why God must exist (this isn’t Stark’s immediate concern), but rather why exactly people might come to believe in God. It is a work of sociology, refreshingly free of jargon, which will still illuminate much for those of us within the walls of churches.

In summary, he argues that religions are not fundamentally irrational. We all want explanations for the way the world works, and historically there has been a supernatural element to this. If we are convinced of the supernatural it then makes some sense to interact with this other world, to gain favour for this worldly experience, as well as for a possible next world. We gain these rewards through worship and obedience.

As religions develop, mediators (priests) become needed, and there is an inevitable ritualization and organisation. Pluralism of gods whittles down to monotheism, which provides the best explanation and commands more loyalty, which in turn leads to moral control. Close relationships, especially familial, are important for recruitment and growth of the religion. Miracles help to legitimise the claims of religions’ founders.

In time, religions become more liberal, initially to attract more members, but it is actually the stricter (to use Stark’s term) religions that are growing. Breakaways happen, religions are reinvigorated, or new religions created. There is a tendency to try and monopolise religion (as in the Middle Ages or Revolutionary France) but this is usually counterproductive. Counterintuitively, even for sociologists, our own pluralistic society might be healthy for getting bums on pews, because of the competition involved in attracting followers.

Much of this is sound reasoning, and is confirmed by a reading of the Bible. But no doubt some of this will be disputed, and Christians too might feel the need to debate Stark, at least in their heads, particularly when it comes to his conflation of rigidity of theology and degree of passion. One can be lazily conservative, just as one can be passionately concerned with liberal causes. It also can’t be true that ‘most’ Christians don’t think Jesus is coequal to God, especially when the growth of Christianity is happening in conservative, non-first world settings. And, despite his professed best intentions, his conservative personal ‘preferences’ seep through. He has a typically conservative American aversion to suggestions that justice might be relevant to society’s economic structures too.

Stark has an admirable passion, bordering on the combative, for correcting past sociologists of religion, including his younger self. It may seem oxymoronic, as Stark notes, but there has been a long-lived fashion in the field for talking of religion without reference to God, or gods and the supernatural, in favour of evolutionary or Freudian theories. Stark aims to put God back into the centre of religion. Even most Buddhists admit the supernatural, he says, despite folklore that suggests they are atheistic. This is a particular emphasis of Stark’s, but the book roams much wider.

I do wonder where Jesus fits into Stark’s theorising. It is not quite true, as is often suggested, that Jesus was dismissive of religion; it was rather that he criticised ossified religion. But Jesus often gives categorisations the slip. Stark suggests miracles and visions are often key to attracting followers of religion, but Jesus, rather than espousing mystical theology, talked in riddles and favoured practical applications of faith, such as clothing and feeding the poor. He was a miracle worker, according to scriptural and even non-Christian sources, but didn’t seem to want to publicise the fact. And what might Stark say about Jacques Ellul’s assertion that Jesus was entirely unconcerned with morality? Jesus seems to dismiss ritual, societal standing and detailed explanations of why the world is as it is, largely because these tend to get in the way of compassion.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Journey magazine.)

Evolution from and in debt to

Alister McGrath, in his latest book, says that no modern philosophers are asking about the meaning of life because it is (to them) an embarrassingly crude subject matter. This is not entirely true, although perhaps academic philosophers regard the popular philosophising of the likes of Alain de Botton, John Armstrong or Terry Eagleton as barely worthy of the name philosophy. The disregard seems to be mutual. Anyway, John Kaag (above) in his recent  American Philosophy paints a similar picture of contemporary philosophy’s allergy to the everyday. Kaag argues for the relevance of said American philosophy of a bygone age, particularly that of the pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

A philosophy lecturer, Kaag stumbles across the library in New England of Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher and educator, a student of William James, a key contributor to the literature on the sociology of religion, and a correspondent of Robert Frost and others. Kaag has the task of working out how to preserve and offload the library, while keeping some semblance of its worth as a whole. Amidst his discoveries of gasp-inducing first editions of various Western classics with handwritten notes and dedications from authors, Kaag weaves the tale of American philosophy’s evolution from and debt to European philosophy, emphasising both that American philosophy was not as autonomous as it is often portrayed and that it beat its own individual, enterprising path. As in an undergraduate course, he introduces Hobbes, Hegel, Descartes, Kant and James, as well as lesser known figures such as Jane Addams and Pearl Buck.

Not only does Kaag argue for an older, more relevant style of philosophy, but he ties it to his personal experience of getting over a divorce and alcoholism and falling in love again. Rather than just telling of American philosophy’s practicality, he applies it to his own situation, and the result is a beautifully entwined memoir and summary, even if at times his own circumstances tend to accentuate what is personally relevant from the works of various philosophers. For example, he says that Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘actually’ about Coleridge’s marriage. Well, yes, but also so much more, as Malcolm Guite relates in detail in his recent glowing study of the man and the poem, Mariner (Hodder & Stoughton).


Faith and Freedom, Teresa Forcades, Polity.

Faith and freedom may be thought of as opposites by those critical of religion, but this is certainly not the case for a thinker such as Martin Luther, who thought that only faith can free us from slavery to our self-interest, and it is not the case for Spanish nun and activist Teresa Forcades.

She suggests that the early church took some time to reconcile itself to the concept of a God who does not restrict, and she notes the differences in Near East creation narratives, in that the Israelite God, unusually, gives rather than demands something. Additionally, God radically allows for the chance of subversion by human beings, who are given freedom to accept or deny what God offers. So Christianity begins not with conformity but with release.

The monastic tradition and freedom may also seem contradictory, but for Forcades, the life of a nun removes many impediments to communion with God and with others, particularly an attachment to possessions. As a nun, she is free to serve others, as it were, which spills out into the world via her activism in the areas of social justice and the fight against rampant consumerism, discrimination, disparities of wealth, our dependence on global pharmaceutical companies and the erosion of democracy. Much of her short book is concerned with such matters.

She writes that she was a feminist before she was a nun, and that her introduction to theology was through liberation theology. Her faith and what one might term her radicalism inform each other, they are two sides of the same coin.

Turning inward, she finishes her book with a meditation on forgiveness, a profound act that can only spring from freedom, and which, she says, is at the core of our experience of faith.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church in Australia)

A stethoscope to the moral heart

Dear Life: On Caring for the Elderly, Karen Hitchcock, Black Inc.

As we keep being told, increasing numbers of us are becoming what we increasingly don’t want to be: old. And in our youth-obsessed society we put off growing old, which partly explains the almost manic passion with which many retirees travel and live life to the fullest, before the perils of old age begin stalking and we become a burden affecting ‘normal’ society.

We hear about the burden on taxpayers, and the ‘crises’ in our hospitals – that is the usual story – but Karen Hitchcock, a doctor and writer, suggests we instead have a crisis of attitude. In Dear Life she puts a stethoscope to the moral heart of our society, and diagnoses ageism. ‘Where’, she says, ‘are the parliamentary enquiries?’ She says that the elderly regularly tell us, self-deprecatingly, that they are a burden, and we, in our coldness, actually believe them. Because we largely agree.

And so, Hitchcock, writes, there is a pervasive desire to get the elderly out of hospitals so that they don’t ‘waste’ resources. A younger person exhibiting the same symptoms that elderly patients present would not be treated the same, but hospital staff often fear elderly patients’ slow recovery rates and that the hospital may get stuck with them.  The elderly, supposedly, just keep getting sick and it becomes less and less productive to treat them. When severe symptoms present, staff are often too quick to assume an elderly patient is dying and will shunt them off into palliative care. Often, however, following the level of care we would afford any other human being, elderly patients recover like other human beings.

It doesn’t help that, for various reasons, the elderly are over-proscribed. And often policy is contaminated by economic rationalism, leading to the neglect of patients themselves. But despite the rhetoric, Australia spends relatively little on hospital care and can afford to be more generous. Hitchcock also suggests that it doesn’t help that medical professionals are often lured into specialisation by the fat pay cheques, thereby turning them into doctors of symptoms rather than people. The book is full of harsh judgements, but by someone on the inside who can envisage better ways.

Just like other people, the elderly need time, touch, holistic understanding, and some lee-way. They need to be treated like adults. This, she says, is the problem with end-of-life agreements: they don’t take into account the journey of patients and medical staff, the ambiguities, the negotiations and changes-of-mind, and simply try to lock patients into black and white decisions. She is scathing about pontificating, under-informed celebrities such as Andrew Denton, who jump on the euthanasia bandwagon and are recklessly sure of their positions, where consideration is needed. Hitchcock, very movingly, argues from her place as a professional carer duty-bound to protect life, for better care for those alive, rather than simply assuming a quick exit is best for everyone. This is not a blanket condemnation of euthanasia, but a questioning of motive, and a note of caution.

In all this, Hitchcock comes across as almost heroic in her empathy, a view she would likely discount. She simply describes doctors and nurses as human beings, with faults like others. She praises and criticises where she deems it fair. She isn’t tarring all medical professionals, but drawing attention to cracks in the system. What comes across in her book is the picture of a society and a healthcare system that is muddle-headed and cold-hearted regarding the elderly. But we can be thankful for a practitioner such as herself who speaks loudly to our society, and gently to her patients.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church)