Remember, remember

Every year we’re asked to remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. But how many of us really know what this means, this annual reinforcing of historical, institutionalised hatred and prejudice?

In her latest newsletter, The Conversation’s deputy editor Jo Adetunji compares our slightly bored commemorations today with the nightmare people went through at the time.

Before coming to the UK from Canada, I had no clue what Bonfire Night was. It was vaguely explained to me by friends as a celebration of some man named Guy Fawkes and his failure to blow up parliament on November 5th, 1605. Traditionally, the occasion is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies. Or, as I’ve found in London, paying a £10 entry fee to stand in a wet, muddy park in some corner of the city, shivering while you wait for a five-minute fireworks display soundtracked by The Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars.

Of course, the real history behind Bonfire Night is far more dramatic than my recent celebrations let on. England in 1605 was bitterly divided – except back then, it was a religious schism taking place between the Protestants and the Catholics following the Reformation. Following the foiled attempt by Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators, it only got worse. Accusations of treason, heresy, and even witchcraft, were used to persecute perceived enemies of the crown. Catholics fled north to escape, settling in places like Lancashire, which was cast as lawless – and full of witchcraft.

Through the lens of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, a fictional account of England in the early 1600s, Shareena Z Hamzah writes about the horrendous treatment of Catholics and women accused of murder by witchcraft. While Bonfire Night is a reminder of Fawkes, it should also be a reminder of the innocent people caught up in England’s troubled past.

remember-remember-1

The calls to continually burn these effigies (these days, I think, a thing of the past) remind me a little of a calmer, slow-motion Two Minutes Hate event.

It would be nice to think such religious intolerance is consigned to the history books. Alas:

In China, every day is Kristallnacht
In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene.

How they all began

Enough of their ending, what of their beginning? Here’s a fascinating account of the earliest books and how they became established.

The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex
Our continued modern censure of the Romans for not adopting the codex sooner (its basic components were well known for millennia) forgets the most important resource in the Roman world: slaves. Slaves would copy, collate, retrieve, read and rewind book rolls for busy patricians (such as Pliny).

Today’s changing landscape of digital reading also presents a world dominated by negative externalities: invisible, poorly paid labourers scanning old books (viz, the occasional disembodied hand in latex glove flashed across a Google Books page); environmental and health challenges of mining rare earths and working long shifts to assemble our electronic devices; and the fossil fuels burned into the atmosphere to flash bytes of literature into storage arrays and send them on their way.

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Stylish science and sedentary religion

A couple of videos via Aeon that caught me eye recently. Are science and religion two sides of the same coin? I guess it depends on your point of view, everything’s relative.

This clever and stylish 1960 film is the most fun you’ll ever have at a physics lecture
Directed by the pioneering UK documentarian Richard Leacock, Frames of Reference is a slick and surreal dive into physics fundamentals and, in particular, why everything is indeed relative. Produced for high-school physics classes, the 1960 film features the physics professors Patterson Hume and Donald Ivey of the University of Toronto explaining, through an intertwined series of lectures and clever demonstrations, how frames of reference shape perspective. Using rotating sets, camera tricks and a visual style that suggests the film noir of Alfred Hitchcock, this is perhaps the most peculiarly entertaining half-hour physics lecture you’ll ever have.

Honk for Amen: worship meets convenience at the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church
The Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church has been offering worshippers in Florida Sunday services in the convenience of their cars for more than 60 years. Operating much like a drive-in movie theatre, the congregation parks and tunes in on the radio for Bible readings and sermons from the presiding minister in the altar building. Even pre-packaged consecrated wine and communion wafers are provided. Respectfully filmed yet imbued with dry humour, the US director Lauren DeFilippo’s observational short documentary Clean Hands guides us through a regular Sunday service here, prompting the viewer to ask: does Christian communion lose its meaning when shared from the comfort of a parked car?

Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

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It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)