Books read June 2017

June 2017:

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night,

Amazingly contemporary play with its gender twisting characters (Viola …in Shakespeare’s time a boy playing a woman pretending to be a man!) and speaking into current gender theory and queer theory semiotics.  Seen in conjunction with the British National Theatre production featuring a female “Malvolia” (showing at the Nova in June 2017) the impact is powerful indeed.  Called a comedy by Shakespeare and elsewhere called As You Will, the “comedy” has some dark moments indeed, not least because of the haunting songs of longing, love and life delivered by the eloquent and highly sophisticated “fool” Feste. I think indeed it is a tragicomedy produced as it was, near the end of the reign of Elizabeth 1. The tragic figure is indeed Malvolio betrayed not by hubris perhaps but by an over-whelming vanity and lack of self-perception. Nevertheless he does not deserve his cruel and over the top treatment by his tormentors whose quest for personal pleasure and revelry leaves no room for reasonable boundaries…a message for our time methinks.   The fraught love affairs Viola/Cesario and Orsino and Cesario/Olivia/“Cesario” disturbed and disrupted by mistaken identities is indeed a comedic masterpiece and the total impact simply underscores the absolute and never equalled genius of a playwright who, after 500+ years still somehow transcends time and philosophy to transfix us in the C21st.    5 stars

Mariilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self,  New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 2010

HIghly acclaimed as the author of a prize-winning quartet of novels about family life in mid-West America (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila ) Robinson has also demonstrated an impressively  comprehensive understanding of philosophical and scientific thought and writing from the Greeks to the Reformation to Post-modernism. The majority of writers who delve into the science vs religion debate and write populist books with the victor being one or the other often cite earlier writers by the briefest of references only.  Robinson has not only read them in detail but is able to interact with them with an understanding and philosophical perspicuity which is breathtaking. I refer to writers like Russell, Freud, Descartes,  Fichte, Comte, Grotius, Darwin, Nietzche, Emerson and Leibniz.

Robinson’s insights are powerful and important. Some key ideas are:

  • the distinction between genuine science and parascience.
  • the irreconcilability between the conclusions of the “fathers” of modernism i.e. The Freudian neurasthenic is not the Darwinian primate, who is not the Marxist proletarian, who is not the behaviourist’s organism available to to being molded by a regime of positive and negative sensory experience. To acknowledge an element of truth in each of these models is to reject the claims of descriptive sufficiency made by all of them. (pxvi)
  • the rejection with inadequate rationale of the testimonies to human inwardness of history and culture.
  • the meaning of the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood, a privilege foreclosed when the mind is trivialised or thought to be discredited. (pxviii)
  • the first premise of modern and contemporary thought …the notion that we as a culture have crossed one or another threshold or realisation that gives the thought that follows it a special claim to the status of truth….that the world of thought , recently or in an identifiable moment in the near past, had undergone epochal change. Some realisation has intervened in history with miraculous abruptness and efficacy, and everything is transformed. (pp1-3) Robinson questions this assumption that “enlightenment changes everything!”
  • the commonly expressed statement that everything must be subject to materialist explanations”  could be usefully rephrased as available to tentative description in terms science finds meaningful….the strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations.
  • ..granting the plausibility of the idea [of multiverses] what does it imply? Its power, when used polemically, is based on the fact that, in a multiverse, absolutely anything is possible…

These are just a few of the breakthrough moments in this demanding and unsettlingly thoughtful book about the inwardness of the mind. Robinson focuses in detail on altruism and on the “Freudian self” and along the way also deals directly and honestly with the influential writings in these areas  of Bertrand Russell, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennet, Jung, William James, Richard Rorty, E O Wilson and John Searle. The end result of this exploration is a penetrating if quite gentle undercutting of the noisy and unfounded confidence of many ardent and determined defenders of both modernism and post-modernism against the possibility of any valid form of spirituality or meaningful or coherent “inwardness” involving the human mind. Robinson in this book nowhere offers a defence of transcendance but clears a path in such a remarkably lucid way that if there is no transcendence we must just have to invent it to explain so much of the meaning of humanity and  human culture.

Not for the faint-hearted this book encourages careful re-reading and further explanation.    5 stars

Richard Attenborough, In Search of Ghandi, London, The Bodley Head, 1982   Having just enjoyed viewing the film The Viceroy’s House about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 my longstanding interest in Mohandas K Ghandi (Mahatma) was revived and I was delighted to read this exceptional account of the eighteen year journey of the production of the film Ghandi which was directed by Richard Attenborough. Attenborough himself acted in many British and Hollywood movies, was Chairman of the British Film Institute, the Royal Academy of Film and Television Artsa trustee of the Tate Gallery and Sussex University of Sussex Pro-Vice-Chancellor. His brother David is still famously making extraordinary environmental and bio-geographical television productions including Lite of Earth. 

The grinding account of the failed promises and commitments of film company directors, financiers and politicians combined with the cultural, spiritual. political and religious sensitivities involved with a figure as god-like in India as Ghandi make this an enthralling story. in addition the overwhelming complexity of the elements of modern movie making is an enthralling story in itself. Taking so long to actually bring to the screen the book’s narrative is in part inevitably a biography of Attenborough himself as the journey inevitably involved his whole family and work as well as almost bankrupting him. The book contains many historic photographs of Ghandi as well as exceptional still from the movie.  Hard to put down.   4 stars.

D H Lawrence, The Virgin and the Gypsy, Harmondsworth, UK, Penguin, 1986 (1930).  Pulsating, sensual novella of the coming of age of a young thoughtful but flighty Middle Class north country girl and her meeting with a strong-minded, winsome and somewhat mystical  Romany gypsy. Vintage Lawrence with his full-bodied, almost violent language and his exceptional ability  to capture the north country landscape, the apparent shallowness and double-mindedness of Middle Class morality and the yearning of the thoughtful for meaningful love. An almost perfect novella of 84 pages.  5 stars.

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