Sunday, November 06, 2011

Theology Redux

The Ju-Ju gave us these magic biscuits. If you eat them, you will live for ever.

That’s not quite right. If you do the magic dance the Ju-Ju taught us, you will live for ever. Eating biscuits is an important part of the ceremony, of course, but it is the whole dance that’s magic: there’s nothing special about the actual biscuits themselves.

That’s not quite right. The magic isn’t in the biscuit or the dance; the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly. The dance is just a way of helping you focus.

That’s not quite right. Since the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly, there’s no real need for anything else. Some people say that we’ve gone away from the Ju-Ju by giving up eating magic biscuits and dancing magic dances, but that’s not really true. It's just that we’ve spotted that our whole life is part of the dance, and all the biscuits we eat are magical.

That’s not quite right. The magic doesn’t come from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju or submitting to him; it comes from living as he did, and working to put his political principles into practice in today’s world. That’s what he meant by “dancing”. And “magic” biscuits are biscuits which you share with people who don’t have any biscuits of their own; and that applies to all other kinds of food as well. And "for ever" means “in a world where no one starves or begs for bread; where everyone gives what they can and takes what they need; where health care is free at the point of need; and where countries settle their problems without wars.”

That’s not quite right. The Ju-Ju came to show people that their belief in magic biscuits, magic dances and living forever was completely wrong, and, in fact wicked: that the whole idea of a magic biscuits which makes you lived for ever is, in fact evil. He was only interested in sharing food, socialized medicine, and countries solving their problems without wars. Some bad people came along and added magic biscuits and magic dances to his supposed teachings for their own ends.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this.
SK was clearly being mischievous (a thing which has almost never happened before) when he pretended that everyone would immediately see that Arians weren't Christians. This left an obvious opening for Sam to pretend that couldn't see any difference between the two positions. The Dawk, after all, uses Arius vs Athanasius as his main example of meaningless theological debate.

Sam, of course, plays the standard counter-gambit – since the Aristotelian terms "same substance" / "similar substance" sound obscure and strange to us, they can't signify any real disagreement; the two schools must have been arguing about nothing whatsoever; Christians are silly etc etc. If charity were really the order of the day, he might have asked whether it made any difference if you believed that Jesus was the Creator, or merely a sub-ordinate creature. But that would require us to ask "what do we mean by difference"? That chap who did the History of Christianity on the Beeb a couple of years back pointed out that Arian art depicted a realistic, human Jesus who appears to age during his ministry, where Byzantine art of the same period depicts a more distanced, obviously divine figure. But that's a bit of a rarefied distinction. I am quite sure that Sam would be able to quite easily spot an Arian by its behaviour. It would be the one wearing a headscarf, knocking on his front door, and asking him to buy a copy of the Watchtower. Is that the kind of difference we are looking for?

We are of course, not permitted to say that "Well, the positions are different because the people who believe in the two positions believe that they are different" because Sam could then play his "Popular Front of Judea vs Judean Popular Front" card. 

In all seriousness. Christians seem able to disagree with each other about quite big theological questions, and still regard each other as "fellow-Christians", albeit "fellow-Christians who should jolly well stop denying the miracle of the mass / worshipping a biscuit and come back to the true church". But Christians have found that the question of the Trinity is one about which they are unable to agree to differ. It's not a question of poor hard done by Arians saying "But we are Christians, the same as you: please let us back into your church." Trinitarians think that Arians aren't Christians; Arians think that they are the only Christians. They knock on my door early on Saturday mornings and try to convert me, which the Bishop of Rome, to give him his due, has never done.

I don't think that the question about whether the Holy Spirit proceeeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone is a question about nothing; I think I could have a stab at saying what the difference is and why it seemed to be important. But the Pope in Rome regards the Patriarch in ... wherever he lives, do you know, I honestly don't know... not merely as a fellow Christian, but as a fellow Christian who is so near to being a Catholic as practically makes no difference. Even though he's quite sure that he's wrong about filoque.

So why do questions like Arianism not admit of the same kind of compromise?

I understand that from a position outside of any Church, this might look odd; could Sam accept that from a position inside the Church, it seems obvious. (Obvious that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon's aren't Christians, but that Anglicans are simply fellow Christians who've got it badly wrong about infant baptism.) Could he perhaps accept on trust that the person of Christ is what Christianity is about; in fact what Christianity is (in the way that the Koran is what Islam is) and that while there can be very great differences of opinion about baptism, Eucharist and even ethics, you can't mess around with our understanding of who Christ is without changing – or in fact obliterating – our faith.

To press the analogy in a possibly ignorant direction; I don't think that there has ever been a textually liberal form of Islam – the Koran is either the actual word of God, or it is nothing, and without the Koran there is no Muslim religion. Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means? But I may be wrong about that.

There are certainly clergy who take the view that Jesus was a teacher of ethics; that he preached a radical, revolutionary message; that his death was a political martyrdom; and that the resurrection is to be understood simply in terms of "his followers kept following his political message even after he died." Does Sam genuinely not see that this is different from the mainstream position that god came down from heaven, died on the cross to enable human beings to go to heaven, came back to life after he had been killed, and then went back to heaven? Does he genuinely not see why I, coming from the second perspective, would not be prepared to call the first one "Christian"?

Is the point "I don't think Giles Fraser really takes the liberal – modernist position that your ascribe to him."? (I am perfectly happy to concede that I may have misjudged him.)

Is the point "It doesn't matter if Giles Fraser takes the liberal - modernist position, because the liberal – modernist position is in fact indistinguishable form the traditional – conservative position." (In which case Fraser is equally to blame, since he appears to deny that Catholics and Evangelicals are Christians in any meaningful sense.) 

Or is the point "It couldn't possibly make any difference whether Fraser is a liberal – modernist or a traditional – conservative because all religious positions are equally meaningless? "

I think that Sam, being what C.S Lewis called a naturalist, may find it genuinely difficult to believe that Christians are what C.S Lewis called supernaturalists. I think that he finds the idea that there is Something Else apart from the scientifically observable universe so strange that he thinks that whenever Christians seem to be talking about something supernatural, they must really be talking about something natural. "I know you say that you say that you think that Jesus died so you could get in touch with God, but you can't really mean that: you must really mean 'so that you can form a more just society' or 'so you can overcome your psychological hangups' ".

I don't think that any good Christian has ever quite believed in the parody of the Atonement which Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser abominate. This is sometimes called "Penal Substitution": I prefer to call it the Tom Sawyer theory. (God wants to whip Becky Thatcher; but Tom Sawyer, who is innocent, volunteers to get whipped instead, so Becky Thatcher gets off scot free.) As committed a death-cultist as John Stott points out that it doesn't work because it's not fully Trinitarian: God is in fact both the one doing the punishing and the one getting punished. Mr C.S Lewis starts out his chapter on the Atonement by saying that before he was a Christian, he thought that the whipping boy theory  was the one he had to believe, and that it made no sense to him. He said that once he became a Christian, even the theory of one person getting punished on someone else's behalf seemed less immoral than it had; and if you changed it to "paying a debt" or "standing the racket" then it made more sense; because it's a matter of common experience that one one person has got himself in trouble, it's the innocent person who isn't in trouble who has to get him out of it. He then propounds a rather complicated theory, based on Anselm, about human beings needing to "go back" to God, but not being able to, and Jesus doing the "going back" on our behalf.

Again: I don't quite know whether Sam really doesn't see the difference between an objective Atonement ("The death of God actually changed the relationship that the material universe has to the supernatural realm") and a subjective Atonement ("Jesus' death was a good example of not striking back against evil, however horrible it is") or whether he's pretending not to for tactical reasons. Or if I'm failing to explain it very well, which is most likely. 

If the Tom Sawyer analogy is a poor one, why do people carry on using it? Because it is a very vivid and dramatic way of picturing the idea that Jesus' death made a difference. God was cross with us; Jesus was punished; now God isn't cross with us any more. Darnay was going to be beheaded; Carton  switched places with him; Darnay lived happily ever after. There are other versions: the human race owed God a debt; Jesus paid the debt; now the human race doesn't owe God a debt any more. Many nasty imperialist evangelical tracts ask us to imagine a judge, or more probably a Judge, who imposes a fine on a certain prisoner and then pays it himself. We were too dirty and filthy to go to heaven; we washed ourselves in the blood of Jesus; now we are clean. Jesus went down into hell, fought with the devil and smashed down the gates, so no-one has to stay in hell unless they want to. For the first thousand years of Christian history, the most popular theory involved God playing a trick on the devil to make him exceed his authority, and idea that would be incredibly alien to almost all Christians, but important if you are are going to make sense out of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

The Bible talks about the death of Jesus in terms of "sacrifice". It is absolutely true that the idea of sacrifice is strange to us. But the idea was clearly not strange to the people who wrote the Bible. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is handed over to be executed preparation day ("when the passover must be killed"); he initiates a sort of holy role-play in which passover wine becomes "my blood of the New Covenant". Church of England churches still have a table at the front which they call an "alter"; Giles Fraser has to perform a rite involving phrases like "in memory of thy perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross" and "Hallelujah! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." It is very reasonable indeed for a clergyman to say "We need to find ways of explicating this strange language; we need to be pretty sure we understand what "sacrifice" meant to a good Jew, and, come to that, to a pagan convert at the time of Jesus." But I don't think you can say that the whole idea of sacrifice is abhorrent, and actually anti-Christian. You can only say that if you think that the people who we depend on for our knowledge of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had utterly and completely missed the whole point of every word he had ever said. Possibly you may think that Jesus was all right but the disciples were thick and ordinary, that their twisting it has ruined it for you. Once you've said that, there isn't really anything left called "Christianity" to talk about. 
In Fraser's version, Christianity went off the rails pretty darn early. St Mark pretty definitely has a story about Jesus miraculously stopping a storm. Fraser thinks that miracles of the storm-stopping kind are completely contrary to the whole idea of Christianity. That's sort of a bit of a problem. 

It may be that I misread Fraser. It may be that (like me and St Mark) he thinks that the point of the story of Jesus calming a storm is the final line, where the disciples say "Hang on...only Yahweh is meant to be able to tell the weather off. But that means....."; that he's saying "The point of the story is that Jesus really was Yahweh; the point of the story is not that we don't need to listen to the shipping forecast before going on boat trips from now on." It would have been nicer if he could have framed in as an affirmation of what he does believe, and not as a rant about how horrible we evangelicals are. 
I'm not talking here about whether we think miracle are even possible, or whether we ought to interpret miracle stories literally or metaphorically. I am quite happy to debate with the fellow who thinks that Mark 4: 35-41 is not a news report, but (say) a commentary on the book of Jonah. But when someone says "Mark completely missed the point of what Jesus was on about; but fortunately, I get the point perfectly well" then I smile patronisingly and walk away.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God.
Giles Fraser, 22 March, 2008 

 The idea of an omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat our enemies turns out to be a part of that great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. 
Giles Fraser 8 Jan 2005  

Jesus set out to destroy the imprisoning obligations of debt, speaking instead of forgiveness and the redistribution of wealth. 
Giles Fraser 24 Dec 2005 

 Nicene Christianity is the religion of Christmas and Easter, the celebration of a Jesus who is either too young or too much in agony to shock us with his revolutionary rhetoric....And from Constantine onwards, the radical Christ worshipped by the early church would be pushed to the margins of Christian history to be replaced with the infinitely more accommodating religion of the baby and the cross. 
Giles Fraser, 24 Dec 2005 

 Evangelical Christianity, with all its emphasis on Jesus as friend, risks domesticating the divine, pulling God too much within the dimensions of the human perspective. With this sort of Jesus at hand, God becomes just too easy. 
Giles Fraser 11 Dec 2011 

 For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. "There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin," we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross. 
Giles Fraser 11 Dec 2009 

 (On evangelicals who support corporal punishment): Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise. For, as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father's anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel. 
Giles Fraser 8 June 2006

Friday, October 14, 2011

I'll know my song well before I start singing

Bob Dylan
Cardiff Arena
Oct 13 2011

Everything you've heard is wrong. Literally, everything. Any rulebooks you have lying around. Tear them up.

A lot of people (including me) have, over the years, talked a lot of rot about The Almighty Bob's current performance style. (And by "current" we mean "what he's been doing for the last 20 years".) You know the jokes. Sits with back to audience. Growls though the songs. Can't hear the words. Third verse of Blowin' in the Wind before we worked out what he was singing

None of its true. None of it. Not. One. Word.

I can't think of the last time I saw a performer who was so obviously having fun on the stage. This is a man of 70 who has performed on five out of the last seven nights. He doesn't need the money: the only possible reason for being on stage is that he likes it. That's why you are never going to hear a greatest hits set: he keeps himself fresh by playing a different selection of songs each night and – as explained at some length in Chronicles – by deconstructing the songs, using a system of rhythmic improvisation which allows him to re-invent them in each performance.

Reviews of Dylan gigs tend to bifurcate; a smattering saying that this is the best they've ever heard Bob sing; a thundering consensus that he's an old has-been and should hang up his guitar; a hint of anger that he's 70 rather than 17.

Well there's an explanation for that, isn't there?

The Cardiff arena was a standing venue; we arrived at 5.30 and made straight for the front when the doors opened; a mere 2 hours investment of time resulted in a position not more than 20 feet from a the stage. We could see ever detail of Bob's performance.

And its an astonishingly nuanced, detailed, joyous performance. I hadn't realised what a small man he is. What incredibly spindly legs he has. The band are in sharp grey suits with hats. The guitarist almost seems to be emulating the clothes of his Bobness, like a hassidic Jew. Bob is in a crumpled suit; with a white mafiosi hat. Before long sweat is pouring off the rim. It's like he's saying that he's just some hobo who seems to have wandered up onto the stage and is going to sing us some songs. He does Leopardskin Pillbox Hat standing at the keyboard, but after only one number, he comes to the front and does the mighty Shooting Star in front of the mic and stays there for the next half-dozen songs. He even dances a little; a sort of delicate mincing wiggle. The audience applauds him when he stand up; when he starts playing the harmonica. They applaud him when he gets his cable tangled in the mic stand.

He still pulls the words of the songs apart and puts them back together again in an off putting way. (Remembers how, on Theme Time, he could sometimes lose himself in the pronunciation of very long words, particularly place names. His whole acts is like that.) He still does that thing where whole lines and stanzas vanish into staccato rhythm: "Some! Bod! Y! Said! From! The! By! Bul! He'd! Quote!.....there was dussssssssst on the maaaaaaann in the loonnnnnnng black cloak?" With a tentative, questioning rise on the last word, as he grins at the audience, big wide eyes flashing from underneath the hat brim, as if he'd just delivered the punch line of a good joke. It's in those elongated vowels that he sounds most like Dylan. The dark goth-noir atmosphere of Man in the Long Black Cloak gets lost in the performance, but the poetry (it really is poetry) still speaks.

And yeah, maybe it's jarring if you haven't heard it before. Hard Rain (official greatest song ever written by a human being, from a short list of half a dozen) is initially unrecognisable, not because you can't hear the words – I swear I heard every word, even of the songs I frankly didn't know like High Water – but because the Dalek-style delivery is so weird that I found myself thinking "hmm.....don't know this there a Dylan song which involves asking questions to a blue-eyed boy?" But it forces you to attend to every word, to follow him through the labyrinth of imagery as if you've never heard it before. There's a sense of release and climax when we finally get to "and-I'll-KNOW-my-song-WELL-before-I-start-singingggggg".

I'll know my song well.... There is applause. He does. We do.

It would have been too absurd for him to talk in between the songs. I really can't conceive of him saying "Hello Cardiff. Thank you for turning out tonight. Here's a song from my latest album." But it's just such a plain lie to say that he doesn't connect with the audience. Every smile, wink, grin, tip of the hat – every time he taps he left hand on his thigh in rhythm with his harp, every time he continues to beat out a rhythm on the keyboard with one hand while half dancing with his spare leg – makes a connection. There's an elation here that makes me feel he's happier than he's ever been; that the addled gravelly bluesman dancing his way through old numbers is the person he's always wanted to be. There's a deliberately rough edged tin pan alley feel to the band; as if he wants us to feel that we're sitting in on a jam session or knocking back the Jack Daniels at an informal hootenanny. He's more comfortable with the newer songs, certainly: there's detail and nuance in Trying To Get To Heaven Before They Close the Door and Things Have Changed which rather slips away when he gets back to the keyboard for the Highway 61 Revisited. 

Bristol's foremost citizen folk journalist wondered if there was an irony in that wink – a sense that he's been told we want to hear those old songs, so he's humouring us, putting them in quotation marks? I wondered if  the whole slightly mannered body language saying "You want me to be a performing monkey, and I tell you what – I'm happy being a performing monkey." Is this a legend who simply refuses to be an icon?

Did we catch him on an exceptionally good day? Bob did a full length set – he noticed that the young lady had a brand new leopard skin pill box hat at 9PM and didn't finish wondering how it felt to be on your own with no direction home until well after 10.30. Which makes me wonder where the idea of the Mark Knopfler support set came from? I wonder if His Bobness doubts his ability to do a full set every night, and is doing a double-handed tour so that the audience aren't short changed if he has an off day? Has he got some system of resting his voice between gigs so that he's been cured of the  "How mmmm mmm mmmm man mmmm down" syndrome? Or was the sound mix simply better in Cardiff than it was when I heard him in Sheffield a couple of years back? There were a couple of numbers (Summer Nights, in particular) where the band went into a completely over the top freak out mode but Bob's voice never seemed to disappear into that improvised back yard racket?

Or has it actually always been like this? Have those of us lucky enough to get somewhere near the front always felt that we've made a connection with a vibrant, fun and instantly likable rock and roll personality – but anyone further back felt they'd heard some quite interesting reworkings of mostly obscure Dylan songs? (Anyone who doesn't know his catalogue inside out is going to be lost, of course.) Which makes his insistence that there can't be any screens seems all the more perverse. Assuming that the never ending tour is never going to end, one almost wishes he could give up on stadia and limit himself to smaller venues, however much harder it might become to get tickets.

Is this tour, or some tour, being filmed as a documentary? I overwhelming feel that this Dylan, the live Dylan, the showman Dylan who uses his voice as a musical instrument, one component in what is a actually a consummate piece of musical theater is the real Dylan, the one Robert Zimmerman has always wanted to be, and it needs to be preserved for posterity.

Noble prize for literature, indeed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Clever Man Says Interesting Thing, Shock

Earlier this year the New Statesman (a magazine) asked a group of famous people who believed in God why they believed in God. Later on they asked a group of famous people who didn't believe in God why they didn't believe in God. It turned out that the people who believed in God believed in God for all the usual reasons, and the people who didn't believe in God didn't believe in God for all the usual reasons. I give Ben Goodacre points for saying that he thought there should be a word for people who weren't interested one way or the other. The atheists were on the whole shriller than the theists. Richard Dawkins started off sounding calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn't believe in God because he didn't see any reason to believe in God, but ended up saying that "theology" was "the exact equivalent" of reading tea-leaves.

I was a lot more interested in the comments of one Steven Hawking. He was the fella, you remember, who said that when we'd filled in the last bit of physics we would "know the mind of God".

The Dawk is probably right to say that when Hawking says "God" he doesn't actually mean "God": it's just a flowery way of saying "we will know everything." I do wonder if Hawking was deliberately playing up to his own mythology. A very clever man who happens to be severely disabled fits in nicely with Gnostic ideas about Bodies being things that Minds have annoyingly got trapped in, and that we should let those bodies shrivel away so that minds can expand and ascend and get back in touch with the mind of God. That's why the most brilliant fictional scientists (Prof. X, Davros, the Mekon) are always represented as wheelchair users.

Biologists are often accused of "playing God" by people who don't understand biology, or for that matter, God. It's hard to see why "fixing the plumbing" so childless couples can make babies is necessarily more hubristic than, say, giving aspirins to people who God has decided ought to have headaches. But Physicists seem to positively like using the G-word. They pretend that Mr Higgs-Boson is the God Particle or that a grand unified theory is the Mind of God or that Quantum Physics reveals that the Creator is a big fan of Yahtzee. 

Christians have a bad habit of pretending that this means that the scientists in question believed in God even when they obviously didn't. Christians have a bad habit of pretending that all sorts of famous people believed in God when they obviously didn't. Atheists have got an equally bad habit of claiming that famous people didn't believe in God when they obviously did. ("Oh, they may have said that they did, but that was the kind of thing you had to say in the olden days. If they lived today, they would have agreed with me.") Einstein, who was a scientist, didn't believe in God, and said so, although he also said that the didn't think much of atheists and was a big fan of Jesus.

I think that the tendency of some physicists to talk about their science in theological language does imply that they think that their science is the sort of thing which it is worth using theological language to talk about. I think that they use words like "God" because they like to think of themselves as discoverers of some ultimate, or indeed, Ultimate, truth, or indeed Truth. Unlike those poor benighted chemists who just mix things up in their test tubes. I think that they use the G-word because they believe in some kind of Platonic reality – that there are things that are true and would have been true even if there had been no minds to observe them being true. Unlike those people on the other side of the quad who think that everything is contingent, cultural determined, subjective, post-modern, deconstructable.

More recently, Mr Hawking has claimed that the gaps which he perceived when he wrote a Brief History of Time have indeed been filled in: "the scientific account is complete and theology is unnecessary". This works very well if God is primarily an explanation for the bits of the Universe we don't quite understand. When we knew hardly anything, there was lots of stuff for God to do; now we know everything, we can retire him. (I've always felt that this can't be quite right. So little of the Bible and the Koran and the Book of Mormon seem to be involved in saying "Why do elephants have long noses? Because God said so, that's why." So much of it seems to be about temples and taboos and morals and miracles and stuff.)

But the bombshell that Hawking drops on the New Statesman goes like this:

"I am not claiming that there is no God. The scientific account is complete but it does not predict human behaviour because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model which can include free will and God." 

Go back and read that again.

Now go back and read it again.

Now, we know well enough how the rest of this argument pans out. Like a high level chess game, the moves are planned out in advance. Some Christians are, right now, typing that God exists because the most famous scientist of his generation says that God exists, or at any rate, that God doesn't definitely not exist. Some atheists are, right now, typing "Oh, I suppose just because humans are complicated I have to start circumcising lambs on bronze alters, do I?" All the cute little Dawkinistas are typing that by "God", Hawking doesn't mean "God" and even if he does, he's got a diseased mind and can be ignored. Five comments in someone will use the phrase "sky fairy" and the discussion will come to an end.

But it is still very interesting.

Clearly, Hawking hasn't suddenly converted to anything, and isn't even necessarily talking about the "God" of religion. He may not be saying anything more than that "God" can be a useful tool of thought. That was the line taken by Phillip Pullman before he became boring: God doesn't "exist" but she's still worth thinking about, because she allows us to think of things we couldn't think of without her. (There is no such number as the square root of minus one, but calculations involving the square root of minus one have useful real world applications.) It was also the line taken by Terry Pratchett: maybe it is good to teach children to believe in things that don't exist, like the tooth fairy, because they are going to need to believe in other things that don't exist, like "love" and "freedom".

It isn't quite clear what Hawking means by "model". He may mean "It could sometimes be useful to pretend that there is a God in the same way that it is sometimes useful (when you are trying to find your way home without a compass, say) to pretend that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun moves round it." Or he may mean: "When we are talking about the human mind, and how it interacts with the universe, and whether it makes real choices, it is perfectly valid to construct hypothesis which includes God. At some point in the future, we may think of a way of testing those hypotheses." 

He seems, very interestingly, to grok the idea that "God" is not, and never way, primarily a very inefficient way of explaining why elephants have trunks; but is, and always was, a way of thinking about how us minds go about existing and interacting with other minds which also seem to be embodied in this physical universe thing. 

Since he has (so far as I know) no particular religious axe to grind it will not be possible for the atheists to reply "Oh, look at the contortions which these Christians will go to to salvage some part of their nasty barbaric bronze age did I mention Fred Phelps stoning apostates sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy." This doesn't mean that they won't say it. And if he is serious (about not claiming that God does not exist) it will suddenly become awfully hard to maintain the imaginary line between science (which is always atheistic) and faith (which is always anti-scientific.) Which doesn't mean that people won't carry on saying it.

Science has explained everything; but human minds and their apparent ability to make choices are not really part of the "everything" which science has explained. We may need to think of them in some other way. Some way that may include "God". 

Excuse me: but wasn't that exactly the territory over which C.S Lewis and G.E.M Anscombe had their celebrated theological spat in 1948?

These Ones Are Pretty Awesome As Well

Thursday, October 06, 2011

And now, here is some music

is this possibly the best song ever written about anything

I lied (3)

-Are you through with politics?
--I should say vice versa

Citizen Kane

I think that when I ask questions about the logic of a political speech or interview or leading article or talk show, or wonder how the speakers theories might apply to the “real” world, I am making the same mistake as the man who asked what the piece of string did after it left the bar.

I think that all those webpages which explain at some length that no, actually, Birmingham City Council has not banned Christmas are on the same level as the webpages which ask why the Death Star didn't just ignore the fourth moon of Yavin and blast the gas giant that it was orbiting.

It’s not supposed to make sense, you dunderhead. It’s a story.

Seeing little red spaceships whizzing around shooting at little black space ships is meant to make you feel excited; hearing the word "winterval" is meant to make you feel cross.

Star Wars is for people who like feeling excited; politics is for people who like feeling cross. There is literature for people who like feeling scared and for people who like feeling sad, and good luck to them.

I think it will be infinitely more profitable to approach any speech, any interview, any column, any talking heads show (and any Internet blog) as a self contained, abstract structure of rising and falling sounds and disconnected images than to imagine that the speaker or writer is actually saying something

Because they hardly ever are.

Did you happen to watch the panel of apparently grown-up individuals discussing the recent lynching in Georgia on Question Time? The panelists were required to pretend to answer the question “Does capital punishment have a place in civilized society?” Readers will immediately spot that this is not actually a question at all. It’s only a bit of question-shaped-noise. The man in the front row you sir with the glasses might as well have asked “do some people wear pink ties?" or "does cheese exist?" Many civilizations -- the Greek civilization, the Roman civilization, the Egyptian civilization, the whole of Western civilization up until the 19th century – practiced capital punishment with great enthusiasm and some imagination. The questioner was at best making a man-goes-into-a-bar pun. Have you noticed how we use the word “civilization” to mean “a complex political and legal culture” (“civilization began in ancient Babylon”) and “couth, well mannered behaviour” (“don’t chew your meat with your mouth open, darling, it’s uncivilized”)? Isn't that funny, in a way? At worst, he wasn't saying anything at all. He was just making a noise, and inviting the panel to make a noise.

Ian Hislop noted that his magazine had reported at least one miscarriage of justice every week for the past 25 years, at least 100 of which related to wrongful murder convictions. If the asphyxiation lobby had its way, those 100 people would all be dissolving in quicklime right now. Leaving all other considerations to one side, he said, this demonstrates why ritual asphyxiation will never be restored in this country.

Now, there are clearly only two sensible responses to this point:

a: It doesn't matter if you execute an innocent person: what matters is that the “cost” of murder should be as high as it can possibly be, otherwise the “value” of life is insufficiently high, like finding bananas only cost 5p a pound in Sainsburies and deciding that they can’t possibly be very good bananas. And anyway, the death penalty doesn't hurt much nowadays so it hardly even counts as a punishment. [*]

b: It doesn't matter if you execute an innocent person, because executions prevent murders, so the total number of people killed in a society with capital punishment is always less than the total number of people killed in a society which doesn’t have capital punishment.

c: The state, while terribly bad at running schools and hospitals, is infallible when it comes to determining guilt or innocence, so it is in fact impossible that any innocent person could ever be convicted. Which must be a huge comfort to Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley.

No-one made either of these arguments. A lady on the panel who claimed to be a Tory MP made the following noise:

I do actually think that when we have a criminal justice system that continuously fails in this country and where we’ve seen murderers and rapists and people who’ve committed just the most abhorrent crimes in society go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to re offend and do the type of crimes that they’ve committed again and again I think that’s appalling and on that basis alone I would actually support the re-introduction of capital punishment to serve as a deterrent because I do think we do not have enough deterrence in this country for criminals and lets not forget that murderers and rapists and criminals of that kind chose to commit the crimes that they commit.

Hislop repeated his point about executing innocent people: were his 100 people all guilty? "No, I’m not saying that." "Then they would be dead." But apparently, this wasn't the point:

The point is as I said earlier on this is about having deterrence. If you have strong deterrence like that, capital punishment will act as a deterrent. To have capital punishment would act as a deterrent. That’s the first point here....And also I put this in the context of I think far too many politicians run away from debating issues like this because they don’t want to associate themselves with an either or position and I think the other point to make here and this comes back to the issue about a deterrent in our criminal justice system is that we see the revolving door with murderers and rapists and pedophiles as well and nobody thinks about the human rights of the families and the victims and the people that have really suffered.

When David-or-Jonathan opened it up to the audience, a slightly different point of view was presented:

This is about having a deterrent. It’s not about the ultimate taking of a life. It’s about having deterrent....Because if you’ve got boundaries which are set then people understand the parameters of the crime that they’re going to commit, be it a murder, be it rape, if you’ve got a deterrent in place for that then it may make people think twice about what they’re actually going to do in order to commit that crime...I’m not saying it’s particularly right, but what I am saying is that, as a deterrent sometimes with the system that we have and the way its backed up and prisons are full I think that really and truly it should be looked at....I remember when I was at school, in Birmingham, and I remember that the cane was a deterrent. Just the thought that you may have the cane, you may get the cane, was a deterrent. For you not to do certain things.

Now, you see, the old me would have been inclined to approach this gibberish logically. Are there many actual examples of people who have been convicted of first degree murder, and then released from prison to commit a second first degree murder? Isn’t Priti Patel’s “revolving door” really about people serving a few years for some lessor crime and committing a more serious one on their release from prison? Isn't the logic of that position that you would have to have the death penalty for second degree murder and house breaking and common assault? Why do we keep talking about rape and pedophilia, when rape hasn’t been a capital offence since 1841? Did the man in the audience envisage having a rusty gallows in the basement of Wormwood Scrubs to represent the fact that the state could kill you if it wanted to although it isn't actually going to -- like having a vault of gold to make people believe in paper currency, even though it would use it's value if you actually spent any of it. (That’s the only sense I can make out of his schoolboy analogy. I think some teachers did keep canes in the cupboard as a sort of symbol and threat even when they had not the slightest intention of actually spanking anyone.) Or is he confusing “deterrence” in the criminal sense with mutual deterrence in the military sense – that nuclear weapons will never be used because both sides have got nuclear weapons and are therefore all too scared to use them? Or does he think that “deterrent” is a magic panacea, and once you say “Anyone who writes rude words on the walls will get the cane” the whole school becomes magically free of graffiti for ever after? (I wish Jonathon-or-David had asked him "Were you ever caned, sir?" I would bet several pounds on the answer having been "Oh yes, many times, and it didn't do me any harm.")

But in fact it is perfectly obvious that there is no meaning behind the words, any more than there is in Jabawocky or Visions of Johanna. The word "deterrent" was like the pun at the end of a joke -- it has a visceral effect on some members of the audience (making them feel vaguely good about killing people). The rest of speech "the reality is" "the main point" "I really believe that" "moving forward" were just like the scaffolding in the joke that gets us to the point when you can amusingly reveal that some words sound like other words.

[Well the point is as I said earlier on this is about] having deterrence. [If you have ]strong deterrence [like that] capital punishment will act as a deterrent. To have capital punishment would act as a deterrent. [That’s the first point here....]

I have the kind of brain which is inclined to read this sort of ga-ga as if it were an argument, in the same way that once I've noticed that "piece of cod" sounds like "peace of god" I can't help thinking of a story in which a vicar might confuse his fish with his benediction. (Pete Ashton suggested, not unkindly, that I might have a kind of high-functioning autism. I've never been diagnosed as such, but I have seen Star War forty four times.) But it's not an argument and there is no thread. They are just saying "deterrence" over and over again. "Deterrence...deterrence...deterrence" means "This is an argument in favour of hanging people" in the same way that "Come all you young fellas and list unto me" means "This is the first verse of a folk song."

People sometimes talk about politicians using "dog whistles". The idea is that in the course of a speech, the politician smuggles in some words or phrases which are innocuous to normal people, but carry a special meaning to a particular claque. Hardly anyone could possibly object to "moral values", but if you say that you want to teach "moral values" to school children in the right tone of voice, a good proportion of your audience will understand you to mean that you want to promote homophobia. Clearly this happens. George Bush was apparently particularly adept at working regimental jokes into his speeches, (which isn’t a terrible idea when you are speaking to soldiers). But I think that political debate is much more like Glen Larson’s old joke about human-dog communication. The human says "Good Rover! Good doggie! Get off the sofa and you shall have a nice juicy bone!" and the dog hears "Blah Rover! Blah blah! Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah."

This is also the only way of making sense of the Daily Express's front page article about ritual child-beating. (The substantive point, you remember, was "Someone asked some people some questions, some of them said one thing, some of them said another thing".)

"Tough discipline... blah blah... the cane... blah blah..... strong leadership.... blah blah..... authority.... blah..... power.... freedom.... discipline.... corporal punishment.... smacking.... caning...... more discipline..... unions, wishy washy.... detention..... writing out lines..... more power.... poor discipline.... using force..... restore order".

And it’s obviously the only way of looking at David Cameron’s speech-shaped-structure about Teh Riotz. Obviously, his was more nuanced, because it was written for him by a professional speech writer and practiced in front of a focus group, but you search in vain for concrete statements like “the riots happened because half the police force were in their offices filling out paper work; as of next Tuesday, I am hiring 10,000 extra secretaries who will be able to do most of the routine paper work for them”. Instead, I found a lot of shout-phrases.

“Responsible majority... this country... determination... mend our broken society.... stronger... terrible mess we inherited... stronger society... stronger... stronger... stronger... stronger society..... mend our broken society... mend our broken society... human rights... personal responsibility.... health and safety... common sense.” [**]

It's literally clap-trap: sounds which are there to make the audience applause, and for no other reason.

And that, you will be glad to know, really is all that I have to say about politics.

When someone says something I try to work out what must have been going on in their heads. When someone tells me that they have encountered and had dealings with fairies, I assume that what they are saying makes sense from their point of view. If someone says a wrong thing, I believe I can usually show why it is a wrong thing, unless it turns out that I believe a wrong thing myself. I really want to tell you what I think about the revelation that Daily Mail journalists write reports of trials before the verdict has come in, complete with descriptions of how the accused looked and what the defense council said afterwards. I really want to tell you what I think about the British Home Secretary using a fictitious story about a cat as grounds for abolishing the Human Rights act, and that when politicians say "I am not making this up" they mean "Someone else made it up for me." I want to tell you what I think about the last Archdruid lying about the BBC BC/AD thing, and his apparent belief that Jesus was born on January 1st. Or the American lady who thinks the unfortunate Troy Davies must have been guilty because every one executed in America since 1950 has been guilty. Or...

But no. There's no point trying to work out what is going on in their heads. There's no point trying to work out what they mean. They don't mean anything. Nothing is going on in their heads. It's only noise.

Time to stop. Time to do something else.

In a media age, there can be no political debate, and to pretend that there can be merely perpetuates the noise making.

“Piece of shit." as a very wise man once said. "Walk away.”

I’m not going to swear to dress up as a bat and hunt down my father’s killer for the rest of my life, although, barring one cheese and tomato sandwich, I really haven’t been in any branch of Tescos since the riot. But I am going to stop reading newspapers, at least until Christmas. Until the election, if I can manage it. And that means no radio or TV news, and no Eye and no News Quiz and no HIGNFY. And pruning my Twitter feed. If I ever feel the urge to pick up the Guardian, I'll get magazine about science or guitars or birdwatching instead. Instead of watch Newsnight, I'll watch Smallville or Merlin or something with some vague connection to the real world.

If Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister, please could someone write and tell me.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

To see this age! A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!
Nay, that's certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
I would, therefore, that my sister had had no name, sir.
Why, man?
Why, sir, her name's a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton. But indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them.
They reason, man?
Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them. 
      Twelfth Night
--Shakespeare said some rather good things.
--I understand that he has given uniform satisfaction.
       Much Obliged, Jeeves.

[*] Guess which national newspaper seriously put this forward as an argument, in almost exactly those words. Go on. See if you can guess.

[**] “I have the very strong sense that the responsible majority of people in this country not only have that determination; they are crying out for their government to act upon it. And I can assure you, I will not be found wanting. In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever. Yes, we have had an economic crisis to deal with, clearing up the terrible mess we inherited, and we are not out of those woods yet – not by a long way. But I repeat today, as I have on many occasions these last few years, that the reason I am in politics is to build a bigger, stronger society. Stronger families.  Stronger communities.  A stronger society. This is what I came into politics to do – and the shocking events of last week have renewed in me that drive. So I can announce today that over the next few weeks, I and ministers from across the coalition government will review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society. On schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities. On the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too: from the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility to the obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense.”

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I lied (2)

Star Wars is a story. A guy goes somewhere and does some stuff. But lots of the stuff that he does stops making sense when you start to think about it. Fascist empires with crack troopers who are renowned for their pin point accuracy but can't hit a barn door at point blank range; cowboys who don't believe in magic even though the slaughter of the wizards took place, at most, sixteen or seventeen years ago. Military empires that show ever sign of having invented the wheel but persist in putting legs on their tanks. You know the drill. 

But what if it didn't matter that Star Wars doesn't make sense as a story, because Star Wars isn't a story, but a collection of sounds and pictures which were much more about making me feel a particular way – excited, nostalgic, patriotic, whatever – than about conveying information?

We know that George Lucas did, in fact have  collection of scenes and images that he wanted to use to put into his movie-film; and that those scenes and images came first, and the chains of cause and effect – or apparent cause and effect – which linked those images together kept changing, right up until the final cut of the movie. And for thirty years thereafter. And we know that George Lucas wanted us to attend to those images as images, because he considered making Star Wars a silent film, and he considered filming it in some foreign language, or some made up foreign language, or getting children to play the main characters to make it seem strange and distanced. It didn't greatly matter whether Luke stole the robots from his uncle or whether R2 just runs off into the desert, provided you have a scene where the hero left home and travelled through a dangerous desert. It didn't matter whether our heroes escaped into a sewer on Coruscant (at that stage confusingly called Alderaan) or a garbage shoot on the Death Star, provided they were caught in a garbage masher. 

I don't think we are meant to react to the opening moments of Star Wars by saying "How long ago? Aren't all galaxies are long way away? Would it have made a difference if the story was contemporary, but in far away galaxy, or if it took place a long time ago in a galaxy which was in astronomical terms, realtively close." I think "A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away" means "I want you to feel as you did when you were very small and someone you loved was about o tell you a story" or more simply "This is fairy tale". * I don't think that the opening fanfare primarily conveys the information that the film was manufactured by a company founded by William Fox. I think that says "I want you to feel as you did when you used to go to the movies in the olden days, before there was any such thing as TV, or as you imagine that Dad did when he used to go to movies in the olden days" or more simply "This is an old fashioned film." 

And so on: the opening crawl ("it is a period of civil war") convey very little information. It is supposed to convey very little information – it is supposed to confuse you, to make you think "hang on, slow down, which Empire, what rebellion, princess who, have I come in in the middle." But it's primary purpose is to be anachronistic. No film has started with an opening caption like that for forty years. It says "feel as you did when you used to watch repeats of Flash Gordon on BBC2 during the school holidays". 

I am pretty sure that you could go through the film, scene by scene, note by note, and dissect it in this way: not in terms of a character called "Luke" who is making decisions and choices which are plausible based on his personality and the possible world he find himself in (he isn't and they aren't) but in terms of a film maker creating a visual symphony. Wondering who owns the ships and why it has come out of hyperspace near Darth Vader's home planet is a category mistake on a level with asking where the man in the bar found the leprechaun and what pieces of string do with their beer. The meaning of the opening scene, surely is that it a great big ship is "eaten" by a much bigger ship. You are meant to say "wow! big...big...big...even bigger!!!". If you say "that's a class CR90 Corellien Corvette, you know" then you have missed the point. It is not a co-incidence that the opening scene of Star Wars is a direct lift from the opening of the Jupiter sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- a scene that also set out to impress you with the Jupiter probe's size, or at any rate, length. "Remember the huge, huge ship in 2001" it says "Look! We've just swallowed it like a whale swallowing a bad tempered ladybird."

I think that a lot of the "plot" of Star Wars is transparent glue which is only there to glue one part of the visual and emotional collage to another part of the visual and emotional collage. If Darth Vader is really tracking the Millennium Falcon, why doesn't Han Solo at least try to find the bug and remove it? Or fly to some location other than the Secret Rebel Base? Are we to imagine that the Stormtroopers who are shooting at Luke and Leia as they swing across the chasm are under orders to miss? Someone complained that the invention of midichlorians retrospectively destroys the first three Star Wars movies. If you were interested in narrative logic, this scene would do a much better job of retrospectively destroying the first hour and a half of Star Wars. But it doesn't, because the Empire didn't really "let them go" because the Empire doesn't exist and its only a movie. Leia little speech "They let us go, its the only explanation for the ease of our escape" as a bit of noise which gets us from "the scene which is a bit like one of those old movie serials" to "the scene which is a bit like one of those old world war II RAF films" as quickly as possible.

Is this the only way to watch a movie? 

No, of course not. In fact, if you were thinking about this kind of thing while you were watching the movie, then the movie isn't doing what it's meant to be doing. 

Does this approach come much closer to describing and explaining what watching a movie is actually like than any number pseudo-historical works which explain why building the Death Star was a perfectly logical military tactic and where the toilets were on the Millennium falcon? 

I think it may do. 
Would it work for all fiction?

No. I think that a lot of Great Big Novels depends on us pretending that we are, at some level, watching real people in real situations doing things because those are the things they really would do. I think that the emotional power of the Great Big Novel depends on us feeling sympathy with Dorothea Brooke or Jean Valjean as if they were friends of ours. (Although how that works: how we can think that Dorothea is a "real person" and believe that there is this invisible "author" floating around her who can jump from one person's head to another is a question for another dissertation.) 
But I think it applies much more often than you'd think. 

I think that when confronted with pictures or sounds or words the human mind will think that there is a connecting thread -- a story or an argument or a chain of course and effect or some logic -- even when there isn't.

The relevance of this to the Daily Mail is, I hope, perfectly obvious.

Monday, October 03, 2011

I Lied

"It seems very pretty", said Alice when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!...Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate--"  

A "man" is an adult human male. The word "man" is still sometimes used to mean "human being", although some people think it shouldn't be.

A "bar" is a place which sells alcoholic drinks. In English English, "bar" is to "pub" as "boat" is to "ship": you can put a bar in a pub but you can't put a pub in a bar. In American English "bar" is more likely to refer to the whole establishment, not just the counter where the drinks are served. (This discrepancy also applies to other facilities, incidentally. If you ask an Englishman "Where is the toilet?" he will probably reply "Upstairs, first on the left." If you ask the same question to an American, he is more likely to reply "In the bathroom; where else would it be?")

To "go" is a verb denoting movement from one place to another. At one time it meant "walk": Lear's fool says that when everything is in the proper order "going will be done with feet". At another time, the normal word for walk was "wend" as in "The Plowman homeward wends his weary way". For some reason the different tenses of the words got mixed so you say "I go" in the present tense but "I went" in the past tense.

So: there is nothing at all hard about defining the words "man" "bar" and "go".

But put them together in the sentence "A man goes into a bar...." and they cease to have anything to do with a human male walking into an establishment licensed for the sale of intoxicating drinks. If I say "a man goes into a bar..." I am saying "Please don't pay any attention to the logic or plausibility of the story I'm about to tell you: please don't ask me whether it's at all likely that barmen really have genies in magic bottles or whether health and safety officers would allow you on to premises where food is sold if you really did have a duck on your head." In fact, "man goes into a bar" means "I am about to point out a possible ambiguity in the English language which may not have occurred to you before", or, in short, "I am about to tell you a joke".

The really clever puns are the ones which exploit a genuine ambiguity in language, or at least a double meaning that could occur in real life. It will be remembered that when Oscar Wilde boasted that he could think of a joke about any subject, someone proposed "The Queen". Quick as a flash, Oscar replied "The Queen is not a subject." That's quite a complicated wordplay, because the two senses of the word "subject" – a citizen of a monarchy and a topic for conversation – are distantly related; and because the two meanings of Oscar's sentence both make perfect sense in context: the joke is that he's used the same words to give two different reasons for not telling a joke. C.S Lewis's joke about the vicar who goes to the local girls' school drama society's production of A Midsummer Nights Dream and finds himself saying "Well, I've never seen a female Bottom before!" is much less clever, but it is based on a mistake that someone could just possibly make in real life. On the other hand, there's no linguistic or semantic significance behind the fact that "I'm afraid not" sounds like "I'm a frayed knot": it's pure linguistic coincidence, and it's pretty hard to imagine that it could ever give rise to a misunderstanding. But the similarity of sound somehow becomes funny -- but not very funny -- if you embed it in a story about how three pieces of string went into a bar and ordered a drink. [*] We laugh at the pun just because it is a pun: it wouldn't occur to us to say "A peice of string went into a bar? What kind of gibberish is that? How could a piece of string possibly consume alcohol, since they have no mouths? Can they become intoxicated? Do they use the gentlemen's toilet or the lady's one? Is there a ghetto in the town where all the pieces of string live, or are these recent immigrants from piece-of-string land?" It's almost like, once we've spotted that two phrases sound the same, we create a story-shaped collection of words around them. The moment I noticed that the phrase "Piece of cod" sounded a little like "Peace of God" then the picture of a rather confused little vicar in a chip shop jumped into my head. I just couldn't stop it.

Admittedly, some people do insist on taking this kind of non-story literally. "Suppose you and I were in a restaurant..." you say, hoping to illustrate a point about good manners, or safe food handling, or English consumer law. "But why would I be in a restaurant with you?" they reply "I hardly know you. And anyway, I'm a vegan and you're not, I don't think we'd like the same kind of food. And on my salary, how can I afford to eat out?" I really wish they wouldn't.

Some people, possibly the same people, are also confused by the whole idea of fantasy. They think that "fantasy" really means "mistake": that you read Watership Down because you were under the impression that rabbits really do have human personalities, and once they have set you straight on this point, you won't need to read the book any longer. "But Japan didn't win the second world war," they point out, calmly, "And phone boxes can't travel through time and sapce. And we shouldn't teach children about Cinderella, because they idea that a pumpkin could spontaneously evolve into something complex like a coach goes against the whole idea of natural selection." (In fairness there are other other people who are equally confused by the whole idea of there being books which are not fantasy. "But there really are lots of poor people living miserable lives in dingy bedsits" they say "So why on earth would anyone want to make up a story about one of them?")

Curiously, the anti-fantasy brigade think it is perfectly okay for mainstream writers to steal fantasy elements and use them as plot devices. Shakespeare writes mostly about things which don't exist -- magic islands, ghosts, witches, wizards, fairies, identical twins, the divine right of kings, true love -- but that doesn't mean he's not a realistic writer, okay?  And it is quite permissable for whichever Bronte it was to use thought transferance as feeble deus ex machina at the end of Jane Eyre.

Some of those people who don't get fantasy, oddly, admire the works of Richard Wagner. Some of them believe, correctly, that Parsifal is the best thing that Wagner, and therefore anybody, ever wrote, but also believe, wrongly, that you can detatch the musical form from the mythological and philosphical content and still be left with a great work. Parsifal, they say, isn't really about retrieving the holy spear from the wizard Klingsor in order to heal the wounded grail king -- it and it certainly isn't about Buddhist ideas of renunciation and attatchment, whatever the libretto might say. It isn't actually about anything at all: it's a sublime and sophisticated collection of musical notes, which follow an internal pattern and logic. Close your eyes, ignore the actors in suits of armour and the surtitles, and just listen to noie. The phrase "tone poem" turns up a good deal. 

I understand that some music really does works like this. I get that Mr Beethoven's symphonies aren't about anything, except the way in which you can go "dit-dit-dit-DAH" slowly, twice; and then quickly three times; and then quickly three times again; and slowly slowly twice, and carry on that like for an a hour and a half. And very pretty it is too. The big deep "dit-dit-dit-DAH" at the beginning makes us feel sad; and the great big "dah-dah-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah-di-dah" at the end makes us feel happy. But asking "what are we happy about" would be like asking where the man in the pub found the duck that he had on its head . The music isn't about anything apart from the music. It may not be a coincidence that the opera which lends itself best to this approach is the one I like least. Tristan and Isolde is, it seems, at least as much about whether it is possible to avoid resolving a chord for five hours as about whether anyone could really be stupid enough to order "love potion" when what they really wanted was "poison".

Last year, when we were young, we talked about Mr Bob Dylan, and wondered whether it was a mistake to read the lyrics of his songs as coherent narratives, or even as coherent language. We agreed that there was very little point in wondering in what sense the lady in question was "jelly-faced", where she had lost her knees, and what might be done to help her find them again. We decided that a line like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" probably derived its emotional effect from sound and rhythm, and that no amount of looking up the words "ghost" and "electricty" in the dictionary, let alone the close questioning of Bob Dylan, would allow the words to have a meaning in the way that "I am sitting in the cafe drinking coffee and typing" arguably have a meaning. We went so far as to speculate that the song is really chanting words: "ghost... electrictiy... howls... bones....face" and all the little words like "the" and "of" are just there to glue it together into something which looks a bit like a sentence, but actually, isn't. We decided, in short that a Dylan lyric is more like a Beethoven symphony than a Wagner opera.

Are all poems and songs like that? The question "who were these two ladies, Johanna and Louise, and why was Bob thinking of one while cuddling the other" is literally meaningless, like "what did the piece of string do after it had left the bar". But surely, if we asked "Who was the artistic lady with the interfering sister who Bob had the romantic tiff with" then all the Dylanologists would reply "Suzie Rotolo". I think that we can all agree that there exists such a lady, that Bob did date her for a while, and the song Ballad in Plain D was written after this love affair had come to an end. (I believe that Bob even said later that it had been a little caddish of him to have written a poem about a break up and put it in the public domain.)

But I am not sure how far this takes us. I don't think that the point of Ballad in Plain D is that it convery inforamtion -- information which we could equally well get out of a biography or a gossip column. I care as much about Dylan's love life as I do about the love life of any other elderly gentleman who I have never met. But I do like the song; quite a lot, actually. I grant that it is less abstract that "Visions of Johanna", but I don't think that I would get much further analyzing "with unseen consciousness I possessed in my grip a magnficent mantlipiece though its heart being chipped" than "the one with the moustaches says "jeez, I can't find my knees'." I think that the point of those kinds of lines is that they are cryptic and ambiguous, and that it is the puzzle-like quality of the lines, not any solution that we may come up with, which gives them their affect. I concede that the song has a narrative like form, but at the end, I think that our feelings are very much like Alice's: "Well, somebody left someone over something -- that's clear, at any rate." I think that the opening line "I once loved a girl, her skin it was bronze" mean "This is the first line of a romantic folk-song" in the same way that "Twas brilling, brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wove wabe" means "this is is the first line of an epic poem" and "Man goes into a bar" means "This is the first line of a joke". I don't think that any discussion of the etymolgy of "toves", or whether Bob was specially attracted to sun-tanned women, and whether fawns are in fact well-known for being innocent, or whether pieces of strings can get into bars without having legs can possibly make the line mean anything else. I think that the line about the mantlepiece sounds like the sort of thing an angsty self-important lover might say in a song, without telling us anything about mantlepieces. I think that the point of the closing lines: 

My friends in the prison the ask unto me
How good, how good does it feel to free
And I answer them most mysteriously
Are birds free of the chains of the skyway

mean "this is the last line of a romantic folksong." They mean "I want you to feel that I feel the same kind of maudlin, self-important self pity as the anonymous singer who wrote:"

My friends friends they ask unto me

How many strawberries grow in the salt sea
And I answer them with a tear in my eye

How many ships sail in the forest?


They mean "I am the sort of man who is so up himself that he quotes old English ballads when describing actual breakups."

The last time I said all this, a dissenting voice said that it was all very well to do this kind of thing to lyric poems and romantic ballads, but it didn't work nearly as well with, say, Star Wars because Stars Wars is, well, a story. 

But I'm not quite sure....

[*] "I suppose you are also a piece of string" said the barman. "No" replied the piece of string "I'm afraid not."