Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Quick Plug for "Pumpkin Patch"

We have real difficulty with buying clothes for our children. The fundamental problem seems to be that the assumption made by the designers is that children who are as long as ours will be substantially wider. So we have ended up buying quite a number of clothes (bottoms) which just don't support themselves. An adjustable waistband makes a lot of difference. A fair number of garments have what looks like a means of tying and tightening the front - but it turns out on closer inspection to simply be trim, which only tightens a 1cm section at the front!

Another problem is that even well-established shops who one would hope ought to know better insist on offering clothes for pre-teens that make them look like tarts. (Is it just me that finds the marketing of Playboy stuff at anybody under 18 really offensive, by the way?)

"Pumpkin Patch" are new to us. We happened across them in Crawley, and discovered that the clothes they were selling were not only age appropriate, but they also seemed to fit and adjust better than many of the other more established shops. So well done them!

Monday, January 26, 2009

From "The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

Paloma writes:
My classmates get high on Ecstasy the way we pig out on chocolate truffles and the worst of it is that where there are drugs, there's sex. Don't act surprised: nowadays kids sleep together really young. There are kids in year seven (not a lot, but a few all the same) who've already had sexual relations. It's depressing. First of all, I think that sex, like love, is a sacred thing.... if I were going to live beyond puberty, it would be really important to me to keep sex as a sort of marvellous sacrament. And secondly, a teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager. If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that's like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian. And thirdly, it's a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood ... Where I'm concerned, just seeing my mother shooting up with her anti-depressants and sleeping tablets has been enough to inoculate me for life against that sort of substance abuse. Lastly, teenagers think they're adults when in fact they're imitating adults who never really made it into adulthood and who are running away from life. It's pathetic. Mind you, if I were ... the class pin-up, I would wonder what else I could do with my days besides take drugs...

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog", Muriel Barbery, p187-8
As I said in the review of the book, Paloma starts out as one of the most irritating characters in any novel I have read, although she pretty perceptive. In particular, the thing about "never really made it into adulthood" - which ties in with the idea from "Seven Basic Plots" that becoming a mature adult requires displacement of the desires of the ego (getting high on drugs, sex as an experience in itself) for the sake of the Self (being part of an integrated human community, developed in physical, mental, spiritual and emotional terms).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why musicians are such nice people

Anybody who is a musician - at least at the level of regular and enthusiastic amateur - will believe that musicians are nicer people than normal people. This is something that, in my experience, goes beyond the normal peer-group association - "the crowd of people I have something in common with". In "The Seven Basic Plots", in passing, Christopher Booker suggests why this might be the case.

A fully rounded human being will be developed in all four areas - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. To perform music well requires development in all those areas. Physical in the sense of the dexterity and strength required to use an instrument; mental because formal knowledge is required to "do" music; emotional and spiritual because music is designed to evoke an emotional and frequently spiritual response, and to do this requires that the performer is in tune with those aspects of the music.

It is possible to perform music without being in touch with all four areas - but there is a perceptible difference between musicians who "get it" and people who don't.

So good musicians will have developed in all four areas that are required to make a mature human being. They are likely to really be nicer people - something which they had hitherto only suspected.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We interrupt this series of posts ...

... to point out that the new U2 album, "No Line on the Horizon", is on its way.

And if you want to hear the new single, "Get on your boots", go here.


Why the Basic Plots? (2) - Response

So, what do I think?

Well, as I've said already, this is a greatly enriching book - one I enjoyed immensely, and have already bought for other people. If nothing else, the analysis of the basic plots, and the discussion of Self/ego, make the book fully worth buying and reading. You may disagree with Booker's analysis - but he has made a substantive case, which can't be lightly dismissed.

However, whilst I accept large amounts of what Booker has said, and I have even been able to think about the significance of what he has written to me (!), there are certain areas in which I don't agree with him.

1) I'm not convinced that the Self/ego divide is characteristically human. I think you can see the same thing present to greater or lesser degrees in other animals. I think that dogs, cats and non-human primates, whilst generally behaving in a "Self" fashion, also have elements of ego-centric behaviour. This is important because narrative is supposed to be a response to this divide - but if the divide is present in other animals, and narrative is a biological or deep psychological response in humans, why isn't it present in them? Why do we have no indication at all that imagination or story telling can mean anything to them?

So if the Self/ego divide is not characteristically human, then narrative doesn't find its roots there. It isn't simply a biological feature of the system. That's not important in itself - imagination and the power to conceive of narrative may still be an emergent property of the human mind. But if so, at what stage? And how? And why? Was it that as the ego got stronger, it became more important to provide the human mind with a reference point reminding it of what it means to be a fully expressed human being. That is more of a point for discussion than anything else, but it does tie into the second, more significant point at which I disagree.

2) I don't think that Booker's analysis goes sufficiently deep. He asks the question: why do we have narrative? - the answer is roughly, to reinforce the values of the Self given our strong egos. But that leaves unanswered the question - why should there be a clash between the ego and the Self at all? Why should we as humans have developed in such a way that our own behaviours can be less than "wholly human"? Why should our egos conflict with what is desirable for the good of humanity? And then, why should these ideas be so embedded in a language with moral overtones - hubris, nemesis, hamartia?

And whilst narrative itself might have a role in encouraging humans to be Self-directed rather than ego-directed, why should history - both individual and corporate - actually follow these patterns? Let me try and give an example. Narrative tells us that where someone pursues ego-focussed aims, if they don't turn, it will lead to tragedy. Booker argues that this idea of narrative is built into us. It is possible to argue that it is so hard-coded into what we are as human beings as to make it inevitable on an individual level - although it's hard to see. But that doesn't explain why Nazi Germany's rise and fall should have followed that pattern. It doesn't explain why it characterises the nature of the rule of a political party, or the rule of a colonial power. The fact that certain narrative patterns are biologically encoded within humans wouldn't have prevented Napoleon establishing his empire.

And this is my big objection to Booker's thesis - he correctly identifies the patterns in narrative, and correctly identifies them as characteristic of humanity, but then fails to move from there to provide an answer as to WHY they should be characteristic of humanity. His answer seems to be that they are biologically encoded, and whilst it is possible to see the evolutionary benefit, he has not explained when it appeared, where it appeared from, or why it should have such a wide applicability.

And in the next post, I will offer my theory about this ....

Why the Basic Plots? (1) - Booker's argument

I've spent quite a lot of time discussing "The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker, and having covered a lot of ground, I want to comment on the conclusion he draws. First, it's worth following the structure of his argument. This won't do it justice, I'm afraid - his book covers over 700 pages! But hopefully it will at least be accurate as far as it goes.

He starts off by demonstrating that many of the narratives which we are familiar with fit into a small number of standard plots - namely: Tragedy, Comedy, Overcoming the Monster, Quest, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth. He then shows that these are actually all really one fundamental story - which involves the central character of the narrative starting in a form of darkness or incompleteness, and either remaining there and facing destruction (in the case of Tragedy, and some Voyage and Return stories) or moving into light and completeness. Completeness is archetypally expressed through the union of male and female ("they married and lived happily ever after"), and will often have wider implications than simply those for the central character ("there was joy throughout the kingdom"). This, he argues, is because narrative is designed to show us the triumph of the Self - that is, humans realising their full potential as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings, expressed as the union of masculine and feminine characters - and that this triumph of the Self in a person is something which gives benefit to humanity more widely. Where the Self doesn't triumph - where a person is not able to fully realise themselves in this fourfold way, due generally to their ego preventing it - it leads to unfulfilment, despair and ultimately destruction, and humanity is the worse for it.

He adds a couple of more modern plot structures to this ("Mystery", "Rebellion against the One") and comments on them, and also talks at length about how the rise of the ego following the Romantic era has led to a breakdown in narrative structure. Rather than the satisfactory resolutions we see in the seven basic plots, these narratives with their focus on the gratification of the ego can be reduced to a kind of unsatisfactory fantasy. Describing large swathes of post-romantic literature and narrative as having unsatisfactory plots may come across as reactionary - however, the case is made at length, and certainly whilst (say) "Basic Instinct" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" make gripping movies, you are left at the end of them wondering "What now?" This is a very different response from our response to a conventional narrative.

He then traces the idea of the ego and the Self through history. He takes as his starting point the idea that the separation of the ego - our own personal desires and aims - from the Self - the interests of the group or species more widely - is the thing that separates us from the animal kingdom. Narrative is built into us, as a mental pattern which encourages us to act in a Self-oriented way, rather than an ego-oriented way. This has expressed itself in many ways through history, including religion, but following the rise of romanticism, the industrial era and so on, there has been an increasing move away from the Self and towards the ego, with the consequence of a breakdown in "Self" aspects of society - stable societal structures, altruistic behaviour, neighbourliness and so on. The historical analysis is effective - for example, he points to the way in which the fragmenting trends of the 1920's and 30's in the UK were reversed in the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, as people behaved in a "Self"-oriented way to challenge the threat they faced from a shared enemy - only for the breakdown to continue where it had left off from the mid 50's onwards.

In conclusion, Booker argues that as we understand this as being the proper role of narrative, we can see its place in human society. Also in contrast to the indifference to behaviour which characterises a post-modern, pluralistic society (he doesn't use those phrases!), this ideal of Self suggests that there is an absolute standard for behaviour which is good for humanity - that there is a sense in which gratification of the ego, or an unbalanced pursuit of physical, mental, emotional or spiritual fulfilment in a person is harmful, not only for them but for humanity more widely.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Five Favourite Sixpence Songs

Okay, so everybody knows "Kiss Me". Quite a few people also know the cover they did of the Las "There She Goes", and their cover of "Don't Dream It's Over" was played in my local supermarket, so that must have made waves. All those are good enough, but that's not why I rave about them.

"I Can't Catch You"

"Love, Salvation and the Fear of Death"

"Tension is a Passing Note" - closest I could find, sorry - record companies are jumping on people ripping the audio tracks on youtube. I may just have encouraged even more of it by linking to the ones above ...

"Trust" - want to sing this in church. Brings tears to my eyes. It dates back to "The Fatherless and the Widow", which was a LONG time ago ....

"Melody of You" to make it up to five. Well, actually, it could have been any of another dozen or so tracks.

Hope you enjoy them!

History and Christianity

I wanted to add a little more about Christopher Booker's analysis of the history of Christianity in "Seven Basic Plots". It diverges from (for example) Francis Schaeffer's analysis in "How Should We Then Live?" in a way that is completely consistent with his primary focus on Christianity as myth.

With reference to the impact of Mediaeval Christianity, Booker looks at the narratives of Beowulf, the legend of King Arthur, and (from late mediaeval) Dante's Divine Comedy. He writes:
Immeasurably remote though it now seems to us, the world-picture developed by mediaeval Christendom was one of the most remarkable achievements of the human imagination. For the peoples of Christian Europe it provided a psychological framework which could explain and give meaning to the entire way in which they viewed their existence...

So all-embracing was this 'Christian myth' that it could give a sense of significance to every aspect of individual and collective life. And not the least reflection of its power was the way ... the chief visual self-expression of European civilisation, alongside its churches and cathedrals, was centred on a particular set of images, endlessly painted, sculpted and depicted in stained-glass, the purpose of which was constantly to focus people's minds on this other dimension to their lives. These stylised icons of the crucified Christ and the Mother and Child made no attempt to relate to the imperfect, everyday, material world. They were windows onto that eternal plane of perfection which was regarded as the only true reality.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.633
In contrast, concerning the impact of the Reformation, Booker writes:
Like Luther when he declared 'here I stand, I can say no other', [sic] they had found a new source of authority in their own judgement, as they looked anew at the image of Jesus presented in the Bible, the book on which Christianity rested. Possessed by this new vision of the Self, they set about destroying all those outward trappings which had been designed to convey religion as the gateway to an other-worldly spiritual dimension. In their newfound zeal, they tore down statues of the saints and images of the Virgin, poured contempt on the belief in Purgatory, and lectured bemused worshippers that unless they were among the 'elect', chosen by God, they faced eternal damnation. But as they did so they became all to easily inflated by that self-righteousness which arises from confusing ego with Self, potentially the most deadly form of egotism of all.

ibid, p.635
His perspective is therefore (I think) that mediaeval Christianity, with its mythologising of Christ and moving him and the narrative surrounding him into an idealised world, represented a high point of Christian coherence. In contrast, whilst the Reformation might have returned people to the Scriptures, the consequence was the loss of a coherent worldview, and a movement of people away from the idealised, integrated perspective on the world that they had in the mediaeval era.

I would largely disagree with this analysis. Whilst the mythological perspective may have expressed a coherent worldview, it was also one which largely served the interests of a small but privileged group - the people at the top of the feudal system and the powerful church. For most people living in the mediaeval era, the structure of christendom rationalised their miserable existence of squalor, high taxes, poverty, disease and hunger whilst holding out a vague carrot if they were good of a much better place after they died.

On the other hand, the Reformation worldview helped with the move away from the feudal hierarchy, and pointed towards the accountability, checks and balances that we take for granted in the modern world. People no longer had special status because they happened to have been born into the right family: all humans had dignity before God. This is something that is very apparent in Reformation art. No longer are religious characters painted in a kind of idealised way, disconnected with the real world. They are painted in a proper relationship with the world around them. Also, real people are portrayed as proper subjects for painting - it isn't simply the "perfect" world that has value, but the real, everyday world. In reflecting this, it is also consistent with Christianity as it is found in the Bible, where God is sufficiently concerned for humanity that he takes on humanity, in the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a mythological idealisation; it is the story of how God directly intervened in human history through the incarnation.

Also, whilst the mediaeval worldview may have had some coherence, it was fundamentally a matter of human tradition. The Reformation worldview had - and indeed still has - as its foundation the Bible. In principle, people are invited to search the Scriptures (as the Bereans did in the Bible itself!) to see whether what is being said by Christian teachers actually corresponds to what the Bible says - the teachers themselves only have authority insofar as they reflect the Bible's authority. The mediaeval worldview may have been derived from the Bible at one stage, but the traditions of the church, designed to serve its own interests rather than be faithful to the Bible, added to the integration of Aristotleian thoughtforms, meant that this worldview was a product of human imagination and tradition rather than one which reflected the Bible. And if one worldview reflecting human imagination and tradition can be considered authoritative, on what basis can any other such worldview be rejected?

Of course, this sounds like a good modern "tolerant" approach - but don't forget that it was in the context of mediaeval Christianity that it was considered reasonable for the Christian worldview to be forcibly imposed on the rest of the world through the Crusades and the work of the Inquisition. Whilst the Reformation worldview may appear less tolerant, more absolute, the proper understanding of Reformation principles of the dignity of all humans have meant that Christians have not considered it appropriate to use military strength to enforce their beliefs on the rest of the world.

It is also the case that, in conjunction with the Renaissance, the Reformation was unconsciously a step towards the Enlightenment, and humans becoming "autonomous" - believing themselves to be independent from any sort of external absolute. This was not an inevitable consequence of the Reformation - had the focus remained on the Reformation solas - Scripture, Christ, faith, grace - European civilisation might have been saved from the negative consequences of rationalism that followed in subsequent centuries.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Booker and religion

I've now finished "The Seven Basic Plots", by Christopher Booker. I will miss it. It is the most interesting non-fiction book I've read for a couple of years, and whilst I may not agree with everything in it, there was a great deal which I found eye-opening. About the only issue I had with it was not to do with the content. The silver lettered title on the cover is not securely fixed, and eroded whilst I was reading it - a less glamorous printing job would mean that the book was less likely to disappear into anonymity!

Christopher Booker commented on my last post that, given my assertion/assumption that the book was not Christian, he'd be interested in my reaction to chapter 33. This is called "Of Gods and Men", and traces the development of religion, and the balance between Self and ego, from the neolithic era through to the beginning of the 19th Century. (The following chapter, "The Age of Loki" brings the analysis up to date.) So this is a reaction specifically to Booker's approach to Christianity.

The first thing to say is that what Booker writes takes Christianity seriously, and certainly does reflect a particular strand of Christian tradition, so despite my earlier guesses, it is probably unfair to describe it as "not a Christian analysis." Booker identifies Christianity as being distinct from just about all other religions - particularly in the sense that the person of Christ demonstrates both the "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics required to make a whole, integrated person, and identifies those as being expressions of the nature of God. That's a technical phrase, which I will explore more in another post, but in short, whereas many religions encourage adherents to integrate "masculine" traits (power and rationality - "strength and mind"), Christ taught - and demonstrated - that this should be integrated with "feminine" traits (emotion and spirituality - "heart and soul"). The only other place in religion in which this can be seen, Booker argues, is possibly in the Buddha - about which more in a bit. From this point of view, Booker is suggesting that through what Christ showed his followers, it is possible to be a fully integrated, mature human being, in a way that is not possible through most religions or in a belief system that doesn't specifically direct a person beyond their own ego.

Which of course begs other questions ... like, why should that be considered desirable at all? Why shouldn't people be ego-directed, if they choose to be? Again, subjects for another post!

However, I would still argue that Booker's analysis does not reflect orthodox, historic Christianity. This is because Booker's treatment of the Bible fundamentally approaches it as myth, whereas the Bible itself does not regard itself as mythological. This is the sense in which Booker's approach reflects a particular strand of Christianity - I'm sure Jon Mackenzie would be able to tell me which one! But Jesus is not a mythological figure, like Odysseus - the writers of the gospels record their stories as faithful accounts of events, not to portray Jesus simply as an archetype - a kind of idealisation of the personification of masculine/feminine. The escape of the Israelites from Egypt similarly, whilst it has aspects in common with the "Defeating the Monster" plot, is not recorded as a mythical account, but as a matter of historical fact.

What are we supposed to do with the fact that there is a real, historical person in whom we can see these archetypal traits fully expressed? I would suggest that this means at the very least, we should be looking closely at this person and his claims - and I will argue in a later post that this may be the real point of narrative. Booker certainly concludes by arguing that narrative may be designed to bring us back into contact with "the One", but he avoids explicitly defining what this might mean - perhaps he has in mind a direct connection with religious belief, but I suspect he is thinking more in terms of a general closeness with what we are to be as humans.

I disagree with Booker's analysis of various sections of the Bible, although I accept they are consistent with many mainstream commentators. For example, he argues that the God of the Jews in the Old Testament expresses masculine characteristics but not feminine ones. This is reflected in God's opposition to all other nations, and the special status granted Israel. However, it fails to take into account that even as the Israelites are given this favoured status, God tells them that he has in mind the blessing of the whole earth - it was the role of the Israelites to bring blessing to the world. This was only seen in flashes in the Old Testament - for example, in the stories of Ruth and Rahab, both Gentile women, both part of the line of Jesus, and also in God sending Jonah to Nineveh. This was God's stated intention (he promises Abraham that the whole earth will be blessed through him), and it was the failure of the Israelites to live up to God's purposes that resulted in this not working - and, in "big picture" terms, led to the inauguration of the New Covenant through Jesus.

Finally, let's consider briefly Buddhism and Christianity. Booker suggests that both demonstrate a means of leading to a person being fully integrated. However, there are still ways in which they diverge - they shouldn't be considered equivalent simply because they have similar effects in this area.

The first divergence is in terms of their content. Buddhism ultimately leads to the idea of silence and inexpressible truth. Joseph Campbell writes of Buddhism:
The point is that Buddhahood, Enlightenment, cannot be communicated, but only the way to Enlightenment. This doctrine of the incommunicability of the Truth which is beyond names and forms is basic to the great Oriental, as well as to the Platonic, traditions. Whereas the truths of science are communicable, being demonstrable hypotheses rationally founded on observable facts, ritual, mythology and metaphysics are but guides to the brink of a transcendent illumination, the final step to which must be taken by each in his own silent experience.... Though [Buddha] is the founder of a widely taught world religion, the ultimate core of his doctrine remains concealed, necessarily, in silence.

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces", Joseph Campbell, p.33, footnote
But this is very different from orthodox Christianity. The God of the Bible makes himself known through speaking - to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets; Paul the apostle, speaking to intellectuals in Athens says that he is going to introduce them to the one whom they worship as "The Unknown God", who is not far from any of them; Jesus says that anybody who has seen him has seen the Father. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity proclaims that it is a religion of knowledge - knowledge that is knowable to everybody, not only to those people who have meditated sufficiently to approach Nirvana.

Also, it is important to point out that the wholeness that comes from Christianity is not something that can be achieved by somebody setting their mind to it - people are unable to help themselves. Booker talked about "sin" resulting in the hero of a tragedy being unable to escape from hubris. This is an idea which strongly reflects the idea of the fallenness of humans.

Finally, the wholeness in Christianity has a particular focus - the "heart, soul, mind and strength" formula in Christianity is attached to a verb and an object - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." In other words, whilst Christianity does seek to see these aspects united, it seems to suggest that they can't simply be united "independently". They have to find a focus in something.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Booker on sex and violence

... if the conclusion of The Terminator finally shows the archetype of the Self [as opposed to the ego] winning the day, in one sense it always wins the day in stories, because, even on a sentimental level, this is the only way in which any story can be brought to a proper resolution. The archetype cannot be cheated. If it is defied, the story is doomed just to peter out, or to be forced into some implausible 'pseudo-ending' which leaves its audience curiously unsatisfied. None of the other stories we have looked at in this chapter have been able to reach anything like such an all-resolving conclusion, The ending of Fanny Hill is just a little cardboard fake; that of Justine is like a final despairing gesture of defiance at the values of the Self which the whole novel has tried to deny; that of Ulysses is a last forlorn act of masturbatory make-believe in a meaningless wilderness of the ego. Lady Chatterley peters out in vacuous wishful-thinking. At least in Psycho the monster is finally shown, in rather half-hearted fashion, as having been brought to justice. By the time we reach Last Exit to Brooklyn and Saved the values of the Self have passed so far out of sight that their stories scarcely try to resolve at all. In A Clockwork Orange the psychopathic hero does eventually seem about to change, but only to re-emerge at the end in the same monstrous state in which he began. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the monsters simply live on, as they do in Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct. Nothing in any of these stories is ever properly resolved, because their only real purpose has been to titillate the fantasies of their audiences with a stream of Self-defying images which by definition are incapable of leading to a resolution.

The only real value of this explosion of sex and violence in the storytelling of the late twentieth century lies in the evidence it provides of how quickly, when human fantasy ventures down this path, it runs into a dead end. We soon become familiar with the same repetitive handful of cliched images, mechanically revolving round in the same claustrophobic little circle, unable to lead anywhere and totally divorced from any deeper meaning.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.494

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I disagree with Bono

You don't become a rock star unless you've got something missing somewhere, that is obvious to me. If you were of sound mind you could feel normal without 70,000 people a night screaming their love for you.
On the contrary. I think the truth is that there is a part of all of us that wants that. It's just that rock stars have managed to achieve it. The rest of us have to go through life getting whatever we can get - hopefully the love of at least one person - and hope it's enough to prevent us from despairing.

Booker on Tess

It is not surprising that Tess [of the d'Urbervilles] was Hardy's own favourite character, for she really was the deepest projection of all of his own inner feminine. And once we see her in that light, how even more poignant does her story become. We see Tess, the 'persecuted maiden', Hardy's anima, wandering blindly and distractedly across the face of an ever bleaker and more inhospotable Dorset countryside, looking for a home and a resting place where she might be whole, but eventually so tortured that she kills and is killed. In Hardy's oft-quoted phrase at the close of the book, 'the President of the Immortals' had 'ended his sport with Tess'. But of course the real power manipulating Tess from one improbable coincidence to the next, remorselessly stacking up the odds against her to such deadly conclusion, was not some vengeful deity, that God in whom the atheist Hardy no longer believed. It was Hardy himself. Even in the story we can only too easily see aspects of Hardy in both the men, unworthy of her, who make her their victim. D'Urberville is the recurring, heartless predator who represents the shadow of [Hardy's] unrealised masculinity. Angel Clare is the weak, high-minded progressive, first foreshadowed in Yeobright, who echoes what Hardy himself had been in his own youth. The story Hardy was unconsciously recording was nothing less than the stifling of his own soul.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.421
Booker analyses Hardy's work at some length, in a chapter entitled "Losing the Plot". Hardy's novels start with the most cheerful, "Under the Greenwood Tree", which follows fairly conventionally the Comedy plot archetype. This doesn't mean that the story is necessarily particularly funny (I'll try and explain more about the basic plots themselves at some stage), but that it resolves at the end with the hero and heroine united, and a disordered world being ordered again.

But as Hardy loses his own way in psychological and spiritual terms, so do the plots of his novels. They cease to resolve, the main characters face agony and disillusionment. In actual fact, Booker convincingly shows that the whole of Hardy's life itself traces out one of the other archetypes, the Tragedy plot, in which he dies having failed to realise his feminine (again, I'll try and expound that a bit another time! Sorry!).
The way in which the gradual disintegration of Thomas Hardy's inner world was reflected in his novels gives us a particularly vivid picture of a process which was more generally taking place all over the Western world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Europe and America were carried by the advance of science and technology ever faster towards the modern world, as hundreds of millions moved from the country side into the newly industrialised cities, as ancient ways of life vanished, as social hierarchies began to break down, as old forms of religion and morality began to dissolve, people were losing touch on an unprecendented scale with that framework which had given them so much of their sense of outward and inward identity. In psychological terms, they were losing contact with much of that which had helped root human existence in the Self. What we see reflected in stories is a perfect model of what then happens, as the ego comes increasingly to the fore.

Ibid. p.423

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Vita Brevis", Jostein Gaarder

This is one of Gaarder's most remarkable books. It isn't long - it only takes a couple of hours to read - but the subject matter is probably the most mature and thought-provoking of his books, with the possible exception of "Through a Glass Darkly".

The backstory is that the author has discovered the manuscript of a letter, written from Floria Aemelia to Augustine, the Christian philosopher, and author of Confessions. Floria, it turns out, was the lover who bore Augustine a son, and who was abandoned by him as he immersed himself in his religious beliefs. The letter weaves together the story of their relationship, from their first to their last meeting, and also provides a response to Augustine's approach to human love. Floria has learnt much in the years they have been apart, and she frames her letter as an echo of the Confessions, in addition to filling it with allusions to other classical literature and the Scriptures that Augustine himself loves.

Floria argues with Augustine that for him to deny their love was to reject something good that God has made. She also highlights the way in which Augustine had been unable to break away from his relationship with his mother - and that in actual fact his response to Floria has as much to do with this distorting effect as his religious convictions.

It would be easy to think - especially reading this with modern eyes - that Gaarder, in presenting this parable, is endorsing the approach to love which says little more than "if love feels good, it is right". However, I think the argument is more subtle than that. Floria and Augustine, although unmarried, were effectively living in a relationship committed to one another, and already had a child. A more appropriate response for somebody troubled with this from a religious perspective would be for him to have married Floria. Certainly breaking one committed relationship to (as Augustine's mother hoped) form one considered more appropriate - forming a second physical bond in its place - is not a step forwards. And certainly for Augustine to have allowed his emotional life to have been ruled by his mother is also inappropriate. Further, Floria, in dismantling Augustine's approach to love, is quite happy to show that what he was doing did not represent a sensible interpretation of the Scriptures which he used as his basis for doing it.

In actual fact, Augustine's approach - his denial of physical pleasure, of human relationships - has more in common with a dualistic approach, which separates the physical from the spiritual realms. This, of course, is not a Christian idea. For the Christian, God rules over both the physical and the spiritual. That isn't to argue that physical expressions of love are always right - that is not what Christianity says. But it is to argue that to deny any role for the physical expression of love - as Floria was arguing that Augustine did - is definitely wrong.

Incidentally, the story fits almost perfectly the basic Tragedy plot given by Christopher Booker in "Seven Basic Plots", with Augustine the person who fails to arrive at completeness and understanding ....

Booker on Missing the Mark

Now this just took my breath away.
What is it that brings the hero or heroine of a Tragedy so inexorably to catastrophe? The first people to consciously ask this question were the ancient Greeks; and they had no doubt that all the great tragic figures in their mythology had something profoundly in common. They called it hubris, which we usually interpret as a form of overweaning pride, a reckless arrogance. But the literal derivation of hubris was from the word hyper, meaning 'over'. It meant a 'stepping over the bounds', a defiance of the cosmic order, that state of perfect balance which ultimately holds the universe together (characterised in the motto 'nothing in excess', written up over the temple of Apollo...). By the rule of that same balance, anything which disturbed it would eventually meet with a violent shock as the state of balance and order was restored. The inevitable consequence of hubris was nemesis, from the root nemein, to 'allot a due portion', the same root from which sprang nomos, 'law'. Literally, nemesis was the 'due portion' required to restore the equilibrium of the cosmic order when it had been unbalanced by an act of hubris.

But the Greeks went further than this in providing a general answer to the question of why the tragic hero must come to ultimate disaster. As Aristotle put it in a famous passage in the Poetics, there was a specific reason why the heroes and heroines of tragedy ... should fall prey to hubris in the first place. The essence of a tragic hero or heroine ... is that they must not be shown as wholly good or bad, but that they must be shown as being brought from 'prosperity to misery' through some 'fatal flaw'. And the Greek for this was hamartia, which means literally 'missing the mark', as an arrow fails to reach its target. [Switched on Christians will now see where this is going, and why my jaw hit my chest when I read it in a non-Christian book analysing the role of narrative!] The fatal flaw in the tragic hero or heroine is that deficiency in their character or awareness which prevents them from 'reaching the goal'.

In other words, the very nature of the 'fatal flaw' in these central figures of tragedy is that it is something which renders them unable to 'succeed'... The essence of the tragic hero or heroine, in short, is that they are held back by some fatal flaw or weakness from reaching that state of perfect balance which is presented by stories as the supreme goal of human existence. They are doomed to fall short of the goal because in some way they are stuck in a state of incompleteness or immaturity.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.329-330
For those people reading this who haven't got it yet(!), in a footnote, Booker points out that the word for an arrow deviating in this way is translated as "sin"! In other words "sin" is the reason that the central characters of tragedies are unable to achieve their goal. To cut an incredibly long analysis short, Booker makes the point that all the seven basic plots are the same story - a person moving from a state of incompleteness to a state of completeness, with the exception of Tragedy, where the person fails to do so.

So what is the role of narrative, if this is the dire warning which it presents people with - although this warning is already embedded in humanity's collective psyche, since the reason the plots work is because we recognise their significance. Booker applies this (I believe - this is really addressed properly in part four, which I still haven't got to) in social terms - the "complete" objective for a person he has in mind is basically when a person establishes themselves in a proper, non-egotistical relationship, taking their proper role in society and the world.

But he is writing with a presupposition that there is no external absolute - that the social order is the highest good. What happens when you consider this from within a Christian framework? Here, we can see the real problem of sin - that it holds people back not only from a proper place in human society, but from a proper relationship with God as well. God said to Adam and Eve that their sin not only had an impact on them as individuals (death) and in their relationship with him, but also it has an impact on their relationships with each other, and with the world, and in their own psyches. So the Christian framework adds a huge extra dimension to the threat of sin. The tragedy of sin preventing us from achieving completeness or maturity is that it brings with it the threat of destruction. The Christian hope is that the tragedy that we face if we can't deal with this problem of sin can be averted through the gospel - through the light and wisdom that Jesus brought into the world. And as with the other plots, the resolution of the problem of sin is not just personal, but it is cosmic in scope. There is "rejoicing in heaven" when a person turns away from their sin!

Booker on "Four Weddings and a Funeral"

Comedy is one of the basic plots that Booker concerns himself with in "The Seven Basic Plots", and in the third section of his book, he looks at how in the last 200 years, we have seen increasing deviation from the proper role of the seven plots (which I will say more about at another time), due to the rise in significance of the ego above the Self. That sounds a little odd, perhaps, without having followed Booker's argument through, but if I understand it correctly, the Self is virtually the opposite of the ego.
... we see comedies which manage to retain the original combination of light-hearted humour with romantic love, but where there is no sense at the end of any real access of self-awareness: that fundamental moment of 'recognition' in the true comic archetype where we feel the story's centre of gravity finally moving from the claustrophobia of the ego to the liberation of the Self. In Four Weddings and a Funeral we see a group of middle-class young people stumbling through their lives in modern London in a fairly limited state of awareness; trying to work out who they should pair off with; attending each other's weddings; getting drunk (although for once external reality breaks into their muddled haze when one of their number dies, and is revealed to have been a homosexual). We finally see the hero and heroine coming to the climactic moment of 'recognition' when they are in a crowded church for his wedding to someone else. In the most embarrassing circumstances they suddenly realise that they are meant for each other after all, with a love they imagine to be so special and unique it transcends any need to go through the mere outward, social ritual of a wedding. We duly respond in our archetypally programmed way by finding this a touching conclusion. But we hardly have the sense that they have reached that transcendent state of cosmic, selfless union, bringing together a hwole community in joy and loving reconciliation, which, at the end of a Shakespearian comedy, can send an audience out of the theatre feeling that they are walking on air and that all the world has been renewed. The hero and heroine of Four Weddings are still the same rather limited, egocentric couple that they have been all along. In this sense the film provides yet another illustration of what happens when Comedy is taken over by the ego and turned into only a sentimental vestige of itself.

"The Seven Basic Plots", Christopher Booker, p.397-8

Thursday, January 01, 2009

L'hero ... c'est moi?

By reading "Seven Basic Plots" by Booker before Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces", I am doing things in the wrong order. Campell's is the older book, and Booker's is far broader in scope. So the newer will probably have subsumed the older by the time I read it.

In broad terms, Campbell's thesis is that the travail of the ultimate hero is a representation of the journey of the self. I suspect that Booker's conclusion will be similar - the archetypal narrative is symbolic of the experiences that we have to face in our own lives.

I have said before that I'm not convinced (though it should be pointed out that I've not followed the argument from beginning to end in either case). Having read 7BP as far as I have, I can certainly see the case convincingly made that narrative does in some cases show us the challenges that we face (aligning ourselves with light or allowing the darkness to consume us). However, I hitherto assumed that the hero was always someone who faced challenges tthat we couldn't - that is, a representation of the great hero, who faces the challenges of darkness on our behalf and defeats them.

I am now wondering if there should be a bit of a synthesis thingy here. In a sense, Jesus is "the proper man" as it is translated in "A Safe Stronghold". Yes, he is defeating enemies that no-one else can, but he is doing it as one of us, and the call for us is to be like him. So although these great heroes from narrative are doing things that nobody else can, we are to identify with them, and to expect to be able to face this sort of enemy. The images of heroes, then, show what we are capable of - our ability as humans to face down the darkness. However, in our experience, wwe will find that we are simply not able to do this in our own strength. Only because a hero has defeated our enemies for us can we contend with them ourselves.

Hmm. Not sure how coherent that is. Oh well, it's not as if anybody reads it...