Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.


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Front cover of A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. HardyA Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (1940)

The World Wide Web is also the Random Reading Reticulation – the biggest library that ever existed. Obscure texts and ancient manuscripts are now a mouse-click away. A Mathematician’s Apology is neither obscure nor ancient, but it wasn’t easy to get hold of before it became available online. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. And now I have.

Alas, I was disappointed. G.H. Hardy (1877-1947) was a very good mathematician, but he’s not a very good writer about mathematics. And in fact, he didn’t want to be a writer at all, good, bad or indifferent:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds. (Op. cit., Section 1)

But is philosophy of mathematics work for second-rate minds? At the highest level, I don’t think it is. The relation of mathematics to reality, and vice versa, is a profoundly interesting and important topic, but Hardy doesn’t have anything new or illuminating to say about it:

It may be that modern physics fits best into some framework of idealistic philosophy — I do not believe it, but there are eminent physicists who say so. Pure mathematics, on the other hand, seems to me a rock on which all idealism founders: 317 is a prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is, because mathematical reality is built that way. (Section 24)

He experienced and explored that mathematical reality, but he can’t communicate the excitement or importance of doing so very well. I wasn’t surprised by his confession that, as a boy: “I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively” (sec. 29). He says it wasn’t until he had begun his degree at Cambridge that he “learnt for the first time … what mathematics really meant” (ibid.).

In this, he was very different from someone he helped make much more famous than he now is: an unknown and struggling Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan, who sparked Hardy’s interest by sending him theorems of startling originality and depth before the First World War. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England, but barely mentions his protégé here. All the same, his respect and even perhaps his affection are still apparent:

I still say to myself when I am depressed, and find myself forced to listen to pompous and tiresome people, ‘Well, I have done one thing you could never have done, and that is to have collaborated with both [J.E.] Littlewood and Ramanujan on something like equal terms.’ (sec. 29)

Very few people could have done that: a mere handful of the many millions who lived at the time. So it would be wrong to expect that Hardy could both ascend to the highest peaks of mathematics and write well about what he experienced there. He couldn’t and A Mathematician’s Apology supplies the proof. That’s a shame, but the text is short and still worth reading. Hardy had no false modesty, but he had no delusions of grandeur either:

I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world. I have helped to train other mathematicians, but mathematicians of the same kind as myself, and their work has been, so far at any rate as I have helped them to it, as useless as my own. Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow. I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating. And that I have created is undeniable: the question is about its value.

It was valuable: that is why Hardy is still remembered and celebrated, sixty-seven years after his death. He is also still famous as an atheist, but you could say that he spent his life in the service of Our Lady – Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics Mistress of the World.

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Front cover of Hitch-22 by Christopher HitchensHitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens (2010)

The true extent of Christopher Hitchens’ literary achievement is apparent only when one reflects that two of his favourite authors were Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. With those shining examples before him, he contrived for decades to produce some of the world’s most pompous and constipated prose. The caption to one photograph in this autobiography runs: “Blockading a racist hairdresser, 1968.” I won’t call that the funniest line in the book, because as far as I could discover it was the only funny line in the book. And the humour was not intentional. Racism is not, after all, a joking matter. One question occurred to me again and again as I toiled through Hitch-22 and the dull story of Hitch’s short journey from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism: what is his mother tongue? Because it certainly isn’t English. Yes, if Waugh is a swallow and Wodehouse a hummingbird, then Hitchens has all the aerial grace and acrobatic skill of the Guggenheim Museum. If you’d like to feel your synapses shrivel, read on:

Let us go, then, you and I [sic], to a dingy and rather poorly lit union hall in Haringay, North London. The time: the mid-1970s. The place: a run-down but resilient district, with a high level of Irish and other immigrant population. I am the invited speaker and the subject is Cyprus, the former British colony in the Mediterranean which has recently been attacked and invaded by both Greek and Turkish armies. Many refugees from this cruel bombardment and occupation have arrived in London to join the staunchly working-class and left-wing Cypriot community that has been here since the 1930s. My articles on the ongoing imperial crime have won me a certain audience. The brothers and sisters in Haringay aren’t easily impressed by visiting talent, and it’s unlikely that I’ll even get the taciturn treasurer of the local branch to refund my “tube” fare from downtown, but I’m used to this no-nonsense style and have even trained myself to approve of it. Before being exposed to my scintillating rhetoric, the audience will be subject to a steady series of quotidian preliminaries… (“The Fenton Factor”, pg. 137 of the Atlantic Books paperback)

Hitchens is further proof of the connexion between left-wing politics and bad prose. We aren’t in need of further proof while Noam Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould remain in print, but I can recommend this book if you’d like to see Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie brought into disrepute. Hitch retails toe-curling stories about his two most famous literary chums. The Schadenfreude truly is terrific. If Hitch’s fellow theophobe Richard Dawkins wrote as badly as Hitch does, I’d abandon all my religious doubts and join the Society of Pius V. Alas for theists everywhere, Dawkins doesn’t, but the “Argument from Hitch” should still join the five classic proofs of God’s existence. Could anyone produce prose of this quality without divine assistance? Even the most militant atheist might feel a tremor of doubt.

Proviously post-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (2012)

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You want literary trangression? I’ve recently come across something that puts everything else into the shade. Sade’s Sodom? Soppy! Aldapuerta’s Eyes? Infantile! Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions? Fuck off and diet! The most powerfully nauseating piece of prose I’ve ever read is this:

Emery’s life-partner, Laney, is HIV positive. Laney and Emery are proud to be a serodiscordant couple. Through diligent safe-sex practices, Emery has remained HIV negative since becoming Laney’s partner in 2005.

That is part of the potted biography of Emery Emery (sick), an American “stand-up comedian” who is one of the many contributors to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by Ariane Sherine. If you don’t find it nauseating too, either you’re a Guardianista or you have no aesthetic sense. For smarminess, sliminess and sheer self-fellating self-righteousness, I have never seen its equal, despite my diligent liberal-prose-reading practices since well before 2005. Okay, I expected this book to make my flesh crawl – after all, David Baddiel is in it – but Emery surprised even a H8-positive homo-negativist like me. But I wasn’t surprised that the editrix of the book “writes regularly for The Guardian”. Or that she and her close-knit contributional community “have donated their full share of the profits from this book to the Terrence Higgins Trust”, “the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.”

You would expect that sort of piety from deeply devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, whose quarrel is not with religion as such: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. His own religion, liberalism, has its own sacred cows and its own pious rituals, like the ostentatious donation of money to AIDS charities. But I wonder what Dawkins and other liberal atheists would think about AIDS if it didn’t differentially impacticize a Minority Community sacred to their faith. What if it had a much higher prevalence among fundamentalist Christians than among gays, for example? I find it impossible to believe that liberal atheists wouldn’t draw uncomfortable conclusions for Christianity, if that were the case.

As it is, Dicky Dawkins & Co. use AIDS to bash the bishops only because bishops oppose the use of condoms, not because bishops die of AIDS very often. Heads atheism wins, tails Christianity loses. And Christianity is the overwhelming target of liberal atheists in the West. At least one of the contributors is highly positive about another religion. The eminently emetic David Baddiel says this in his potted bio:

Born and raised Jewish, and maintaining a deep affection for his Jewish heritage and identity, David’s Facebook religious views entry describes him as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

The grammar and punctuation there are as skilful as Baddiel’s comedy, but then this porn-positive performer does have an EngLit degree, with all that that implies in terms of issues around issues of good prose. It might seem odd that a “fundamentalist atheist” can have a “deep affection” for a religious tradition, but it isn’t really odd at all, I would suggest. I can imagine another contributor having a “deep affection” for his Hindu or black “heritage and identity”, but not for his Catholic or Methodist. And there’s no way on earth a contributor would express affection for his “white heritage and identity”. That would be blasphemy in excelsis. But Baddiel’s h-and-i aren’t Christian: he isn’t anti-God, he’s anti-Son-of-God. His quarrel, like Dawkins’, isn’t with religion: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. Although I am an atheist (I won’t say “too”), I prefer the religion that gave birth to Milton and Tennyson over the religion that gave birth to Marx and Trotsky.

Perhaps Baddiel studied Milton during his EngLit degree. If so, there’s little sign of it in his dreary “An Atheist at the Movies”, simul-scribed with one Arvind Ethan David, whose potted bio also attributes supernatural powers to something inanimate: “Born and raised Catholic, Arvind’s Facebook religious views entry reads ‘Atheist. Humanist. Yogi. Bear.’” Which is a crap joke, but funnier than Dicky Dawkins’ contribution, “The Great Bus Mystery”, which proves once again that Dawkins should stick strictly to biology:

I was hoofing it down Regent Street, admiring the Christmas decorations, when I saw the bus. One of those bendy buses that mayors keep threatening with the old heave-ho. As it drove by, I looked up and got the message square in the monocle. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial. Another of the blighters nearly did knock me down as I set a course for the Dregs, where it was my purpose to inhale a festive snifter, and I saw the same thing on the side.

That’s the start of Dawkins’ would-be Wodehousean, wanna-be Woosterian story based on an advert run on the sides of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” One way to enjoy life is to read P.G. Wodehouse, who, after an Anglican upbringing and education, wrote sunny, gentle, life-affirming humour for many years. Whether he’d have done the same after a Catholic or Muslim upbringing, I’m not sure. Sunny, gentle and life-affirming are not good ways to describe the best atheist humorist in this book: Charlie Brooker, the Guardian’s Wizard of Wind Up and Magus of Misanthropy. Scabrous, genital-obsessed and life-denying would be closer. Brooker doesn’t shed rainbows: he squirts bile. And I doubt he’ll keep it up for decades. Not successfully, anyway, but that may be because, unlike Wodehouse, he’s a Committed Cultist with a Pious Purpose: to mock and ridicule all True Faiths but his own. Brooker’s True Faith is liberalism: like everyone else here, he’s part of the highly conformist non-conformist community. This is the conclusion of his sermonette:

Laughter separates us from the gods while binding us closer together. If you’re looking for a miracle, look no further that your most recent belly laugh. Maybe a friend made you clutch your sides till you shook with glee; maybe an old episode of Frasier had you howling on the carpet. Either way: in that moment you were immortal. And that, my friend, is as sacred as it gets.

It’s also as uplifting as it gets, for Brooker. No wonder liberals are in a demographic death-spiral. If Frasier is the liberal justification for existence, the conclusion they reach seems to be: the fewer children we have, the better. And note that the steely-eyed and cynical Brooker appears to understand the sadistic and thought-policing role of humour as little as Richard Dawkins understands the sociological role of religion. Brooker’s contribution is in the “Philosophy” section of this book, where you’ll also find the bleatings of the execrable A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birbeck College in London. If, like me, you think that 95% of philosophers are 99% twat, Grayling isn’t going to make you think again. Like David Baddiel’s comedy, Grayling’s prose is excellent propaganda for the theistic cause:

For Christmas-disliking folk, the dream is a Christmas spent in a warm country where they do not celebrate Christmas. They would revel in the absence of Christmas music, decorations and symbols, together with exhortations to spend money on trivia, ephemera and excessive quantities of food and drink. They would be refugees from iterated “Jingle Bells” and other carols that play on a loop in every department store, driving the staff mad… No such escape is available to those with young children, for whom Christmas is a bonanza of acquisitiveness and indulgence, and yet to whom we all wish to give the traditional experience of acquisitiveness and indulgence. It is in large part because of our children that Christmas has accumulated its hybrid and generally over-the-top contemporary form, together with its sentimentality and excesses. It has become a piety to approve of this, so that to call it into question is to invite being called a Scrooge or worse.

As usual, Grayling sounds like a dim vicar preaching a boring sermon. The “Science” section of the book is more intellectually rigorous, but not much more convincing. You’ve seen part of Dawkins’ effort and it doesn’t get any better than that. Simon Singh sings a psalm to science in “The Sound of Christmas”. I’d rather hear a real psalm. Brian Cox tries to big-up “The Large Hadron Collider”, but I think the Middle Ages spent its money better in building cathedrals. They’re certainly better to look at and easier to understand, but then part of the appeal of atheism to liberals is its intellectual elitism and epistemological rigour. Or so they fondly imagine. I suspect G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis will prove far better and wiser guides to life, politics and culture than anyone here.

Like the old religions, the new religion of liberal atheism is mostly overseen by men, but the book’s editrix, Ariane Sherine, does provide a useful visual guide to two of the key core components of liberalism: its narcissism and its autolatry. For the inside back cover she poses in tight jeans and a tight, white “There’s Probably No God” T-shirt, displaying her slim and attractive body for the edification of the faithless. The flesh is important to people who don’t believe in the soul. But those who live by the flesh often also die by it, as AIDS proves. Nor is Christianity to blame for anorexia, self-harm and “raunch culture”. As Christianity is increasingly pushed out of public life and porn is increasingly pushed in, I think there’s good reason to wonder whether secularism is good for women. Islam certainly isn’t good for women, but none of the atheists here do anything effective to oppose Islam’s increasing presence and power in the West. They’ll kick Christianity till the sacred cows come home, but grow curiously muted in the presence of the mullahs. Or not so curiously, given what can happen to the critics of Islam. Religions are not all the same and not all equally harmful. I think that the overt religion of Anglicanism is much less harmful than the covert religion of liberalism, for example. Unbelievers aren’t all the same any more than believers are. I’m an atheist, but I think The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was written by idiots for idiots. It’s smug and smarmy, mawkish and maudlin. It’s desperately jaunty and jauntily desperate. I’m almost inclined to thank God that Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens didn’t contribute to it too. If this book were the worst liberal atheism can do, the religious would have nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the worst liberal atheism can do. The atheidiots here aren’t confined between its covers: they’re all over British public life and influencing public policy in all sorts of ways. The Church of England puts up no resistance to their societal subversion and sapping: nowadays, it’s part of the liberal suicide-cult too. A good way to understand life is to read one of Richard Dawkins’ books on biology. A good way to enjoy life is to avoid one of his attempts at humour. Avoid David Baddiel’s attempts too. In fact, avoid David Baddiel altogether: his appearance, tone and manner don’t so much weaken the case for a benevolent God as strengthen the case for a malevolent Satan. Charlie Brooker is an eyesore too, but he can be funny. Not in a sunny Wodehousean way, though. And he isn’t funny here. Nor is anyone else. Where liberal atheists and atheist liberals are taking the West will definitely prove funny. But I suspect none of the people here will be laughing.

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