Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Real Meaning of Hogswatch

We apologise for this interruption in our regular service, which is due to a technical fault. While this is being dealt with, we present a short post in keeping with the spirit of the season. The following lines were dictated to Mr Androcles J. Scruttle, Psychic Large, by the Spirits, many of which appear to have been doubles.
                                                   The Real Meaning of Hogswatch

At this time of year, people naturally to turn to progenitive myths, originative stories and the like. In the dead, dark days of winter, we need their bright reflections; we yearn for gifts of light and life. The old cold world shrivels to a frozen stub, black and lifeless; we must remind ourselves that we, at least, are still alive.
     That’s what the trees and tinsel, mulled wine and minced pies, parties and presents are all about.
     The stories we tell at this time of year have, of course, changed considerably over the last few thousand years; and there are a great many stories to be told, apart from the obvious one.
     No, not Santa. I meant Jesus, the birth of Jesus.
     But wait a minute. ‘Of course’?  Have they, I wonder, really changed that much? And are there, for that matter, really that many stories?  Or is it just a few: the same stories told in different ways; old stories, like old gods, doing new jobs?

     The “Santa” story is a good example: the spirit of good will and giving, born and reborn year after year; Dickens’ ebullient and jovial Spirit of Christmas Present, decked out in living green, rather than Coca Cola’s red and white.
     Another much loved variation on this theme, to which I return every Christmas, is Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (Corgi, 1997). If you've never read Pratchett, then you have my deepest sympathies. Your life is sadly incomplete; ever shall it be so until you rectify this shameful lacuna in your reading. Why anyone should deny themselves one of the greatest pleasures attendant on being human is frankly beyond me. Unless they have been diagnosed as clinically humourless.
     Pratchett is simply one our funniest writers; and I don’t mean in the sense that some people mistakenly think Douglas Adams was funny. Adams was witty, certainly, and amusing; but rarely outright funny and never actually hilarious.
     No he wasn't; and if you’re shaking your head, I can only suggest that you have a doctor look at your sense of humour. It needs re-calibrating.
     I'm not kidding. The failure to find Terry Pratchett funny is indicative of a serious personality defect.
     Pratchett is in the same league as Wodehouse or Spike Milligan. (And if you don’t think they’re funny, there's no hope for you; you aren't humourless, you’re dead; check yourself in to a morgue immediately.) Like Wodehouse, he has, on occasion, been accused of literature. I think he could be accused of philosophy too. You see, Pratchett is not only funny – in the embarrassing snort-out-loud-in-public sense – he’s also quite thoughtful at times. True, he can also be a bit sententious; nevertheless, there is, in his writing, a sensibility, a truth, that is both profoundly human and deeply metaphysical.
     It comes down to an intuitive understanding of myth and metaphor; not merely as literary devices, but as proper narrative or personal ones. To put this another way, Terry Pratchett knows what myths and metaphors really are; and he knows what they’re for. He explores the complex and subtle ways that human beings use myths and metaphors to construct their identities, shaping human nature in the process.
     Myths and metaphors, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, are the building blocks from which we construct ourselves. They are psychological and metaphysical extensions by which all too limited selves interlock with others, so reach out across the infinite expanse of consciousness. They are mirrors, reflections of who we are and who we might be; images without which, we reduced ourselves to the zero-point of a supposedly rational mind which conceives itself entirely in terms of its own finitude. (Therein lies the key to the classical rationalist’s desperate need for necessitarian projections.) As myths and metaphors supply the building blocks, they also supply the tools with which we can make sense of the most important of philosophical questions: the nature and meaning of human existence; more simply, what it means to be human at all.
     Hogfather is my favourite expression of this idea. In case you’re wondering, the Hogfather himself is the perfect mid-winter demiurge for a pork-based economy. I'm surprised he hasn't caught on in here in Ireland. He doesn't, in fact, play a very large role in the story, only turning up at the end, when all the hard work is done. That’s because the story isn't really about the Hogfather as such; it is about persons and what that means.
     It is also where Death really gets to grips with the meaning of life. Not death. Death. Cowl, scythe, quite thin, especially around the face, always smiling, sort of. That is, Death the character, as opposed to death the final banjo-twang in the great symphony of life. This character is, he himself is the first to admit, the anthropomorphic personification of that natural process. And he always turns up, sooner or later, whether you've been naughty or nice.
     Being a projection of the end of life, Death is simultaneously an insider and an outsider. On one level, he doesn't seem to understand human beings, their obtuseness, their mythopoeic tendencies, their need for projection and reflection. Consequently, he tends to see the world in literal terms. For instance, his response to poverty and hunger is, oddly enough, to give people a decent meal. (I cannot tell you how upset he gets when he comes across the Little Match Girl about to seasonally snuff it in snowdrift.)
     At the same time, however, Death understands the dynamics of human nature very well indeed; deep in the bone, as it were. Hardly surprising since he is, after all, a projection of that nature. So he’s perfectly placed to remind us just very how important are the stories we tell about ourselves and, by extension, the world we live in. Stories about birth and rebirth; about justice and fairness, goodwill and kindness; stories which remind us that other people are, as Dickens said, our business; stories about being naughty and nice. Stories, in short, about light and life. 
     These are the stories, the myths and metaphors which, as Death himself says, make us “THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE”.
     Although, the Librarian may be taking this idea a bit literally.

     Speaking philosophically, we are narrative creatures, living the life-stories we write for ourselves and for others. These stories are a vital insight into the human condition. They tell us what we’re really like (even if we don’t want to admit it). That’s why we need the big myths: to fill in the plot holes and fill out the under-developed characterisation of ordinary author-actors. Big myths are a mirror: they tell us to our faces who and what we really are. But as they reflect, they also refract, providing the means to overcome the shortcomings of our story-lines. Greek myths taught us about justice (of a sort), honour, and heroism. More recently, as Wendy Hamblett's Punishment and Shame (Lexington Books, 2011), suggests, the lessons were humanised. They became about sharing and sacrifice: the primal connections that make us who and what we are. And that, my dears, is the true meaning of Hogswatch.
     This isn't just “trickery with words”, as Death’s granddaughter, Susan, supposes. She can be such a typical rationalist; but then what would you expect, she has had an Education. (And we all know how much damage that can do, especially to students.) Psychological reduction is an easy game to play; it haunts the porches of any act of faith, churns myth and metaphor into fluffy pink clouds of self-deception. Of all “people”, Death knows that, for most people, life is rarely pink and almost never fluffy. He knows, too, that some things – like justice, love, even humanity itself – only exist because we believe in them; we have faith in our stories and live them accordingly. 
     P. F. Strawson, called it ‘descriptive metaphysics’; others, like Farrer and William James, found a pragmatic theology in it. Like Death, they knew that faith sometimes creates its objects. It does so using metaphors, images of ourselves idealised. Well, it would do. Justice and sacrifice, naughty and nice, light and life: that, Death reminds us, is where humans live.

     We should like to take this opportunity to wish our readers the compliments of the season. A very Merry Christmas to you both and a Happy New Year. Normal Service will resume in 5...4...3...

Friday, 12 December 2014

Reopening Lines of Communication Part I: Whistling into the Wind?

The following lines were found in a bottle, bobbing around the harbour of Holyhead in North Wales by a salty old sea-dog who was kind enough to forward them to a Concerned Citizen.

Change is in the air and, as every sane person knows, all change is bad. Except, though even here I have my doubts, possibly underwear.
     To me, however, change means much more than underwear. It means heading west, for this is what I have done; specifically, to Ireland. To Ireland for faith, healing, and to seek our fortune. Crossing the great greygreen mother, to misquote Joyce, or more accurately, if you like, ‘the snotgreen sea’, ‘scrotumtightening sea’. Epi oinopa ponton, in so doing I consciously buck the trend in fortune seeking. Few others would, I think, stop here. Most, the native population hereabouts included, expect the Marxian (Brothers, not Karl) injunction, Go West!, to extend at least as far as the next continent. There are, however, compensations to a foreshortened expedition such as this. A more metaphysical frame of mind than one might otherwise encounter, for one; a decent pint of Guinness expertly drawn from dullthudding Guinness’s barrels, for another.
     Thus it is, amid the turmoil of cardboard boxes and trapped fingers, aching backs and yowling cats, busted boilers and bloody unhelpful rental agents, that now seems like the perfect time for a fresh start. The leaky shower is fixed, the chimney swept, the chances of reconnecting to the twenty-first century fading ever further into the distance thanks to the recalcitrance of the national telecoms provider (fully the equal of the rental folks); BBC Radio 4 is but a dream of long ago. When could be better?
     Outside, a cold, sun-soaked mist rises, redgold, lingering in the field next door; and gradually solidifies into sheep as the day draws on.

     Truthfully, with increasing distance the need for solider connections, in close proximity perhaps too lightly held, presses in more urgently. Far from home, though perhaps not that far, in the quiet of the Irish countryside, the underlying principles of our philosophy of reciprocity stand out against the green hills quite clearly.
     Words return, reopening lines of communication in anticipation.  Let us, then, re-establish contact in warmer tones as befits the season and begin again.

(You may be wondering how, in view of the technological difficulties alluded to above, this communiqué found its way to the World Wide Web and thence to you. The answer is simple. With the aid of a new friend and old revolutionary spirit known locally as Skin-the-Cat, he of the old cabman’s shelter Butt below the bridge. He smuggled it out in a bushel shamrocks bound for the Caribbean Island of Montserrat, where everyday is St Patrick’s day and visitors are liberally garlanded with the things the minute they step off the plane.)

     I should, at the outset, try to make clear the point and purpose of these dispatches. They are first steps in considering what seem to me to be some key philosophical issues with which personalist thinkers ought to – and, in fact frequently do – concern themselves. They are, of course, aimed more specifically at engaging you, friendly reader, in conversation. Such engagements are surely our central concern. In view of that, these are very much opening gambits: thoughts, by no means fully formulated, finalised, or finished off; and any contribution you would care to offer to their further development or clarification would be most welcome.
     Like all philosophers, I am profoundly enamoured of the sound of my own voice, especially when it’s written down. Unlike some, I am also captivated by the sights and sounds of others. A melody of voices and perspectives is, after all, the lifeblood of any healthy philosophy.
     In short, I should very much like to know what you think. Especially if you think I’ve gone wrong. Please do get in touch, either directly or using the website forum inside.

     If you have read any of my previous posts, you may have noticed that, in addition to pizza dough, I am very interested in what we mean when we talk about “persons”. Or should we rather say “people”? “Persons” is a category whereas I am quite sure that if our philosophy is to be of any real value we ought to be talking about you and me and everyone else. How we do that and what we mean when we try are, of course, difficult questions, ones to which, I suspect, we shall frequently return.
     The meaning of the concept “person”, with its long and fascinating history, affects the way we approach and think about almost every other serious philosophical question. One of the most obvious of these is, of course, that old metaphysical saw, the mind/body problem. This, no doubt, is something that you have quite clear ideas about already. The central question remains, however, will it ever be possible to perform a brain transplant, as the late and very legendary Peter Cushing demonstrated, using nothing but a kitchen knife and a large jar of bubbly water? And, what’s more, if we do, will the “patient”inevitably go mad and set fire to the laboratory?
     Along side this particular hobby-horse, I shall also make some effort to address the deep philosophical mysteries. Truth, beauty, and goodness, of course; but also questions of cosmic significance: ‘where are my keys?’; ‘where are my trousers?; and ‘why are you looking at me like that?’.
     One topic which, just lately, has increasingly absorbed my attention concerns the purpose of philosophy. As a mode of thought, as an activity, that is, what is philosophy for? Reading the journals, it often seems as though philosophy has degenerated into a kind of word-game; a sort of academic cryptic crossword. (I do not, I confess, enjoy word-games.) This suggests that philosophy, as it is professionally practised, has two purposes: one, to increase the amount of thoroughly unreadable material being published – i.e. material written specifically to be published rather than read – the other, to produce philosophy graduates. In other words, it doesn’t seem to have any real point at all.
     Except, as I discovered quite recently, the possession of a doctorate in metaphysics does, apparently entitle one to perform medical examinations.

     Such uncommon perquisites notwithstanding – they are so rarely required on this side of the Carpathians – the question remains: does philosophy have a point or purpose? Considering the state of the UK education system and the overweening expectation that all education must ultimately have a financial pay-off, it is not one to be easily ignored. Philosophy is under pressure to justify its existence. Playing around with the so-called “cognitive sciences” is hardly a long-term strategy for survival; one might even wonder whether the study of ethics apart from specific applications in medicine and the business world is particularly worthwhile. A surprising number of people live intelligent and intelligibly moral lives without having a degree in philosophy, or even any interest in the subject. The question, sadly, seems to be “what does philosophy buy us?”
     That, I think, is a good subject for a restart, for this return to questions and conversations: the purpose and point of philosophy. It is a subject which a personalist perspective is well placed to address. So that will be the subject of my next correspondence. And if the icy resistance of a telecoms company to switching on a line finally melts and I find myself online, I might even find out what you think about it too, which would be nice.