Shakespeare and the Bible: stimulating reading

wordsofpowerThe Bible and Shakespeare have each had quite the trajectory within our culture. There have been times when possession of an English Bible could get you burned at the stake, while Shakespeare spent his career working in a London theatrical scene which was reviled by the respectable as a danger to morality and social order; and yet “the Bible and Shakespeare” (especially when bracketed together in this way) have come to be regarded as the twin peaks of English literature.

It is this shared status, and what reading “the Bible and Shakespeare” can tell us about the relationships between texts and wider culture and society, that Jem Bloomfield discusses in his forthcoming book Words of Power: Reading Shakespeare and the Bible. Jem’s book is due to be published by the Lutterworth Press on 26 May 2016, but I had the pleasure of getting to read a copy of the proofs.

It’s a short book – 156 pages including introduction but excluding bibliography and index – but packed with material that has made me think in new ways, not only about the Bible and Shakespeare, but also more widely about the nature of a “canon”, what makes a text “sacred”, different ways of reading familiar texts, the nature of performance and proclamation, how texts form communities and identities, and the complex ways in which texts are appropriated and quoted.

For example, in the introduction, Jem summarises the biblical critic John Barton’s discussion on what gives a text “scriptural status”, and how Shakespeare can function as “scripture”. Barton identifies four characteristics of “scripture”:

  • scripture is “a text that matters and which contains no trivialities, nothing ephemeral”;
  • scripture is assumed to have “contemporary relevance … to every generation, to all people at all times”;
  • scripture is assumed to be consistent, with great efforts made to smooth over any apparent inconsistencies within or between its component texts; and
  • scripture contains “an excess of meaning”, a “vision of the text as full of mysteries, with layers of meaning below the surface sense.”

Just reading that list can spark off multiple thoughts as to how much these criteria can be applied to Shakespeare. On the first, “it is not acceptable to think Shakespeare is deeply uninteresting,” observes Barton. As for the second, Jem discusses the National Theatre’s 2012 production of Timon of Athens, whose marketing materials pitched it as a parable for the financial crash; even though “the sight of an Athenian nobleman sitting in the wilderness railing about sexually transmitted diseases” is, on the face of it, less obviously relevant than other plays from the same period – plays which, however, lack the imprimatur of the Shakespeare brand.

In Jem’s chapter of the “canon”, he describes the complexities of establishing the canon of both the Bible and Shakespeare, each of which has been contested in various ways throughout history. One point that struck me is how familiarity makes canonicity self-reinforcing: “The Shepherd of Hermas” and “The London Prodigal” just sound wrong – because they are so much less familiar than the “canonical” works – which predisposes us to accept their exclusion from the canon. Similarly, we are less practised at harmonising canonical and non-canonical works than we are at harmonising apparent inconsistencies within the canon.

As Jem goes on to observe, it has (for both the Bible and Shakespeare) to to find a definition of canonicity that doesn’t exclude some books accepted as canonical. And even if there are good reasons in each case for accepting the consensus on which books are and are not “in”, studying the books which have been excluded can help us appreciate “the contingent status of the texts we are used to thinking of as secure.”

In his chapter on “ways of reading”, Jem describes the multiplicity of ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare have been interpreted. In each case, there is a widespread assumption that the “most vital” meaning of the text can only be found by digging below the surface: hence the fourfold medieval exegesis of Scripture, in which “literal” interpretations are joined by “allegorical”, “moral” and “anagogical” – leading to the different layers of meaning which, even today, can attach to the name “Jerusalem”. In more modern times, biblical critics have sought to establish criteria for establishing which reported words and actions of Jesus are “authentic”: criteria of “embarrassment”, “discontinuity”, “coherence”, “multiple attestation” and “the criterion of Jesus’ rejection and execution” (that is, the idea that if a supposed reconstruction of Jesus doesn’t look like someone who’d get nailed to a cross, UR DOING IT WRONG).

Similarly, the interpretation of Shakespeare has also been through different phases and fashions. “Character criticism”, in which characters are treated as if they were living individuals with lives before and (if they’re lucky) after the text, is now somewhat out of fashion (helped along by a celebrated essay whose title asked, waspishly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). It was superseded first by the “New Criticism” which treated poetry as self-contained texts, and then by today’s dominant paradigm of “stage-centred criticism”, which holds that Shakespeare can only be properly interpreted by on-stage performance.

This leads on to Jem’s next chapter, in which he looks at the nature of performance. “Performance” often carried negative connotations: it is “not done” for the reading of a scriptural passage in church to come across as “a performance”, for example. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many people saw performance of Shakespeare as diminishing the genius of his poetry. However, in earlier times, silent reading of the Bible was regarded with some suspicion, with St Augustine finding it necessary to explain to his readers why St Ambrose’s practice of silent reading could be justified. Augustine was living in a culture on the cusp of moving from being an “oral” culture (in which the word is something proclaimed) to a “literary” culture (in which the word is something read). (As an aside, it’s worth noting that, for Luther, “the Word of God” always primarily meant the proclaimed Word rather than the written Word.)

In his chapter on “the people of the books”, Jem describes how the Bible and Shakespeare are each used to define communities or identities. He is sharp in observing how evangelicals use biblical citations (and even the word “Bible” itself, as in “Bible-based churches”) as a marker of identity. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare’s Globe are examples of “the complex system in which Shakespeare’s name and works produce cultural authority.”

In the final chapter, Jem analyses the ways in which the Bible and Shakespeare are appropriated for different purposes: from the use of the Bible as an (unread) prop in US presidential inaugurations, to MPs’ fondness for quoting Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Doctor Who, as a means of “bolstering the speaker’s rhetorical self-presentation” and “discreetly presenting the credentials of a particular background, upbringing and social sphere.” 

I hope this summary has given a flavour of how thunderously successful Jem is in accomplishing his aim of stimulating his readers to engage in similar analyses in their own reading life – “recognising a quotation,looking sceptically at the mission statement of a college, asking themselves for what purpose a Bible verse is being used in a politician’s speech” – and helping us to appreciate how “the strangeness of the past” can aid “a recognition of the present’s own remarkable strangeness.”

Four odd (but mostly loveable) things about Lutheran hymns

A discussion with a friend earlier tonight got me thinking about ways in which Lutheran hymnody differs from Anglican. So as we live in an age of listicles, here are four features of Lutheran hymns that have always struck me (as an adult convert) as distinctive, three of which I have learned to love…

1. The metres can be rather strange

Anglican hymn metres (a measure of syllables per line) are usually pretty straightforward. The classic is “common metre”: 8.6.8.6. Then there’s “short metre” (6.6.8.6) and “long metre” (8.8.8.8). These can be doubled up (“DCM”, “DSM”, “DLM”). You might also get 8.7.8.7.8.7, and so on.

Some Lutheran hymns have predictable metres, but with others, all bets are off. The Easter hymn “I am content! My Jesus ever lives” has a 10.6.10.6.9.9.4.4 metre. Move forward to Pentecost, and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” meanders around a 7.8.8.8.8.8.10.8 pattern. Then there’s the Communion hymn, “O Lord, we praise thee”, an 11.8.11.8.5.9.9.6.7.5 epic that causes even the Lutheran Service Book to throw up its hands and label it as “peculiar meter”:

2. The hymns can be really long 

As the examples above show, Lutheran hymns often have really long stanzas. You might think the writers would make up for it by only writing a few stanzas per hymn. Not so! In the older hymnals, it’s routine to see hymns with 9, 10, 12 or more stanzas, even where the stanzas are as long as those cited above.

In the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s first hymnal, the classic hymn “Salvation unto us has come” has 14 stanzas (each of 8.7.8.7.8.8.7 metre). The video here spares us most of these:

The latest LCMS hymnal has reduced this down to 10 stanzas, and other hymns are even more drastically cut – a tendency lamented by ELCE pastor, Tapani Simojoki, in this post defending long hymns as a form of catechesis (and fondly recalling singing a 41-stanza hymn on one occasion).

The good thing about hymns of this length is that they can include some really solid material. The Kindle edition of Walther’s Hymnal is a fine (if regrettably pricey) resource for personal devotion, even if most congregations would riot if forced to sing some of the hymns in their entirety.

3. The hymn tunes can be quite bouncy, though 

The good news is that the hymns often keep you on your toes, reducing the chances of your nodding off midway through verse 18. Early Lutheran chorales often had very bouncy rhythms, many of which were later regularised to fit with changing fashions.

Everyone knows Luther’s hymn Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress), but the original can come as a surprise to those familiar with its incarnation in Anglican hymnals:

To be honest, it’s the four-square, un-dotted version that strikes me as odd these days.

4. We sit down to sing them

This is the one I really can’t reconcile myself to. I’ve not been to many Lutheran churches – there aren’t many in this country to go to – but it seems pretty universal to sit down for most hymns: 

(Image via Duluth News Tribune.) 

It’s even in the rubrics in our service books, with a special symbol (△) indicating when people should stand for the final verse.

This probably makes sense when you’re singing a 27-stanza chorale. Speaking as my church’s organist, though, who sits at the front of the church to play, the impact on the quality of singing is enormous. When people stand for that final verse, or for the closing hymn, the difference in the sound is transformational. Now that we rarely sing more than five or six verses per hymn, I really don’t see what excuse we have for not standing. Hey ho…

Seeking enchantment in a secular age

taylorA friend recently lent me James K.A. Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular. This short book (140 pages) is a summary and introduction to A Secular Age, a monumental 776-page analysis of secularism by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor – of whose existence I must shamefacedly admit to having previously been ignorant.

Taylor’s analysis of secularism identifies three senses in which the word “secular” can be used. What Taylor calls “secular₁” refers to the classical and medieval understanding of “the temporal”, as opposed to the “spiritual”: the realm of “the butcher, baker and candlestick maker”. “Secular₂” refers to the post-Enlightenment notion of the nonsectarian, religiously “neutral” public square. Both of these meanings are ones with which most of us will be familiar.

“Secular₃”, by contrast, is Taylor’s own distinctive contribution. Secular₃ refers not so much to what a society believes (or doesn’t believe), but to what is believable within that society; to what Taylor calls the “conditions of belief”. A secular₃ society is one in which:

religious belief or belief in God is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable (and contested). (How (Not) To Be Secular, pp.21f.)

It is a society in which an “exclusive humanism” becomes a viable option, indeed the default option for many. This is a new development in human history, asserts Taylor:

For the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true. (A Secular Age, p.18, quoted in HNTBS, p.23).

It’s important to note that (in contrast to the “secular₂” understanding of secularism) “secular₃” is not merely the “neutral” residue left by the removal of religious belief:

The “secular” is not just the neutral, rational, areligious world that is left over once we throw off superstition, ritual, and belief in the gods. […] The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. (HNTBS, p.26)

In other words, the “exclusive humanism” of secular₃, with its “purely immanent sense of universal solidarity,” is an achievement; “a milestone in human history,” in Taylor’s words, providing a way for people to find “fullness and meaning” without reference to any divine or transcendent reality.

As Smith observes, an age dominated by secular₃ thinking is one in which not only non-belief, but also belief, will be significantly different from that of previous eras:

A secular₃ society could undergo religious revival where vast swaths of the populace embrace religious belief. But that could never turn back the clock on secularization₃; we would always know we used to believe something else, that there are plausible visions of meaning and significance on offer. (HNTBS, p.23)

This reminds me a lot of Peter Berger’s argument as to why (in sociological terms) we are all now “heretics”, as I discussed in a blog post back in 2004. Berger observes that the word “heresy” has its roots in the Greek for “choose”: a heretic is one who chooses what they believe, rather than just accepting the received beliefs of their society. But in a pluralistic society, Berger continues:

individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact. There remains the memory of the deliberate construction of a community of consent, and with this a haunting sense of the constructedness of that which the community affirms. Inevitably, the affirmations will be fragile and this fragility will not be very far from consciousness.

Hence there is no escape for us from secular₃. Much has been written of how Christians today are exploring earlier models of piety and worship, whether that’s the “ancient-future” movement among US evangelicals, or the growth of interest in the traditional Latin Mass among some younger Catholics. All these things may be good and valid, but they do not get us out of the secular₃ conundrum:

[B]elief is contested and contestable in our secular age. There’s no going back. Even seeking enchantment will always and only be reenchantment after disenchantment. […] Elsewhere Taylor emphasizes that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.” (HNTBS, p.61 (and footnote))

Our instinctive response may be one of dismay at this idea of the inescapability of secular thinking. But there is also something liberating to it.

To explain this in personal terms: I am an adult convert to Lutheranism, becoming (in 2004) a member of a church body that is small and fragile, whose active membership (in the UK) numbers perhaps only in the hundreds. Since then, I’ve been repeatedly haunted, tempted, distracted by church traditions that (in the UK context at least) seem to offer a “wholer” vision of (and framework for) the Christian life than a small and poor collection of small and poor congregations can provide.

To put it in Taylor’s terms, I’ve been seeking “enchantment”, but have often found only “disenchantment” in my own tradition. To realise, though, that even these “wholer” traditions would only be (at least for me) another form of “reenchantment”, haunted by the awareness that other options are available, is an encouragement to find more contentment with where I am. It’s not that some true form of “enchantment” – of an uncontested, whole way of life that is “given” rather than “constructed” – still survives which I have somehow missed and must wander about attempting to find. Which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll stop trying to do so.

“Laughably pretentious”? Michel Houellebecq and the Incarnation

galaxy

I’ve recently read Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel, Submission. Published on 7 January 2015 – coincidentally, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre – the novel tells the story of an Islamic government coming to power in France in 2022. I’ve written more about the novel here.

Houellebecq has been accused of Islamophobia (and has to some extent admitted this), but Submission’s main target is not Islam, but what Houellebecq clearly sees as a spiritually flaccid and morally bankrupt Europe. Indeed, towards the end of the novel, Houellebecq has one of his characters, a convert to Islam, give a rather sympathetic, even attractive, presentation of the reasons for his belief – though, in the context of the novel, even this is something of a figleaf for the rather baser reasons for conversion to which the speaker is more subtly appealing (a restored academic career, high pay, the opportunity to marry two or three nubile young women, etc).

The speaker, Robert Rediger, dean of what is now the Islamic University of the Sorbonne, describes to the narrator how he uses astronomy when starting to talk to someone about God:

Yes, the beauty of the universe is striking, but the sheer size of it is what staggers the mind. You have hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, some of them billions of light years – hundreds of billions of billions of kilometres – apart. And if you pull back far enough, to a scale of a billion light years, an order begins to emerge. The galaxy clusters are distributed according to a vast cosmic graph. If you go up to a hundred people in the street and lay out these scientific facts, how many will have the nerve to argue that the whole thing was created by chance? Besides, the universe is relatively young — fifteen billion years old at the most. It’s like the famous monkey and the typewriter: How long would it take a chimpanzee, typing at random, to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays? Well, how long would blind chance to reconstruct the universe? A lot more than fifteen billion years. […] At the end of the day, isn’t there something ridiculous about some puny creature, living on an anonymous planet, in a remote spur of an ordinary galaxy, standing up on his hind legs and announcing, “God does not exist”? (pp.210f.)

Now of course an atheist who has truly thought through their (non)belief is unlikely to find this argument persuasive, but part of the point Rediger (and Houellebecq) is making is that most people in the west have not thought these things through: they have just lazily assumed that “these metaphysical questions” are no longer relevant, even though they are still “exactly what men fight over, not market shares or who gets to hunt where” (p.209).

Anyway, so far this line of argument is one which many Christian apologists and evangelists would find familiar. But Rediger takes it further, to show why he turned to Islam rather than Christianity:

Presumptuous – that’s the word. At the end of the day, there’s something incredibly proud and arrogant about atheist humanism. Even the Christian idea of incarnation is laughably pretentious. God turned Himself into a man … Why a man and not an inhabitant of Sirius, or the Andromeda galaxy? Wouldn’t that be more likely? (p.211)

How are we to respond to that argument? It’s hard not to appreciate that, on the face of it, looking at things rationally, it has some apparent force – even if it does rest on (currently) unprovable suppositions about extraterrestrial life and about God’s dealings with any such life that might exist.

Then, a couple of days ago, I found myself reading Psalm 8 as part of the appointed readings for that morning. It occurred to me that the argument Rediger makes is precisely that set out in verses 3 and 4, except that Rediger is asking the question with a rather different rhetorical intent from that of the Psalmist:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?

And it’s striking that it is precisely this text to which the writer to the Hebrews turns in order to explain what God was doing by becoming incarnate in Christ:

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

In other words: while we should certainly have a full appreciation for the beauty and scale of the universe. the “vast cosmic graph” of the universe; but we shouldn’t allow the resulting vertigo to give a negative answer to the Psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Because as the Psalmist continues:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honour.

– however unlikely that may sound to us.

2015 books round-up

bookcovers2015

Time for my annual round-up of the books I’ve read in the past year (see entries for 2013 and 2014). As usual, I’ve listed them by category – fiction, non-fiction, theology and other – and have singled out two favourites for each category. Books I’ve read before are marked with an asterisk. For extra nerdery, the underlying data is here.

Fiction

The big difference between 2015 and 2016 is the number of novels I’ve read. Last year I only read ten works of fiction; this year, fiction is the biggest category, with 32 books. This is related to the fact I made much better use of the library than in previous years: thirty of the books I read this year were library books, most of them fiction (or graphic novels).

It’s hard to single out favourites from this list. Moby Dick is an astonishing book; Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me is a moving account of a gay priest caught up in the consequences of his behaviour; it was a delight to rediscover P.G. Wodehouse. This was also the year I got back into science fiction, with books by J.G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick and Kim Stanley Robinson, among others.

In the end, though, I’m picking out The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin, for its superbly realised vision of an anarchist society, and Ali Smith’s “exciting and moving and clever and sexy” How to be Both (one of several books this year recommended to me by my wife).

Non-fiction 

The usual mishmash of different topics among these 24 books. Anarchism was something of a theme this year, with several books on this topic (in addition to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed) as I explored my “anarcho-curiosity”. I loved Tom Holland’s account of the Julio-Claudian emperors, Dynasty and Helen Macdonald’s beautifully written H is for Hawk. But I’ve selected as my favourites John Grindrod’s celebration of postwar architecture, Concretopia, and Norman Davies’ vast, flawed but transformational Europe: A History (though I reserve the right to regret this choice once I’ve read Tony Judt’s hatchet-job review of it…).

Theology / Spirituality 

Not a vintage year for theology-related books, I have to admit. Something I hope to address in 2016. I loved the two Rowan Williams books, and have another of his queued up to read this year. It was interesting to read up a little on the Quakers, and even more so to explore Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theology in Sabine Dramm’s Introduction to his thought. My favourites for the year, though, are Heiko A. Oberman’s theological biography of Martin Luther, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, and Eugene F. Rogers’ Sexuality and the Christian Body – in particular for his discussions of what it means for us to be Gentiles grafted into the people of God “against nature”, and of marriage as an “ascetic vocation” and as a reflection both of the triune nature of God and of justification by faith.

Other 

Mostly graphic novels and comic books, though also including Tim Dowling’s funny and perceptive account of modern marriage, How to be a Husband (another recommendation from my wife), which is one of my favourites for the year along with Robert Crumb’s extraordinary rendering of The Book of Genesis Illustrated. An honourable mention for Nicola Streeton’s heartbreaking story of bereavement and recovery, Billy, Me & You.

Looking ahead

I’m not going to make any rash predictions or grandiose programmatic statements of intent about my reading for 2016. My shelves (sic) of unread books are full of enticing prospects, but I dare say I’ll get distracted by other things, as usual. I’m currently in the early stages of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, which is looking very promising.

Is Donald Trump a fascist?

5440393641_2892f718d7_b
Photograph: Gage Skidmore.

It’s this question – being posed in various places – that prompted me to read Kevin Passmore’s superb book, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (2nd ed).

Of course, before we can decide whether The Donald is an actual fascist, we need to ask what exactly the definition of a “fascist” is. The question of defining fascism is probably the major theme of Passmore’s book. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the book is how this second edition interacts with the first edition, also by Passmore.

In the first edition, Passmore explains, he attempted to come up with a definition of fascism that reconciles the competing attempts that have been made by academics from different traditions. For example:

  • Marxist definitions, which see fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of capitalism”.
  • Weberian definitions, which see fascism as a reaction against “modernisation” by bewildered traditionalists.
  • Totalitarian theory, which sees fascism as just one species, along with state communism, of a wider category of “totalitarianism”.

Passmore sees strengths and weaknesses in each of these approaches, and his previous definition attempted to synthesise them. However, he concludes that even this attempt was fundamentally flawed, because in the end fascism was too contradictory a phenomenon to be reducible to a clear definition:

Fascism is a contradictory set of interrelated and contested ideologies and practices that cannot easily be categorized in terms of binary opposites such as tradition and modernity or radical and reactionary. (p.151)

Which isn’t to say that it’s a meaningless or useless term:

[O]ur inability to pin fascism down does not mean that we can’t say anything at all, or that it’s all just a matter of opinion. […] Thus, I cover movements and regimes that called themselves fascist or were called fascist by their enemies or by scholars. […] I use fascism as a convenient label, in the knowledge that it covers many meanings. (p.19, emphasis in original)

This leads on the question of whether modern far-right movements can be usefully described as “fascist”. On this, Passmore is sceptical:

There are genuine continuities between interwar fascism and the modern extreme right (extreme nationalism and discrimination against ethnic minorities, antifeminism, antisocialism, populism, hostility to established social and political elites, anticapitalism, and antiparliamentarianism). There are equally significant differences (lack of mass mobilization, paramilitary violence, and the ambition to create a one-party state). More often, the modern far right seeks to exploit the discriminatory potential of democracy rather than overthrow it. (p.107)

In other words, whatever the moral evils of the extreme right, it is not necessarily accurate or useful to describe it as “fascist” in the same sense that this term is used to describe interwar movements such as Fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, or the Iron Guard in Romania. The differences – particularly the acceptance of democratic means by most far-right parties – are too great.

The obsession with deciding whether or not a given far-right movement is “fascist” can be counterproductive in more than one way. Take, for example, the Front National in France, which rejects the “fascist” label and has adopted instead the terminology first applied to it by pro-Fifth Republic political scientists, who:

depict the FN as a temporary ‘national-populist’ protest on the part of marginal ill-educated people, who seek simple answers for their difficulties in the age of globalization. Besides betraying a certain contempt for ordinary people, this interpretation plays into the hands of the highly educated professional politicians who actually lead the FN. It permits the FN to assert academic support for its difference from fascism and for its claim to represent the voiceless. It’s as if racism is acceptable as long as it isn’t fascist. It would be just as problematic though to label the FN as fascist. It’s potentially a way of discrediting the party, but since FN sympathizers don’t usually see themselves as fascist, one runs the risk of reinforcing their conviction that the movement represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite. (p.153)

This, I think, begins to help us answer the question posed by this post’s title. Describing Trump as a “fascist” may make his opponents on the left feel better, but it raises two problems, both of which have highly practical political consequences. First, does this mean that Trump’s racist policies as regards Mexicans and Muslims would be “acceptable as long as [he] isn’t fascist” (thus opening the way for a more “moderate” Republican candidate to pick them up)? And does this labelling of Trump as a “fascist” just reinforce his supporters’ conviction that he “represents honest people who are contemptuously dismissed by the elite”?

In short: Donald Trump almost certainly isn’t a fascist, even if he is tapping into some of the same dissatisfactions, and some of the same unpleasant social and individual tendencies, that have been exploited by fascists. Indeed, Passmore himself has said as much, when asked the Trump question by Vox:

For me, the point about Trump’s proposals is not whether or not they are ‘fascist,’ but whether or not they are moral.

As Passmore puts it in his book:

[T]he question of whether or not the modern far right’s stance is ‘fascist’ has no bearing on the moral acceptability of its proposals. For instance, would the expulsion of non-whites from a country be more acceptable if it was the work of a non-fascist government? To reduce the far right to its similarities with fascism carries the risk of obscuring what is new about it and of diverting attention from the possibility that fascists may not be alone in advocating or practicing policies that others would regard as morally wrong. (p.152)

In the end, Passmore insists, we cannot abdicate responsibility for tackling the far right to academics, asking them to decree which movements are “fascist” (and therefore beyond the pale) and which are “non-fascist” (and therefore – well, what, precisely?). As he writes:

So are we letting the modern far right off the hook by avoiding the question of fascism? Ultimately, responses to fascism depend not upon scholarly assessments of what has happened in the past or on categorization. We cannot oppose the far right by defining it as fascist—however many similarities there undoubtedly are. We must focus rather on the dangers that it represents in the present, and indeed on the recognition that non-fascist movements, including groups that play by democratic rules, can also threaten decent values. (p.155)

In other words, the question we should ask is not “Is Trump a fascist?”, but rather: “Is Trump moral? Is he dangerous? Does he threaten decent values?” And I’m going to leave that as an exercise for the reader…

Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora

Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

auroraThe dream of humanity escaping its “cradle” to colonise the stars is the subject – or perhaps a better word would be “target” – of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel (the first of his that I’ve read), Aurora.

This book expands on the thesis advanced by Robinson in this recent essay for BoingBoing: that the dream of interstellar colonisation will never actually come true. Robinson does this by telling the story of a spaceship carrying 2,000 pioneer colonists to the Tau Ceti system, 11.9 light years from Earth. He depicts their attempts to overcome the insuperable difficulties – “ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological” – which their mission faces, despite the best efforts of both the mission’s original designers and subsequent generations of colonists on board.

For Robinson, the science fiction “eschatology” of humanity colonising the stars is not just a harmless dream, but can become a dangerous delusion to the extent that it makes us think that there is any long-term alternative to Earth for humanity’s survival. As a character puts it towards the end:

The idea […] that Earth is humanity’s cradle is part of what trashed the Earth in the first place. (p.439)

The positive lesson that Robinson wants to drum home is that:

life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. […] So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. (p.178)

Human beings have evolved to live in a complex symbiosis with our environment; indeed, we are each of us ourselves a complex ecosystem in which my health as an individual is dependent on maintaining a balance with the microbes that inhabit my body.

Towards the end, a character summarises Robinson’s argument in words that are worth quoting in full:

“No starship voyage will work,” [Aram] says abruptly. “This is an idea some of you have, which ignores the biological realities of the situation. We from Tau Ceti know this better than anyone. There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work. The physical problems of propulsion have captured your fancy, and perhaps these problems can be solved, but they are the easy ones. The biological problems cannot be solved. And no matter how much you want to ignore them, they will exist for the people you send out inside these vehicles.

“The bottom line is the biomes you can propel at the speeds needed to cross such great distances are too small to hold viable ecologies. The distances between here and any truly habitable planets are too great. And the differences between other planets and Earth are too great. Other planets are either alive or dead. Living planets are alive with their own indigenous life, and dead planets can’t be terraformed quickly enough for the colonizing population to survive the time in enclosure. Only a true Earth twin not yet occupied by life would allow this plan to work, and these may exist somewhere, the galaxy after all is big, but they are too far away from us. Viable planets, if they exist, are simply too—far—away.”

Aram pauses for a moment to collect himself. Then he waves a hand and says more calmly, “That’s why you aren’t hearing from anyone out there. That’s why the great silence persists. There are many other living intelligences out there, no doubt, but they can’t leave their home planets any more than we can, because life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.” (p.428)

Of course, many will continue to dispute Robinson’s assertion that interstellar colonisation is impossible. He foresees this in the debates he describes between his characters on the prospects of success:

This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.

“It’s not me being negative,” Aram would reply. “It’s the universe obeying its laws. Science isn’t magic! We aren’t fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand.” (p.195)

Hence Robinson’s answer to Fermi’s paradox (the supposed mystery of why interstellar civilisations haven’t arrived at Earth yet):

“…by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. […]

“So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. […] But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” (pp.178f.)

If all this makes the book sound rather dry and didactic, it’s not: Robinson is an effective storyteller, and I found myself gripped from start to (near) finish. During the first half of the book, this was heading towards being my favourite book of the year. It went off the boil a little in the second half, for reasons which are hard to describe without posting spoilers (see after the fold if you want to know more), but it’s still an important, enjoyable and persuasive work of science fiction. Highly recommended.


 

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS >>> 

Continue reading Earth is our home, not our cradle: the message of Aurora