Monday, 30 May 2011

The Fall from Grace: Paradise Lost?

Though I have not considered myself to be a Christian – or a theist – for about a decade now, I do not belong to that category of non-believers who regard it as necessary to attack belief in God on every possible occasion by any means available. This does not mean that I am not prepared to respond robustly to any attacks made on atheists by believers; there was a particularly nasty one made by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor in 2009, when he suggested that atheists “are not fully human,” and, sadly, he is not alone in making this kind of assertion[i]. I will also become engaged on particular issues when I have the impression that – in the secular society in which I live – people try to impose facets of their religious beliefs on society in general; attempts, for example, to teach “creationism” in some form or another as being scientifically based, or attempts to impose particular religious interpretations on the civil commitment to a life together between two adults known as marriage. But generally, I believe that tolerance for the views of others and their rights to express those views are at the basis of any kind of modern civilised society and I would never claim to regard myself as infallible with regard to the positions I take on most issues, having experienced in my own life how such personal views can develop and change.

What follows is not intended to be an attack on Christian belief, with the goal of making a “killer” argument in a debating sense. Rather it is a kind of questioning reflection on a pretty basic aspect of Christian teaching with which I see some major problems.

Michaelangelo: Temptation and Fall (Sistine Chapel)
The basic Christian view of humanity sees us as having been created by God in a “state of grace,” a fundamental situation in which everything was good – perfect, even. God created human beings “in his own image and likeness,” and in this original state, those human beings were without “sin.” However, humanity chose to sin, to disobey God’s commandments, to turn away from that which God wanted and reject his vision of how they should live in favour of their own. As a result of this action, humanity became “flawed,” defiled by sin; sin, suffering and death entered the world and became the general lot of everyone. So humanity finds itself in a situation in which life is fundamentally determined by imperfection, pain, injustice, suffering and death; all consequences of the rejection of God’s love – original sin. In a state, in other words, in which it is in desperate need of redemption. And because God’s love is so great, this redemption was forthcoming, in the salvific event of the incarnation, birth, life, death and resurrection of God’s only son, who is God himself, Jesus Christ.

I do not think that I am misrepresenting the Christian position here. I can completely accept the view of most discerning, thinking, non-fundamentalist Christians, who argue that this basic vision of the story of the human condition is not dependent on a literal reading of the first chapters of the book of Genesis, but rather that the story of creation, the garden and the “fall” of Adam and Eve can be read as metaphorical tales, recounting the deeper truth expressed in the paragraph above. I will even recognise that there is a lot of sense in the telling of this as a story – for stories allow us to pack all sorts of ideas, insights and inspirations into a dramatic form which touches and reaches us in many ways not open to a theoretical exposition. Indeed, this is one of the great strengths of Christianity; its propensity to express the truths it sees as being the deepest and most essential about life, the world and all beyond it in the form of profoundly dramatic, moving, exciting stories, capable of containing meaning and being interpreted on multiple levels.

Furthermore, I have no intention of going into the fine points of the narrative of the creation and the fall; fine points which turn on the degree to which humanity was cut off from God’s grace through original sin, whether we can, of ourselves, play any part in the rectifying of this sad situation and to what extent the acceptance of particular interpretations of the basic message and these fine points is obligatory for salvation. Such questions have been the subject of enough controversy within Christianity, leading to disputes, tracts, anathemas, condemnations, reformations and mutual persecution and killing – not to mention the persecution and killing of others.

No, my question is a more basic one. Is it reasonable to accept the basic Christian postulate of a humanity which somehow drastically deteriorated from the nature which God had planned for it, thus “forcing” him to take flesh and be put to death as a sign of his love for humanity and his reconciliation with them?

For the sake of a certain simplicity I will also leave aside the various questions regarding God’s omnipotence and, above all, omniscience – subjects which have occupied many Christian thinkers, most notably perhaps Augustine and John Calvin, leading, among others, to the whole vexed question of predestination. My concern is the fundamental picture of a humanity which was initially created/designed to be perfect, through its own fault lost this state of perfection and thus had to be restored to this state so as to be capable of being reconciled with God.

The idea of a Golden Age, a lost era of perfection, goes far beyond Christianity. It can be encountered in Hinduism, for example, under the idea of the Satya or Krita Yuga. According to the Mahabharata

[...] there were no poor and no rich; there was no need to labour, because all that men required was obtained by the power of will; the chief virtue was the abandonment of all worldly desires. The Krita Yuga was without disease; there was no lessening with the years; there was no hatred or vanity, or evil thought; no sorrow, no fear. All mankind could attain to supreme blessedness. [...]

One of the most familiar expressions of the Golden Age occurs in Greek mythology, formally defined by Hesiod (fl. ca. 700 B.C.E.). In a series of ages, each worse than the previous, the first was the Golden Age, in which 

[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.

The same theme is taken up by Plato, Virgil and Ovid. According to Hesiod, the Golden Age came to an end with Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods and Pandora’s opening of her fateful box. Others (most famously Virgil and Ovid), developing this theme, placed the location of the Golden Age in the Greek region of Arcadia – an idea which retains some of its linguistic symbolism even today.

Lucas Cranach the Elder: The Golden Age
The ideas concerning the lives of the original humans contained in these accounts are very similar to those lived by Adam and Eve in Eden, before the temptation by the serpent, the eating of the fruit and the expulsion from the Garden. Many have the theme of this perfect existence being ended by a calamitous mistake on the part of one or more human individuals, though sometimes the jealousy of or strife among the gods is the cause.

Beautiful as many of the stories, and particularly their literary expressions are (I love, for example, the image of God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening [Gen. 3:8]), they have absolutely no basis whatsoever in anything which we can call historical fact. Not only did Eden not exist, historical anthropology presents us with no evidence which would in any way support a thesis that humans at any stage in their development were any more noble, peaceful, altruistic, etc. than they are today. On the contrary, they lived for shorter periods, suffered more illnesses and were much more likely to die younger – and as a result of violence perpetrated by their fellows.

Apart from creationist fundamentalists, who take the Old Testament as literal history, hardly anyone today – and this includes the vast majority of thinking Christians – seriously questions the general scientific explanation of the gradual evolution of humans from primate stock in Africa through various species up to the emergence of homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, reaching full behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago (though, of course, most of the more detailed accounts of particular developments are hotly discussed among scholars). The archaeological evidence – as well as all of the earliest accounts of historical developments – strongly suggest that, behaviourally, humans have always been generally the way they still are today; a mixture of kindness and cruelty, egoism and altruism, selfishness and solidarity, tenderness and brutality. We have always been subject to pain, illness, suffering and death.

In short, I can see no reason for positing a vision of pre-fall humanity, a perfect, sinless community of early humans, behaving the way God had originally created them to be and thus not subject to all the miseries, the grounds for which can be found in some kind of “original” sin.

But if this is the case, then a major part of the foundation for conventional Christian theology falls away. For if humanity did not fall, then how can it be re-deemed? The very idea of redemption (including the Latin root re + emere, to purchase back) implies that something or someone is reclaimed, ransomed out of a negative situation in which it was not originally but into which it had, for some particular reason, been transported. And this idea is central to the concept of Christianity from its very origins, including the whole theology of Paul – who formulates the centre of the meaning of the “Christ-event” in the letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Sin is that which separates humanity from its loving creator. And if the loving God had created humanity for ultimate unity with him, then the circumstances which obstruct this destiny must be the responsibility of humanity – sin and all its negative results cannot be the work of God. On the contrary, the life, suffering, death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God serve as an unparalleled signal of the unconditional greatness of divine love and forgiveness, despite the clear guilt of humanity before the tribunal of divine justice.

This view of the redemptive role of Christ is most central in the Christian notion of the crucifixion as sacrifice, the Lamb of God offering himself freely as propitiation on the altar of divine justice to take away the sins of the world and thus ransom fallen humanity.

But there is no evidence that humanity ever fell. The myths of the Golden Age, the ideas of us once having enjoyed a “perfect” existence have no basis in historical fact; rather, I would suggest, they are results of a conceptual generalisation of a very human psychological tendency; to edit our memories so as to remember the high points, our tendency to idealise the past through nostalgia, to hearken back to “the Good Old Days.”

It may well be possible to find other wells of human meaning within the Christ-event – it has proved a fertile mine of themes for all sorts of human inspiration (positive and negative) over two thousand years. Jesus (or Christ) can perhaps be seen as a signal for the future, for human possibility, as the ultimate destiny of human nature. And such themes and memes are also present within Christianity. But the central pillar of a sinful humanity – ultimately responsible, even if only through some kind of genetic inheritance, for its own erring from the way God planned for it – does not hold up. We “sin” because we are “imperfect,” because we are a mixture of positive and negative impulses; and this is our basic nature and always has been since our earliest emergence as a species. It is, in fact, the necessary consequence of the very freedom we have to choose, which is the basis for any theory of moral responsibility we care to put forward. And because we are not perfect – because our whole universe, in this sense, is not perfect – it is inevitable that the results of such freedom to choose will often be negative (“sinful”) rather than positive.

Without the “Fall,” then, one of the integral arguments regarding the meaning of the Christ-event collapses. In this case, Christianity stands before a radical intellectual challenge to theologically redefine itself.

Paradise is here was made famous by Tina Turner, but the song was composed by the Irish singer-songwriter, Paul Brady - and his version is well worth listening to:

[i] It can, of course, be argued that militant anti-theists like Richard Dawkins are also not particularly polite when dealing with issues of religious belief and I accept that there is some truth in this. There is also frequently legitimacy in many of the claims that that some of the aspects of religion attacked by “aggressive” atheists can be rejected as parodies of that which many Christians, particularly thinking ones, believe – often positions taken by fundamentalists of one stripe or another. Yet this does not, in my view, excuse Christian apologists using the same sort of tactics, though this mutual lobbing of grenades from well defended ideological trenches is all too frequently a characteristic of debates between believers and non-believers.

The original video of the interview in which Murphy O’Connor made this statement is no longer available on YouTube, having been removed because it “violated YouTube’s Terms of Service,” whatever that means. The transcript goes as follows:

Roger Bolton – a lot of church leaders speaking on national matters sound rather defensive but you’ve gone on the attack because you’ve talked about secularists having an “impoverished understanding of what it is to be human” they might find that quite offensive mightn’t they?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor – I think what I said was true, of course whether a person is atheist or any other...there is in fact, in my view, something not totally human, if they leave out the transcendent. If they leave out an aspect of what I believe everyone was made for, which is, uh, a search for transcendent meaning, we call it God. Now if you say that has no place, then I feel that it is a diminishment of what it is to be a human, because to be human in the sense I believe humanity is directed because made by God, I think if you leave that out then you are not fully human.

There is a lot of discussion as to what exactly the Cardinal meant to say about atheists here – I think everyone can agree that his choice of wording was, to say the least, unfortunate.

Pictures retrieved from:

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Dylan on my Mind ...

When a blog gets old enough, things that you wrote ages ago sometimes start to force their way back into your consciousness again. There’s a small voice in the back of my head whispering that reposting is a kind of cheating but there are times when it does seem to be the appropriate thing to do.

Like today, for instance. It’s Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. A year ago, back when Attempted Essays was still very young and still had very few readers, I wrote a little piece to congratulate him on his 69th. So today being the day that’s in it, I’ve decided to put up a link to it. Once more …

And, while I’m at it, here’s a link to another little piece I wrote about him, a bit more recently:

Obviously, this dude seems to have had quite an influence on me … J

Picture retrieved from:

Monday, 23 May 2011

Irish Rivals: Garret FitzGerald and Charles Haughey

The history of Irish politics in the 1980s is dominated by the rivalry of two men, Charles Haughey and Garret FitzGerald, who succeeded each other as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish Republic on four occasions between 1979 and 1992.

The two had first met when they attended University College Dublin during the forties. They came from very different backgrounds. FitzGerald was a son of parents who had both been involved in the iconic moment of Irish nationalism which ultimately led to independence, the Easter Rising of 1916, and his father – who was also a poet – became the first Irish minister for external affairs. His mother had a Northern Irish protestant background, though she herself was a fervent nationalist. The young Garret had spent summers in France just before the war, giving him a fluent command of the language. As such, his background was very much that of the political and intellectual elite in the country.

Charles Haughey
Haughey had more humble origins, his father being an army officer who became an invalid relatively early in life. He studied commerce (achieving a first class degree) while FitzGerald majored in history and French. While they were students they both courted a fellow student, Joan O’Farrell, who quickly showed her preference for FitzGerald. They married in 1947 and their love for each other was legendary until she died fifty two years later. Haughey went on to marry Maureen Lemass, the daughter of the government minister and future Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, whom he had also got to know at college, in 1951.

Haughey quickly began to build a career in politics, joining the ruling Fianna Fáil party and becoming Minister for Justice in his father-in-law’s cabinet in 1961. He made a name for himself as a young, dynamic minister – though even at this stage many of his actions were characterised by a ruthless promotion of his own image. He also achieved a reputation as a man-about-town and bon vivant and a friend of businessmen and people with commercial interests.

FitzGerald was also politically interested but used the fifties and early sixties to establish himself as an economist, first at Aer Lingus and later as a lecturer in his own alma mater, ultimately achieving a PhD in Economics in 1968. He also built an international reputation as a free-lance journalist, commentator and consultant. Though courted by Fianna Fáil, including Haughey, he joined the old party of his father, Fine Gael, entering the Irish upper house in 1967 and being elected to the Dáil (the Irish House of Commons) in 1969.

To understand the background to the stories of the two it is necessary to briefly explain the distinctions between the two major Irish political parties. Fianna Fáil, the party founded by the doyen of the Irish struggle for independence, Eamonn de Valera, understood itself as more than simply a political party – it was a national movement, the soul and guarantor of true Irish republicanism. Fine Gael had its origins among the more pragmatic revolutionaries who had accepted the original Treaty leading to Irish independence in 1921 (which de Valera had opposed as not going far enough). Largely under the influence of FitzGerald and other likeminded younger members it moved from a quite conservative position to a social centrist one, in the character of a classic European Christian Democrat party, from the late sixties onwards.

The outbreak of the troubles in Northern Ireland led to Haughey’s first major political scandal. Implicated, as Finance Minister, in the use of Irish government funds to buy arms for the IRA, he was fired from the government and stood trial. The court failed to convict because of contradictory claims by Haughey and other government ministers, the judge ruling that he could not conclude who was telling the truth. Haughey remained a Fianna Fáil member of parliament and worked hard within the party over many years to prepare a challenge for the leadership – a challenge which finally succeeded in 1979.

On the day Haughey was nominated for Taoiseach in the Dáil, FitzGerald – who, having been Foreign Minister during the 70s, was now Fine Gael and opposition leader – made a speech in which he referred to Haughey as having a “flawed predigree.” It was a phrase which he later claimed he regretted, explaining that what he meant was a “flawed political pedigree.” Personally, I (and I think most of those who heard it and were not looking for gratuitous offence) never understood it any other way. I still believe he was right.

The following decade saw the two of them alternating frequently as leaders of the country against a background of economic problems, ongoing violence in Northern Ireland and a battle for the soul and future identity of Ireland in social issues between those supporting a secular, liberal, pluralist agenda and an aggressive right-wing Catholic movement. FitzGerald tried to institute a “constitutional crusade” for a “genuine republic” free of sectarian laws. He had little success with it, a referendum to introduce divorce being rejected and a revanchist right-wing “pro-life” amendment to the constitution being pushed through, despite his misgivings. Haughey, as was to be expected, opportunistically embraced the various positions pushed by the Catholic right. By 1987, he seemed to have triumphed. Back in power, though with an uncertain majority, he had ridden out various scandals, internal party challenges to his leadership – and Garret FitzGerald, who resigned the leadership of his party having failed to be re-elected as Taoiseach.

Haughey, having in opposition opposed FitzGerald’s attempts to further the peace process in Northern Ireland and the reforms necessary to put Ireland in its economic feet, now embraced these policies. It can be argued that much of the groundwork which led to the Celtic Tiger phenomenon was done between 1987 and 1992. In more ways than one.

But his hold on power, the lodestone of his life, was weakening. The inconsistencies, the questionable deals, the shafting of rivals and opponents, the casual misuse of privilege were mounting up and seeping into the open. In 1992 he chose to resign rather than be finally, ignominiously hounded out of power.

It didn’t really help him. The years of his retirement were filled with revelations and investigations of his abuses. Party funds and donations pilfered. Pressure on and threats to banks and public servants. Bribes taken, among others for Irish passports for Saudi businessmen. Over IR£ 8 million accepted from benefactors in Irish business between 1978 and 1986 alone. An affair with a society lady through all the years where he had supported the causes of the Catholic right. The means by which he financed his lavish life-style, including his own private island and yacht, became clear and he avoided formal prosecution only because of sophisticated legal filibustering, illness and, finally, death.

Garret FitzGerald
Following his retirement, FitzGerald remained a respected figure in Irish public life, publishing his autobiography, resuming his work as a journalist and commentator, becoming Chancellor of the National University of Ireland. The nineties saw many of his visions for which he had struggled so passionately come true; Irish society became increasingly pluralist and liberal and the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, much along the lines he had been suggesting for over twenty years.

I must admit at this point to personal bias. I never liked Haughey. Growing up in Ireland in the seventies and as a young man in the eighties, he never managed to draw me into that aura of fascination and admiration which he seemed to be able to inspire in so many. There were enough questions about him, his integrity and his wealth which I felt were not being answered at all and I abhorred the image of charismatic roguish aristocratic competence he cultivated – I regarded him as a dangerous, power-hungry crook, without any principles worth mentioning apart from his own overweening ego. In Dublin in the early eighties there were enough rumours about him, but his followers, and indeed frequently the majority in the country, seemed uninterested. Nearly twenty years before it finally became public, for example, I would have been able to tell you the name of his mistress. Not that a politician having an extra-marital affair bothered me particularly (that is part of his private life), but the hypocrisy with which he, at the same time, courted the ultra-conservative Catholic vote sickened me.

And I admired FitzGerald – his intelligence, his honesty, his vision of a genuinely pluralist republic. He was not perfect; his very strengths could become weaknesses. His government from 1982 to 1987 was characterised by gridlock within his coalition and I can well sympathise with members of his cabinet who despaired of eternal, fruitless discussions because Garret frequently insisted on trying to convince others of the correctness of his opinion rather than pound his fist on the table and, as Taoiseach [Prime Minister], simply lay down the law.

A typical intellectual, his grasp of so many issues was so deep and his mind so quick that he failed to see that others could not always follow his reasoning and that he needed to bring them with him to where he had long since conceptually arrived. He was, in many ways, the typically absent-minded professor, once going out to campaign for votes with two different shoes on. A famous comment attributed to him went, “That’s all right in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

He was always supremely approachable and always ready to discuss and explain. I remember coming into the Arts Building in UCD one evening sometime in the early eighties when I was studying there and seeing a group of students, some of whom I knew, gathered around a bank in front of one of the lecture theatres. There sat Garret (he would have been leader of the Opposition at the time) chatting with those who came by, answering and asking questions. And there are thousands of other Irish people who can tell similar stories.

His opponents, most of whom were firmly in the Haughey camp, derisively gave him the nickname, “Garret the Good.” Reading the many tributes published about him following his death last Thursday, it struck me that he had, in the course of his life, genuinely lived up to it. And I found myself reflecting again on his epic struggles with Haughey during the eighties, on the contrasts between the two and what they show about Ireland then and in the years since.

I mentioned earlier that the measures taken by Haughey’s last government at the end of the eighties to reform and sanitise Irish public finances laid some of the foundations of what became the Celtic Tiger. Other less sanitary foundations were also laid; an admiration for sharp dealing, a culture of political hubris, a dedication to the notion of individual advancement above any consideration of the public good, a fundamental lack of any sense of public morality – particularly in relation to business – and, finally, the loss of any connection to sane reality. This was the legacy Haughey left to his party, Fianna Fáil, and they followed it through from 1997 onwards when they were continually in government. Despite a few warnings (among others from FitzGerald in his weekly column in The Irish Times) they overheated the economy, mismanaged the boom and bungled the bust.

And the Irish people bought into it all, as they bought into the glamorous promises made by Haughey in the eighties. They are now paying the price. (As are Fianna Fáil, finally thrown out of power and decimated as a political force in the general election three months ago.)

Garret FitzGerald’s lasting legacy can be seen in other areas. His vision of a pluralist secular republic has largely been realised. The current front-runner in the campaign for the next president of Ireland, the election of whom will take place later this year, is the openly gay protestant, David Norris. And, as many have commented in the past few days, there was something symbolic about the fact that he died while Queen Elizabeth was making the first visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland since independence. Without peace in Northern Ireland – a peace founded on the principles of tolerance and respect for different cultural traditions for which FitzGerald worked all his life – that visit would not have been conceivable.


Pictures retrieved from:

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Holiday Snapshots (2): F-16s, Derrida and Little Boys

Snapshot 3: Knock, knock, knocking on Europe’s Door
It’s Tuesday morning and I’m lying beside the pool in the warm Aegean sun, thinking of nothing in particular and enjoying the experience. Then there’s a distinctive space-filling roar and a fighter-plane zooms across the sky. I remember that noise – we had it regularly in Western Germany up to the fall of the wall – and, looking up, I see the familiar form of an F-16 to the west, flying south.

Many others follow that day. I wonder idly whether World War III has broken out and I (blissing out in holiday lotus-eater land) haven’t heard anything about it. Thinking about it a bit more, I realise that they could also be flying off to try to make Ghadaffi’s life in Libya a bit more uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s just a day of training flights and the Turkish air force is taking a testosterone fuelled regular opportunity to remind the Greeks that they are there. It wouldn’t be all that surprising; these are two countries not exactly in love with each other, even if they both share a common NATO membership.

On a large general scale, the history of Europe from Neolithic times to the Middle Ages can be seen against the background of repeated large movements of peoples, generally from the East to the West. Many of the nations and peoples now inhabiting areas of Europe originally came from somewhere else, including the various Celtic peoples (from Scotland to Galicia in Spain), Anglo-Saxons, Franks (French), Hungarians, Bulgarians, Albanians and most (if not all) of the Slavic peoples. These recurrent waves of invasion (often called by the German term Volkerwanderung), while often giving rise to great upheavals and chaos (the most famous being the collapse of the Roman Empire), eventually led to the settlement and integration of the newcomers within the general European culture.

With one exception – the last wave. Around 950 years ago, the Seljuk Turks erupted into Anatolia, temporarily replacing the hegemony of Constantinople over most of Asia Minor. They were eventually pushed back but their successors, the Ottoman Turks, succeeded in taking over all of Anatolia, finally capturing Constantinople in 1453, thus putting an end to the Greek culture which had dominated much of the area now known as Turkey for two thousand years.

Experts believe that the various groups described as Turkic peoples had their origins around the Altai mountains in Central Asia, where Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan come together. Like many other groups of steppe nomads they moved westwards. Having conquered Byzantium, the Ottomans continued to push westwards, conquering Greece and most of the Balkans and, under Suleiman the Magnificent (1494 – 1566), even besieging Vienna in 1529.

Suleiman’s Empire was one of the most civilized areas in the world at the time – it is, therefore, somewhat ironic that his push west is one of the major components of the western European stereotype of the Turks as bloodthirsty savages. On the one cloudy day of our holiday, Lara (my daughter) and I walked through the ruins of a fortress he had built in Sığacık as part of his campaign to throw the militant order of church knights, whose piracy in the Aegean was seriously annoying him, out of Rhodes. He succeeded and they moved their base to another Mediterranean island to become the Knights of Malta.

Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963 and its formal application to join the Union as a full member is now 24 years old. Negotiations are creeping on interminably and, despite all sorts of official statements of positive intent, it does not look like they will be brought to a conclusion at any time in the foreseeable future. Opinion polls show a majority against Turkish accession within the EU. Put brutally and bluntly, it seems that Europe does not really want Turkey – never did and never will. The ongoing difficulties regarding the integration of large sections of the immigrant Turkish communities in many Western European countries are not helping.

In the end, I suspect a large component of the problem Europe has had, and still has with Turkey has to do with the fact that the country is overwhelmingly Muslim, despite its constitutional structure as a secular republic installed by Ataturk (and under the moderate Islamist Erdogan – Turkey’s current Prime Minister – sometimes brought into question). If the Turks had embraced the Byzantine Christ rather than Muhammad’s Allah, I believe that they would have been accepted as Europeans long ago. Recent polls in Turkey show a cooling of enthusiasm among Turks for the whole EU project. Can you really blame them?

I’m not sure. I have my own problems with Islam and many attitudes identified with Islamic culture. Still, as far as EU accession goes, even from a realpolitik point of view, I’m inclined to remember Lyndon Johnson’s aphorism about it being better to have someone you’re not completely sure of inside the tent pissing out rather than outside the tent pissing in. Even as a tourist visiting the country, I have seen enough to realise that it is a complex, sometimes contradictory mix of modernity and tradition, Islam and secularism. And very many lovely, friendly, very welcoming people, who are almost pathetically grateful if you manage to stammer out even merhaba [hello] or tesekür ederim [thank you] in their own language.

Snapshot 4: Derrida, Différance and Four Year Old Boys
It is afternoon and once more I’m lying by the pool. Occasionally I’m active enough to read a few pages of a Peter F. Hamilton science fiction novel, but most of the time I simply lie with my eyes closed or watch my grandson playing with some other children he has met here. Lara is more productive. She has an oral exam on deconstruction coming up next month and is reading Derrida.

“I think I understand what he’s saying all right,” she says. “Basically, everything is already a construction – in that sense, you can’t get beyond the ‘text’, because even language itself is a construction.”

“That’s what I like so much of the game he plays with the word différance. There’s the inference in it that meaning is always deferred, you never really get to the “thing-in-itself” Husserl was always looking for. It’s always interpretation. And then there’s always difference as well …”

“That goes even farther,” she breaks in. “The word différance is an invention of Derrida’s. It sounds the same as the French différence, it’s only when you see it written that you realise that it’s something else. He uses this to show how words themselves are already a construction. He even says that you find different meanings every time you reread a text.”

“We create our own meaning,” I say. “Individually and communally. In that sense, Derrida’s thinking follows on that of Camus. Interesting, that; Camus was a pied noir too, an Algerian Frenchman, just like Derrida. I wonder if that’s a train of thought worth pursuing …
If you ask me, most of this kind of stuff is only a footnote on Kant anyway. He was the one who initially posited our field of meaning as existing in the phenomenon, the point of meeting between the “thing-in-itself” and “subjective” perception. Husserl and Heidegger went on from that, as did the French existentialists …”

“Papa, maybe you should do the exam instead of me. You can talk about this kind of stuff much better.”

“Talk? Waffle, you mean. Anyway, I already have my degree in philosophy. Besides, if I were to impersonate you I’d have to shave my beard and I’m not doing that!
You’ll do fine. All you have to do is just throw about the slogans and palaver. That’s what most continental philosophers do anyway; it’s one of the reasons why the British analysts get so annoyed with them. Though they’re just as bad in their own way.”

I look at Ryan – her four year old son, my grandson. He’s having a great time with two other little boys, the three of them chasing each other around the pool, whooping with delight. Right now, Ryan has joined forces with Leo, who’s French. They call out excitedly to each other. The fact that they don’t understand each other’s languages doesn’t seem to bother them. They’re having fun and, at four, you don’t let something like a language barrier get in the way of that.

Lara is watching them too. We both smile.

“Look at them,” I say. “They don’t have any trouble communicating, even if they can’t use language. Maybe you just have to be four years old to finally get beyond the text …”

* * * * *
The holiday is now over and I’m back at work. If, as Derrida once said, all is context, then I’m now in another context, one I find, subjectively, a lot less pleasurable. And the EU is a context (or not) for Turkey and Turkey itself is a context for those who live and find their identity there. As it was for me, for a much too short week. Though if I am honest, part of the context which gave shape to the time I spent in Club Atlantis was its limited, temporary nature. The time-limited break from normal routine is one of the things which characterises the very idea of holiday. And there will, hopefully, be others in the future.

Photos by the author with the exception of:

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Holiday Snapshots (1): Flying Pigs and the Wine-Dark Sea

“Well, I’m back.”
Sam Gamgee, The Return of the King

… And I’m not sure I want to be. Yesterday evening I returned after spending a week in Turkey – an isolated hotel on the Aegean coast, about 40 km south of Izmir. A week of complete relaxation with the biggest decisions being what to eat, or at which swimming pool to spend the afternoon.

I did take my netbook with me, with the vague intention of perhaps writing something, or logging onto the internet occasionally, just to check my mails, you understand. In the event, I did neither and the netbook was only briefly powered up a couple of times to transfer photos from my camera to the hard drive.

Checking my mail inbox yesterday evening – horrifically full after a week of being left to its own devices – I realised that it has been literally years since I have been removed from cyberspace for so long. What this says about my life, or modern life in general, I’m not sure; when I get my thoughts together about it, it may even prove a subject for a post here sometime in the near future. There are, for example, many mails which I should answer, particularly various comments on posts on this blog, which have been waiting patiently in my inbox for approval. As I write this, I am becoming uncomfortably aware that I am generally not as diligent about replying to comments as I should be – let this then function as a general apology to all those who take the time to comment on my offerings here; I do appreciate what you write and I am aware that the dialogues which comments give rise to are one of the most important aspects of blogging. It’s just that there are so many normal everyday tasks to do in the hectic hurly-burly of life that I don’t always get around to them all.

Which is one of the things which was so marvellous about the past week; getting so completely out of the everyday routine, using the opportunity afforded by a week’s holiday – a package “all-inclusive” deal which even relieves one of all burdens of decisions regarding holiday budgets because everything in the hotel is included in the price, including drinks from the various bars. Very quickly after arriving, I found myself switching into a profound relax, almost standby, mode, so that, even of the four books I (an inveterate, compulsive reader) had brought with me, I only managed to read one during the week. Although, on reflection, it wasn’t standby at all; rather it was a truly blessed opportunity to live intensively other levels of life, to lie in the warm Mediterranean sun, eyes closed, letting one’s thoughts idly meander by until one realises that one has, in fact, not been thinking at all, or to share the flow of life as experienced by my four-year-old grandson who, along with his mother, had accompanied me.

Bertrand Russell once wrote a marvellously intelligent essay titled In Praise of Idleness, which should be required reading for all thinking people. At the end of my holidays, I feel a sense of regret that his arguments have not gained more currency in our modern world and, at the same time, a small degree of satisfaction that, for a week at least, I have managed to experience some of the advantages of the mentality he suggests. But “normal” life is regaining its hold on me and so I find myself once more slowly knuckling under the various demands of routine – including my (entirely voluntary) self-chosen obligation to look after this blog. And, as I so succumbed to idleness in the past two weeks as to neglect to let my readers know how pleasant my holidays were, I will now provide some written snapshots of some of my experiences – virtual postcards, if you will, from Holidayland.

Snapshot 1: The Flying Pig
We were travelling very early in the season – the hotel was open for less than a week when we got there – so instead of flying on a charter flight full of sun-hungry Germans, the travel company had booked us on a regular flight from Düsseldorf to Izmir with the Turkish low-cost carrier, Pegasus Airlines. As a result, most of the passengers were Turkish, people travelling for all sorts of reasons between two international cities.

The low-cost air transport concept has revolutionised air travel in Europe in the past twenty years, making flying from one country to another something affordable for ordinary people rather than an expensive luxury. In my own case it has made visiting my Irish homeland something I can do for a few days a couple of times annually rather than a major expedition to be planned every second year or so. Though the major carriers like Ryanair or Easyjet are better known, Pegasus is the largest private Turkish airline with around 100 flights daily.

As I watched the plane preparing for the start at Düsseldorf airport, however, a very different thought struck me – one concerning the perils of choosing internet domain names and plastering them in large letters on your carriers and the advisability of having a few native English speakers among the people responsible for making such decisions. may seem a logical domain name for an airline called after Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek legend, but I’m afraid the automatic connection my mind made was to place an i between the p and the g and immediately think of airborne bacon. A connection all the more unfortunate for a company operating out of a predominantly Muslim country.

The flight was pretty full. Directly across the aisle, a large, overweight Turkish man of around sixty took his place. He didn’t look particularly well; he was sweating and panting heavily. That part of me which is an experienced nurse automatically speculated about probable coronary heart disease and hoped that a few hours sitting down would provide him with some relief.

It didn’t. About an hour before we were due to land, he began to feel so unwell that he (or his companion) summoned a flight attendant. Shortly after that a call went out on the loudspeakers for a doctor or medical personnel. No doctor appeared so I offered my services. We got him into the flight attendants area (luckily we were both sitting at the front of the plane). Despite a pretty dark skin colour, he was looking pretty grey and gasping for breath. He spoke nothing but Turkish, the stewardess acted as interpreter between us. There was considerable chest discomfort (rather than real pain) and he indicated that he had gone through this kind of thing before so I guessed (and hoped) that he was having a pretty heavy attack of angina pectoris rather than a heart attack.

Some more questioning revealed that he had nitroglycerin spray in his pocket (thus confirming my suspicions about heart disease), so I gave him some of that. As we were in an airplane, I suggested to the attendants that we might be able to organise some oxygen for him and after some fumbling with the various connections between a portable tank and a mask we had him on two and a half litres per minute. The relief came quickly and after about fifteen minutes we could discontinue the oxygen and he went back to his seat quite happily. With the help of the stewardess, I gave him a lecture about the necessity of seeing a doctor as soon as possible because with these kinds of symptoms a heart attack is always looming. I can only hope he took my advice, as the last that I saw of him was him waiting for his luggage at the baggage carousel.

Snapshot 2: The Wine-Dark Sea
The Aegean is, of course, Homer country (or sea) par excellence and as I looked out over the small bay on which our hotel was situated, I found myself thinking of the Iliad. There is good evidence that Homer was born in Izmir (Smyrna) and Troy itself is only about a hundred miles north of Sığacık/Seferihisar where we were staying. During the long years of the Trojan War Achilles and his Myrmidons raided this coast repeatedly to put Priam’s allies under pressure and try to cut off the Trojan supply lines. It was on one of these raids that he took the beautiful Briseis prisoner, over whom his dispute with Agamemnon would have such catastrophic consequences.

Samos, just visible through the haze
We are used to thinking of history and geography in terms of landmasses and countries, but this is only one way of seeing things. The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, taught us another way of looking at the world in his masterpiece, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Braudel looks at the whole Mediterranean as a cockpit of history and indeed sees it as many seas, “a vast, complex expanse.” One of its most historically laden components is the Aegean and there is a lot of justification for regarding ancient (and indeed Roman and Byzantine) Greece less as the Hellenic peninsula and more as all those lands and islands bordering and contained by the Aegean – a cultural unit which lasted for two thousand years before the Turks created a new reality for the region, less than a thousand years ago. Greek and Roman ruins are visible all through the coastal areas of Turkey and the ancient Greek city of Teos (one of the twelve members of the Ionian league) is within walking distance of our hotel. Looking south across the bay, the mountainous mass of the Greek island of Samos can clearly be seen through the haze. Indeed, until the Greco-Turkish war following World War I, there was still a sizable Greek minority (some even claim it was a majority) in the whole Smyrna/Izmir area and, if the Greeks had had their way, the area in which we made our holiday would today be part of Greater Greece. As it was, the Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal succeeded in throwing the Greek forces out of all of mainland Anatolia in a war characterised by incidents of savagery and atrocities (“ethnic cleansing”) on both sides and the ultimate relocation of nearly two million people, three quarters of them Greek. And our hotel had no problem playing the Greek card with much of its décor, even going so far as to call itself Club Atlantis.

As to the wine-dark colour of the Aegean famously described by Homer, despite my best efforts I generally only managed to see many beautiful shades of blue. Once, seeing a darker shade probably caused by seaweed in the centre of the bay, I reflected that, with a bit – well, a lot – of charitable imagination, one might describe the quasi-purple colour resulting as wine-red. Maybe I just wasn’t fortunate enough to see it under the right lighting conditions.

Rosy-fingered dawn was another Homerian epithet I missed. Experiencing it would have meant getting up very early in the morning and I was on holiday. Being in relax mode, dawn wasn’t very high on my list of priorities anyway.

(to be continued …)

Photos by the author with the exception of:

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Virtual Identity: Obnoxious Frankie

                                       “… there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Chris Jenkins (the Web Guy), an old virtual friend of mine, started a new on-line project recently and sent me a message on Facebook suggesting that I might be interested in contributing. While I felt very honoured, I found myself wondering about how I could possibly give him a positive answer.

My writing is a hobby. I don’t make a living from it (in fact, I don’t make a penny from it, though this does not mean that I would be averse to getting paid for it J) and much of it I do in my spare time. In the past months, I have been fortunate that my job, while involving long, unsociable hours, actually also involves a lot of time doing “nothing,” so that I can use this time for writing. Still, producing around two posts a week for this blog is quite time consuming.

Apart from the time, the essay format I’ve chosen to explore here also demands a fairly constant stream of inspiration; thinking about themes, reflecting on how to present them, trying them out. They don’t all get finished either – sometimes the “Muse” decides that she has no interest and the creative inspiration just quits on that particular topic, or the manner I’ve chosen to treat it. I don’t throw them away though, I’ve been able to come back to a few quite a while later and they have finished up turning into adequate posts. Still, I’m inclined to be a bit possessive about my ideas where this blog is concerned.

Attempted Essays is very much my baby; over the past fifteen months it has grown and developed beyond any dreams I had when starting it and (unless someone starts offering me good money to write something else) I have no intention of neglecting it. Besides, it struck me as pretty superfluous to start doing the same thing that I do here somewhere else.

And there, flickering at the edge of my consciousness, was an idea. If I were to do anything for, it would have to be something different to what I do here. And that led me, somehow, to start thinking about identity, character, personality.

In our everyday lives, we play all sorts of different roles and take on all kinds of identities. I am a different person at work to the person I am at home – at least in some respects – because I am occupying different roles.

Sartre (centre) with Simone de Beauvoir and Che Guevara
This playing of roles is a central theme in Jean-Paul Sartre’s bleak existentialist analysis of life. In Being and Nothingness he offers a cold, clinical description of a French waiter playing his professional role and goes on to analyse it as what he calls “bad faith,” the inevitable alienation from our authentic selves to which we are subject when we identify with the roles we play out in different situations. The human quandary is that the authentic self is empty; in order to live and relate with others we must take on and identify with these roles which force us willy-nilly into falseness. Life becomes absurd, relationships inevitably involve lies and other people are hell.

Although I would basically describe myself, philosophically, as an existentialist, I do not share Sartre’s bleak view of the human condition – though I see much of value in many of his insights. Despite all sorts of inhibiting factors, I do think that we create our own existence. This continuous act of creation is the consequence of our basic freedom (and it also entails that we are responsible for that which we create). Create is perhaps not precisely the best word to describe it, the German word gestalten is better, carrying as it does connotations of arranging, configuring, moulding, fashioning, patterning, organising.

So we create our identities, wonderful, dynamic, shifting, multi-layered things, and adapt and develop them constantly in response to the situations and people we encounter and become involved with. It is this constant dynamic process of identity creation and adaption which makes human relationships so complex, fascinating and – often – frustrating. For that which I want to project to the other may not be what the other perceives; caught up in his/her own history and own picture of him/herself, he/she may receive something quite different to what I thought I was transmitting. But this too contributes to the variety, spice and wonderful depth of the existence we are continually creating, gestalt-ing, individually and communally.

Before the background of such ideas, I then began to think about the identities we project on the internet. The web is particularly conducive to the creative forming of different identities, since it generally works on the basis of a very limited simple interface – keyboard and mouse – mediating between communicating imaginations. Seen from this aspect, it is no wonder that many people create multiple on-line identities, particularly in chat rooms. After all, on-line there’s no way to know that the sexy seventeen year old vamp from Tucson isn’t actually a seventy-three year old retired priest in Manila, or that the particularly aggressive troll causing mayhem in half a dozen discussion groups isn’t really a mild-mannered granny in Uppsala. Second Life is a phenomenon which explicitly serves this wish to be someone else on-line, even if its popularity has waned considerably in the past few years.

And then – for the mind (or at least my mind) works in strange ways – I found myself thinking about one of my literary heroes, Brian O’Nolan, otherwise known as Myles na gCopaleen, or Flann O’Brien. Myles (for that is the name under which I usually think of him) spent his creative life playing with different identities, even going so far as to write pseudonymous letters to the Editor of the Irish Times complaining about the column he wrote in the newspaper. His hilarious metafictional masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, features characters in the novel (as well as characters in a novel in the novel!) rebelling against their writer and getting up to all kinds of mayhem in doing so.

So Frankie came to be. He’s that part of me I would never let near Attempted Essays – or most other parts of my life, for that matter. He’s loud, rude, opinionated and insulting. He’s prepared to make hard points and tell plain truths without ever considering that there may be another side to the story. He’s someone for whom the rant as a form of communication could have been invented.

I let him out of his cage in the dungeon of my consciousness where I usually keep him locked away and he’s had his first outing over at - you can read it here. He seems to have enjoyed himself and I’m sure that he’ll be clamouring to get out again soon. At this stage I have no idea about what he’s capable of getting up to, that’s something the future alone will show. I only hope he doesn’t disgrace me too completely at, because it really is a very good site with contributors who are producing some excellent content. Even if you find Frankie a little hard to take – and I certainly wouldn’t blame you for that – I suggest that you read some of the other stuff posted there. You won’t be wasting your time.

* * * * *
This is the hundredth post on Attempted Essays. As it happens, I’m finishing it during the last night shift I have before beginning two weeks holidays in the morning (still a few hours away). I have various things lined up for those two weeks, particularly some fairly dedicated R&R, so I may not post anything here during that time. I’m not making any categorical statements but I am liberating myself for the duration of that time from my self-imposed commitment to post regularly. A century does seem to be an excuse for a break anyway! But, as Arnie famously said, “I’ll be back!”


Or if you prefer your music in German:

Pictures retrieved from:


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