The best way to be political is to be non-political

Regular readers will hopefully realise by now that they are witnessing two people experiencing a common journey. We met as socialists in the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), before leaving and shifting even further to the (ultra) left in our search for revolutionary purity. After this stage, and having found the limitations of this approach, we eventually moved into the world of the pragmatic: this time, our quest was how to combine our desire to change the world with practical political activity in the here and now. But here we discovered a new set of limitations, and currently find ourselves in ‘negative capability’; looking for a God we don’t actually believe exists, but determined to find him nonetheless.

Each stage has been part of our learning and we embrace all those who have fed and watered us along the path. This learning has shaped us, and all involved (for good and bad) have been integral to our education. We have never thrown out the baby with the bathwater (although it may have looked like that on occasion.) On the contrary, we always bottled the bath’s dirty water, open minded about what of value might remain, and often attempted CPR on our damaged infant if we considered it to be drowning in its own infantile contradictions.

In essence, we are attempting to find the source of everything: a starting point. Unless we strip everything down and shed our various skins and narratives, how are we to make progress? Well, the good news is that we have found something positive, a guiding principle which allows us to clarify our thoughts and insights. Four words best describe this: compassion, empathy, understanding and love (CEUL).

Practising CEUL is not easy. We still swear, rant, rave and throw our hands about (particularly when watching what passes for ‘politics’ in the media), but we don’t leave it there. We realise that the people we are vexing are vulnerable human beings (yes, even the capricious Iain Duncan Smith.) However, it is vital to create a space between us and the so called ‘political’ world, in order for us to understand it without losing our minds in undiluted rage. There is a practical dimension to this. We no longer have the capacity to carry this rage around on a daily basis as it was destroying our lives and relationships; corroding our very souls. But the ‘rage’ remains our friend because we continue to learn from it, and it has been the best facilitator in our attempts to find peace.

We decided to start by looking inwards, clearing out our own closets. Naturally, it is impossible to be completely clean: the more you scrub, the more dirt you actually find. However, this ‘dirt’ need not be your enemy as it unites everyone together. We are all dirty and clean in equal measure, what is important is the ‘cleansing’ process itself, and the realisation that it is an impossible task: the more you scrub, the more shit you find, and the more shit you find, the ‘cleaner’ you become.

To argue that we are all essentially equal (from the lowest ‘criminal’ to the most exalted ‘saint’) is both controversial and counter intuitive. It is certainly the main insight from Christianity, but one rarely finds a Christian who actually believes it. This may derive from a category error. The idea that some people are inherently ‘bad’ and others ‘good’ is predicated on a particular view of what it means to be an ‘individual’, which necessarily loses the most salient, yet paradoxical, feature of authentic individualism: we are all interconnected. If intellectual historian Larry Siedentop is correct, the ‘invention of the individual’ was Christianity’s greatest bequeathment. Could it be that our interconnectedness got lost in this, only to make the occasional abstract appearance; relegated to the status of a rhetorical device?

Writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly appeared to be conscious of such a gap, and wrestled over its implications in both their novelistic and critical works. The one thing they appeared to agree upon was how we are all responsible for each other, and that compassion and understanding is key to the human condition. In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, all the brothers share in the guilt for the murder of their father, although only one of them actually killed him. Arguably, the complex matrix of individual and collective responsibility achieves its highest artistic expression in this work.
People build a narrative, an identity, and present it to the world as their true selves. We believe that much of this is a post hoc rationalisation of what they want to be, certainly how they want to be perceived. We have all met the socialist who proclaims his ‘love’ for humanity through gritted teeth, whilst displaying the manners of a gutter snipe. He loves the people of the world in abstraction because rudeness and a general coldness are his actual character traits. He seems oblivious to this, and the chances are that such inauthentic behaviour is not consciously realised, and in his mind, at least, he truly does want a better world. Conversely, we have all met the self-proclaimed conservative who actually cares about the people around him and can be relied upon to help out when required. It’s true he may not be so keen on lots of refugees coming into his country because it violates his understanding of elementary resource allocation. “There’s not enough room for them”, he will opine, but unlike our open borders socialist friend, may genuinely help out when faced with an actual living refugee because it is in his nature to assist people.

There is a mediation between the person in the flesh and the ideas being espoused, which leads us to the view that every conceivable position may have something to offer the world. The trick is to attempt to understand the motivation behind the ideas and the internal psychology. Is it not possible that a racist may be motivated by love for a perception of a lost community? How long does it take to go from that position to a hatred of ‘strangers’? If the premise of love is correct then our racist brother is not a lost cause. And even if he is truly motivated by hate, he has lost himself completely and the only response that is both moral and effective is CEUL.

So the first thing to do is to check how one acts in the world on a day to day basis. Subscription to a set of tenets is not an adequate substitute. And it is precisely because people make this substitution, disaster can often hove into view. For example, many young Muslims have reacted angrily about the highly immoral actions taken by western governments in the Middle East. With no compelling domestic narrative as a counter balance, many have left behind family and friends to fight on the side of ISIS. They have made the decision that ISIS are defending a moral truth which may result in them performing hideous crimes because after taking such a drastic decision, a post-hoc rationalisation is never far away. If one believes one has been violated, one often loses one’s head, before others starts losing theirs.

We have all heard of disaffected British lads joining the army because it gives them an opportunity to act out a revenge upon people they have grown up despising. Why they despise is complex in itself, but it may come down to a perception that strangers have moved into their communities and taken vital resources which they believed belonged to them. Some of these lads may have done and seen terrible things in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but by which objective criteria are we to adjudicate the actions of these lads to those who joined the other side?

The simple fact of the matter is that the material results of these ‘just so’ stories are not just independent decisions made by people in perfect circumstances with perfect knowledge acting with freewill. All such decisions are mediated by the social matrix which we have all contributed to in one form of another. This doesn’t do away with individual responsibility or freewill, but it does provide a basis for understanding how judgements and moral choices are selected, their contingencies, and how the difference between one murder and a thousand can be a hair’s breadth. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a disaffected student, Raskolnikov, kills an old money lender for a complexity of reasons which cannot be discussed here. Suffice to say that the empathetic Examining Magistrate, Profiry (understanding that Raskolnikov is young, highly intelligent, but ensnared in a high brow theory), quips that it was a good job that his theory only lead him to kill an old woman. “Who knows what might have happened if had picked a different theory?”
Indeed, this is a salutary reminder for any of us who proclaim this idea or that, may actually end up doing something terrible in the name of this idea. Particularly if God or revolution is involved.

So this is what it means to be political without being political: examining the gap between one’s professed ideology, how one really feels, whilst extending this courtesy to others, acknowledging that we are all vulnerable, frightened, angry, strong, weak, hard and soft. Shedding skins, throwing off shibboleths, and practicing CEUL.

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This morning’s Tolstoyan moment

This morning, while reading War and Peace when I should have been getting on with other things, I got increasingly absorbed and excited about the message of two particular chapters – those of chapters 12 and 13, volume IV, part IV. These tell of Pierre Bezukhov’s new life in Moscow following the expulsion of the French and his revelation about the key to a good and happy life. While reading, I marvelled that these wonderful two chapters had not struck me more forcefully in my previous readings of the novel, so I resolved to commit them fully to memory. To do that, I turned to the back of the book, where there is a one or two line summary of every chapter. I would mark the chapters that had moved me so much so I could remember where they were and return to them regularly. And what did I find when I went to do that? That I had long ago already marked those very chapters!

Readers of Tolstoy will recognise this human foible. A resolution to live a better or more rewarding or more active or more-whatever life gives way, sometimes even in the very next moment of life, to a complete forgetfulness about one’s previous resolution. I believe in Anna Karenina, if memory serves (doubtful, I admit!), somewhere near the end of the book, a similar determination by Levin to live a more patient and less angry and more Christian life is spoilt in the very second following the one in which he makes the resolution by an impatient and angry remark directed at his wife or servant. Why should this be so?

Is it because what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “habit energies” and unmindful behaviour and forgetfulness are so much stronger than our good intentions. It’s why Hanh says that Tolstoy’s stories (he’s talking in particular about this one) are perfect but for their lack of advice about the skilful means whereby we might turn our good intentions into a life lived well. This is the meaning and purpose of meditation.–Stuart

Man is created for happiness

“In his prison shed Pierre had learnt, through his whole being rather than his intellect, through the process of living itself, that man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within, in the satisfaction of natural human needs, and any unhappiness arises from excess rather than deficiency. But now, during the last three weeks of the march [as a prisoner of war], he had learnt another new truth that brought great consolation – he had learnt that there is nothing in the world to be frightened of. He had learnt that just as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, neither is there any situation in which he should be unhappy and not free. He had learnt that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are never far away; that a man who has felt discomfort from a crumpled petal in his bed of roses has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, sleeping on the bare, damp earth, with one side freezing while the other side warms up; that when in former days he had squeezed into a pair of tight dancing shoes had has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, waking barefoot, his footwear having disintegrated long ago, with his feet covered with sores. He learnt that when he had married his wife by his own free will (so he had thought), he had been no freer than he was now when they locked him up in a stable for the night. Of all the things he identified as painful, though at the time he was hardly conscious of them, the worst thing was the state of his bare feet, which were blistered and scabby. (Horse-meat had a nice taste and did you good, the flavour of saltpetre from the gun powder used as a salt substitute was really rather nice, the weather was never very cold, it was always warm when they were marching during the daytime and at night they had campfires, and the lice that made a meal of him gave him a pleasant feeling of being kept warm.) His feet were the only things that hurt during those early days.

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.

“Karatayev! The memory [of his friend being shot dead] flashed into Pierre’s mind. And suddenly Pierre had a vision, like reality itself, of someone long forgotten, a gentle old teacher who had taught him geography in Switzerland. ‘Wait a minute,’ said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball with no fixed dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux, sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing or merging into it.

“‘This is life,’ said the little old teacher.

“‘It’s so simple and clear,’ thought Pierre. ‘How could I have not known that before? God is in the middle, and each drop tries to expand and reflect Him on the largest possible scale. And it grows, gets absorbed and compressed, disappears from the surface, sinks down into the depths and bubbles up again. That’s what has happened to him, Karatayev: he has been absorbed and he’s disappeared.”

Tolstoy, War and Peace

The Inimitable

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” So claims an oft-repeated quote of Isaac Babel’s. I doubt any lover of Tolstoy would have trouble understanding or sympathising with this claim – if perhaps wondering whether the implied artlessness isn’t an illusion created by some very great art indeed. The whole of life is in Tolstoy’s novels, and, as in all our great writers, it is his genius for close observation that helps us see for ourselves what has all along been under our very noses. If the world was able, however, not just to write by itself but to tell a good ghost story, then it would write like Dickens.

Of course some of Dickens’s stories feature actual ghosts – A Christmas Carol being the obvious example. But in a broader sense, all his stories are haunted, in the same way that we are. For the world really can “write by itself” – and what it writes resembles Dickens more than Tolstoy. I mean the dreams and memories and fancies that arise unbidden in our minds, and most especially the strangely dramatic, moving and oddly coloured memories of our childhood. We all have stories that we tell to ourselves and to each other and, consciously or not, these tales have grown in the telling. The comedy is better timed than if life had written for itself, the trials and tribulations more dramatic, the horrors and evils more grotesque, the depressions deeper and darker, the joys and loves cast in brighter lights, the triumphs more glorious, the battles more heroic. This is not in any way to downplay Tolstoy’s art or story-telling genius. It is just to marvel at the airy products of our own imaginations – to shudder at the ghostly power they can hold over us – and to admire the art that enabled Dickens to trap them, in the forms in which they appear to us, rather than as may be in reality, on a page.

In the real world, as the Buddha taught us, our selves and characters and stories have no substantial reality, no permanence. We are bubbles of earth, floating along and before too long – gone! What a pity for us that the ghosts that haunt our minds can seem so real, so terrifying! How seriously we take life! How scared we are by… never mind by gargoyles or ghosts or extreme poverty, but by the cupboard under the stairs! The hatch that leads to the attic! By Mr Pumblechook giving us a sum to perform. No one captures life as it is caught and fretted over by our egos better than Dickens.

Dickens is often accused of penning caricatures, but are caricatures not precisely what haunt us, the things with which our imaginations populate our inner world? That chap sitting there across from us now – he may well be a very well rounded and complex character, from the inside, from his own point of view, from a God’s eye point of view, from the point of view of a world “writing by itself”. But how does he appear to us, in the never-ending ghost stories that run constantly through our minds? Do we not tend to see people and other objects of reality through the glasses of our minds, and then somewhat darkly? We peer through the masks we have created for ourselves and what do we see? Leering and goggling and grinning back at us are the masks we have put on other people – or perhaps rather the masks they most insist on being seen in themselves. This is a mistake. We must make an effort to see more clearly if we are not to go on creating unnecessary suffering for ourselves and for the world. Yet we do it. If we cannot see that we do it, if we come to take ourselves and our stories seriously, if our characters continue to insist on the reality of the absurd tragedies we play, the dramas where we star in the lead role, a spotlight on our own importance and achievements, we become hard, unfeeling, grotesque monsters – we start wars. We become Dickensian. Our modern world is Dickensian still.

This is what Dickens shows us. But he also shows us the possibility of breaking these spells, of dismissing the ghosts, of exorcising the well-trodden paths we cut through life. He shows us the possibility of love and compassion for the suffering in this world. When we see this clearly, perhaps we might do some good. Perhaps one frosty morning we will leap from our beds like Scrooge on Christmas day, eager to begin, and with a smile in our hearts. As John Cowper Powys says, reading Dickens gives one a healthy disdain for flippancy and cynicism. Dickens may lapse into sentimentality, as critics are all too eager to point out, but it is after all better to cry than to comb one’s hair all day with an ivory comb.

But no, no, I’ve still not captured what I most love about Dickens. Yes, Dickens is Serious Literature. Who didn’t know it? But there’s a lot of that about. What makes him stand above all others for me is that he is such a pleasure to read. My happiest memories of reading date from when I was very young and I would make the conscious decision to stay indoors, spurning the sunshine, to lie on the floor, pick up an Enid Blyton, and read it from cover to cover for no other reason than the sheer thrill of it. No reading experience came close to that until I discovered Dickens, many years later. Dickens makes you see the world through the eye of a child once again – surely no one does this quite like Dickens –but he grows you up too. He is a moralist, but one who understands the vital importance of a full belly, warmth, good cheer and “some rare and startling occurrence” (as Powys puts it in a different essay, sadly not online). His novels are the fifth gospel – and for moderns such as myself, not brought up on the Bible, his gospel speaks much more powerfully to my heart than do the other four. He truly is The Inimitable.–Stuart

Murmuring

My previous post raises two obvious questions. How do we get happiness? And what does it mean to lead a human, a noble life?

The Books of Moses in the Bible hint in an amusing way at the answer. The children of Israel, having groaned under the lash of the Egyptians in slavery for generations, are liberated by God. God puts forth his hand and rescues the Israelites from slavery, revealing “wonders” beyond imagination as he does so. He leads them through the wilderness, providing food and and driving off whole armies along the way, before arriving at a land flowing with milk and honey. God gifts this bountiful land to the children of Israel, promising to be with them in their trials and to drive out before them their enemies, if they will just walk in the ways of God, ie, live a noble life. And how do the Israelites show their gratitude for such miracles, such gifts? They do nothing but “murmur” and whinge and rebel against Him at every opportunity, every step of the way! Even if we were liberated from our daily grind and granted the whole universe, it seems, the human response would be to get bored with it and demand another one.

If happiness is not to be found in getting what we want, but in living a good life, how then are we to do that? It’s hard to think of a better or more concise answer than that offered by Tolstoy in his short parable, “Three Questions”. Please do have a quick read of it here. But if those few hundreds words are too much for you, you lazy dogs, just two capture it perfectly. Only connect.–Stuart