One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.
I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living
Most nonfiction book reviews suffer from the same problems. If they’re critical they generally go one of two ways.
- The author misses out topic X, I know about X and here are some other books on X that should have been addressed.
- The author is seemingly a part of Intellectual Trend Y and I don’t like Y, here are its antecedents, whom I also dislike.
It won’t have escaped your notice that neither review assesses whether or not the author’s argument was valid. Continue reading Reviewing reviews
In order of rough appearance in history, here are four types of myth. All of them, it should be obvious, are meaningful: they provide their users with what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living”. They only survive if they do some good… or at least minimal harm. Continue reading Four types of myth?
Could there be a cult based on Hamlet? Sure, cults (short lived belief systems) spring up all over the place all the time. But I’m pretty sure it would never become a religion (long-lived belief system) because there is way too much uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in Hamlet.
“To be or not to be?” — that is not the question for inspiring devotion. Continue reading #51 On quality
Thinking The Bible perfectly good or perfectly bad is wrong. Reading my criticism of it as saying it is perfectly wrong is, ironically, the same kind of wrong. Here’s my imperfect heuristic: what was written by a bunch of uneducated dudes who were trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth, between 1900 and 2900 years ago, is probably quite wrong. And where it happens to be right, we will have better equivalents now anyway. So we can safely junk it.
Were I to apply this only to holy texts, you could accuse me of being ideologically anti-religious. But of course I apply this to all texts pre-1500. Doesn’t matter if it’s Socrates, Seneca or Saint Paul, they don’t know shit from Shinola about a lot of things. Continue reading #49 On irony
Do I not give Jesus’ teachings a fair go because of his reputation? I have to say, my major engagement with religion has been to read the holy texts as though they were written by unexceptional humans (which indeed they were).
In The Bible we get the opposite: the mother of all halo effects where people listen to what Jesus says not because of the quality of his teachings but because he is posing as the son of someone important. Evaluated as anonymous statements on how to live, the New Testament fails terribly. Nowadays, unfairly transplanted from the cultural context in which it was written, it recommends behaviour that is totally unethical and totally nuts given what we now know about human nature and the world. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Impossible. Give no thought for the morrow. Terrible advice guaranteed to ruin. Continue reading #47 On real democracy
People and philosophers tend to get bogged down in binary oppositions like objective vs subjective, nature vs culture and inductive vs deductive knowledge. Continental philosophers tend to complicate such binaries, trying to show how both terms are inadequate. Analytic philosophers tend to talk themselves into the ground trying to prove or disprove the existence of one of the terms.
But I think the unusually practical philosopher Daniel Dennett goes about these things the right way and his method is quite generally applicable. Continue reading Deduction, subjectivity & culture are all real enough
You’ve triggered me. It surely won’t surprise you that citing Jesus as an ethical exemplar does nothing for me. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Cesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Nought.
Jesus offers spiritual balms for the dispossessed. For the powerful he offers a free pass. Worked OK for industrial capitalism, I admit, but it was even better suited to empire, feudalism and monarchy. It was a recipe for political acquiescence so good the Roman empire adopted it holus-bolus. The only piece of political action he did was to mess up the desks of some money changers, once. Jesus appears to have been a social conservative and an economic liberal. Not a great combo. Continue reading #45 On Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour