Monday, July 30, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“LIFE’S X FACTOR – The Missing Link in Materialism’s Science of Living Things” by Neil Broom (Steele Roberts, $NZ29:99)
In The Blind Watchmaker, one of his works of materialist propaganda, Richard Dawkins records an experiment he performed which he believes confirms his world view. He had a simple graphic design installed in a computer, and then had the computer programmed to modify the design randomly, one small line at a time. In no time, the simple graphic design began to look, in Dawkins’ eyes, like an insect or a bird or a Spitfire or any number of other things. Perceiving some of the shapes to be like living things, Dawkins invented the term “biomorphs” and – voila! – he was at once explaining to his readers that this little experiment showed how random and unplanned and undesigned the emergence of life on Earth must have been. No need to think anything transcendent or immaterial was involved in the process. Life simply appeared by random chemical and physical changes in molecules, just like the random shape changes in his “biomorphs”. Of course it required lots of time to do this (millions of years), but each “generation” of the computer model was achieved in a matter of seconds.
Unfortunately, as Neil Broom patiently explains in Life’s X Factor, there are a number of things radically wrong with the conclusions Dawkins reaches. First, one-dimensional graphic designs, which look vaguely like living things, are nowhere near the complexity of real living things. Second, Dawkins’ “biomorphs” randomly mixed nonsense shapes (looking like nothing in particular) with shapes of non-living things (note the Spitfire) as much as they produced shapes that looked vaguely like living things. Certainly the undirected forces of nature can produce an infinite variety of shapes – like the wind sculpting sand dunes, or dripping chemical-charged water producing statue-like stalagmites - but this has nothing to do with explaining how living organisms appeared. Third, the whole experiment took place in the sophisticated, organized and definitely designed context of a computer. Fourth, the experiment proceeded according to a purposeful computer programme – that is, it was designed.
If Dawkins wished to draw conclusions about the origins and development of life from his observation (and in fact he had little ground to), then they should have been the very ones he wished to deny – that life is purposeful and designed, within a designed context, just like his “biomorphs”.
Professor Neil Broom, head of the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department at the University of Auckland, and Fellow of the Royal Society, is running a great risk in arguing like this. Such is the dominance of biological-materialist propaganda now, that anyone who suggests there is something transcendent, designed and purposeful in life will be classified as a religious nutter lacking the sophistication of a true scientist. On the level of insult, talk of “design” is automatically countered with images of American Protestant fundamentalist advocates of nonsensical “Creation Science”.
Broom (pgs.83-84) specifically dissociates himself from such pseudo-science, noting that “Creationists” (who would have us believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old) are as ignorant of modern scholarship concerning the Bible as they are of how to do science. Broom is careful to note that he accepts fully the story of evolution as the best hypothesis we currently have for the development of life. But this is not the focus of his argument. As he states :
“It should be stressed here that I am not attacking the reality of biological evolution. I am not even attacking the key mechanism that underpins neo-Darwinism, namely natural selection. Rather, I am asking a much deeper question – is natural selection as material as its proponents proclaim it to be?” (Pg.34)
Later he adds: “As a descriptive account of life’s probable pattern of unfolding, the evolutionary narrative seems alive and well. There is quite simply too much carefully catalogued evidence unearthed by a multitude of scientific disciplines to deny that life began ‘simple’ and ascended the ‘Everest’ of increasing complexity and sophistication over an immeasurably vast period of time.” (Pg.163)
In one chapter, he lays out his six “approximate facts” of life, viz. life is very ancient (we are talking many millions of years); life has structural unity (different species replicate the same or similar functions); life is plastic (it mutates and changes); life is “pro-life” (living organisms cling to life); life is upwardly mobile (in the development of life forms, there is a progression towards greater complexity and ultimately consciousness); and the process of evolution leaves some redundancies in animals (such as, apparently, the human appendix).
With the possible exception of the fourth (“life is pro-life”) none of these “approximate facts” would be disputed by any evolutionary biologist, regardless of his/her extra-scientific ideology.
In Life’s X Factor, then, we have a sophisticated and well-informed modern scientist taking issue not with the best modern science, but with the ideology of biological materialism which now dominates ‘pop science’ items and articles in newspapers and magazines and TV shows.
“It is important to emphasise”, says Broom, “that biological materialism is a philosophy that draws an all-embracing explanatory circle. In principle, if not in detail, it claims to provide the answer to life’s mystery. Given only the material laws of physics and chemistry, life had to happen – or so we are told.” (Pg.15)
In reply to biological materialism, Broom observes that there is absolutely no demonstrable chemical or physical reason why less complex chemicals and organisms should ever develop into more complex ones. Further, he notes (with many examples) that having asserted the blind purposelessness of the development of life, biological materialists nevertheless deploy language that suggests ordering and purpose, and then attempt to evade the obvious conclusion that there really is ordering and purpose.
Refuting William Paley’s famous 200-year-old analogy of the watchmaker God, Richard Dawkins (quoted pp.51-52) may write: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparent purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no reason, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”
Dawkins’ reasoning here is similar to that of the materialists John Avise and Jacques Monod, or the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins who, in his book Creation Revisited, claims that chemicals assemble themselves randomly and the development of higher organs is purely a matter of chance.
Yet, says Broom, having dismissed the idea of an organizing mind “Richard Dawkins’ popular exposition of modern evolutionary theory doesn’t just contain the odd careless lapse into mind-laden language; it is in fact ridden with the most blatantly purposeful elements” (Pg.57). Further “the narrative line of the materialist all too frequently lapses into a kind of personified, anthropomorphised depiction of nature, giving minds to molecules which they do not appear to have” (Pg.67).
Of course Broom anticipates the obvious objection that Dawkins et al. are simply speaking metaphorically. But, as he asks, if their purpose-and-design-laden language is simply metaphorical colouring, then why are they never able to expound their materialist conceptions in “neutral” language without such metaphor? When Dawkins speaks of the “smooth upward pathway” in the development of the eye, or even when he refers to a gene as “selfish”, he is producing what Broom calls “unintended intentionality”.
Later, Broom has great fun taking to task such tele-popularisers as Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Robert Winston, in their various programmes, for assuming that the limited (and, of course, designed) 1953 Miller-Urey laboratory experiment “proves” an entirely materialistic conception of how life began. Says Broom: “Materialistic science has produced not one shred of evidence demonstrating that meaningful codes can arise by entirely material means. And yet meaningful codes lie at the heart of all living systems.” (pg.130) Among much else, Broom also takes on what he calls “genetic reductionism” – that is, the modern superstition that the gene (which is essentially a system for transmitting information) is the basis of all life.
Having made very clear what Broom opposes, it’s also necessary to show what he is promoting. He endorses the work and science of Michael Polanyi, who warned of the type of reductionism that omits mind and purpose from its explanation of life. He follows the English zoologist Alistair Hardy in seeing purposeful changes in animal behaviour as being one of the triggers of animal evolution (i.e. not purely mechanical mutation). Above all, he argues throughout for a “primary non-material or transcendent dimension or guiding presence”. Call it God if you will. Or a Life Force or élan vital (and in the process incur the wrath of materialists, who will accuse you of the heresy of “vitalism”). But at the very least, it is an awareness that, in a scientific description of the processes of life, there is a middle ground between unscientific biblical literalism and mindless materialism, no matter how much the latter has captured the high ground of publicity in recent years. En route, Broom goes so far as to suggest that there might be something to be said for Lamarck’s (pre-Darwinian) concept of the role of animal intentionality in evolution. And there might even be something to be said for a form of Paley’s watchmaker argument, no matter how much Lamarck and Paley must now be read in the light of subsequent science.
Life’s X Factor is a spirited, lively and sophisticated argument. Of course it will not convince everyone, but nobody can deny both the depth and breadth of Professor Broom’s scientific knowledge. Nor can one deny that (unlike Dawkins, for example) he treats his ideological opponents with courtesy. I was particularly taken by the two chapters in which Broom chronicles the “Birth of a Big Idea” by recapitulating the development of the theory of evolution (Lamarck; Wallace; Spencer; Darwin – and Mendel, without whose genetics there would be no synthesis into neo-Darwinism); and then points out that there are “establishment” neo-Darwinists who believe in steady, progressive incremental evolution, and “revisionists” who emphasise “jumps” when there are periods of rapid speciation, probably triggered by climatic trauma etc.
This is very good popular science writing.
He is also on very firm ground when he shows how the reductionist mindset of materialism always has a hard time dealing with causality. This leads him to consider the whole matter of cause in philosophic writing, from classic Aristotlean teleology to Bacon’s and Descartes’ desire to look at the specific rather than the general causes. Here he notes, correctly, that all the foundational scientists of the early modern world (Galileo, Newton, Pascal etc.) were profoundly religious, and when they began to see the universe as a mechanism, they were in effect saying it was designed by God. Only later did this concept of a mechanistic universe, coupled with the discovery of how vast the universe actually was, appear to dethrone God. But in the process humanity was also de-throned (being no longer seen as at the centre of things) and classic humanism ended.
An awareness of the inadequacy of materialism is probably our best path back to a true humanism.
Life’s X Factor is a good start.
Labels: LIFE’S X FACTOR – The Missing Link in Materialism’s Science of Living Things, Neil Broom, Something New
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM – The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World” by Alister McGrath (first published 2004)
In writing positively of Professor Neil Broom’s Life’s X Factor, I have probably just offended a certain number of readers of this blog, who might be wary of, or even hostile to, religious concepts being discussed seriously.
I might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.
So in this week’s “Something Old” I plough on into a polemic most definitely written from a religious point of view.
Alister McGrath is professor of historical theology at the University of Oxford, and Principal of Wycliffe Hall. His viewpoint is therefore that of an informed academic Protestant. Alistair McGrath is also a former atheist. He therefore sometimes writes with the zeal of a convert.
In The Twilight of Atheism, he argues that true atheism, a complete rejection of the idea of God, far from being on the rise in the Western world, is actually in decline. Certainly churches in the West have been progressively emptying and in the few countries (such as New Zealand) where a specific religious census is taken, there has been a rise in the “No Religion” option. But this cannot be taken to mean a rise in real atheism. More often, it is either simple indifferentism or a rejection of a specific denominational label, leaving a large part of the population still with religious assumptions, attitudes and inclinations, but without a framework for them. And, despite the loud polemic of Dawkins, Hitchens et al, the number who identify themselves as atheists is in decline.
As McGrath argues it, real atheism is historically and culturally conditioned. It is essentially a reaction against the abuses of religious belief or of church institutions. It is at its most vigorous and authentic when it is oppositional. Corrupt or overbearing church establishments provoke resentment and hard-core atheism. Thus the pre-revolutionary Catholic Church of France gives rise to a Denis Diderot; the “Established” nineteenth century Church of England throws up a Charles Bradlaugh; and the pre-1917 Russian Orthodox Church turns out atheist Nihilists and Marxists. In all three cases, there was a church establishment that was intolerant, had too much power, and was identified with the state.
Conversely, argues McGrath, when there is plurality and clear religious tolerance, atheism loses purpose and withers away into marginalised crankiness. Few people are interested when there is no intolerant religious establishment to kick against. As he sees it, atheism is a product of modernism – the materialistic belief in the scientific improvement of humanity – but has faded in the post-modern world in which real diversity of viewpoints is respected.
Furthermore, atheism has continued to remain on a narrow cerebral level and has failed to capture many imaginations. Atheists may be able to show their reasons for disliking religious belief, and may be able to score points in public debates when giving such reasons. But this is essentially a negative thing. When it comes to showing how atheism per se gives meaning, purpose, direction and colour to life, there is apparently little atheists can say.
On the historical level, McGrath makes much of the facts that (a.) whenever atheism has had the unfettered power churches once had, it has itself rapidly become a persecuting establishment (e.g. the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao etc.) ; and (b.) the fastest growing ideology in the present age is Pentecostal Christianity, in Africa and Asia, because it really does speak for and through the oppressed.
With much personal soul-searching (as a Protestant), the author defines the main ailment of the modern world as the separation of the spiritual and the quotidian. For this he largely blames the Protestant Reformation and its (to use the Oxford historian Eamon Duffy’s phrase) “stripping of the altars” and removal of religious rituals and reminders from everyday life.
An early Protestantism that fetishised the “word” of the Bible, and condemned or smashed up religious art, religious processions and other lived-out elements of a faith, was a Protestantism that paved the way for a purely cerebral assessment of the world, for an absence of corporate belief and consciousness, and hence for personalised secularism. It took the mainstream Protestant churches a couple of hundred years to understand this, and then to begin to creep back into the more celebratory and colourful forms of public worship that they had abandoned in their initial break with Catholicism. To give the most obvious example, the forms of worship of the Anglican Church were plain, bare, non-sacramental and very “Protestant” from the late sixteenth century when the Anglican Church was established, until the early nineteenth century, when the Oxford Movement and then “Anglo-Catholics” began to re-make Anglican forms. What some misinterpret as the “ancient” rituals of the present Anglican Church (vestments, sacramentalism etc.) are, in the main, less than 200 years old and very much imitated from Catholicism.
I found much of McGrath’s argument sympathetic and well-researched. Certainly it is true that lack of orthodox religious belief is not the same as atheism. More often it indicates the uncommitted attitude that says “Ooh….ah….um… I dunno” or “I’ve never thought about it really”. To become an atheist is to make a leap of faith, which very few people do. (No, mes enfants, atheism is no more based purely on “reason” than theology is.) Much of McGrath’s historical commentary is also well-reasoned and –presented.
McGrath is, however, writing a polemic and The Twilight of Atheism sometimes has the crudity of a polemic.
As you can see if you look them up on-line, initial reviews of this book tended to divide along the lines of the reviewers’ personal beliefs and prejudices, so it was inevitable that the likes of The Freethinker would bollix it. Even so, I can agree with those who argue that McGrath has not fully comprehended the beast that is post-modernism, and that he is being altogether too optimistic in assuming that post-modernism will be fertile ground for the resurgence of religious belief. Au contraire, post-modernism relativises and diminishes the significance of everything, including religious belief. There is the additional fact that the resurgence of militant Islam (hardly noted by McGrath) has recently provided much ammunition for those who push the “religion-causes-conflict” fallacy.
I would also take issue with the whole chapter McGrath devotes to the bigotry of the American atheist propagandist Madalyn O’Hair. Through the story of this particular manipulative and mentally-unbalanced woman, the chapter does more-or-less make the valid point (pace the more naive assumptions of Diderot and others of the Enlightenment) that atheism does not necessarily lead to an enhanced morality. Even so, it strikes me as a very ad hominem form of argument. If atheism is discredited by its neurotic American propagandist, then how does Christianity stand with its money-making American tele-evangelists? If you’re arguing against the crude polemics of a Christopher Hitchens, you shouldn’t stoop to the dishonest tactics of a Hitchens.
Some weeks ago, I looked at The War of the Windsors [check it out on the index at right], a biased “history” with an anti-British Monarchy theme. I noted that I, too, don’t have a great deal of time for the British Monarchy, but this doesn’t mean that I endorse any old rope written against it. The Twilight of Atheism is not the same sort of book. It is written by a scholar, contains genuinely scholarly observations and has a robust central thesis. Even so, in its weaker spots I repeat my cry “Non tali auxilio!”
Labels: Alister McGrath, Something Old, THE TWILIGHT OF ATHEISM – The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
Allow me to set up a straw man and indulge in historical stereotypes for a while.
Here, in the pre-modern Middle Ages, are all these credulous peasants and unscientific people. They know virtually nothing about the universe. They think the Earth is at the centre of it. Real astronomy is still entangled with the nonsense of astrology. Chemistry hasn’t yet freed itself from alchemy. Medicine relies on the antiquated and untested works of Galen. As for physics, nothing much has happened since Aristotle and Lucretius. Most people are illiterate. They are therefore prey to all manner of superstitions, many fed to them by the Church. Their ignorance has been institutionalised. Unschooled, they do not have the reasoning power to think for themselves and therefore they believe what they are told.
But – fear not! – help is on the way. First the Renaissance, then the Enlightenment, come along and free the human mind. Real science appears. Universal education joins with science to create the Modern Age. So now we have reasoning people, informed by real science and no longer prey to nonsensical superstitions.
Let us bid farewell to organised religion while we rejoice in these facts.
Okay, okay. I’ll stop this nonsense right here.
It’s great fun setting up a straw man, but usually a dishonest way of arguing. You are, after all, putting words into your opponent’s mouth just so that you can have the fun of tearing them apart.
My straw man is self-evident nonsense (I should know, because I wrote it).
In the first place, neatly dividing history into discrete periods, and then making up names for those periods (“the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Enlightenment” etc.), is something that historians do hundreds of years after the event. In the process gross simplifications creep in. As I never tire of telling students, EVERYBODY lives in modern times, because the times we live in we all perceive as modern. And modern times are always complex, contradictory, with various currents and trends running through them. We never experience them as the simplifications in which historians indulge.
In the second place, while readily acknowledging that science and its specialised branches have developed enormously in the last 600 or 700 years, and there has been more than one “paradigm shift” in the way people see the universe, it is simply untrue to say that there was no scientific discovery and experimentation (and robust philosophic speculation) in those centuries that are now loosely called the “Middle Ages”.
But there is a still more fundamental reason for my setting up a straw man.
It is to refute that part of this straw man which I believe really is a widespread, and fallacious, current assumption.
That’s the part which says that in ancient days, illiterate and uneducated people believed what they were told about the universe, whereas now we have access to advanced scientific information and sophisticated reasoning and therefore people are no longer credulous and superstitious.
The assumption here is that (a.) people now actually access such information as is available, and understand it; and (b.) human credulity has declined.
In reply I would ask – what proportion of people in the modern world are academically-trained doctors, physicists, biologists, chemists etc? A certain percentage, of course, but still a small minority when measured against the population as a whole. Therefore, in matters relating to their view of the physical universe, what the great bulk of the population believes, it believes on the authority of the “experts” and takes on trust. For the hypothetical person-in-the-street, to say something is true because “science” says so is no more sophisticated or developed a mode of thinking that to take something on the authority of the Church. If you are going to demean one age with the name superstition, then you would have to apply the same term to the other age.
Secular superstition, maybe.
No, I am not by-passing the obvious fact that real modern scientists have much accurate information to tell us, and that what they have to say is doubtless a great advance in describing the physical universe over what was available a millennium ago. I am reflecting on the reception and understanding (or lack of thereof) of such information, and I am noting the element of faith and trust that goes into most people’s conception of what science is.
From this I decidedly do not draw any Machiavellian (or Nietzschean) lesson about the gullibility of the masses, and the need for some “Prince” (or Superman) to dominate them. But I do note that the mass of us (non-scientists) are in no position to judge when science – the examination of the physical universe – oversteps its bounds and claims to be an explanatory philosophy of everything.
When this happens, science becomes the real superstition of scientism, which is of course unscientific.
In writing this, I think of those unscientific readers of polemical best-sellers by Richard Dawkins et al., who assume that as the man is a scientist he is simply giving scientific information, rather than building philosophic hypotheses based on very dodgy premises (and frequently presuming to comment on matters in which he has no training). Something is not true because a scientist – who is no philosopher and who has a very limited understanding of history – says so.
On the wider matter of credulity, I could (but won’t) write a few more pages on the post-modernist soup of the “information age” in which all things, without rational discrimination, are believed to be of equal value. If you do not believe in the widespread credulity of the age we live in, think hard about which documentaries, “reality” shows and pieces of sensation lap up the greatest viewership numbers; and how much these things influence the view of the world that people have.
In four or five hundred years, when historians have made up a name for the age we live in, they will certainly have grounds for discussing the superstitions of our age.
Monday, July 23, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
It’s a basic principle in book-reviewing that books have to be judged according to their genre. Pointless to discuss a children’s book as if it aimed to be A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or a learned academic discourse on the assumption that it should be a popular vulgarisation.
I say this very clearly from the outset because it would be easy to mistake James McNeish’s Touchstones for a full autobiography. And if it were judged as such, then it would have to be considered very selective. “Why has McNeish left all these important details out?” a hostile critic might ask. Instead, as McNeish considerately and specifically explains a number of times, Touchstones is what its subtitle calls it - a Memoir, not an attempt at comprehensive autobiography. The title page adds the words “Memories of People and Place”. About two-thirds of the way through the text (on Pg.210), the 80-year-old McNeish further admits that he has a faulty memory, a “writer’s memory”, and that some of his reminiscences may be embroidered.
What we are getting, then, are the parts of his life that McNeish regards as most significant in his development as a writer.
After a kind of prologue, Touchstones begins in the 1950s, when McNeish was in his late twenties, and fades out in the 1980s – this being less than half the writer’s life. Interspersed with extracts from his old diaries and commonplace books, the first half is called “People” and concentrates on nine people who had a big influence on him.
When McNeish was a young journalist, a night editor on the New Zealand Herald fired his imagination with the prospect of visiting Europe (being a budding writer, young McNeish was taken particularly by the chap’s mention of “purple cauliflower” in Sicily). So at the age of 26, McNeish took off from Auckland as a deckhand on Norwegian Freighter.
In England, he spent a few months as a stagehand and “electrician” at the left-wing director Joan Littlewood’s tumbledown Theatre Royal. McNeish endorses the obituarist’s description of Littlewood as the “The Mother Courage of English Theatre” and gives an admiring portrait of her as an erratic, impulsive genius. But he also tells the story of being asked by Littlewood to read a play submitted by an unknown teenager, and judging it to be immature “schoolgirl stuff”. He says the play was extensively re-written by Joan Littlewood before it was ever produced. It was Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. (The naughty side of me notes that Shelagh Delaney died late last year, so she won’t contradict McNeish’s story – but on the other hand it’s highly plausible as Joan Littlewood is widely considered to have also extensively re-written Brendan Behan’s plays before they ever saw the light of day.)
Getting a commission to record and make radio programmes about European folk-songs, McNeish found himself in Sicily. Here he met three remarkable people. The first was the anti-Mafia crusader Danilo Dolci who, like Gandhi, used hunger-strikes as a means of drawing attention to social injustice. McNeish ended up writing his biography, Fire Under the Ashes, and has subsequently revisited Sicily in his later fiction. The second was Toto, a man of the people with a fatalistic peasant’s wisdom, who found McNeish a place to live and taught him ways of fitting in with the local culture. Most intriguingly, the third was Santu, a very decent Sicilian man who believed implicitly in the code of omerta, the sense of discretion and loyalty to friends and “family” regardless of wider moral considerations, much deployed by the Mafia. To find such opinions coming from the mouth of such an obviously upright man was for McNeish a sharp lesson in how the sincere pieties of one culture are not necessarily those of another.
Back in London, as McNeish learnt how to write and read radio scripts, he was hugely influenced by the BBC producer Jack Dillon, who taught him how to use the microphone to effect. When he speaks of his time with the BBC, McNeish inevitably drops some illustrious literary names, but he also evokes powerfully that lost world of intelligent radio features that were produced as works of art for discerning audiences.
So far, this may sound like a catalogue of separate events and encounters. There are, however, some consistent themes. One is the way McNeish felt torn between a desire to return to New Zealand and an awareness that New Zealand was (and is) a very small intellectual pool providing a very limited market for literary works. In fact McNeish returned briefly to New Zealand a couple of times, sounding the place out, before deciding to re-settle here permanently. He makes it clear that he has never regarded himself as “limited to” New Zealand in the subject-matter he chooses for his novels and non-fiction; and he has some pungent things to say on the way New Zealanders can be very negative in their judgements on local literary talents who decide to make their lives overseas.
On one visit back, he recorded a typically tanked-up Denis Glover reading his own poetry while Glover’s common-law wife Khura hovered in the background. (I heard McNeish retailing comic detail of this same encounter in a radio broadcast some years back.) On another journey back to New Zealand, McNeish found himself the unofficial “minder” of the flamboyant Sheila Chichester, wife of the round-the-world yachtsman Francis Chichester.
These are eight of the people McNeish sees as influencing him. The ninth was far more important – his wife Helen, whom he met in London. Their courtship took some years to reach the point of marriage, overcoming a lot of cultural differences, differences of temperament and the fact that both of them had been married before.
If these nine people provide McNeish with chapter headings, then with the exception of his wife they were not necessarily always the most influential people in his life. McNeish’s ancestors and parents hover in the background of much of this memoir. His father was (in McNeish’s term) a “quarter-caste” Maori descended from a nineteenth century Scottish “Pakeha-Maori” who had married into a tribe. McNeish considers that his father looked a lot less Maori than his Aunt Jean, whom he calls his “Maori aunt”. One motif in young McNeish’s life was the way his father (whom he seems to have loved more than his mother) clearly expected him to give up this writing nonsense and move on to a “real” job. After his father’s death, McNeish is therefore shocked to discover evidence that the old man himself was thwarted author.
When it reaches the halfway point, Part Two of this memoir kicks in. It is called “Place” and recounts how McNeish came to settle at remote Te Maika (near Kawhia) and write in earnest – this being the time when he produced his first considerable piece of fiction, the novel Mackenzie.
McNeish tells us that he found the view, and the economic necessity of writing pieces for the Listener, distracted him from real writing. He learnt how to concentrate. But at Te Maika he also learnt gradually about his family’s back-story, the background to the house he inhabited and the dodgy land deals that had gone into its acquisition. “I am not superstitious”, he declares on Pg.180, but his narrative runs to a prophetic dream and the sense of a “presence” at Te Maika that makes it right for him to be there.
Strong in its descriptive sense, this second part also has its comic vignettes, not least his account of eventually marrying Helen in a hasty ceremony conducted at the local post-office. Although called “Place” most of this second part is about becoming used to the company of local Maori, finally finding himself able to identify with bits of their culture and untangling a complicated story his “Maori” aunt had told him about how the land was acquired.
This is one of those cases where I hope I have been able to fire your interest simply by a giving a (very selective) account of the book’s contents. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, Touchstones is a little under 300 pages of amiable chat by an experienced author.
I could pick out a couple of minuses. The opening dialogue with his father, in 1967, is far too neatly self-expository to be credible and seems designed to sketch in some background quickly for us. There is also something painfully arch in the way McNeish attempts to pique our interest by telling us as one stage that his wife had “fallen in love with” somebody else (the somebody turns out to be Katherine Mansfield, in whom Helen became very interested).
The pluses outweigh the few minuses, however.
McNeish has the honesty to mention things that might be painful or embarrassing for him to recall publicly. When he refers to his first wife Felicity, he quotes Graham Greene’s “chip of ice that lurks in a writer’s heart” to explain how a determined writer can become estranged from a wife. But he then notes that “Felicity went back to London, then wrote accusing me of infidelity and saying she was returning to New Zealand with our child. The accusation was just, her outburst well-merited.” (pg.73). He admits (at pp.115-116) his almost complete ignorance of New Zealand Literature until he was nearly 30. When learning some lessons about morality in Sicily, he also refers to New Zealand prejudices thus:
“I had grown up with stereotypes. I had left New Zealand fiercely prejudiced, and Anglophile. Britain was best. The wogs began on the other side of the channel. Rome was the enemy: ‘Whatever you do, Jamie’, my father said, ‘don’t marry a Catholic.’ If it wasn’t the Catholics it was the Jews (my mother railed against the Jews, ignoring the fact that most of the artists and musicians she admired, not to mention the conductor of the Auckland String Players which she led, and whom she worshipped, were Jewish.) I inherited these prejudices uncritically. As for Sicilians, all I knew about them, chiefly from B-grade action movies, [was that they were] small, dark and sinister. They all wore cloaks and carried knives.” (pp.83-84)
McNeish doesn’t generally aim for one-liners. He likes to chew things over. But when he does one-liners he does them well. I loved the way he summarises the reaction of publishers who were disappointed that he was he writing novel and not a biography of Mackenzie - “They wanted a photograph, not a painting” (Pg.189).
Touchstones is a delightful book which reads easily.
I have to end with a little paradox. Discussing his time at the BBC, McNeish remarks “Radio is only a glorified form of journalism, after all; the spoken word is not the printed word, and is often anathema to it.” (Pg.100). Yet my own view of this book is that an edited version would work very well as a series of radio talks.
I’m sure National Radio will decide the same in due course.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“BRECHT AND CO. – Sex, Politics and the Making of the Modern Drama” by John Fuegi (first published 1994 ; revised edition 2003)
James McNeish’s sprightly memoir Touchstones makes mention of the left-wing English theatre director Joan Littlewood as the “Mother Courage of British theatre”. It gives McNeish’s testimony that Littlewood extensively re-wrote at least one play that was supposedly by a young playwright (McNeish is referring to Shelagh Delaney, but Littlewood is also widely reputed to have largely re-written the plays that were supposedly by Brendan Behan).
The Brechtian reference and the matter of murky authorship all put me in mind of a great iconoclastic biography I read a few years back.
There’s an important place for the debunking and iconoclastic biography, as I noted earlier on this blog (look for the posting “Why write a new biography?” in the index at right). Debunking biographies are sometimes intemperate and sometimes go too far. But they are necessary when their subject has previously been regarded too uncritically or has been the subject of hagiographies only.
The example I gave earlier of a necessary iconoclastic biography was Richard Aldington’s Lawrence of Arabia – a Biographical Enquiry (1955). An even better example, I think, is John Fuegi’s Brecht and Co., the British edition of which was first published under a more provocative title (not of the author’s choosing) The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht.
I’m assuming I do not have to explain who Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was, what an important figure in world drama he is and how much he is usually taken to be the foremost German dramatist of the twentieth century.
Brecht and Co was written by somebody who greatly admires Bertolt Brecht’s drama, but intensely dislikes Brecht as a man. It is a very long and very well documented biography of Brecht and the theatrical and political circles in which he moved – in the edition I read, 620 pages of text followed by c.100 pages of notes and index.
John Fuegi was Professor of Comparative Studies at the University of Maryland and founder of the International Brecht Society. He had previously edited such works as The Essential Brecht. But in Brecht and Co. he paints such a negative picture of the dramatist that the book has been intensely disliked and negatively reviewed by those who prefer a more hagiographic picture of the man. It is especially hated by left-wingers who want to preserve the image of the politically-committed proletarian genius. Brecht and Co. has been extensively attacked in print, with one irate Brechtian calling it “600 pages of character assassination”. A group of Brecht’s defenders brought out an article specifying “450 factual errors” in Brecht and Co. On inspection, however, most of these supposed “errors” turn out to be minor things such as typos and the odd misspelling, suggesting only that the first edition of the book might have benefited from more rigorous proof-reading. It is perfectly right that factual errors be pointed out in reviews, but the pointing out of these 450 was motivated solely by the critics’ annoyance at what the book was arguing. Nobody has yet been able to disprove Fuegi’s essential theses. The book is well-researched and its case is a convincing one.
I will not summarize everything Fuegi says about Brecht’s life and works, but I will note his main lines of argument.
First, says Fuegi, despite his carefully-cultivated image, Brecht was of bourgeois origins and had bourgeois habits his whole life. He was the son of a wealthy south German factory-owner, brought up in a milieu of servants and material comfort. He was used to having his needs serviced by others. His early affinities were largely right-wing and conservative. His younger brother Walther was one of von Epp’s Freikorps troops, putting down the half-cock “Bolshevik” republic in Bavaria just after the First World War. The image of the cloth-cap-and-leather-jacket-wearing prole, which Brecht cultivated in the later Weimar years, was pure theatre and was sustained only with the help of generous hand-outs from his family and the services of expensive, exclusive tailors who made his proletarian costumes (leather jacket, cloth cap etc.). It was as much a “dressing-down” image as the ones currently deployed by rock stars. Throughout his years in exile from the Nazi regime, in Denmark (1930s) and the USA (1940s), Brecht lived very comfortably, usually in the best parts of town, thanks to generous patrons and big royalty cheques. This was even more true in the years (1948-56) when he lived in Communist East Germany and was willing to be used as one of the state’s propaganda assets. Like others in privileged inner-party circles, he had both the best possible apartments and a large country estate (he had also bought a large country estate in Bavaria in the early 1930s). He was always looked after by servants.
Second, like many who give interviews about themselves, Brecht routinely falsified details of his life, particularly when it came to claiming how early he had been aware of the Nazi menace and had opposed it. Until the late 1920s, as Fuegi demonstrates, Brecht’s views on German politics tended to be more Right than Left. When he shifted to being a Communist-sympathiser (if not actually a card-carrier) he adopted the party line that it was better for Hitler to come to power than the Social Democrats, as a Hitler regime would be bound to last only a short-time before the proletarian revolution overthrew it. This Communist delusion – which was at least as opposed to parliamentary democracy as the Nazis were – was one of the many things that helped destroy the Weimar Republic.
Amplifying this point, Fuegi further argues that Brecht was very tardy at protesting against Nazism, despite the later legend. He occupied some of the early Nazi years (in Denmark and elsewhere) writing The Threepenny Novel, which ignores what was happening in Germany and is the usual attack on decadent capitalism, with a British setting. For Communists and their sympathisers Nazism was, after all, just another form of decadent capitalism – an attitude that resurfaced in the period 1939-41 when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were virtual allies. Only in the mid-1930s, when the official Communist party line had changed into the short-lived “Popular Front”, did Brecht and his collaborators produce the play Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. As for the other totalitarianism, Brecht privately wrote criticisms of the East German Communist statelet in which he lived in the 1950s – including the unpublished witticism abut having to “change the people” after the abortive 1954 rising against the Communist government. But he never publicly challenged it in his lifetime. The same was true of Stalinism in general. It has been left to hagiographers to find what was unpublished in his lifetime and declare it as evidence of his resistance; or to reinterpret his Life of Galileo as a coded attack on Stalinist show-trials. (Absolutely nobody interpreted the play in those terms at the time it was written, and certainly not Brecht). Meanwhile in America, his testimony to the HUAC was at best ambiguous and certainly didn’t make any sort of stand.
Third, Brecht was a sexual predator throughout his life. Fuegi implies that in his earlier adulthood, his tastes ran to both men and women, but he gradually settled on women exclusively. He preferred young and vulnerable ones. His first child (Frank Banholzer) was produced out of wedlock. Basically young Brecht abandoned both mother and child. The child was brought up by foster parents and died while serving in the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Brecht was married in the late 1920s, divorced, and then had his long-running second marriage to the actress Helene Weigel. However, both his wives quickly became used to the fact that he took mistresses as a matter of course – many are documented in Brecht and Co. Brecht fathered three other children, but his mistresses were usually advised to abort their unwanted offspring, which they did. Fuegi says that as a theatre director, Brecht took it for granted that young actresses were his property. Most of them willingly submitted to him, being awed by his power and public reputation and having been convinced that he was serious about them. It has to be said that some of the longer-lasting mistresses were clearly under the illusion that marriage was an outmoded bourgeois convention in the new socialist consciousness – which was just dandy for the guy who wanted to sleep with them while his wife looked after his interests at home.
It is Fuegi’s fourth point, however, that is the heart of the book and has caused most outrage among Brecht’s admirers.
Fuegi argues – and I think actually proves – that a very large part of Brecht’s supposed work was actually the work of collaborators, particularly Margarete Steffin, Elisabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau, some of whom were his mistresses at different times. Fuegi does not doubt that nearly all of Brecht’s poetry was his own work. But he argues that when it came to drama, Brecht really ran a “factory” system, in which he might suggest the idea of a play – or have somebody suggest it to him – and then leave his collaborators to actually write the text, often coming in again only in the later stages of writing to make “improvements” or suggest changes.
This might sound like an idealistic socialist “workshop” concept of collaborative effort – except that Brecht always made sure that he himself held exclusive copyrights and materially benefitted (as have his heirs subsequently, who were hopping mad at this book of course). Brecht had multiple bank accounts, some in Switzerland. Fuegi estimates that up to 80% of the text of “Brecht’s” most lucrative effort, The Threepenny Opera, is actually the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann. He is able to produce evidence that Brecht privately acknowledged his debt in letters etc. – but never admitted it publicly. Basically, Fuegi believes Brecht was full of ideas, but had neither the stamina nor the skill to turn them into plays.
Furthermore, he notes that most of Brecht’s unacknowledged collaborators were female. He sees this as accounting for the fact that there is a switch from the immature violent macho posturing of Brecht’s earlier plays (Baal, Drums in the Night) to themes that involve stronger female characters in later plays (Mother Courage and her Children, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person [Woman] of Szechwan, Saint Joan of the Stockyards etc.). The fact was, says Fuegi, it was basically women who conceived these later characters – not the male chauvinist cigar-chomper who slept with actresses while talking proletarian revolution from his comfy apartment.
Finally, Fuegi makes it clear that Brecht was a tyrant as a director – and that he frequently and deliberately sabotaged other people’s plays if they seemed on the verge of success. Fuegi says that Brecht wrote many interesting pieces of dramatic theory, but that in the end it was belied by the actual practice of “his” plays. The ideas of ‘epic theatre’, which Brecht mainly lifted from the director Erwin Piscator, and of alienation/Verfremdung and the cold, intellectual response, are in fact not how his best plays work at all – they work by emotionally involving the audience in the familiar Aristotelean manner.
This brief summary does not do justice to the book, and doubtless makes it sound shriller than it actually is. I have simplified. I think Fuegi makes a very good case and certainly he documents it well. It is possible, of course, that he sometimes goes a little over the top – and some speculation does have to come into it. But if the end result is a bit of a hatchet-job, it’s only because the subject was waiting for the hatchet. This is a very good example of the necessary iconoclastic biography.
Do I have any misgivings about it? Not really. Fuegi nowhere suggests that the best of “Brecht’s” plays are anything other than great plays and worthy of their place in the canon. This may be a debunking of the man, but it is not a debunking of the works, which Fuegi knows better than most of his critics.
One final point. As I’ve made clear in earlier postings, “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare’s plays are pure moonshine, based on no reliable evidence. Fuegi’s questioning of Brecht’s authorship is nowhere in the same ballpark, and of course (unlike “alternative” authorship theories about Shakespeare’s plays) he nowhere proposes one other person as the author of all of Brecht’s works. What Fuegi says has very firm evidence to prove it.