Monday, May 16, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TAKAHE” issue # 86 (Takahe Collective Trust, Christchurch; price for 1 year / 2 print issues $NZ30); “FROM MONKEY TO MOTH – an Imaginal Evolution” by Hugh Major (Papawai Press, $NZ29:99)

            It is very hard to keep up one’s reading of all the literary publications that are now available in New Zealand. I have a hard enough time keeping up with Landfall, Landfall-Review-on-Line, Poetry New Zealand, New Zealand Books, Sport, JAAM and a few others – and it is really more than I can do to read all their contents with the attention that they deserve. I therefore admit that Takahe, produced twice-yearly out of Christchurch, was not a publication that I had seen regularly before. So I accepted willingly the collective editors’ invitation to review the latest issue, #86 [April 2016], to see what it had to offer.

            But here’s the reviewer’s trap. With an issue that offers short fiction by 13 different writers, poetry by 16 poets, an essay, a section on the visual arts and a book review section, how can I do anything more than indicate briefly what the contents are? The alternative would be to give a reasoned critique of each separate piece, which would lead to a review far longer than my weekly blog-posting could accommodate.

            So I am forced back to generalisations.

            Let’s deal first with the physical artefact that is Takahe #86. Its 74 pages are attractively printed on A4 size semi-gloss pages, with firm square binding. There is a four-page colour section illustrating Felicity Milburn’s essay on the “revolutionary jewellery” of the artist Lisa Walker – that “jewellery” comprising the threading together of random junk, or women’s magazines, or poetry magazines to make what seems to me a satirical commentary on the things that weight us down both literally and metaphorically. Given Takahe’s large-page format, I approve the practice of presenting text in double columns. Perhaps, as a minor criticism, the four full pages of contributors’ profiles are a little too much – each with its author photo – but otherwise this is an excellent piece of production.

Now for the impossible task of accounting for the contents, which I spent a couple of evenings reading. What can I do but indicate some of the things that particularly stood out for me?

Brigid Barrer’s essay “Antipodean” is a highlight. Apparently an abridgement of a longer work, it uses images to make a statement about what could more pompously be called the post-colonial condition – an awareness that, no matter how much our culture has fed off other cultures, our unique mix of influences makes us specifically of this place. The essay does not argue from point to point, however. It gives us a vivid picture of cultures mixing, especially in urban Auckland. And this is its chief attraction.

Sarah Penwarden’s short story “Mirror Ball” makes me feel very old. It is a callow and very innocent tale of sexual attraction, interestingly told (in the third person) from a male’s perspective. There is a tentativeness about the main character’s feelings that can only call out a degree of nostalgia in old readers.

I was interested that Kate Mahony’s short story “Flight from New York”, while having a certain hard-boiled tone in its disabused observation of a fellow passenger on a ‘plane, nevertheless ends with an unfashionable twist, almost of the O. Henry sort.

And by singling out these two stories I have, of course, underestimated the work of David Hill and Nathan Bennett and Meagan France (those vivid details of childbirth!) and others that appear here too.

I will now commit the same sin with regard to the poetry. I admired Nick Ascroft’s carefully-crafted sonnet “Beaux”, which did justice to the traditional form while speaking in a clearly modern idiom, half-amused by the prospect of love. The four short poems by Julie Barry are pithy in dealing with big themes – poetic aphorisms. The same goes for Robert McLean’s concise “The Hospice Room”. And while Liang Yujing’s “Tortoises in the City” is a poem making ironic comment on crowds of people, it nevertheless reads with the playfulness of a good animal poem.

And – damn! – I have not commented on the other poets.

I am interested that the book review section includes reviews of seven books, but it is preceded by a note telling readers that these and other reviews can all by accessed on Takahe’s website.

Well, what does my scrappy and inadequate reportage tell you? I hope it tells you that this is a worthwhile publication, calling on the talents of a wide variety of established and emerging talents.

I hope that says enough.

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            Reviewing Hugh Major’s From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution places me is a great quandary. In the first place, I genuinely admire a man who is willing to formulate his own complex philosophy and present it to the public. This is no mean feat, especially given that Major calls upon a large range of literary and poetic references to support his arguments, as well as upon purely philosophical ones. In the second place, I find myself in agreement with Major when he discourses on the things he finds wanting in the modern world. But in the third place (and this is that hard one), I find Major’s philosophy lacking on some essential points and I disagree with many of his conclusions.

So do I shut his book with a loud snap and hurl it aside?

Of course not. I read it carefully and thank Hugh Major for all the real insights that he does provide, even though I know I will end up (verbally) quarrelling with him. I note that he has given me the chance (as any worthwhile book of ideas does) to enter into a dialectic with him and sharpen up my own philosophical ideas. And I also do him the honour of giving you a reasonable summary of what he is on about.

In his Introduction, Major suggests that he will map an alternative, in quasi-poetic form, to the banal cult of pure materialism. He will expand on the images of five distinct life forms to illuminate human qualities. His chosen images are the monkey, the spider, the hare, the iris and the moth. They form an “imaginal evolution” because, working from one creature to the next, Major sees himself as nearing a solution to the problem of what ails the human species spiritually.

The Monkey is a vigorous, self-gratifying, adventurous beast, which represents our desire to conquer, compete, contain and be victorious over rivals. Major links this to the pure materialism that has created irresponsible modern consumerism. Such material acquisitiveness, says Major, needs to be balanced by a care for the spiritual. I applaud Major’s suggestion, in this section, that human beings should be seen sui generis: “Genetically or biologically, we are simians but our quintessentially human or spiritual aspect is of a different order; it comes from another source.” (p.30) I applaud, too, his accurate observation that materialist scientism, while claiming to oppose creeds and belief systems, is itself a creed and belief system. Its programme is to reduce the phenomena of mind and consciousness to mere processes of the physical brain. I also find myself sympathising with his vigorous attacks on the economics of greed, although I do question his assumption that it was the rise of modern science, in the Enlightenment, that ripped us away from our natural roots and led to more wars of conquest and subjugation and the pillaging of the Earth.

The Spider represents our reaching out adventurously to grasp at truth, like the spider swinging over a void to spin its web. But the spider also represents the web of illusion that we can spin from ourselves. In short, the spider is both the triumphs and the shortcomings of reason and ratiocination. In discussing the matter of reason and human consciousness, Major launches into a deft attack on Richard Dawkins’ reductionist notion of the “selfish gene” as an explanation for all faculties of human beings. As Major correctly argues, such reductionism can account only for subordinate and proximal changes wrought by evolution – it cannot account for mind itself. Philosophically, Major wishes to reinsert mind, consciousness and intention into our view of reality and the cosmos, without necessarily positing God. He argues this quite ingeniously:

Evolution is often held up as the counter-argument to creation. It is the scientific explanation of life, dispensing with any need for God. But while evolution is undeniably, it is also theistically neutral. That there is a life-power is without question, or there would be no progression, no adaptation, no creatures. Whether there is a deity behind it all who has configured the cosmos for creative evolution and allowed the various life-forms to get on with it, cannot be disproved by scientific method – such a source must lie outside the whole system, or as deep within as the invisible sprouting centre of a plant. Given the right building blocks, why can’t the world make itself? Wouldn’t this be a more interesting and sophisticated design than imposing specific parameters? This is an explanation which has not been disproved – that design in nature is not focused on evolutionary outcomes and instead it is the whole process that is predetermined.” (under the sub-heading “A World Making Itself” of the section “Spider” pp.62-63)

Major accepts the anthropic principle – the notion of some sort of design based on its “just rightness” for human life; but he does not commit himself to theism. Instead, he opts for a sort of cosmic consciousness – a concept which does lead him into the contested territory of ESP and other such phenomena. However, en route, he takes a vigorous and well-aimed swipe at the shallowness and lack of real consciousness to which unbridled materialism leads us:

The Western world is in need of the depth dimension of life, instead of the trivial instantaneity of life as experienced through the mass-media – the rapid fire account of world crises, catastrophes and coups. Television’s mainstream news is a mixture of propaganda, glamorised crime and celebrity gossip pitched at a low level of intelligence designed to brainwash the susceptible, to titillate and sell advertising. People as dutiful consumers face fifteen types of toothpaste on the supermarket shelves; they are swamped by choice. They struggle to get by, increasingly uncertain about the future. The more everyone is drawn into this shallow, often unmanageable outer world, the less value they have in their lives and the more enfeebled they become. Conversations of the day are determined by newscasts of the evening before. Anything truly profound is often dismissed as pretentious or a waste of time.” (p.106)

When he mediates on the Hare, Major is reflecting on that which is elusive and swift and best attuned to moving in the world of moonlight. In other words, this is a poetic introduction to the intuitive part of the human mind, making imaginative leaps in the dark. This is the lived part of human experience, which cannot be explained or nullified by purely physical processes. Because he is here dealing with the deepest wells of creativity, Major (who is the illustrator of his own book as well as the author) makes a number of incidental comments on Art. He is spot-on in this pungent passage where he comments on the loss of the concept of beauty (and the sublime0 in currently fashionable art:

Beauty became something merely fabricated, something determined by market forces. The movement [postmodernism] dispensed with criteria, except to the extent that something was different – and thus more marketable. The question then arises as to whether, in this context, art relies on the aesthetic or not (an empty canvas in a frame becomes as valid as Botticelli’s Venus). If not, then shock value, social commentary or irony must be the motivator. There is an art crowd’s elitism involved as well: only the intelligent will perceive the irony, so these galleristas and wealthy patrons become the arbiters of taste. But it is counterintuitive to claim that, through the postmodern lens, beauty is passé, that it is something quaint or naïve consigned to art history and thus obsolete. It is a false conclusion drawn from within this mode of thinking. In this context, beauty was no doubt jettisoned early on because it escapes precise definition. While it is subjectively recognisable, it is not a consensus quality – it all comes down to interpretation.” (p.141)

The monkey, the spider and the hare having covered self-gratification, consciousness, ratiocination and intuition, Major now sees in the Iris as a symbol of synthesis. There is harmony in diversity in the colours of the iris (which means “rainbow” in the original Greek). The iris gives the bee the opportunity to collect pollen and spread it to other flowers. For Major, this is an image of the binding-together quality of art and of a fully-functioning human mind; but it is also an image of the radiance of art. Major gives a very good account of what aesthetic experience is:

Aesthetic experience is a particular, powerful state of consciousness where we enter into a relationship with an object and the separation between observer and observed starts to dissolve. It is as though some aspects of the otherwise unknowable essence of the object have come to the surface and begin to impinge on the awareness. In other words, a divide has been bridged where the pure form comes into focus.”  (p.181)

In asserting this kinship with other minds and the art they produce, he also asserts the natural kinship of human beings with other creatures and with the beauties of nature. A very pre-lapsarian, Edenic concept.

And what is the destiny of this conscious, adventurous, reasoning, intuitive, synthesising, art-making, empathetic human mind, which bursts beyond mere materialism? Here, in the face of the fact of death, Major comes to his last image – the Moth. It passes from larva to pupa to caterpillar to chrysalis to moth, taking on different forms of being as a continuum. From this Major takes the image of consciousness and life continuing beyond death. As he discusses this final destiny of consciousness, Major takes on the topic of fear of death as one generator of religions and discusses what he sees as the defects of some systems of belief.

As a whole, then, From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution argues against materialism, for spiritualism, for a greater valuing of mind, consciousness and the intuitive part of human endeavour, and for a greater sense of our kinship.

I think this sums up fairly what this interesting and adventurous book is on about. But as I said at the beginning of this notice, I have a number of bones to pick with it. While materialism may have received a boost from the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment, my knowledge of history and human development leads me to reject the notion that the Enlightenment was the main cause of current competitive acquisitiveness. If this is one of Major’s “myths”, then I would reply that the more ancient myth of the Fall and of Original Sin is still far more persuasive. Human beings have been competitive, acquisitive, murderous, exploitative and lustful (as well as empathetic, creative, cooperative, constructive and loving) for many, many thousands of years, and not merely for the last couple of centuries. True, applied science has allowed us to commit our sins and crimes on a far vaster scale than before. Even so, the notion of something radically flawed in the human make-up (which is what the myth of the Fall is all about) offers a clearer reading on the mixed human person.

Incidental to this matter, when Major is chewing over the relative merits of different belief systems, I do not think it is necessary to call upon a currently-fashionable commentator to have the following point made:

 “There is a paradox at the heart of Christian teaching whereby it seems to be understood that God’s children are going to be sinners, but that’s alright because it will create the need for salvation. Slavoj Zizek made this the subject of his book The Puppet and the Dwarf – the perverse core of Christianity and concluded that the Fall is identical to the Resurrection.” (p.194)

For the best part of two millennia, and without adopting Zizek’s dismissive tone, Christians themselves have been pondering the paradox of a salvation linked to a Fall – hence the concept of the felix culpa.

This whole problem of flawed human nature, and of evil, is one with which Major has difficulty dealing. In many respects From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution is a work of pantheism – nature itself, driven by some sort of cosmic consciousness, is the ground of our being. Real transcendence is rejected. It is in nature that we should immerse ourselves to find our real selves, closing the psychic gap that materialism has created. But nature must be accepted whole if we are to follow this plan. Nature may include monkey, spider, hare, iris and moth; but nature also includes virus, cancer, hookworm, tapeworm, ichneumon wasp and natural catastrophe; and one of its chief mechanisms is predation. If it appears an orderly and benign system in one schema, in another it is an unstable and destructive complex. What, then, does it mean to immerse oneself in, and identify oneself with, nature? In the moral sense – and without some idea of transcendence - very little.  Hence, for all the Jungian references to the shadow side, Major’s difficulty in dealing with the problem of evil. Often, reading From Monkey to Moth – an Imaginal Evolution, I had the sense that only a very selective view of nature was being accessed.

Beyond this major point, I add the minor point that Major’s gendered view of nature does lead to what feminists would call essentialism. Thus he wants to see “the world as a gift to be revered” and a shift from “a male culture of individuality and competition to a female one of co-operation and love” (Introduction, p.5). Thus he states (under the sub-heading “Woman’s World”) that “Associated with the passive, co-operative and sustaining, the female element, by its nature, is not interested in the wielding of power, but it is a mainstay of social health.” (p.20)

So I finally set this book aside having greatly enjoyed Major’s polemics against the flaws of the modern world, but not being persuaded by his concept of a cure. En route, however, it is a stimulating mix of poetry, observation and artistic intuition.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good read. The aesthetics & philosophy perhaps akin to Roger Scruton's work?