The Invention of Reason

On the 1st February 1851, the English novelist Mary Shelley died. She was just 53 years old and had succumbed to brain cancer, an illness that she had endured for many years. She was buried alongside her beloved mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had passed away shortly after her birth and with the heart of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley who had drowned on an Italian boating trip in 1822.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Mary Shelley conceived the story of “Frankenstein” at an alarmingly precocious but also prescient stage of her life. It was 1818, a year when political and social conventions were being tested across Europe. The old order of feudalism and natural hierarchy was clashing with a new, enlightened philosophy which maintained that human reason must triumph over superstitious beliefs.

However the proponents of pure reason censured any notion of human sentiment, in fact they could not conceive that the human soul existed as there was no scientific evidence to prove its physical existence. This radical, progressive ideology that spawned the French Revolution, meant that individual human life had no real significance beyond his or her material manifestation on Earth. This was how, in the wake of the Terror, these supposed rationalists could coldly dispatch any ideological enemy beneath the blades of the Guillotine if they were deemed inimical to the cause.

The rationalists maintained that society was the primary influence upon human character, and if society became more ethical human beings would behave more ethically. They seemed unaware of other elements that shaped the character, namely inheritance which could never be altered whatever society that person lived in, but it is difficult to prove whether this ignorance was wilful or real. Coincidentally new scientific ideas emerged alongside the political foment, and these ideas were a source of fascination for the Shelleys and their contemporaries.

Science conjectured that human life was a purely physical process and that there was no divine intervention involved. Mary Shelley argued that if a human being had no soul then his body was merely expendable. She imagined that a scientist like Victor Frankenstein could be so swayed by his own hubris to create a human being, not in the traditional way, but through his own experimental methods. The fact that the “creature” proves to be a destructive force suggests that the application of science and rationality cannot create perfection.

All human ideas are our own invention, something that we frequently ignore, often due to our own arrogance and complacency. The trope of “Frankenstein” has become embedded within our cultural consciousness. It is cited whenever a crude and unethical science is engendered. It is sometimes necessary to heed Shelley`s warnings for the future.

The Worth of Freedom

On the 24th January 1913, the Czech-German author Franz Kafka stopped writing “Amerika”. This would be his last novel, and it remained unfinished. The uncompleted book, however, is a haunting memorial to a reluctant and enigmatic writer who after his untimely death epitomised the cruel absurdities of the human condition. A word was even created, “Kafkaesque” to describe the frequently stifling and oppressive situations that characterise human life.

“Amerika” is, on the surface, a simple narrative about a young man sent abroad to live with his uncle. He is sent to America as his parents are scandalised by his love affair with a young woman who is now expecting his child. However there is a deeper meaning beneath the surface story, chiefly there is a running theme about liberty and the author questions whether the concept of freedom actually exists in reality.

The main protagonist, Karl Rossman, is just sixteen years old and from a humble Central European country. He has rarely ventured outside his home village and has never been abroad. The veracity of his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend is cast aside as he is forced on to the ship bound for America. This is the country of liberty, exemplified by the statue at New York Harbour. His life as a poor European immigrant is harsh and unforgiving. He accepts a menial job as a lift attendant at a prestigious hotel but is disillusioned and degraded. He finds companionship, and promise of better work, but in rather tragicomic circumstances, in a travelling circus.

The circus seems a rather apt metaphor for humiliation and disappointment, something that the author experienced in his short and painful life. Franz Kafka was born in Prague, in 1883 to Jewish parents. His mother and father worked in fashion retail and were often absent owing to the demands of the family business. Kafka felt controlled by his father throughout his life, and uncertain of his future plans decided to train as a lawyer to please him.

Kafka met Max Brod at law school. Brod shared the same interests and had a similar outlook on life. Both were voracious readers and had secret literary ambitions. However law provided a steady income and once qualified he began work in an insurance office.

It is remarkable that in spite of the long and punishing hours he spent working, he still found time to write. However it wasn`t long before he became stricken with tuberculosis, and he spent the rest of his life in sanatoriums. He died in 1924. He was only 40 years old, was unmarried and left no descendants.

His feelings of shame and inadequacy, both personal and professional, were imbued in his writing. He had long love affairs with women but was convinced that he was physically inadequate and lacked charm. His mundane job also left him feeling that his life had no meaning.

He had no confidence in his writing ability, and he destroyed a large proportion of it. He also instructed Max Brod to burn all of his manuscripts after his death, but Brod refused that request. He published several of his works between 1925 and 1935, and as the Nazis rose to power in Europe he secreted the rest in a suitcase before escaping to Palestine in 1939. “Brod`s Editions” of Kafka`s work grew in popularity, especially after the horrific events of the Second World War and were a major influence on modern writers.

Kafka`s life was rooted in Central Europe, in a lower middle class Jewish family, but his literary vision is universal. It is astonishing that he had never visited the USA but his depictions are eerily accurate. His imagination and empathy was profound and it is the reason behind his international literary legacy that continues to endure.

Brutalities of Progress

On January 27 two self confessed white supremacists will stand trial for criminal damage. The pair of students are alleged to be behind the attack on the Victor Hugo statue. The statue stands in Hugo`s home town of Besancon in Eastern France. It was created in 2003 by the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, but was restored in November last year.

The restoration is at the centre of the controversy, and some say provoked the crime. The restored artwork was commissioned by the local council. Besancon council is an overtly left-wing administration. The values promoted by the leadership have clashed with elements of the populace who possess a more culturally conservative outlook.

The council`s restorers were accused of deliberately blackening Hugo`s face. This raised ire and reawakened old grievances, and ultimately spurred the two accused men to commit their crime. The two, named as Theo and Etienne threw white paint over the sculpture and attached a sign that read “white power”.

There is a bitter irony behind this entire saga. Hugo himself was a fierce critic of French colonialism and bemoaned the actions of his countrymen in Algeria. His life’s work was dedicated to restoring the dignity of all human beings. However, the supposed race conscious motives of the council in restoring the statue are just as crass and misguided. The original work was an accurate depiction of the late author, and the sculptor, who died in 2016 did not intend to create an image of a black man. It is extremely patronising to assume that a black artist can only depict other black people in their work.

Nevertheless this impending court case has opened up a necessary conversation about the universal function of art, whether it is literature or sculpture, or any other creative representation of the human experience. It is perfectly reasonable to make the case that human consciousness is the same wherever you are in the world, whether that is Africa or Europe, or any other continent on Earth.

Unfortunately bad actors in politics, both right and left have conspired to distort this view. This is a relatively modern phenomenon. It is a dramatic departure from Enlightenment philosophy which openly declares that all men and women are equal from birth. This was a given until 2020 when a nefarious and shady outfit called BLM exploited the tragedy of George Floyd to stoke an unnecessary culture war, and in turn provoke a puerile campaign to “decolonise” any artistic or intellectual endeavour.

The writer and journalist Graham Hancock has pondered the nebulous concept of human consciousness for many years. His tireless quest to prove that all human minds think alike has meant that he has received abuse and condemnation from academics, scientists and cultural commentators. The very fact that he has continued to pursue his own inquiry proves that he has more determination and courage than his detractors who are simply defending their tenure and reputation, and lucrative source of income.

Hancock was a correspondent for The Economist and had written extensively from the frontline of Ethiopia`s vicious and bloody civil war. Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian civilisations outside of Israel so it was perplexing for him to witness a once homogeneous and peaceful culture descend into barbarity. His beloved father also endured a painful battle with cancer. These two experiences motivated him to forge his own investigation into why modern man felt compelled to express himself through art, and question his unique place on this planet.

Hancock also argues that religious belief is not just a quirk of a more primitive phase of human development, it is a sign of a sophisticated species more attuned to the natural world. The latter part of Hancock`s writing career has been devoted to proving the maxim that the human brain is objectively the same, and this is manifested in the art that has been created throughout the world.

The criticism that he has received is not justified because his detractors have a purely materialist perspective, and negate the importance of mystic or shamanistic experiences of the world. Predictably, these same critics scoff at such interpretations, but this is arrogant and reveals a distinct lack of imagination. The dull philistines who propagate this brutally utilitarian and materialist view of the world ignore how much of human civilization owes to the magical thinking of the seers and prophets. They have shaped our world and inspired the sublime works of art that still provoke and inspire.

A Bird That Lives

On the 10th January 1984 Reynaldo Bignone, the ex-president and general of Argentina was arrested. The arrest was part of a bitter and protracted campaign to bring all of the instigators of Argentina’s “Dirty War” to justice. Argentina had endured over a decade of totalitarian rule, any dissent from the regime was met with the most severe consequences.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Dissenters were imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed. The victims were euphemistically described by the dictatorship as “the disappeared”. It would take many years for their restitution, and for democracy to be restored. However their desperate plight was not forgotten by the Argentinian writers living in exile, they were their fiercest advocates, and the loudest voices calling for truth, freedom and justice.

It is not known how many of the disappeared were actually killed, it is only an estimation. It is believed that there were at least 30,000 people murdered in the course of the Dirty War. The exiled Argentine poet Juan Gelman was personally and directly affected, as his son and daughter in law were two of the disappeared. Gelman`s sorrow and grief for their loss, and the despair that enveloped him about the political course that his country had taken was channelled into his work.

His poem “Epitaph” illustrates this perfectly,

“A bird lived in me. A flower travelled in my blood. My heart

Was a violin. I loved and didn`t love. But sometimes I was loved.

I also was happy:about the

Spring, the hands together, what

Is happy. I say man has to be!

Herein lies a bird, a flower, a

Violin.”

Gelman evokes the spirit of freedom, encapsulated in the metaphor of the bird. The modern post-colonial nation of Argentina is just like a bird, in that it is a perfect and apt representation of the buccaneering personalities of the early European settlers.

The first wave of immigrants sought their fortunes in this outpost of the Spanish Empire, driven by promise and opportunity. They believed that the vast open spaces of land could herald riches. However, like all imperial projects, this was not a totally seamless or peaceful transition from the old and familiar world to the new world that awaited them.

There were bloody battles fought between the European nations and between the colonial powers and the colonised peoples. It is an inconvenient truth that any nation created through conquest and subjugation will face struggles to define itself, or reconcile with its history.

This is something that we have had to reflect upon in our contemporary world, whether it is actually possible for a country of many cultures and identities to succeed and thrive upon the modern cultural and political stage.

A Thing Most Brutish

In William Shakespeare`s mysterious and evocative play “The Tempest”, an imaginary hybrid creature is introduced. Caliban is presented as only semi human. His appearance in the play is an inspiring and clever theatrical device which forces the audience to question what truly makes us human beings, as distinct from other animals, or even other natural forces on this planet as those things are still imbued with the powers of elemental life.

Charles Foster has explored this complex subject with characteristic wit and courage. Foster is a polymath. He is a writer, traveller, philosopher, barrister and veterinarian. In his varied career and life he has attempted to delve into the worlds of animals, nature and human civilisations.

He is sceptical about the preconceived notions that humans hold of the animal kingdom which he addressed in his book “Being A Beast”. In this book he attempted to overturn anthropomorphism by appropriating animal habitats and behaviour, living as a badger, otter, deer, fox and bird.

The sequel to “Being A Beast” is “Being A Human”, and this light hearted tract is written with serious intent. It is partially a rebuke to the obstinacy of the scientific and academic community who are resistant to anyone challenging them. Foster believes that too many are fearful of losing their positions and income, and as a consequence biological science has turned into a kind of religious dogma, rather than a rigorous and vibrant discipline which allows fresh inquiry.

However it is also an entertaining and enlightening book which attempts to explain why and how the human species consciously separated itself from the rest of the living world by producing its own culture and civilisation.

The author confounds the popular interpretations of Darwin. Darwin, he argues simply reminded us that we form an integral part of the natural world, and,

“That, properly handled, could have generated a fitting humility. But….this part of Darwin’s message was transmuted into (something) cynical and dangerous”.

Foster proves his own humility by living as a reconstructed caveman, deliberately apart from the supposedly modern world. His experiment demonstrates how destructive our own pride and vanity has become, not to mention our innately selfish desires for comfort at the expense of our own mental and physical health.

Modern humans in advanced societies have never truly understood real privation, or how it actually feels to face starvation. In ancient, primitive societies illness and death was a familiar occurrence.

The taboo and shame about these elements of human experience is actually a modern phenomena, along with the sterile and crude methods that are utilised, i.e the now secular tradition of cremation is just a way to cleanse death, when in the past the deceased members of the community would have the dignity of full burial rituals.

This book reminds us that we are insignificant in the whole scheme of things, no-one is important. We forget that we all die, and whatever we endure while we are living the glib platitudes of pompous politicians can never alter that undeniable fact about ourselves.

Black Pearls

On the 21st December 1934 the French film “Zouzou” received its premiere in Paris. It helped launch the film career of Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and theatre actress. Baker moved to France, partly to escape racism, but chiefly to seek lucrative work as an “exotic” dancer. Baker joined the Revue Negre in 1925 when she was just nineteen years old. French perceptions of African heritage people in the twenties were unenlightened by modern standards, and they were often regarded as curiosities.

Baker`s act was a deliberate caricature of racial tropes, she wore feathers, bananas and pineapples and was sexually disinhibited. Her “Danse Sauvage” was both provocative and entertaining. Her performance re-enacted the stereotypical colonial fantasies of the audience and helped forge a new artistic movement in a country which has always been regarded as the epitome of artistic liberation.

France, and its colonies always had a troubled relationship, but the founding principles of the French republic, liberty, equality and fraternity allowed black artists like Baker to succeed. Many black artists from America sought out lives and careers in France because racial prejudice and discrimination were firmly entrenched in their home country.

The writer James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948 as he felt demoralised and disillusioned by an America which dehumanised and belittled him. He spent nine years living and working in the country, where he felt free both personally and artistically. The overt racism that was inflicted upon him in America was grinding and merciless, but in France this was conspicuously absent.

The Jazz musician Miles Davis also lived in Paris in 1949 and immediately recognised the cultural freedom and open minded attitudes of the French people. The French celebration of black cultures was a marked contrast to the narrow minded philistinism of Americans.

Art is a unique medium, it can stimulate our imaginations in myriad ways, it can transcend politics and petty attitudes. It does not seek to change society, but it allows those who dare to dream to share their ideals. Josephine Baker once said,

“Surely the day will come when colour means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free when understanding breeds love and brotherhood”.

It might seem hopelessly naive to believe such things could ever happen but art and entertainment are part of a very human need to seek some kind of “oneness” with a deeply fractured world.

Forgetting God

On the 11th December 1918 the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born. His work was widely disseminated and celebrated in the free western countries but he endured censorship and oppression as a Soviet citizen. The Russian revolution was believed by the vanguard to forge total equality on Earth, but this could only be achieved through a series of ideological and physical purges.

There is a bitter irony that lies behind all idealistic thinking, in that for all of the hyperbole about creating this mythical “one world of harmony”, it strips all of the human characteristics that give our lives meaning. Karl Marx once sneered that “religion is the opium of the people” but lacked the foresight to perceive that his own reductive and crude philosophy ultimately had the same effect upon the people who were forced to believe in it.

Solzhenitsyn was more than a Russian writer, he was almost a prophet. He enjoyed the intellectual and personal freedoms of the west as an exile, but like all refugees he longed to return to the country of his birth. He understood that the west was on a path towards progress, but he feared that this relentless pursuit for societal perfection could lead to moral degeneracy.

He outlined all of this in a 1983 speech entitled “Men have forgotten God”. He foresaw that a society solely motivated by personal gains and pleasures becomes spiritually hollow and decadent. The irony is that the west used to laud itself for being morally superior to the east, but now the opposite seems to be happening.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, a spiritual vacuum imbued the populace. The effects of this were starkest in Russia, a unique nation which had lost its entire cultural identity in the wake of the revolutions. The effects are still being felt today, it has led to the rise of populists who are struggling to form cohesion in a fractured and traumatised society.

(Photograph is of Russian mystic and philosopher Aleksandr Dugin).

Vladimir Putin`s vain and almost futile campaign to reclaim Russian imperialism is a consequence of the perceived failures of democracy in the country. He is derided in the west but it is obvious that most of his western critics are shallow hypocrites. It seems really perverse to observe how the world looks now in the 21st century, with the west appropriating the worst elements of Marxist belief and forgetting that there were positive elements to societies before mass industrialisation and scientific progress.

Crossing the Ford of Jabbok:

The Original “Culture War”.

002

“Culture War” has now become a hackneyed phrase which is almost devoid of its actual meaning. It is used in a flippant and trivial way without any real or thoughtful consideration of its origins, which date back to religious persecution in nineteenth century Germany.

001

(Picture is of Cologne Cathedral).

In Biblical times Jacob wrestled with the Angel and this became a pattern of struggle throughout history. There has always been a very real conflict between defending personal conviction or belief against the oppression and dominance of majority opinion.

 

In 1873 the German Government perceived a growing threat from the Catholic Church and they grew sufficiently alarmed by their influence to introduce legislation. These became known as the “Falk Laws”. These laws limited Catholic participation in areas like education. However many priests faced persecution for simply providing religious education in private homes and anyone who assisted them faced fines, arrests and imprisonment. In 1874 the Bishop of Trier Matthias Eberhard died after serving nine months in prison. Other clergy lost their livelihoods entirely.

 

In the face of oppression and persecution many German Catholics sought asylum. In 1875 an emigrant ship bound for New York left from the port of Bremen. The voyage was intended to include Southampton but disaster unfolded when the ship struck a sandbank on the Thames Estuary. All of the 57 passengers who died were German Catholics and this included 5 nuns.

 

It is time that we acknowledged the courage of the real fighters in the culture war and put aside the petty squabbling that is erroneously attributed to a supposed culture war which hasn`t actually lead to persecution and death.

The Sordid Den Of Evil

On the 29th November 1898 C.S Lewis was born. Lewis was so much more than a writer of children’s fables, he was an academic and a philosopher who wrote extensively about theology and the challenges of faith in the modern world. His most prodigious period of work was published in the sixties, a decade associated with an almost militant secularism. However his warnings about western societies divesting themselves of their religious and artistic traditions are remarkably prescient.

The cultural vandalism enacted by the sixties radicals has devastated society. Life in the west today literally has no meaning, as the beliefs that once anchored us have been deliberately destroyed. Lewis` prophecy that the forces of individualism, materialism and mechanisation would have a malign and irreversible effect on future generations has been proven correct. In the age of the Internet there is no appreciation or understanding of the sublime, or of beauty in general because no-one has been taught there is value in such things, only pure rationality and function matters.

Consequently there is a distinct lack of humanity in modern discourse. Humanity, in its essence, is flawed, modern commentators insist that our dealings with each other should be dominated by reason but conveniently ignore the fact that we are not wholly reasoned. Human beings are also sentimental creatures, that is a fundamental part of our nature and we cannot change that fact. Political ideologies like socialism attempt to deny or subvert natural law but they always fail because they have an unrealistic expectation of human perfection. It is also false to claim that there is a dichotomy between science and religion because both are theories that have been subject to evolving debate for centuries.

It is more accurate to claim that there is a dichotomy between objective theories of the material world and the subjective experience of the individual. Science and secularism are perceived to be objective and reflect a universal reality, this has come into conflict with art and religion, specifically Christianity.

The artist believes that there is a more profound meaning to human existence beyond the base biological functions of breathing, eating and excreting and seeks to create beauty for its own sake. Similarly the religious believer, the Christian believes that individual life has an inherent value for its own sake, beyond the instrumental values of working or merely reproducing.

Christians do not deny that human beings can be selfish, lazy, greedy and prone to irrational violence because they have enough insight to realise that this is a unique folly of the species, what is important to them is to strive to be better. Unlike the secular or scientific believers, Christians maintain that good and evil are objective realities and are unchangeable and non negotiable. Murder, for example is an evil act, but modern secular people always seem to find excuses for murderers, pointing towards some material evidence that compelled that person`s behaviour.

It is obvious that attitudes like that have fragmented what is left of our civilization. The traditional values that used to cohere us as a community have withered away and life has just been reduced to our economic and material function. It is pitiful to consider how shallow modern existence appears, but at least we can comfort ourselves in the knowledge that our past had a greater merit.

We Must Dream Of The Promise

On the 25th November, 1970 Yukio Mishima died in a ritual suicide. Mishima was a renowned Japanese writer and actor. He was also a right-wing activist who proposed that Japan should remain uniquely and unapologetically Japanese and resist any foreign influence, especially from America.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

In the West, any death from suicide is regarded as shameful and cowardly, and a clear signal that the deceased individual was too weak to live. However traditional Japanese culture maintains that suicide is ultimately brave and heroic, and anyone prepared to die in that way should command the highest respect.

Mishima`s dramatic exit from this world was an imitation of a Samurai warrior`s last stand. The Samurai were knights in ancient feudal Japan who enjoyed the patronage of the Shogun, the military rulers. Although Japan was officially ruled by an Emperor, his role was largely symbolic, all the main diktats were issued by the Shogunate.

There were absolutist and autocratic codes for everyone in society which covered dress and conduct. This was the way of life for every Japanese citizen for centuries.

However in the nineteenth century western explorers attempted to impose modern systems, but they were met with resistance. The Portuguese were welcomed and briefly tolerated when they introduced new techniques in gun manufacture but their presence became intolerable when attempts were made to convert the Japanese to Christianity.

The resistance against this became increasingly violent, Christians were tortured by various means, some were forced into boiling hot springs, others were plunged into vats of excrement or crucified.

However this did not prevent any further European exploration, but they were not wanted, Dutch traders arrived in the intervening years but they were exiled on a barren island. Eventually the Shogunate issued an order that no overseas trade should take place and every Japanese citizen was to remain on home soil.

The regime was fearful that the precious identity of Japan would disappear, any foreign ship attempting to enter Japan would have to confront thousands of armed Samurai.

This uncompromising vision of Japan’s golden age, evinced through Mishima`s stark prose has attracted praise and revulsion in equal measures, even in the western world which has divested itself of its own proud traditions. Admiration for ancient Asian traditions is a consequence of European fragility.

This seemed apparent nearly a hundred years ago, when the right-wing Italian philosopher Julius Evola began his writing career. He argued that tradition was integral to humanity’s survival and quoted ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts to back his arguments. However, like Mishima, his literary reputation has been overshadowed by his brief involvement with far-right politics.

It is now fashionable to decry writers who are deemed beyond the pale, only by virtue of holding supposedly unpalatable views in a more modern and enlightened age. Such thinking detracts from the power of literature to provoke and question.