Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Religion for Athiests by Alain de Botton

I bought this book on a whim, since it seemed to be about something that I trouble to think about quite a lot - the disappearance of religious belief and what, if anything, should replace it. It was a well justified whim; this is a lovely, mellow, intriguing book.

Perhaps best to begin with the author's style. I read his The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and enjoyed it so much that I sent it to my brother, since it was written with the gentle but telling irony so familiar to him. The format of Pleasures and Sorrows is similar to this book - clever and thoughtful pieces of writing, interleaved with black and white photographs that complement the text and, actually, illustrate its meaning. There must be a name in the publishing world for this sort of book, so different from the 'plates' approach, where pictures are stuck in the middle and need to be referred to by some sort of process that takes you out of the flow of the text. The pictures here are not 'plates', printed on a glossier type of paper, but just photographs or photomontages printed as if it was all part of the same, seamless weave.

But the writing style is also consistent. Deep, observational, factual and, well....philosophical. De Botton is, at least in the UK, seen as that rarity: a thinker or public philosopher. Each short section contains a few sentences of aphoristic prose, some of which really  make you sit up and take notice. For instance:

"In essence, religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life."

Or, even better:

"Ultimately, the purpose of all education is to save us time and spare us errors. It is a mechanism......to inculcate in society's members , within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.

Secular society has proved itself ready enough to accept the logic of this mission in relation to scientific and technical knowledge. It sees nothing to regret in the fact that a university student ....will in a matter of months be able to learn as much as Faraday ever knew and in a couple of years may be pushing at the outer limits of Einstein's unified field theory.

Yet this selfsame principle, which seems at once so obvious and so inoffensive in science, tends to be met with extraordinary opposition when applied to wisdom; to insights related to the self-aware and moral stewardship of the soul."

The style is also humorous and self-deprecating. Diffident and tentative, almost; not didactic or patronising.

He makes some very interesting points about life in modern western society. Some examples:

  • Most people are at best embarrassed and at worst angered by religious exhortations in signs or in leaflets. I know I am. But we are actually bombarded with messages from companies telling us to behave differently, to value ourselves and other things differently, to hold particular attitudes. But we do not object to this at all. Why? 

  • Museums and galleries carry out some of the same roles, in modern secular societies, as churches. They are places for reflection and the contemplation of depths and perspectives outside our daily experience. But they are organised in accordance with academic categories, like 'Early Renaissance" or "Cubism and Dada". Why not arrange objects or artworks in line with the meanings and purposes they share, like 'insights to the self' or 'mankind's place in the cosmos'? Would this not serve these needs for contemplation and perspective more adequately?

  • Religions of all kinds use institutions to promote, reinforce and control their teachings. Yet the secular equivalent, an ethical world view or a philosophy of life, is left to the a cottage industry of individuals. So a Kant or a Neitzsche communicates through a handful of obscure books, read by a few academics. While the Catholic Church deports vast resources over millennia. Could the secular thinkers not do with some institutional support, too?

I was waiting for him to say something, as I neared the end of the book, of the attempt during the French Revolution to create a new religion, called I think the Cult of the Supreme Being. Instead, he writes about the fascinating Auguste Comte, who seems in a number of ways to have been de Botton's intellectual ancestor. He created a secular religion, complete with icons and worship, in the first half of the nineteenth century. He identified secular saints, like Shakespeare and Descartes, who could inspire awe and admiration simply by their talents. According to de Botton, his big mistake was to call it a 'religion', and it never got off the ground. A 'church' was however built in an apartment in Paris some decades later, by a group of enthusiasts and it survives to this day.

So, a nicely written, thoughtful book, enjoyable to read and very thought provoking. Recommended.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

In the popular imagination (well, 'popular' might be overstating the breadth of her appeal) Wharton is associated with novels of early 20th century New York manners and this book is certainly part of that oeuvre. The film of a few years' ago, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in black frock coat and voluminous skirts respectively, probably reinforces the notion that this is a book about the straitjacket of social convention. It is; but it is about many other things too.

I read the Penguin Popular Classics edition, so there were no notes. But, unlike a book by Henry James, who was apparently a bit of a mentor to Wharton, this was not a problem. Her style is deceptively simple and direct. I am sure there were some contemporary references that might have been interesting to know about. But, overall, the book is a straightforward, beautifully written read.

So what is about, apart from the suffocating social mores of a New York trying to be like 'Old Europe' but really being something quite different? Well, in no particular order: the stupidity and narcissism of men; the depths of the human soul that are not divinable even by those closest to us; the emotional self indulgence and sense of entitlement that come with great wealth; and, actually, the positive side of social convention. That is, the framework it gives us to navigate life's greatest trials by pretending we are actually thinking and talking about something quite different. A bit like a poet using the sonnet form, I suppose - the demands of the structure bring out the best in us.

This is not a long book but it is an excellent one and, for this reader anyway, not one that has dated all that much.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal

I enjoyed the first volume of Vidal's memoirs, Palimpsest. So this was a natural progression. He is funny and acerbic and is, based on both books, one of the best connected and most intellectual people in America.  The text is enhanced by some good photographs of people, which lend credibility to some of his more spectacular name drops. A typical passage would be "I only met Barack Obama once, when he came to seek my advice on public speaking and to consult me on a very obscure aspect of Democratic party politics. He was droll and clearly gifted but an extrapolator, not an interpreter." There is a lot of that sort of thing. He tells how the last time he saw Jackie Kennedy was in a lift in a Paris hotel, when she cut him dead. Perhaps she didn't recognise him - but that would not have been conceivable for Gore Vidal.

The best parts of the book are about his lifetime partner, Howard Auster, and his death. And his enjoyment of life in Italy, at their house in Ravello.

It feels a little bit disjointed, like memories plucked out and recounted if not at random, then with only loose connections. But he is a good companion and has had a fascinating life. I might try one of his novels. He has been a prolific writer of novels, sceeenplays and other works and he has seen a lot of life.

It does not feel like the most consequential of memoirs; but is entertaining.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

I came to this book because I enjoyed Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter so much. This book is equally good but is completely different. It describes the end of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I confess I knew nothing of this thoroughly nasty regime, which ended with Trujillo's assassination in 1961 and this episode forms the centrepiece of the narrative in this book. It is beautifully constructed novel, the same events being seen from several different points of view and different points in time. The dictator's death (I am not giving away any plot twists here, since it is a historical fact) occurs at exactly the middle of the novel. So half of it is about the preparations and half about the bloody and terrible aftermath,

There is a carefully developed sense of foreboding that runs throughout the novel and it is resolved at the end. The pieces all fall very nicely into place, from a narrative perspective.

I don't know much at all about Latin America and the Caribbean. I have never been there. So the atmosphere created by the writer, the heat, the edginess, the unpredictability, were enjoyably exotic and, at the same time, very believable.

The book contains a lot of scenes of cruelty and inhumanity and paints a convincing picture of how power corrupts and blurs moral boundaries. The writer is insightful about human nature; one can even feel empathy with the Trujillo he describes, vain and cruel but also suffering from the onset of age and the failing of his faculties, especially those so important to his macho self image.

The best word for this book is gripping. It really grabs you and wraps you up in its unfolding story. Great read.