Religion & its practical consequences

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company.

To try to make sense of the religious fanaticism that either inspires or serves as a pretext for so much of the violence and destruction we are watching at this moment, I turned to this book, which I had long intended to read. It has been a great pleasure to be in the company of such a rational, good-willed and articulate thinker for nearly 500 pages. I was interested in the subject matter, and amazed by many of the examples he quotes of extreme religious devotion (though the quoted passages are sometimes too tediously extensive), but most of all I was interested in his method. He was working out a way to think rationally about irrational, or supra-rational, experiences.

With a very courteous acknowledgement of "[a]n American philosopher of eminent originality, Mr. Charles Sanders Peirce," he adopts Peirce's name for the method, pragmatism, and paraphrases Peirce's 1878 article laying out its principles. (For a summary of Peirce's thought, see Wikipedia article, Charles Sanders Peirce).

I won't try to summarize the entire book here. That job's well done in the James link below. James is not at all a conventional church-going believer, and confesses that he has no gift for any mystical experience at all. However, unlike such uncompromising atheists as Richard Dawkins (scroll down to 2005/09/25) or Daniel Dennett, he respects the authentic (i.e., not play-acting) prophets and mystics as possessors of a kind of "truth," one which is irrefutably true for them: Santa Teresa, San Juan de la Cruz, George Fox, Joseph Smith, Luther, Gautama Buddha, Mohammed and many others (including the seer I took as my guide during my own, fortunately brief, adolescent religious crisis, Mary Baker Eddy). However, the felt truth of these experiences (visions of God, for example) does not mean they should be accepted as true by anyone who has not personally had them. "The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another," he writes in the 14th lecture, "The Value of Saintliness." (p. 303)

He separates the question of the source of religious vision, which may be anything from an epileptic fit (e.g., St. Paul) to herbal intoxication or simply deep inward reflection, from its "truth," by which he means something like its practical utility. He quotes extensive psychological research (in particular, the studies of a Dr. Starbuck in California) to affirm that "conversion" is an almost universal experience of adolescence, because it is psychologically necessary. By conversion he means a turning away from the chaotic and contradictory messages that assail every young person to find some "process of unification of the self" which always brings "a characteristic sort of relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is cast into the religious mould. Happiness! happiness! religion is only one of the ways in which men gain that gift." (p. 163)

That's because the conversion need not be toward religion. "The new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual's life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic demotion." (163-164) Whatever works for you. For many of us, and apparently for James himself, the "new birth" was into incredulity, i.e., non-believing in a deity. Although James retained some doubt (see his "Conclusions"). After all, his father was a noted Swedenborgian philosopher.

But James is concerned not only about the utility of religious experience for the individual believer, but also about its social utility, its consequences for human society generally. While his language is not entirely clear here, it appears that he does not accept as pragmatic "truth" the kinds of religious sentiment that he calls extreme "Devoutness." "When unbalanced, one of its vices is called Fanaticism. Fanaticism is only loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme. ... The Buddha and Mohammed and their companions and many Christian saints are incrusted with a heavy jewelry of anecdotes which are meant to be honorific, but are simply abgeschmackt and silly, and form a touching expression of man's misguided propensity to praise. ... An immediate consequence of this condition is jealousy for the deity's honor." (310-311) Which leads to such absurdities as the riots over Danish cartoons, or Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's placement of the 2.6-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the state building.

I think James was right to respect the personal truth of serious religious believers, and equally right to insist that their truth need not be anybody else's and certainly should not be imposed on anyone. We all have "spiritual" needs, he thinks -- that is, we need some way to put together our otherwise fragmenting "self."(James' notion of "self" seems to anticipate Dennett's formulation of it as "the center of narrative gravity.") But we don't all need to do it the same way. A coherent atheism, or a "healthy-minded" optimism, or a born-again union with the One, are equally valid ways to achieve the "gift" of "happiness," or integration of the self. Whether they are equally good or not depends on their consequences, not only for ourselves individually but in our actions on behalf of others. Makes sense to me.

For more on James and his writings, see William James in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
And don't neglect the sad story of Alice James, which helps us understand the milieu in which her famous brothers William and Henry were working.


Mexico's enduring election process

It's hard to focus on Mexico while Olmert & Peretz are trying to start the next World War in Lebanon. But maybe they won't succeed, and we in the U.S. can get back to our more usual activities of misunderstanding Mexico and the other countries to our south.

I'm not a big fan of any of the three major candidates in the last election, Calderón, López Obrador or Madrazo. I'm even less enchanted with that master of guerrilla theater, Subcomandante Marcos, but that's another story. However, something very important and very good did happen in this election: despite Andrés Manuel López Obrador's claims of fraud, it was far fairer and more open than any previous election in the country's history. Still, shenanigans undoubtedly did occur, and because the difference between Calderón & AMLO was so slender, a few thousands of recounted votes could change the outcome. And given the history of fraud in previous elections, and AMLO's insistence & his ability to mobilize big crowds, it would be wise for the electoral commission & court to recount.

If I were advising the left in Mexico (so far they haven't asked me), I'd say, Accept the IFE (Instituto Federal Electoral) results and take your huge electoral success, the largest vote ever for a party of the left, to create an effective opposition. President Calderón is going to need your votes to get anything passed in Congress. And you (the PRD, the leftish party that AMLO comes from) won again in Mexico City, which in itself is a tremendous power base. Maybe in 6 years the PRD and allies can win the presidency, but more important than that is to build effective governments in the states and localities where you won, and to become an effective force in parliament.

Cartoon by Ángel Carreño in today's El Universal

The Lebanese Bloggers

Now here's a site that gets lots of comments! A blow-by-blow account of the Israeli attacks by people on the ground. The Lebanese Bloggers. And here are the views from the Israeli side: News from Israel, Ynetnews - Two-Front War

The escalation of violence-- "asymmetrical," with suicide bombers & small-scale kidnappings on one side, aviation, tanks, aerial assassinations and more massive kidnappings of whole families and of legislators on the other -- is unsustainable, I'm sure. The two sides are fighting by different rules and with different objectives, and it appears that both are losing. The Israeli government announces that its aim is to force the Palestinians and Hezbullah to cease rocket attacks and other harassment, but since the people they are punishing are not (usually) the ones who are conducting the attacks, and since there are so many younger recruits ready to follow the martyrs' example, the destruction of homes, power plants and lives is useless. Hamas (especially its out-of-country military leadership) and Hezbullah want to exact enough revenge on the Israelis to make them desist the bombings, etc., and that obviously isn't working either -- again, because their usual victims are simple Israeli citizens and young soldiers, not the well-protected politicians who are ordering the carnage. Something's got to give, because so far both sides are losing. Maybe a radical political change in Israel, maybe a shift in policy & some more forceful intervention by the European Union, or Russia, maybe even a change in U.S. policy now that it is clear to everybody (except Cheney & Co.) that the Iraq war is a disaster and that we won't be able to salvage anything there unless we also address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Israel's failed-state strategy | Salon.com

And this is a very intelligent analysis, as we have come to expect from Juan Cole. Israel's failed-state strategy | Salon.com. Thanks to Danny Schechter's "News Dissector" at Media Channel for this and the other news links I've posted today.

Iraqi rape by Marine no big deal, says Sowell

HUMAN EVENTS ONLINE - Biased Reporting by Thomas Sowell. After all, as the Chinese People's Liberation Army writer noted (see below), war is what has made America strong, so a little collateral damage like mayhem abroad is of little consequence.

Watching America

Watching America: "Perpetually looking for enemies, playing up crises and sending out troops to take military action has become the core and very essence of American culture and strategic thinking." From an op-ed article from China's military-controlled Jiefang Junbao [People's Liberation Army] newspaper. Unfortunately, it sounds true to me. The historical and sociological question it raises is, How did this come about, in a country that declared at its founding "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind"?


Madness seen from within

Bond, Alma H. Camille Claudel: A Novel. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2006.

"In my humble opinion, a woman who hasn't been made love to by a sculptor hasn't been made love to at all." (p. 119)

Camille Claudel (1864-1943) is remembered for her exquisite and emotionally disturbing sculptures, for her passionate 10-year love affair and complex professional relationship with Auguste Rodin, and the utter insanity of her last three decades, when she was persuaded that Rodin was out to destroy her and steal her work and ideas. This treatment of her intense, tortured life is very effectively written from her own, increasingly paranoid point of view. She is supposedly writing this account herself, in the last months of her life, on scraps of paper supplied her by a sympathetic nurse in the Montdevergues Asylum for the insane. The reader must accept the impossible premise that someone who has been so mad for so long could write so coherently, but will probably do so willingly; this is a literary device for understanding a brilliant, paranoid woman's world as she herself sees it. She is a classically unreliable narrator, but her paranoia did have some basis in fact. She clearly was a victim of stultifying anti-erotic and antifeminist attitudes, including those of her provincial mother and her super-Catholic reactionary brother, the writer Paul Claudel. And Rodin no doubt did steal some of her ideas, though on the whole he seems to have treated her better than most of the men she dealt with. Alma Bond's experience as a psychoanalyst and her deep familiarity with the Parisian artistic milieu of the period make the fantastic premise a tool for uncovering what feels like psychological truth. And it's very sexy, as was la petite Claudel.

For examples of her work, see Some Beautiful (If Tortured) Works
of Camille Claudel
and these shots of L'age mûr (The Age of Maturity)

For more biographical details and chronology (with photos) in French, see Biographie de Camille Claudel. There you will find images of Oeuvres graphiques (sketches), Sculptures, Liens (links) and much else. There is also a musical about her.

Readers may also enjoy my story about another artist in Paris, exactly 10 years before the 17-year old Camille got there: Courbet and the Red Virgin.

At top: Photo of Camille as a young woman; her bust of Rodin


No further ado

Upon further reflection, I've decided not to insist on creating "conversation" here. Cyberspace is the wrong medium, and if I keep badgering you to say something and then feel obliged to pursue whatever comes up, I might as well change the name of this blog to "Further Ado." Which would in fact be an appropriate name for many blogs.

This one however is returning to its main focus, "Literature & society." I'll continue to post mainly about texts (including movies, novels, etc.) that tell us something about how societies work. If an e-exchange happens, fine, I welcome your comments. But I'm not going to push it. If my own posts are any good, the interesting conversation will be occurring in your head.