The Technological Savage

The Technological Savage

(Published in the Dublin Review of Books, December 2017)

In 1983 the world came within a whisker of nuclear Armageddon when Soviet satellite photos mistakenly revealed NATO missiles in the sky. Only the impulsive refusal of Russian officer Stanislav Petrov to believe his eyes prevented mutually assured destruction being set in train. Now a US President threatens to ‘totally destroy’ another nuclear-armed country – with twenty-five million inhabitants – using the same technology. Evisceration by mistake or design, it hardly matters to the millions of people and other life forms caught in the conflagration. It just takes one fat finger to push the button, or for that matter to pull the trigger on conventional weapons widely available to citizens of the dominant superpower.

Armed with such weapons, it is hard to rebut Carl Jung’s charge that modern man is a ‘technological savage’. He believed this stemmed from denial of a primitive or primordial self, previously expressed in religious rituals and popular rites. Instead the intellectual zeitgeist is an ideal of infinite progress that permits rapid digestion of the planet, with scientists often oblivious to the consequences of their innovations. Homo sapiens has long displayed destructive tendencies, and, armed with our latest tools, we wreak unprecedented environmental havoc, while mistakenly assuming that technological advances improve our collective decision-making. How we chart a course for humanity requires different lenses, as Yuval Noah Hariri points out in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Hariri: ‘by definition it [science] has no pretensions to knowing what should be in future. Only religions and ideologies seek to answer such questions.’ Science must be reconciled to these objectives.

Nuclear proliferation after World War II raised the stakes such that Nuclear Powers have not waged war with one another since Japan was bombed into submission in 1945. Instead, we saw proxy conflicts from Greece to Afghanistan throughout the Cold War, and further peripheral engagements since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but none between members of the nuclear ‘club’, or their allies. No wonder the leader of a ‘rogue’ state should wish to join the top table, having witnessed the grizzly fate of other ruling regimes previously stigmatised. But if we are to take the hectoring ‘leader of the free world’ at his word, even nuclear capability may no longer confer immunity.

Nevertheless, Hariri proposes that ‘the Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have gone to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the Atomic Bomb’. He admits the assessment may be naïve and, since the success of Trump and other ‘morons’, that seems increasingly so. One psychotic leader – and democracy is no guarantee against this coming about as the Nazis electoral success underlines – or just a technological glitch, could unleash a dread spectre. There is also the possibility of a nuclear power station malfunctioning, as we saw in Chernobyl; or being subjected to a natural disaster, such as a the tidal wave that washed over Fukushima; or even a reactor being attacked by terrorists. Nuclear fission is intrinsically dangerous, and its by-products almost eternally toxic.

The end of the Cold War represented our best chance of decommissioning these horrendous weapons, but this was not given serious consideration, as the United States of States took on the role of Global Policeman, with Britain acting as its obsequious sidekick. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 spelt the demise of a lingering hope for multilateralism.

Now the majority of politicians in Britain, including in the Labour Party, consider nuclear capability a totem of national sovereignty, and funnel billions into the Trident programme. The once mighty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament barely flickers; its logo a vaguely nostalgic reminder of student idealism. The recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons seems more of an expression of the aspirations of the Committee than a reflection of that NGOs ability to enter popular consciousness.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (1818) is a great parable for our time, in which a bionic monster torments his master for failing to acknowledge his responsibility. It spawned a new genre in science fiction, which grapples with technological advances in a way novels usually no longer attempt. ‘At the time’, according to Amitav Ghosh, ‘there does not seem to have been any sense that Frankenstein belonged outside the literary mainstream, only later would it come to be regarded as the first great work of science fiction’.

The book’s disarming implication is of profound monstrosity lurking, not in an impressionable invention, but in humanity itself. The invention is neither beneficial nor harmful, but a reflection of the human world in which it co-exists. Victor Frankenstein’s creature is born with a pure heart, and it is only when his friendly overtures towards humans are rudely rebuffed that his diabolical tendencies are unleashed. Towards the end of the book he reveals: ‘When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair’.

Abandoned by his creator and without a friend in the world the monster casts a long shadow, killing members of Victor’s family. Crestfallen, Victor eventually consents to build a mate in exchange for an end to this reign of terror. But at the last moment he destroys her, shuddering to think that ‘future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race.’ In revenge the monster kills Victor’s own wife on their wedding night. United in grief, Victor meets his doom in a the polar wastes as he vainly pursues that shadow.
Finally, over Victor’s corpse the monster announces:

I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.

Through Victor’s belated self-sacrifice the genii is put inside the bottle, and humanity might endure. If only it was so easy.

A host of Hollywood potboilers have followed the same theme of the destructive capacity of scientific innovation. One such was the Terminator series which posited a nuclear calamity brought on by rebellious robots, who acquire the most diabolical human traits. A succession travel back in time to eradicate John Connor, the future human leader of the human resistance, along with his doughty mother, Sarah Connor.

In Terminator II (1991) the leading engineer of cyborg technology Miles Bennett Dyson takes responsibility for his work and abets the destruction of the technology, dying, like Victor Frankenstein, in the process. A further parallel with the novel is that at the end of the film the benign robot, played by Arnold Schwarzneigger, demands his own destruction in a pool of molten metal, exultantly fading away in the “light of that conflagration”.

In both cases catharsis arrives only when the inventor acknowledges responsibility. In the real world such foresight is scarcely possible, and once a technological frontier is crossed only rarely is a reversal possible: scientific advances often serve simply to amplify our destructive capacity, even if the original motivation is speculative.

Thus, although the unprecedented breakthroughs in physics during the early part of the twentieth century were motivated by a genuinely enquiring spirit, these developments permitted less scrupulous scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, and allowed even less scrupulous politicians to deploy it. Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to use the Atomic Bomb (1995) presents compelling evidence that President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State Harry S. Bryant ordered bombs to be dropped on Horoshima and Nagasaki not to defeat Japan, but as a warning to the Soviet Union; and that General Marshall’s proposal to drop it on a non-civilian target was ignored. Geologists date the beginning of the Anthropocene from this point, and it is worthwhile considering human history in terms of ‘the before and after’ this terrifying exhibition of this technology.

History reveals that once one power acquires a new weapon whether it is the horse, the canon or the machine gun, the rest will follow or face annihilation. Rarely, if ever, is a military technology put aside. Moreover, even if an innovation is designed for the benefit of humanity it may well have devastating side-effects, as we are discovering with innovations such as the Haber-Bosch process that manufactures artificial fertilizer from natural gas.

This appeared to solve the age-old problem of field crops depleting nitrogen from the soil, and farmers having to keep fields periodically fallow. In combination with mechanization and improved breeding it brought the so-called Green Revolution that permitted exponential population growth over the course of the twentieth century. But besides seemingly solving the problem of global food scarcity we created another in feeding over half of all cereal crops to other animals, and developing an insatiable desire for meat. This has reduced much of the world to a patchwork of fields that rely on chemical inputs for life, and billow Greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Similarly, the Internet is an invention with extraordinary capacities for expanding awareness and knowledge, but social media has facilitated surreptitious methods of influencing voter behaviour. The current US President is a master of the short written form of the tweet, and his allies have also used Facebook to devastating effect. Unknowingly, the earnest scientific minds that developed the Internet have created an propagandistic monster, which threatens nuclear Armageddon.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that advances in scientific education elevate human consciousness. Expressing the optimism of the Enlightenment in The Descent of Man Charles Charles Darwin proposes that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”:

Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals.

Of course there is some substance to Darwin’s claim. Over the course of the last century the chance of someone dying in violent circumstances has diminished significantly. The archaeological evidence from prehistory suggests far more of us were killed in violent circumstances than is the case in most societies today. Life for the foraging homo sapiens was generally nasty and brutish, though rather less short than one might expect. The restricted diets of early agricultural civilisation, which also brought most communicable diseases from animal husbandry, lowered life expectancy considerably. But as for our relationship with so-called lower animals, that is another story: one of unremitting devastation.

Most creation myths hark back to a Fall before which our species lived in balance with Nature. Some contemporary versions imagine us living like bonobos, playing erotic games from dawn and dusk, as we swung through trees in search of sweet fruits. But well before the Industrial Revolution, or even the first Agricultural Revolution that produced civilisation just about twelve thousand years ago, homo sapiens had embarked on our wild career of ecocide.

An ability to utilise fire gave all hominoid species, including homo Neanderthalensis, a Promethean capacity to alter the landscape unlike any animal up to that point, but homo sapiens also exhibited an unprecedented tendency to wipe out large fauna, once we preserved a bridgehead out of Africa.

We began by eradicating bigger-brained relatives such as homo Neanderthalensis and homo Denisovan – although we acquired a few of their genes along the way – before hunting large fauna such as the Woolly Mammoth to extinction. Worse followed when we announced our arrival in the Americas and Australia by wiping out most large – many of them apparently docile – fauna within a short period of our arrival. As Hariri puts it: ‘the historical record makes homo sapiens look like an ecological killer’.

According to Hariri what distinguished homo sapiens from other hominoids is a capacity to invent fictions that are vital for togetherness. Such mythologies survive in modern societies, not just in religious worship, but also in legal fictions such as the separate legal personality of companies and the imagined communities of nation-states. A conceit also underlies trust in the money economy where the actual amount in coins and notes in circulation is less than ten per cent of the notional amount that keeps commerce afloat.

Moreover, we maintain the myth that we are, for the most part, doing ‘good’ in the world. But we cannot get away from the shocking casualties that our success as a species has brought to others. We are now living through the Sixth Extinction, but it is hardly considered newsworthy.

There are now over seven billion humans in world which have a combined weight 300 million tonnes, while other animals domesticated by humans weigh up to 700 million tonnes. All other surviving large wild animals (including marine life and birds) weigh a mere 100 million tonnes. That is a ratio of ten to one between the human world and wild animals.

Also, the conditions in which most domesticated animals now live and die is one of unrelenting torture. In Hariri’s plausible view: ‘over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.’ We may not be killing and maiming one another to the same extent, but technology allows us to distance ourselves from unspeakable exploitation of domesticated animals, while eradicating the habitats of most wild animals. Eventually as Hariri indicates, this ‘orgy of reckless consumption’, may destroy the foundations of human prosperity too. That is what many Climate Scientists are predicting at least. Is it too late to turn the ship around?

There is no easy way out of the pickle that humanity finds itself in. No bride of Frankenstein’s monster can be sacrificed on the funeral pyre. We cannot return to subsistence in restored forests, as these would never support our present numbers. Traditional methods of farming are not going to feed us either. The scientific revolution and the discovery by Europeans of new continents has got us into the mess we are in, and science has to dig out a way for us. Synthetic meats and clean energy are viable alternative, but we need to alter the terms of the relationship between science and other fields.

According to the philosopher Mary Midgely: ‘the very word ‘science’ which had originally meant knowledge or understanding in general, gradually became narrowed during the nineteenth century to mean only physical science’ She argues that if we are to deal with major questions we will have to combine ‘several different methods belonging to different disciplines.’ She charges the Pythagoreans with rejecting an Earth Mother in favour of disembodied mathematical forms in the physical world. Pythagoreans identified intuitive female qualities as evil, and good ones as rationally masculine, a tendency exhibited by scientists ever since, so she argues.

The prevailing narrow focus tends towards abstractions that ignores a wider assessment of consequences. The success of a polymath such as Aristotle is today unthinkable. Specialisation has reached a point where according to Richard Feynman: ‘There are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two department of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other’. Similarly, Einstein wrote that ‘specialisation in every sphere of intellectual work … is producing an ever-widening gulf between the intellectual worker and the non-specialist worker’, adding that ‘since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself any more’!

Scientists who go into great depth on a particular subject may lose sight of the implications of their innovations, just as Victor Frankenstein chose to ignore what he had done. We also face the huge problem of funding being directed by short-term commercial gain, and the influence of lobbyists on government investment. As Hariri puts it: ‘many scientists do, in fact, act out of pure intellectual curiosity. However, only rarely do scientists dictate the scientific agenda.’ The education system as it is currently ordered ill-equips them for this role.

Any scientific education should be linked to an appreciation of the arts which lay bare the human condition and imagine a multiplicity of realities. Therein lies the key to charting the future. Thus Aristotle writes that ‘it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen’. A broader education should also encourage artists to become more scientifically literate, perhaps giving rise to new creative forms. In return scientists will be afforded the creative vision of art to plot a route for humanity out of the impending crises we face. The artist and the scientist may work as one.

More controversially, it is still possible to envisage a place for religion in the modern world as we seek to temper an innate savagery that has harnessed technology. As Laurens van der Post puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ The progress that Darwin observed in human empathy originates in large part from religious sensibility, seen in its widest terms. A dogmatic atheism is alien to our nature.

But religious devotion has erred terribly in venerating ourselves as God’s chosen species over the rest of Nature. Monotheist religions in particular must accept a broader responsibility, as the current Pope Francis has done, at least in part. We demand a Reformation in the human spirit to save us from intellectual savagery. The portents are monstrous. Either we come to terms with technological barbarity, or we face annihilation.

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‘Immanent in the Landscape’

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.

These include the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’; ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ which offers a fleeting glimpse of pre-Christian beliefs; ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’ interpreted as a Christian parable; and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ that foreshadows the disintegration of Gaelic civilisation. These subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cualígne, that has tended to adorn the nationalist self-image.

Defining the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods, has long proved elusive to scholars. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that ‘there is bright colour but no sense’, although the elves of his Lord of the Rings were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of the archaeological evidence of a contiguous ‘Celtic’ culture associated with excavations from La Téne in modern-day Switzerland.

Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:

“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries.”

Efforts to taxonomize the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century; the early W.B. Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales.

The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the vision of an unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the varied manifestations of the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.

Williams speculates that the gods of the Irish prior to the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated by a Christianity that brought literacy; the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences ‘immanent in the landscape’. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.

It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless re-casting of indigenous tropes.

It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. It was believed that as fallen beings we cannot approach noesis (eschatological knowledge) directly; a position akin to physicists in the quantum realm contending with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thus, rather than viewing Christianity as a monolithic, deadening force, in earlier times at least, it seemed to bring a refined admixture to a disorderly civilisation. Moreover, scholars were also acquainted with Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony beloved of poets.

As when two ocean plates collide to produce an effluxion in life, a great cultural ferment characterised the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents. It is evident that individual genius is expressed within the context of a particular society, and Williams discerns among the literati of the time a sense that they were playing their part in a rather special movement. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular literature arose in Ireland, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as ‘an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity’, distinguished by ‘moments of ferocious weirdness’. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to address these issues when direct criticism could have proved dangerous, and artistically limiting.

Irish filid (poets) held expertise in memorialization of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, unusually for the time, aspects of their educations overlapped. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. More than simply entertainers, they were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; Percy Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in other words.

These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: ‘They were expert in the grammatical analysis … in the highly formalized rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know.’ Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.

‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ (Cath Maige Tuired) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the so-called Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). Applying my own Jungian analysis – especially relying on Laurens van der Post’s excellent treatment in Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) – to the saga may be useful to the reader, and I think suggest Williams’s wide ranging approach offers an invitation for new readings.

It consists of a series of fantastical episodes of enduring interest. We meet a Tuatha Dé exhausted by impossible labours and tributes after the half-Formorian Bres becomes high king. He had replaced Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle. We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions him a prosthetic silver limb in its place. In the meantime, Diancecht’s son Miach begins to heal Nuada’s real severed arm, but the father prefers his own methods and surgically kills his son by removing his brain. Miach is buried by his sister Airmed and from his grave sprout three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs, which she orders in her cloak. Diancecht has other ideas, however, scattering the herbs, each of whose value would remain obscure.
In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more effective Complimentary approach, the poet may be suggesting that the best healing comes from within the body itself, while the scattering of the healing herbs could represent ignorance of the cures available in Nature. It is also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its secrets, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, where human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfilment of René Descartes’s Dualistic idea of a homunculus controlling a mechanical body.

The ‘Second Battle’ parades scenes of Rabelaisian excess, especially involving one character, the Dagda, who undertakes a mission inside the territory of the Formorians. There he meets a distortion of hospitality, whereby he is compelled to consume vast quantities of porridge to a point where is belly is the size of a cauldron. Afterwards he must loosen his bowels before sexual congress with a Formorian princess. In Williams own ‘less genteel’ translation: ‘The girl jumped on him and whacked him across the arse, and her curly bush was revealed. At that point the Dagda gained a mistress, and they had sex’. Smutty Irish humour has long antecedents.

The Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, and the audience themselves. The Formorians are an external force that corrupt and indebt the native inhabitants, a narrative familiar to contemporary Ireland. However, the half-Formorian Bres is eventually succeeded by Lug who is also of mixed parentage. Yet he combines all the highest attributes of the áes dána. Lug and Bres differ in that the former’s father is Tuatha Dé and his mother Formorian, while the latter’s ancestry is the reverse. This might appear simply as an expression of approval for patriarchal bias, but we may divine an enriching symbolic meaning by seeing a favourable balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry being struck between the thrusting, will to power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side with the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s. He achieves wholeness when, paradoxically, the female characteristics arrive through a dominant male parentage wherein the thrusting Formorian energies are contained (Mf:Fm = Fm). Bres differs in that the ‘male’ Formorian outlook remains ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé female energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).

There is another fascinating scene after the Formorians are vanquished when Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing that the Tuatha Dé should plant crops four times a year. Lug recognises this as impossible, or unsustainable, and only spares his foe when he reveals how the men of Ireland could operate a plough. According to Williams: ‘the Formorians in the saga are characterized by a monstrously exploitative and unnatural relationship to the organic world, in a strange anticipation of contemporary agri-business’. This may be so, but Lug’s character also has a Formorian dimension, that, crucially, is contained positively by his (Fm) parentage. Similarly, in this episode, when Bres’s knowledge is refined from the approach of ploughing the earth four times a year, we find he confers a crucial skill. The relationship between the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians may also have been a commentary on the benefit of accommodating the skills of Norse raiders who brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing, alongside carnage.

There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to bring a task to fruition but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. We might extend this further by allusion to the nefarious consequences of the contemporary separation of religion from science. As Laurens van der Post in his excellent study of Carl Jung puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb. We could also draw an analogy with the unfavourable balance between the roles struck between the two hemispheres of the brain at present, persuasively argued in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Formorian represents left-sided, ‘male’, singular focus, the Tuatha Dé holistic, female, right-sided awareness.

‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magic spells, featuring perhaps the greatest femme fatale in Irish literature. Based on recurring shape-shifting, we find hints of belief in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – preceding Christianity. Only fully translated in 1930, the tale was beloved of Revivalists such as Yeats, who found there imagery to stir any poetic imagination. Here the Tuatha Dé are reduced from the giants of the ‘Second Battle’ to ethereal síde, ‘faeries’, living in síd mounds, familiar in folklore today.

When Midir of the Tuatha Dé demands that Aengus his foster son gives him the most beautiful woman in Ireland in compensation for the infliction of an accidental injury trouble begins. She is Étaín whom Aengus earns by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Midir, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach who does not take kindly to the new arrival, turning her into a giant bluebottle through a magic spell. Even in this altered state Midir finds fulfilment in her company, and the divine Calliphora vomitoria performs various miracles along the way. Furious, Fúamnach summons great winds to drive Midir’s buzzing consort away. Eventually, exhausted, she falls into the drink of a woman who swallows her and becomes pregnant, reproducing Étaín 1,002 years after her original birth. The beauty is then married off to another high king of Ireland Eochu. Unfortunately his brother Ailill upon setting eyes on Étaín falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon his health begins to return. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín agrees to an amorous exchange, but insists, for the sake of propriety, this should not take place under the king’s roof. In the meantime, the apparently immortal Midir puts Ailill to sleep and assumes his form, explaining to Étaín their ancient love when they meet. She agrees to give it another go, but only if Eochu agrees to sell her. Naturally he refuses, only for Midir to win her from him in a game of chess after bluffing for the first few rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape together. In response Eochu orders his men to dig up every síd mound in the country. At this stage Midir plays a trick on him by returning a replica of Étaín, who it transpires is actually Eochu’s daughter, Étaín having been pregnant with her.

Eochu’s fate is in an interesting inversion of the Oedipus myth, and echoes Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious whereby ignorance and unawareness carry the greatest offence. As van der Post puts it: ‘in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance where it serves as representative of inner unawareness.’ In this tale the folly lies in denying the expression of love, especially when the Tuatha Dé are involved. Nevertheless Étaín is a moral exemplar bound by social conventions whereby she refuses to dishonour Eochu’s home by fornicating with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of voicing innermost feelings. Also, Étaín only agrees to return to Midir if Eochu consents. Having lost Étaín in chess he welches on the bet and is punished by unconsciously committing the taboo of incest. The enduring image is of two swans, who in nature mate for life, escaping through the skylight. The idea of beauty inhabiting the generally disparaged bluebottle attests to a joyful relationship with Nature. As the Eesha-Upanishad says: ‘Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.’

From 900 there is a shift in the name of the Túatha Dé, crystallizing as Túatha Dé Danann ‘the Peoples of the Goddess Danu’ in about 1200 which Williams suggests may have been ‘a deliberate attempt at inducing mental estrangement’. In the later medieval we find pseudo-histories such as ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn) c.1150 which tells the story of Ireland and its various waves of settlers and invaders from the time of Noah’s Flood to the era of the Gaels or ‘Milesians’, meaning the ethnic Irish themselves. Here the Tuatha Dé are stripped of godlike qualities and instead imagined as a race of pagan necromancers preceding the Gaels. Historicising the Tuatha Dé also winnowed the creative possibilities available to poets, and Irish language literature thereafter fails to scale the earlier heights.

The Tuatha Dé become darker presences usually associated with human failings.
Suspicion extends to their bewitching music. In one episode of the ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ (Accalam na Senórach) c.1220 the character of St. Patrick expresses these reservations: ‘‘Good it was,’ said Patrick, ‘were it not indeed for the magical melody of the síd in it.’ Yet their creative presence is still acknowledged in traditional Irish music: the word for session is derived from síde.

‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Lir) c.1450 is a tale familiar to most Irish people. The story involves a wicked step-mother Aoife whose magic transforms Lir’s two sets of twins from his first wife into swans. Forced to endure what is portrayed as an unhappy fate their resolve is strengthened by one of them, Fionnghuala, who seems to have an inner knowledge of Christian revelation. Eventually they meet a saintly monk called Mochaomhóg who baptises them whereupon the spell is broken, and they become withered old human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this tale to the earlier ‘Wooing of Étaín’ where the shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative form of escape into a wild nature. According to van der Post:

“the bird always and everywhere from Stone-Age man to Stravinsky has been the image of the inspiration, the unthinkable thought which enters our selves like a bird unsolicited out of the blue, it was for Jung … one of the signs of confirmation from nature that sustain the spirit in its search for enlightenment and emancipation from the floating world of appearances.”

In ‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ a censorious cage is placed over the bird of imaginative possibilities, which fitted neatly the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, a lifeless human form is preferred as long as salvation is available from the one true Apostolic Church.

‘The Tragic Deaths of Children of Tuireann’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann) c.1500 returns to the subject-matter of the ‘Second Battle of Moytura’, but at this point internal rivalry bedevils the Tuatha Dé, leading to the murder of Cian, the father of Lug, by the sons of Tuireann. The sons attempt to bury Cian’s mangled remains six times but each time the earth rejects his body, illustrating Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious where nature itself rises up against a nefarious deed. This idea is also found in Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin where a murdered husband haunts the landscape of those responsible for the deed, his wife and her lover who are driven to commit suicide together.

Lug intuits that the sons are responsible for the deed and succeeds in gaining a commitment for them to pay éric, the legal compensation for homicide. Unsurprisingly the sons meet a sorry fate in their quests to satisfy this, but perhaps more interesting is the depiction of the Tuatha Dé as an enfeebled race incapable of contending with the Formorians. The illusion to the fractious politics of that period is obvious, and as Gaelic Irish culture crumbled after the Tudor conquest and subsequent plantations the vibrancy of the gods diminished, until their resuscitation, ironically, via descendants of their conquerors.

The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry (1900) Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:

These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’

Yeats, however, felt: ‘Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry’. Perhaps he believed he could offer greater authenticity in his verse through his childhood contact with fairy-lore in his mother’s country Sligo, alongside his continued investigations.

Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life) as he found there vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical, and, importantly, Hindu models. In Yeats’s view: ‘Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement.’

As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds which emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal opportunities enchanters that make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.

Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: ‘Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity.’ It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged: ‘Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922, except to vent a repressed sexuality in the work of Liam O’Flaherty and Austin Clarke. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete Finnegans Wake should he expired before doing so. Sadly, most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language.

It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late twentieth century Irish literature coincides with a loss of vividness and magical elements. Thus, in John McGahern’s novel Among Women, perhaps the most famous Irish novel of the second half of the twentieth century, we find a realist portrayal of rural life that is bereft of fantastical imagery. This reflects a wider cultural shift as van der Post bemoaned: ‘The free exercise of fantasy which is the imagination unsevered from its instinctive roots at play, has gone from literature and art’.

Williams suggests that a mythology: ‘furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant’. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural. Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious minds; which is as real as any other observed phenomenon, especially through the work of Jung, who analysed 67,000 dreams, we can approach an understanding of a common and elusive inheritance.

It is also worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’. He claimed that: ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Jung also identified supernatural belief with wholeness involving reconciliation to a ‘female’ side our nature.

Mythology can be a constituent of Richard Kearney’s idea of ‘Anatheism’: ‘the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: the polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history.’

John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast with the sheer erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life Dreamtime, Revisited was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times describing it as ‘priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery’, although the reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so.

Mark Williams’s book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the Táin Bó Cualígne into his narrative. It may also have benefitted from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating font of creativity that may help us unlock our most vivid ideas.

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

The origins of Likud Ideology

The origins of Likud Ideology

(Published in Village Magazine, December, 2014)

It has been said that there are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.

The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left approximately 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast destruction in its wake; just over 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.

To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, they have since returned to power under the enduring figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, especially in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian case was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq before the first Gulf War.

But despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries as most Arab people have a fixed view of Israel as a colonial, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check. Arguably the key juncture was the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israeli forces joined the French and British in attacking Egypt.

The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principle sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.

Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future” since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement.”

In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down.”
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups.” At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such an analysis ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.

But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.

The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.

This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations.

Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netenyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.

The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.

Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. The Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.

Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.

The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, that ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.

In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush snr. ten billion dollars worth of loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.

A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Fatah have their bottom line, which is the 1967 borders including partial control over Jerusalem, and for any peace to hold there would also surely have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.

A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will remain. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/likudation-the-ascendant-israeli-political-party-is-committed-by-ideology-to-oppressing-the-palestinians/)

An Enduring Legacy – Lessons from the Great Famine

(Published in Village Magazine, November 2012)

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? This thorny question rears its head with the recent publication of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr expressed some years ago that ‘Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country… the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them parish’; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history which led to a population reduction of over two million due to starvation and emigration. The enduring legacy must be explored.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was under its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop 1845-50 caused by the blight phytophtera infestans did not lead to market intervention that occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market at key points. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In one contribution to the Atlas Kerby A. Miller writes: ‘an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties.’

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a sense of providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded afterwards: ‘The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence.’ To the enduring chagrin of Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The response of British authorities can be situated within a larger context of a shift in Imperial policy and an ongoing Agricultural Revolution whereby: ‘Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product.’

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where protection was extended to farmers, agriculture in the British Isles was thrown open to the free market.
Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. Henceforth regions of the Empire would specialise in the production of particular foodstuff for sale on the international market, with the development of steamships making this possible. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer hold sway. The first editor of The Economist James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, should be abandoned. By 1900 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence communities, known as Clachan, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth; almost 9 million in 1845.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities, but according to Mokyr was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people.’

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially with the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have encouraged family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question whereby gross inequalities, the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: ‘Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships.’

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of smallholders made the Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.

Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One Protestant landowner referring in the 1850s to this shift said: ‘the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind.’

Prior to the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations and life expectancy was greater than most other Europeans except those of Denmark and England.

They had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster, vegetables, wheat and barley, butter milk, and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the locally-sourced ingredients enumerated with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a ‘higher standard of subsistence’.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: ‘There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread’.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who transitioned to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a trend that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: ‘Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – almost the same but never quite’.’

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy might hark back to the tradition of the Clachan, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clochan was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. It should appeal to the contemporary gastronome.
Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2012/11/lessons-from-the-famine/)

The Body and Shame

The Body and Shame

Review of The Body and Shame: Phenomenology, Feminism and the Socially Shaped body by Luna Dolezal. Lexington Book, Lenham, 2015 (Village Magazine, July 2015)

In Ireland philosophy rarely features in mainstream discourses. We seem more comfortable in either the narrow empiricism inherited from our former colonial overlords or the lyrical engagement found in poetry. The unflinching analysis of concepts found in philosophical enquiry is not part of secondary educations: it still does not figure as a Leaving Certificate subject.

It remains a specialist course in university, but only featuring in the study of law as jurisprudence rather than being seen as the foundation for all positive law as it ought. Philosophy of education is a mandatory course in teacher-training but again is treated in a rather desultory fashion by institutions and students alike. Those who pursue scientific study at third level are given no philosophical grounding which might explain a lack of nuance among cheerleaders of science. Arguably this general lacuna tilts us towards a conservatism born of failure to interrogate widely held assumptions.

In a cogently argued and accessible work TCD philosopher Luna Dolezal discusses the concept of body shame through a number of lenses. She arrives from a phenomenological perspective especially identified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty who emphasised that we encounter the world through the lived experience of our bodies and not simply our conscious minds. He rejected the dualist view which has dominated European thought since Plato right through to Descartes and beyond.

Dolezal engages with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre who conceived of an “Other” that generates a self-reflection intimately connected to a feeling of shame. According to Sartre: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” This can lead to alienation or estrangement from what Dolezal refers to as “the possibilities of the self.” This recurring evaluation of how we are perceived has become a more pressing concern in a world of intrusive social media.

Dolezal argues that other thinkers have advanced on Sartre’s ideas to show that objectification is experienced to a greater extent among marginalised groups. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir argued that in our patriarchal societies women experience this feeling far more than men. Another layer is added by Frantz Fanon who observed the alienation caused by perceived racial hierarchies. Fanon argued: “This is because the white man is not only the Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary.” It is probably a fair generalisation that women, racial minorities, as well as gays and disabled, are more subject to shame than straight white men with full physical capabilities.

Dolezal also explores the socio-cultural and political framework in which power relations are embedded drawing on the insights of Michele Foucault and Norbert Elias. Perhaps Foucault’s most useful idea was his revival of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon as a metaphor for the constant surveillance seen in modern life. The Panopticon was conceived as prison made of glass allowing every action to be observed, in theory leading to the observance of all rules. The inmate is shamed into conformity, just as today there lurks a latent perception that our every move is subject to the unrelenting gaze of cameras leading to a sense, especially among women, that her physical appearance is constantly being assessed.

In his seminal work The Civilising Process Elias traces the evolution of manners and other forms of personal comportment. The story of the fork is particularly informative. It arrived in Europe with the Byzantine bride to a Doge of Venice and its use was initially dismissed as a prissy affectation. But soon courtiers succumbed to its utility and it became such a fixture across Europe that by the nineteenth century one writer could describe those that ate with their hands as cannibalistic. Elias shows that such quotidian habits are socially constructed.

Since time immemorial shame has been used to enforce conformity. But Dolezal is emphatic that shame plays a critical role in how we learn and socialize among our peers. She argues that it plays a key role: “in skill acquisition, self-presentation, bodily management and the formation of the body schema.”

Put simply, without the experience of shame there would be little inducement for self-improvement in a range of spheres. This feeling may however lapse into a chronic condition where we feel ourselves, especially our physical bodies, to be the source of that shame. Chronic body shame: “can lead to a diminished bodily experience where a constant preoccupation with the body affects one’s self esteem and self-worth.” This seems to be the plight of many women today: one only has to look at the weight of column inches and advertising devoted to beauty “treatments”, an interesting choice of words ascribing pathology to deviations from conventional notions of beauty.

Thus, according to Dolezal: “Women, compared with men, spend more time, energy and material resources in trying to achieve a socially pleasing body that conforms to prevailing normative standards.” Further “Women far outnumber men in incidents of eating disorders, chronic dieting and cases of cosmetic surgery.” Dolezal’s draws on sociological observations from the cosmetic surgery industry which preys on these securities inducing women to alter their bodies to conform to societal expectations. Yet, as she points out, this is increasingly impossible as the body ideal found in the innumerable forms that flash before us are often digitally-enhanced or surgically-altered.

Unfortunately according to Dolezal: “Beauty regimes are becoming more punishing, more painful, more expensive, more intrusive, more extreme and, as a result, more disempowering.” In the United States alone, over eleven million cosmetic procedures included injectable such as Botox, laser skin resurfacing and chemical peels. Americans spent almost $12 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2013 alone. Our own Celtic Tiger spawned a cosmetic surgery boom.

The next generation faces ever more sophisticated marketing techniques that position these illusory forms in increasingly intrusive ways. The Internet is increasingly used for this marketing and beleaguered parents cannot possibly keep track of their childrens’ engagements.

The changes that are made to bodies through cosmetic surgery have profound
philosophical implications, for as Dolezal points out it “presupposes some sort of Cartesian self, where the body is merely a container for and commodity of the true inner self.” Here the phenomenological view of the body could have a redemptive quality as it comes to be seen as “much more than something we ‘have,’ but fundamentally as something that we are.” By acknowledging the body as the location of our true selves we accept perceived deficiencies or limitations in our bodies.

One challenge to this potentially redemptive realisation is posed by the perception of being born with the “wrong body”: a feeling common among transgender individuals. Here Dolezal points out “there seems a clear distinction between one’s authentic ‘inner’ self and one’s physical body, seemingly confirming the dualistic paradigm.” It would appear there are exceptional scenarios where cosmetic surgery or even biological alteration may prove liberating, but an overall context of bodily obsession that may cause this dissatisfaction should be acknowledged.

Thus according to Dolezal “cosmetic surgeons play out the common formula of neoliberal consumer culture: they cultivate profound anxieties about the body and then present themselves and services as the only means to eliminate or alleviate the very shame and guilt they have themselves helped to produce.” The message to women is that their bodies are “wrong” but that a solution is at hand, for a price of course.

Dolezal identifies redemptive qualities offered by the practice of yoga which is open to all age groups and body types. She claims it provides “an alternative and compassionate vocabulary with which one can regard the body and the self.” And that “The body’s uniqueness is not compared to some ideal and through these practices new ways to understand and relate to one’s self and the body can be established, and transformation and healing can take place.”

If this is so, it is heartening that the practice of yoga has witnessed extraordinary growth in Ireland in recent times. To some extent it fills a spiritual void left by the decline of the Catholic Church. This perceived threat may account for a Donegal priest’s claim in 2014 that it was “putting souls in jeopardy”.

If however it has the potential to liberate women, and men, from demoralising relationships with their bodies then it should be viewed as a way for society to restore a lost balance. But we might question whether it has not already been co-opted by the dominant neoliberal culture as one more means of self-improvement that is purchased in the yoga studio or through going on an exotic yoga holiday. It may be however that Buddhist ideas that guide the practice of yoga do indeed contain the redemptive qualities that will help individuals overcome the ambient noise that points a finger at perceived deficiencies.

You Can’t Dukan

(Published in the London Magazine, March 2012)

For Citizen-paparazzo, that is anyone in possession of a mobile phone, the photographic Middletons represent fair game.

Statuesque Kate is less the object of coarse desire than polite admiration. Ideal marriage material it was said. She has the prim, faintly virginal appeal we expect of an English queen, starting with the original Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself. The Duchess of Cambridge looks as though she would say no to a cream bun or an impetuous suitor. The sanctity of lines waist and royal seems assured.

Kate would never play away but intrigue is provided by bouncy Pippa – a tabloid dream – who projects the cheeky sex appeal relished by a culture weaned on the Carry On films. Even Puritans need a little ‘crumpet’ to munch on.

We scrutinize and will continue to scrutinize their every move: each crevice and fold of flesh will continue to be admired, deplored and imitated. Plastic surgeons now refer to the ‘Pippa butt lift’. The mind boggles.

The reason this concerns an otherwise serious contributor on matters comestible to the London Magazine is that the contents of their ladyships’ larders is in the public domain, and subject to imitation.

At the time of the Royal wedding it became public knowledge that the Middleton girls et mère adhered to the so-called Dukan Diet, a set of prescriptions ordained by a French doctor named Pierre Dukan. Cosmopolitan called it: ‘The Diet Everyone (Including Kate Middleton) is Obsessing Over’; even that venerable publication The Financial Times was recently moved to interview the rather innocuous doctor. Celebrities such as JLo (yes you are reading this in the London Magazine) and someone called Gisele are following it. His book topped the best seller list in Poland and, bizarrely, Bulgaria. Docteur Dukan possibly exerts more influence than the NHS on how consumers make dietary choices. What does he say?

Trust me I’m a French Doctor

Dukan has a dual appeal. First, as a doctor it is widely assumed that no damage will result from embracing his approach. Second, he is French and the image of that country is bound with graceful beauty and fine dining. The tantalizing promise of elegance of form and gustatory pleasure is dangled like Bridget Bardot munching a slice of gateaux before frumpy Bridget Jones.

The diet has four stages. It begins with the Attack which is a pure protein diet. More accurately, this is a pure animal protein diet as vegetable proteins, which abound in nature, are dismissed as too difficult to work out. Thus, large quantities of meat, fish, eggs and low fat dairy produce is ingested. The long term health consequences are unknown, but in the short term the body ceases to function. Significant quantities of water and two tablespoons of oatbran are advised in order to avoid serious consequences. Dukan cheerfully describes the harmful effect of the Attack phase: ‘It finds itself working like a two-speed engine, in a scooter, lawnmower or motor boat, designed to run on a mixture of pure petrol and oil but trying to run on pure petrol. It putters and then stalls, unable to use its fuel’. Unsurprisingly: ‘After two or three days on a pure protein diet hunger disappears completely’. He admits sotto voce that constipation and bad breath are by-products and that dieters should not swim in cold water or ski at altitude.

Dukan argues that this Attack phase is necessary because: ‘An overweight person who wants to lose weight needs a fast-acting diet that brings immediate results’. It as if he does not take on board his own critique of faddish diets that they have a miniscule success rate in the long term. According to an American study cited by Dukan 12% of dieters do lose weight, but only 2% succeed in keeping it off. Of course Dukan claims that his diet is different.

He even seems to be making excuses for the eventual failure of his own approach saying, quite unscientifically, that the ‘body’s biological memory retains the information regarding the maximum weight and this can never be erased’. And: ‘every time you put on weight and reach a new record number on your scales, the way your physiology adjusts means that somewhere in your brain, a sort of nostalgic memory of this maximum weight is recorded which your body will then always try to reach again’. The original sin of being overweight is never expunged it seems, once a fatty always a fatty. Do not blame good Dr. Dukan, blame that greedy shadow that lurks behind you as you take another helping.

The subsequent phases to the Diet: Cruise; Consolation; and Permanent Stabilization, have fairly consistent dietary advice, eat significant quantities of animal proteins, selected vegetables and few fruits and avoid most fats even disease-busting polyunsaturated oils. He identifies 100 favoured foods of which 72 are animal proteins.

Dukan claims that ‘it has been scientifically proved that after eight hours without good-quality protein the body has to draw upon its own muscle reserve to ensure its vital function’. This claim, for which there is no citation, suggests that we begin eating our bodies in the usual 12 hour gap between dinner and breakfast. He also contradicts himself by calling it ‘natural’ for the human ‘predator’ to catch no prey and be forced to fast for a few days.

Dukan’s diet has been slammed by the NHS and goes against all mainstream advice. The risk posed by the intake of so much animal protein could well have serious long-term consequences; the connection between regular red meat consumption especially and a range of preventable diseases is well established. The Dukan diet is not a healthy diet.

According to the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report from 2011 ‘there is not a single health diet… instead there are many patterns of eating around the world that sustain good health. They share these things in common lots of fruit [viewed as dangerous by Dukan], vegetables and wholegrains; healthy fats from fish and plant sources; and few sugars or solid fats’.

Dukan’s disingenuous and dangerous advice lumps all carbohydrates together so that sugar, a slow-acting poison, is placed in the same category as vegetables, fruits and wholegrains, many of which are also significant protein sources.

Dukan’s diet may work but only because it promotes a disciplined attitude towards food and it advocates exercise. There is definitely no silver bullet here.

Take your Time

Dukan’s book does contain smatterings of good sense. First he devotes a considerable proportion of it to recipes which might encourage more people to spend time cooking their meals which would be an advance for many. According to the Food Standards Agency, in 1980 the average meal took an hour to prepare. By 1999, it had dropped to 20 minutes. He also emphasises the crucial importance of walking which Hippocrates described as ‘man’s best medicine’. Taking lukewarm showers, refraining from hot drinks and spending time out of doors is all excellent advice for anyone wishing to loose weight.

He asserts that: ‘Nourishing yourself is not just about taking in enough calories to survive, it is also, and even more importantly, about enjoying eating as part of that process.’ Indeed, the admittedly exaggerated French Paradox (a diet high in saturated fats but with relatively low rates of heart disease) has been attributed to the length which French people take over well-prepared meals. Dukan advocates: ‘EAT SLOWLY and CONCENTRATE ON WHAT IS IN YOUR MOUTH’, and avoid eating in front of the television or while reading.’

He refers to a study which filmed two groups of women, one overweight, the other a normal weight. It was discovered that the women of normal weight chewed for twice as long as the overweight group. The connection between eating quickly and excessively was recognised by the Ancients: the word gluttony actually derives from the Latin gula meaning ‘to gulp down or swallow’.

He also recalls the advice given by a guru in a New Delhi ashram to a person who was overweight. The guru said: ‘At each meal, eat and chew as you would normally, but just when you are about to swallow push the food back in the front of your mouth and chew it for a second time. In two years you will be back to your normal weight’, and so it proved.

Thus, one way of tackling the obesity epidemic is, paradoxically, to put more focus on food by savouring it.

Ethical Considerations

At no point in the book do ethical considerations emerge. How the 72 animal foods and 28 plant foods arrive at the table is of absolutely no concern to him, all that matters is that it is lean animal protein. Environmental impact, animal welfare and the qualitative difference of organically- or biodynamically- produced food is ignored.

Inherent too is an elitism among diners, this is certainly not a diet for humanity. The expense of sustaining a pure animal protein diet for any length of time would be considerable unless the lowest quality produce is selected. Further, particular cuts are defined as worthy whereas others are proscribed. Only lean beef for example is to be eaten. The obese poor who can’t afford the Dukan diet are to be left the fatty cuts that cause heart disease it seems. Or perhaps he thinks they should be thrown away, in which case the cost of the lean meat would be even greater.

He also expresses quite ignorant views on our evolutionary history as meat-eaters, saying: ‘it is possible to live without hunting and without eating animals meals BUT by doing so we give up part of what our nature expects and we lessen the emotional effect that our body is programmed to produce when we give it what it wants’. Hindus and Buddhists argue the opposite, saying the emotional effect of meat-eating is quite damaging.

Moreover, hunting for food in the Western world is generally limited to scouring the supermarket shelves for half-price offers. The proportion of game meat in the Western diet is miniscule. Even fish is increasingly farmed which can cause serious pollution. Conventional fishing is shockingly wasteful with almost half of most catches simply discarded. Many fish species are now under threat.

Apart from French cuisine most popular culinary traditions, including Italian, Arab, Japanese and Indian are predominantly vegetarian. The appetite for animal proteins is mostly a matter of upbringing, and with over seven billion people (and rising) on the planet many living into their eighties we need to alter tastes, and fast. Our health will certainly not suffer, quite the opposite according to the Harvard Medical School Report who say: ‘there are many nutritionally valid reasons to steer towards a vegetarian diet’.

In fact our evolutionary history suggests meat is an unnecessary part of our diet. As primates with relatively long intestines our bodies are more suited to herbivorous foods. Colin Spencer says: ‘Our hominoid ancestors evolved over a period of 24 million years and, for all but one and a half million of these years, the evidence we have leaves little doubt that their diet was almost completely vegetarian except for insects and grubs.’

Our closest relative in nature is the bonobo to whom we are as close as a dog is to fox.  ‘They live in a peaceful matriarchal society, consuming a wide range of leaves and plants, where any disputes are settled by sexual favours homosexual and heterosexual in all possible permutations’ The bonobo is ‘herbivorous in the wild but in captivity, like other primates, will eat almost anything.’

Prince Charming

The Prince of Wales has campaigned for thirty years on questions relating to food. He has written: ‘I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day.’

Charles has placed a big emphasis on the environmental impact of farming and his views align with the principles of Biodynamic agriculture: ‘Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife – the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change.’ There is a wide consensus that radically reducing meat consumption is necessary in order to achieve this sustainability.

Unfortunately, unlike the Middletons, Charles is not suited to the Digital Age. He never became the ‘People’s Prince’ Plastic surgeons don’t talk about the Charles tuck. He has been so mercilessly lampooned that his views exert little influence on the public at large.

One assumes that serious discussions occur at Royal family dinners and that Charles gives vent to his passions. Does he notice that the Middletons are ‘on Dukan’? If so is he aware of the ethical import of that diet? He must know how influential pretty ladies in the public gaze can be. I wonder would he ever be able to persuade Kate and Pippa to start espousing views on food that might take into account the environmental impact of their choices, for the sake of his grandchildren at least. The unethical and unhealthy advice of an exploitative French doctor should be disowned.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/you-cant-dukan/)

Inhuman Folly: The Argument for Veganism

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2013)

David A. Nibert delivers an impassioned, well-researched and idealistic argument for why humanity should shift to a vegan, or plant-based diet in Animal Domestication & Human Violence: Domescration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2013). He surveys the impact of meat, dairy and egg consumption through human history and links it to some of our worst behaviour.

Nibert maintains: ‘The emergence and continued practice of capturing, controlling, and genetically manipulating other animals for human use violates the sanctity of life of the sentient beings involved’. He coins a neologism ‘domescration’, used throughout the book, arguing that ‘their minds and bodies are desecrated to facilitate their exploitation: it can be said that they have been domescrated.’

He traces an upsurge in human violence to the practice of stalking and killing animals which ‘began no earlier than ninety thousand years ago – and probably much later’, but fails to acknowledge that this was connected to the expansion of humanity into northern latitudes where edible plants were not available throughout the year, often making hunting a necessity for survival.

His basic thesis is that ‘domescration’ has generated conflict between human societies because the amount of land required for raising animals for human consumption is far greater than that required to grow crops for direct human consumption. He emphasises how ‘domescrated’ animals act as vectors for zoonotic diseases, and displace countless free-living animals.

As an abolitionist he does not envision a scenario where humans could exploit animals in symbiosis with one another and their environment.

He begins his account in 1237 at Riazan near Moscow as the Golden Horde led by Batu Khan lays the city to siege. Nibert links the cruelty of those Mongols to their treatment of animals and shows their reliance on them as weapons of war and mobile sources of food.  Conquest, in turn, was fuelled by a need for more grazing land. They terrorized Eastern Europe and China which saw its population drop from 123 million in 1200 to 65 million in 1393, laying waste to societies engaged primarily in crop cultivation. In all likelihood the Mongols introduced the bubonic plague to Europe which reduced its population by half.

The ‘Greatest Tragedy’

The effect of colonisation of the Americas on its indigenous people was described by Alfred Cosby as the ‘greatest tragedy in the history of the human species.’ Large numbers were displaced to make way for livestock from areas where they cultivated crops or hunted free-living animals; and, with few domesticated animals of their own, they were ravaged by zoonotic diseases, especially smallpox. Their numbers were reduced by two-thirds.

It would be wrong to idealize the lives of indigenous peoples in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. But it seems the virtual absence of domesticated animals curtailed warfare: ‘archaeological evidence suggests that pre-Columian warfare was limited to small-scale raiding, sniping, and ambush’ and that ‘deaths by violence were relatively low.’

Hernán Cortes whose expedition led to the fall of the Aztec Empire in Mexico instantly foresaw the possibility of developing a cattle industry there. Livestock products, especially hides, were integral to the wealth accumulated by the conquistadores.

Nibert contrasts the colonisation of the Americas with the Spanish conquest of the Philippines which is unsuited to livestock production. He says this supports: ‘the thesis that colonisation was much more likely to involve large-scale violence when invasions involved expanding ranching operations.’

Expanding livestock numbers was also the primary motivation for the encroachment of Europeans into North America. The West was won by cowboys who cruelly displaced and often massacred large numbers from nations such as the Creek, Choctaw, Chicksaw, and Cherokee.

In North America the fates of the native population and free-roaming buffalo, vital to their way of life, were intertwined. In the early nineteenth century there were up to thirty million buffalo roaming North America, but by century’s end they had been hunted to virtual extinction to make way for livestock.

Nibert recalls the often wanton violence that accompanied their annihilation. In one account train passengers made a ‘sport’ of it: ‘As they neared a herd, passengers flung open the windows of their cars, pointed their breechloaders, and fired at random into the frightened beasts.’

With the West ‘won’ industrial slaughter houses emerged, especially in Chicago. Rudyard Kipling was horrorstruck by what he saw in the late 1880s and worried ‘about the effect of so mechanical a killing on the human soul’.

English beef

Nibert notes the important role of English capital in the expansion of livestock production into the Western plains of America in the nineteenth century.

He also explores the English colonisation of Ireland and emphasises how Irish salt beef was a critical factor in the ‘profitable sugar production in the Caribbean because it was an important source of food for enslaved labourers on Britain’s plantations’.

In Ireland the nineteenth century witnessed a shift from tillage to pasture which led to depopulation, with the Great Famine the primary catalyst. He quotes Joseph Connolly description of this in Labour in Irish History: ‘Where a hundred families had reaped a sustenance from their small farms, or by hiring out their labour to the owners of large farms, a dozen shepherds now occupied their places.’

Nibert does not discuss the Gaelic Irish mode of food production which was also heavily reliant on cattle. It might be argued that there was some symbiosis in that society between cattle and human beings with animals kept for dairy and rarely slaughtered. But cattle-raiding was endemic in medieval Ireland, and most Irish forests had been removed by the fourteenth century to make way for cattle. The shift to tillage, abetted by the potato that began in the seventeenth century allowed the population to rise exponentially. It was only a change in demand in Britain after the Napoleonic War that caused Ireland to revert to pasture in the nineteenth, a situation that endures.

Unhappy Meals

In 1916 a short order cook called J. Walter Anderson invented the first hamburger in Wichita, Kansas. This product gave a new lease of life to the livestock industry which had come under attack for the poor sanitation and barbarity of the slaughterhouses.

Companies such as White Castle, McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC stimulated a demand for meat products through the use of insidious advertising, often targeting minors. Ronald McDonald was thrust upon the children of the United States in 1966 when he made his national television debut during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – accompanied by the “McDonald’s All-American High School Band”.

The twentieth century witnessed the continued expansion of livestock production with consequent species loss and significant implication for climate change. Surprisingly Nibert cites the conservative estimate of 19% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from the UN Report Livestock’s Long Shadow from 2006 rather than the figure of 51% found by Goodland and Anhang in 2009.

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) as animals were increasingly fed on grain in cruelly enclosed spaces. Ruth Harrison observed: ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

Aside from the obvious barbarity of putting animals in such close confinement, CAFOs are a significant risk to public health because of the enhanced risk of zoonotic diseases especially a deadly influenza virus developing there. According to Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy: ‘An influenza pandemic of even moderate impact will result in the biggest single human disaster ever – far greater than AIDS, 9/11, all wars in the 20th century, and the recent tsunami combined.’

A surfeit of livestock products is also directly implicated in the onset of chronic diseases that are beginning to shorten life expectancies in the Western world. But also indirectly as Nibert links the consumption of obesogenic sodas and meat-eating, quoting Richard Robbins: “The sugar in soft drinks serves as the perfect compliment to hamburgers and hot dogs because it possesses what nutritionists call ‘go-away’ qualities – removing the fat coating and the beef aftertaste from the mouth’

During the twentieth century expansion of livestock continued in Latin America especially Brazil where: ‘cattle pasture accounts for six times more cleared land in the Amazon than crop land; even the notorious [feed] farmers who have ploughed some 5m hectares of former rainforest cover just one-tenth of the ground taken by the beef producers.’

US aid to Latin America was often linked to the extent to which a country could satisfy its insatiable demand for livestock products. Oppressive regimes willing to convert large tracts of arable land and jungle to pasture were supported against political movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, opposing it.

Happier Meals?

As an unwavering abolitionist Nibert argues that “new welfarism” ‘actually promotes the continued oppression of domescrated animals and the underlying global injustices’ by ‘appeasing the concerns of the more conscientious citizens, thus blunting movements for more significant social transformation.’

He claims apparently ethical animal products are only accessible to the rich, and states that if the entire population of cows raised for food in the United States were freely ranged, half the land in the country would have to be converted to pasture. Also: ‘the energy resources necessary to raise domescrated animals for local consumption is considerably more than that required to transport plant-based food long distances’.

Controversially he argues that societies that still practise hunting for food should cease doing so. This might sound like excessive interference in ‘traditional’ ways of life: the morality of this hinges on whether we should extend a right to life to other creatures where possible, and if the practice of hunting contributes to inter-human violence.

It also assumes that food will be supplied from elsewhere. Nibbert states: ‘In a more just, vegan global order, a genuine policy of “comparative advantage” could provide nutritious plant-based food and fresh water where it is needed throughout the world, including areas where many now have few alternatives to exploiting animals.’ But it would put societies such as the Innuit in northern Canada at a significant disadvantage and be impossible to enforce. However, of far greater concern is the increasing spread of the Western diet to China and other developing countries.

It is difficult to envisage how a policy of comparative advantage can ‘transcend the capitalist system’ as he advocates. Trade is essential to the realisation of widespread vegan diets and for all its faults capitalism does successfully facilitate the efficient exchange of goods.

It remains to be seen whether a more ethical capitalism emerges. Interestingly Bill Gates has been prominent in funding and advocating ‘analogue’ meat and egg products that could replace the real thing. A company like McDonald’s hardly has an ideological attachment to meat and with sufficient demand, and profit, perhaps a happier meal could be conceived.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2013/10/veganism-makes-us-human/)

 

Bad Pharma and Farming

(Published in Village Magazine October, 2014)

Review of Missing Microbes: How Killing Bacteria Creates Modern Plagues by Martin Blaser

Oneworld Publications 2014

The overuse of antibiotics in humans and other animals combined with other medical interventions such as Caesarian sections is threatening disastrous consequences according to a new book by Martin Blaser, Professor of Translational Medicine and Director of the Human Microbiome Program at NYU.

These treatments act on bacteria which have colonised every corner of the earth, including our bodies, and have been around for nearly four billion years.

We have 30 trillion human cells of our own, but host more than 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells. This might lead us to wonder who we really are. Indeed, the evolution of our resident bacteria has probably been just as important as the evolution of our own cells according to Blaser.

The welfare of a person’s microbiome, the collective term for resident bacteria, plays a critical role in their health and the last seventy years has seen a progressive weakening of these crucial organs. Blaser links their impoverishment to the onset of a host of modern plagues including obesity, diabetes, heart-burn and GORD, asthma, a host of allergies, IBS and even autism.

Another problem has been the widespread application of Caesarian sections which deny new born babies vital sources of bacteria available through conventional birth. But according to Blaser the main source of the microbiome’s decline has been the invention and subsequent over-use of antibiotics the force of which Blaser likens to the acquisition of the atomic bomb. Moreover, their over-use in humans and in animal agriculture is giving rise to superbugs such as MRSA that already kill thousands each year.

Moulds were used in Ancient Egypt, China and Central American Indians for centuries to treat infections before Alexander Fleming discovered the anti-bacterial effects of penicillium moulds in 1928. This gave Western medicine access to a life-saving medicine first used on a nurse called Anne Miller in 1942. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives and many surgical procedures would not be possible without them.

However, their use by doctors and dentists has surged in most Western countries to the extent that in most Western countries the average twenty year old has taken almost 20 courses, in many cases unnecessarily. Research in 2012 found antibiotic use in Ireland to be in the mid- to high range in comparison to other EU countries.

The fault does not lie entirely with doctors most of whom are aware of the dangers of over-use. Recent research into their use in Ireland showed that 50% of patients request antibiotics when they visit a doctor with upper respiratory infections (colds and sore throats), an area of over-use identified by Blaser. Embattled general practitioners need more support in terms of patient education to stem this demand.

These infections are mainly caused by viruses which do not respond to antibiotics, but the problem is that a throat may already be colonised by bacteria that is not causing the disease.

Usually the reason doctors reflexively prescribe antiobiotics for sore throats is out fear of rheumatic fever which typically occurs two or three weeks after an untreated strep infection and can be fatal.

According to Blaser: ‘Before antibiotics, about one child in three hundred with a strep infection developed rheumatic fever or, if the strep strains were very ‘hot’, one in thirty. Nowadays doctors prescribe an antibiotic for strep throat not to shorten the duration of the infection, because it doesn’t much, but to ward off rheumatic fever.’

He asserts that: ‘Until doctors can readily distinguish viral from bacterial throat infections, they will always follow the safer course.’ He also acknowledges they are pressed for time and fearful of being sued.

Another problem lies with the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Just as in humans, untreatable bacterial infections are emerging in farm animals and these are passing the species barrier into human populations.

Often farmers use antibiotics not to treat disease but in order for these animals to grow more quickly. The practice of using sub-therapeutic doses is now banned in the EU but the law is not enforced.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not collect data on antibiotic usage on Irish farms, and according to research by Ella McSweeney antibiotic sales for large animals in Ireland is increasing.

Antibiotics cause the same weight gain in humans. Blaser connects their over-use to the obesity pandemic with compelling evidence from his laboratory experiments, and this is born out in studies showing obese individuals to have far less of a range of bacterial strains compared to individuals of normal weight. An NHS study the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children showed that children who received antibiotics in the first six months of life were likely to have a higher body mass index.

Controversially Blaser hypothesises a link with autism the incidence of which appears to have risen considerably since the development of antibiotics. Today one in sixty-five children is diagnosed as autistic or on the spectrum, a condition that was only identified in 1943. Many of the microbes in the gut also make chemicals that the developing brain needs to function normally and these are being compromised by over-use of antibiotics. That there should be crucial interactions is perhaps unsurprising considering there are as many neurons in our guts as our brains.

Today most bacterial infections are treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics. According to Blaser: ‘It is not profitable for companies to go to the trouble and enormous expense of developing new antibiotics’. Targeted antibiotics only applicable in a small number of cases make little sense for companies concerned by their bottom line.

Fundamental to the understanding of our relationship with bacteria is the concept of amphibiosis: ‘the condition in which two life-forms create relationships that are either symbiotic or parasitic, depending on the context’.

This is apparent in the case of a bacterial strain called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) which has been discovered in our stomachs, and which Blaser has spent much of his research career pursuing.

In 1982 two Australian doctors Dr Robert Warren and Dr Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for showing for the first time that ulcers could be treated with antibiotics that removed H. pylori. Later it was discovered that individuals with H. pylori were also susceptible to stomach cancer. This led to all out war against a strain that was already declining due to increased sanitation.

But H. pylori performs other roles in our bodies. According to Blaser: ‘it appears that H. pylori is having some general effect on immunity, on people’s ability to turn off an allergic response’: this may explain the increasing incidences of potentially fatal food allergies. It also controls the regulation of the hormones ghrelin and leptin which are both produced in the stomach and are involved in the storage and use of energy. Meaning those without it are often more susceptible to obesity.

Having H. pylori in our stomachs increases the risk of stomach cancer but this is only likely to arise in our 70s or 80s, while we may be losing its beneficial effects for most of our lifetimes. That is amphibiosis in action. Adopting lifestyle changes especially refraining from consumption of red and processed meat would make far more sense.

According to recent studies normal individuals have lost 15-40 percent of their microbial diversity. Blaser warns that: ‘unless we are change our ways we are facing an antibiotic winter … a worldwide plague that we cannot stop’. The problem is not only with the potential for super bugs but also ‘a degraded ecosystem’ could make it more difficult for us to stave off infection.

But Blaser shows that there are ways in which we can begin to recover lost ground. Doctors can be far more selective in their use armed with rapid tests enabling them to sample blood, sputum, exhaled air or urine to look for the chemical signature of particular organisms, and pharmaceutical companies could be compelled to develop more targeted antibiotics. Governments, including our own, can be far more rigorous in ensuring that antibiotics are not used as growth-promoters in animal agriculture.

Moreover, a raft of new treatments enhancing our microbiome could be introduced, including the development of targeted prebiotics and probiotics, and the transfer of bacterial strains between individuals.

Unfortunately Blaser does not give significant attention to the extent to which diet can help our resistance to disease and enhance the health of the microbiome, especially through consumption of fermented foods.

Just like the development of nuclear energy, the development of antibiotics presented humans with astonishing power, which alas they have mishandled. There is sufficient time for this technology to be recovered and for it to be used only in circumstances when it works to our benefit. In the meantime our microbiome will suffer and so will we.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/biome/)

Between Music and Prose

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2015)

In her recent Michael Littleton lecture for RTE ‘Has Poetry a Future?’ Eavan Boland identifies the ‘vertical’ audience it has enjoyed through history. Many hallowed poets, such as Keats, did not find a public in their own time but their words may echo across the ages unlike other forms of culture which may have a short-lived or ‘horizontal’ appeal. She argued that those who assert poetry’s present irrelevance are hopelessly myopic.

In a recent book of prose essays: Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry. He writes: ‘The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal.’ Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

O’Siadhail identifies a confluence of the language of heart and mind in poetry that serves as a refuge from daily corruptions where: ‘our core words – ‘motherhood’, for example – are daily exploited and polluted to tempt us to consume.’

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail quotes Vaclav Havel from An Anatomy of Reticence approvingly: ‘even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the “hidden consciousness” of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political.’ Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted a totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders ‘whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers’.

But O’Siadhail does identify a danger lest Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot have indeed developed a self-absorbed and potentially redundant poetry. He explains: ‘The clear danger of this interiority is an opting out of society and a refusal to take any responsibility for shaping a wider meaning. Apart from the risk of solipsism and plain self-indulgence, there is the risk of turning poetry into a kind of private piety, which ends up marginalising poetry or branding it as some kind of academic pursuit not appropriate to the ordinary reader of books’.

A further question to ponder is whether contemporary poetry should be embraced at the expense of the old: most obviously in the secondary school syllabus. Should teenagers be asked to engage with and perhaps recite older poems if the subject matter seems remote to their experiences, and even if the views of a poet would seem outmoded in the science classroom next door?

Seen through the lens of its ‘vertical’ influence, educators should be hesitant to alter the canon in the interest of inclusiveness, or of according a rapid recognition to poets who have attained popularity in their lifetimes. Engaging with old masters might give students a better sense of the contingency of established ideas.

Unfortunately this gives rise to gender imbalance, but there is little point including unremarkable poetry for the sake of political correctness. Moreover a more nuanced view of gender might allow us to identify a feminine voice in any verse notwithstanding its author. Poetry is more than a personal undertaking but a common inheritance of a language. O’Siadhail quotes Edward Sapir who wrote in 1921: ‘Every language is itself a collective art of expression … An artist utilises the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colours is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language’s own.’

Boland’s distinction between the vertical and horizontal might also apply over the course of an individual’s lifetime: when he first encounters a poem a student might find little beyond conjunctions of words with a musical ring to them but over the course of a lifetime they may begin to inhabit the ideas expressed. In that sense the old method of teaching poetry as an oral form where lines are learnt by heart to be recalled in future seems worthwhile.

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctive, way as opposed to developing an understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

In this collection that spans many years of reflection, O’Siadhail, an intensely gifted poet, addresses the tension between form and content laying bare his artistic process with great clarity. He examines the workings and appeal of the sonnet, the haiku, of Dante’s terza rima and the free form of the Black Mountain Poets and Beats.

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating: ‘My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance. He concludes that: ‘the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment.’

As a poet trained in linguistics he offers rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that ‘nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony’; although adding that: ‘For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem’.

As a linguist he draws from a rich array of sounds and meanings and is unhesitant about using them in his verse. He writes: ‘It is by no means necessary for a poet to be aware of the dynamic layers of language rules and developments, no more than a musician need be a mathematician or a sculptor a geologist. Yet is fascinates.’

He also explores the inspiration for his work: ‘I never know what it is that chooses the form. Sometimes it is the donné, the line that comes from nowhere as a surprise and offers a rhythm and pattern.’ The sonnet feels appropriate when he is ‘multiply overwhelmed’ in the words of his long-time intellectual interlocutor and one of the editors of this volume theologian David F. Ford.

O’Siadhail does not identify an explicitly religious dimension to his work, although his affection for the poetry of George Herbert is revealing and he quotes Patrick Kavanagh approvingly to the effect that: ‘poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.’

Another subject that O’Siadhail explores is the relationship between poetry and music. Regarding the latter he remarks slightly dismissively: ‘I remember how surprised I was, when I took lessons in classical harmony, at how mathematical and arithmetic it seemed.’ He situates poetry ‘in the middle of a spectrum, which stretches between music and prose. The pulse and delight of rhythm, the varied pitch of a sentence and the sheer bodily sound of ‘voluptuous words’ have many of the physical qualities of music’.

But poetry also encompasses ‘the dimension of the concept and metaphor which music evades. The endless intrigues, the delights, the insistences and inadequacies of language, the vagaries of words.’

Unfortunately O’Siadhail does not discuss the merit or otherwise of balladeers who have for long used language in song to convey emotions and ideas. Certainly it is through the lyrics of songs that most people encounter poetry today. Admittedly the extensive horizontal audience of a crooner like Hozier seems likely to fade away but others such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may enjoy that cherished vertical audience. A question to pursue might be whether music enhances the linguistic content of poetry and vi-se-versa?

In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

Finally, O’Siadhail engages with poets he admires or have exerted an influence on him. In one particularly stimulating essay he compares the respective oeuvres of W.B. Yeats and Rilke.

He regards Yeats as ‘the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on’. But he says that the poems of Rilke ‘are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning’.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: ‘for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths.’ But this seems an overly harsh commentary on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over the course of his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without the hindsight of the genocides that followed. A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

He also explores the poetry George Herbert, Samuel Beckett, Denise Levertov, Kavanagh and Mary O’Donnell who he magnanimously declares to be the outstanding poet of her generation.

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture and poets will always be confronted by the ‘terrible inadequacy of words – always falling short of desire. The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after generation.’ Or to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘fail again fail better’.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/between-music-and-prose/)