‘Irish poets learn your trade’

Poets are banished from Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-king is the sole guardian of Truth. Their lyrical distortion is identified as a revolutionary threat to the singular established idea. This was recognised by James Joyce who wrote: ‘Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality’;

Joseph Stalin was also unnervingly conscious of the capacity of poets to undermine Communist ideology, describing them as ‘engineers of the soul’. He treated some such as Mikhail Bulgakov as a cat would a trapped mouse to be disposed of when he felt bored. Others including Anna Akhmatova were harassed and not allowed to work but as a determined witness she wrote: ‘Terror fingers all things in the dark, / Leads moonlight to the axe. / There’s an ominous knock behind the wall: / A ghost a thief or a rat.’ Eventually she was compelled by the imprisonment of her son to produce patriotic verse but was freed from constraints after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Another Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam argued that a civilization should be measured by the number who read poetry. He died in a Gulag in 1940.

Poetry eschews convention and draws vitality from rebellion. Yet paradoxically adherence to form seems essential for the mystery to be effectively conveyed. Where an ideology becomes ascendant whether Nazism, Communism or Catholicism in Ireland poets are censored and persecuted. But in this Neoliberal age, the poet is often corrupted by market conditions and imagination is not given free rein in a zeitgeist of high rationality where authenticity and irony are prized above form and transcendence.

Poetry is located beyond poems and is the source of literature, it also vital to the evolution of language. Walter Benjamin provides a broad definition of language, arguing that: ‘all communication of mental meanings is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry or whatever underlying it or founded on it.’

Poetry is found in film and, notably, music. Indeed the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler observed: ‘One must beware of overestimating orchestral music and considering it the only high art. Music without words gained its great importance and its full extent only under capitalism’. 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’.

It appears that poetry and music evolved together and it is only in the early modern period that we see a significant rupture. This is often to the detriment of classical varieties of both which are increasingly marginalised and inaccessible to a general audience.

We find in W.B. Yeats a strict adherence to a form that give his words a musical ring. Although it is believed he was actually tone deaf, he used a metronome to measure metre and usually adhered strictly to rhyming sequences. His method, allied with intense sensitivity, brought great popularity, and he revolted against an empire to sing his nation into existence. In his parting poem Under Ben Bulben he urges: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made.’

Contrary to the stereotype, the poet is no dilettante, far from it, as Yeats asserts in Adam’s Curse: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’: it is the trick of great poetry to sound as if it has rolled off the tongue, but the apparent simplicity is the product of hard labour. We might recall Pascal’s apology for not have time to write a shorter letter.

The initial inspiration, or donné, for a poem gives way to the slow labour of moulding coherence, like a potter shaping clay on a wheel into a recognisable object. Slightly melodramatically Yeats says: ‘Better go down on the marrow bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these.’ And the reward is only to ‘be thought an idler by the noisy set.’ That is not say that poetry simplifies, quite the contrary, as the poet and critic Kathleen Raine asserts: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

Unfortunately in Ireland, as elsewhere, poetry is today largely removed from a popular audience. Seamus Heaney received widespread acclaim and a Nobel Prize in 1995 but his verse while rich in metaphor and word play does not flow like the greatest poetry: hardly a line of his has entered popular speech.

There is also a suspicion that as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94) he was not at heart a rebel, and grew comfortable with his accolades. Recall that Yeats thrived on the tension of being an outsider: a Protestant, (usually) liberal in a conservative Catholic Ireland; an Irishman pining for Sligo in London; a Fenian when the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics.

A rousing anger is rarely heard in Heaney; though the collection North (1975) is an exception, written at the height of the Troubles. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland he writes: ‘Speaking broad Devonshire / Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / And drives inland.’

The words have a frisson often missing from his oeuvre; perhaps he recoiled from a capacity to foment violence contenting himself with often obscure metaphor and personal recollection. But by generally removing himself from the cut and thrust of politics did he also hold back from challenging Ireland’s conservatism to the extent that Yeats had?

Led by T.S. Eliot, the second half of the twentieth witnessed the retreat of poetry from a popular audience. A morass of formless post-modern experimentation has followed that usually alienates the listener. But poetry reasserted itself in a different form with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s as rhythm and blues and jazz combined with the folk revival. Accompanied by the essential instrument of the guitar, words were flowing again and a generation was almost stirred into global revolt.

Simultaneously in the Soviet Union, Russian chanson, simple songs also usually accompanied by guitar, emanating from the criminal underworld and the gulags challenged the authority of the state. Elsewhere, Bob Marley became a prophet to many in the Third World.

Unfortunately the music of the 1960s was corrupted by its commercial success and descended into narcissism, drug addiction and obscene materialism. There was also a racist dimension to its decline. In an interview last year Bob Dylan talked about starting off:

I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendent, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ‘n’ roll – who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of these guys, to strike down rock ‘n’ roll for what it was and what it represented – not least of all being a black-and-white thing.

He concluded that a bifurcation was orchestrated whereby ‘the black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop.’ Audiences were manipulated by big labels who asserted control over disk jockeys, and some black stars were persecuted. Chuck Berry at the height of his fame in 1962 was arrested on spurious charges, specifically ‘for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.’ This came shortly after he had established a racially integrated night club in St Louis.

The exuberant poetic rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll was contained within music, that most ancient and ideal of artistic forms. According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’

Also, instructively, a number of more traditional poets shot to prominence in the 1960s including Alan Ginsburg. It was as if a generation was listening but they soon closed their ears.

But hope remains, and since the 1960s countless individuals have been stirred to strum a few chords and, often clumsily, express themselves, questioning perceived ideas and trawling their experiences as poetry does. Importantly, the accessibility of lyrics does not require strict adherence to a form that we associate with classical poetry as music has its own timeless patterns. A sweet melody hooks the listener as in, for example, Van Morrison’s word-in-song “Rave on, John Donne”, where the romantic vision of the poet or ‘Holy fool’ is set up in opposition to industrial civilisation.

Each generation must recast an art form, breathing fresh life into it and questioning the assumptions of their elders; new technology also spurs adventure, but sometimes ruptures can carry a movement down blind alleys. Since the 1970s the integration of music with the lyric has been on a downward spiral. Popularity is now overwhelmingly dictated by a resourceful industry that in recent times overcame the loss of revenue from direct sales of CDs and records by ratcheting up the prices of concerts and using television shows to generate publicity. It has reached a nadir in the diabolic X-factor shaping of Simon Callow.

Moreover, since the 1980s electronic music has re-invented itself – Terminator-like – assuming monstrous guises that have overwhelmed the human interaction with instruments. In the past an individual would spend the proverbial 10,000 hours learning her instrument, now all too often today the melodies are sampled. Just as the hard labour of developing rhyme and metre imposed a discipline on poets that makes their work accessible, the challenge of using one’s fingers to point to the right intervals inculcates a deep appreciation of music. The passage towards great art is usually the slowest.

Now the beat is all important at the expense of the melody and emotion. The word is sometimes an afterthought and the facility of the laptop allows experimentation ad nauseum producing bewildering arrangements that fail to evoke emotion.

In Emotion and Meaning in Music the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer argues that the arousal of emotion through music is the product of surprise after repetition: ‘the customary or expected progression of sounds can be considered as a norm, which from a stylistic point of view it is; and alteration in the expected progression can be considered as a deviation. Hence deviations can be regarded as emotional or affective stimuli.’ Measured dissonance is key to the exercise, but excessive deviation nullifies the effect.

Of course subtlety is not entirely absent in modern electronic music but generally the subservience of the melody to the beat leads to a loss of emotional arousal, seen in the robotic dancing of individuals in clubs around the world. Is it any wonder that a generation turns to drugs for the ecstatic?

The absence of emotion in music finds a parallel in the fetishisation of authenticity which in literature has found its apotheosis in the dreary autobiographical tomes of Karl Ove Knausgaard who subjects readers to the minutiae of his every experience as a microscope does a petri-dish. This might be situated in the tradition of Marcel Proust but the latter sought transcendence in the quotidian. Knausgaard simply grinds the reader further into the putrid details of his life as a dog-trainer compels a puppy to smell his shit.

In Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission the prizing of authenticity above other qualities is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In recent music, we find that in Amy Winehouse her great talent squandered in autobiographical recitation linking to her tragic self-immolation.

We fail to devote sufficient attention to the imaginative possibilities of the unconscious mind. Yeats’ poetry emerged through interaction with a fairy realm which he believed in profoundly. As Micheal Mac Liommar points out: ‘Yeats’ belief in ‘that nonsense’ was the most fundamental thing in his nature: it was at least as passionate and unshakable as the faith of any devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Mohammedan; if a little more restless in its search for some permanent shape’. Indeed his decision to self-identify as Irish, when he could easily have seen himself as English was grounded in a ‘conviction that Ireland had preserved … among less admirable things … a gift of vision.’

During the 1920s Yeats drew inspiration from the automatic writing that his wife George undertook as a medium. The investigation of the unconscious was also central to the Surrealist movement. In its 1924 manifesto, Andre Breton referred to: ‘psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.’ Breton believed that a surrealist should be ‘Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’.

Reversing Stalin’s dictum, Breton attributes many of the great scientific breakthroughs to the harnessing of the poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking.’ Today much art, including poetry, are over-thought and self-referential. But ‘True art’ wrote Yeats ‘is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence.’

Contemporary art often lapses into an irony which pervades contemporary ‘hipster’ culture where meaning is conveyed by using language that expresses the opposite. Raine contends that: ‘Above all, the voice of true imagination is never ironic; that is the mark of a divided mind, whereas the imagination is above all at one with itself, the principle of unification and harmony.’ Ironic art is art that does not believe in itself and runs contrary to the poetic surrender to the imagination. Irony can only poke fun and subvert form.

Irony is the dominant note in a recent short film Our Kind by Alan Phelan that is currently exhibited in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The film is a counter-factual rendering of the life of Roger Casement which finds him in Norway in 1941 having survived the 1916 Rising. Instructions are required to understand its ‘meaning’. The artist writes:

‘there are few historically correct elements in the story presented. Instead we are given a very different scenario which in itself reflects the flaws common in the genre of historical drama for film, with its need to find drama in history, resulting in stories that speak more of the present than the past. Much of the scholarship surrounding Casement is similarly muddled, caught between interpretative approaches, political prejudices and at times an inverted homophobia that cannot come to terms with Casement’s personal and public lives. Several of these angles are woven into the story, often mis-represented and incomplete.’

It is a film made to look like a pastiche; a deadpan dismissal of the genre of historical fiction without value in itself. He continues ‘Our Kind cannot be viewed at face value. The meaning lies between the lies’. Or rather the meaning is in the accompanying notes. The film has no ‘vision’ or value in and of itself.

Critical ignorance is also conveyed in one review written by Aidan Wall in Totally Dublin who says that ‘The surreality of this fictionalised situation is heightened by the ever-shifting cinematography which refuses to settle into one coherent style’. The film actually runs contrary to the surrealist project which surrenders to an imagination which is never ironic. But by now the term surreal is debased coinage.

That is not to say that Ireland has lost its ‘vision’ entirely. Irish music often maintains a vibrancy and Dylan Tighe’s recent album Wabi Sabi Soul reveals a poet with a rebellious spirit. The singing is at time jarring and declamatory but a powerful lyrical effect is produced by the sweetness of the accompanying melodies that include contributions from the bass clarinet of Sean Mac Erlaine. Tighe raves on with references to mental health and a medical establishment which pathologies behaviour that might actually prompt artistic output. There is also a judicious sampling of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Phoenix Park in 1979.

Tighe could easily write commercial songs that would not confront his listeners but he chooses to confront Ireland with its patriarchal legacy, countering that ‘women are healers’. In “Cult Leader” – the song featuring the Pope – he vows to ‘start my own religion’ with love as ‘the only weapon to fight the death of time’. It will be interesting to discover what direction this mercurial talent will take next.

Today poetry operates within the confines of a Neoliberal system which demands, no matter the occupation, that we constantly sell ourselves. Of course artists have always struggled to earn a living – it has become a cliché – but rarely has there been an era which has placed greater emphasises on self-promotion through a litany of online platforms and identities.

Writing in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz argues that: ‘we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.’ This, he argues, has come about because ‘The internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

He asserts that: ‘What we see in the new paradigm – in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity – is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth.’ Thus it is more important for an artist to be able effectively to fill out a grant application than actually produced a compelling piece of work.

Deresiewicz concludes that in an environment where the customer is always right: ‘It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please – more like entertainment, less like art.’

But actually what we define as ‘art’ might become increasingly confined to the elite environment of initiates with access to the notes accompanying the product. These ‘artists’ make their way by securing grants from public funds whose paymasters are persuaded by the strength of the proposal. Abstruseness seems to be prized based on an assumption that if it is inaccessible then it is worthwhile. As ‘difficulty’ becomes a criterion for success, the appeal of accessibility – that Yeats argued required the hardest labour – is ignored as it would be dismissed as a ‘lower’ art form.

Society at large is left to stew in X-factor detritus and dance mechanically in ecstatic parody. In these circumstances it might be argued that commercial failure is a poetic form of success. But there are undoubtedly audiences out there for true poetry. It is crucial that its dissonance and disjunction endures. Otherwise the creative possibilities of the imagination retreat and a crucial form of rebellion against the Neoliberal project is not advanced.

(published in Village Magazine, May, 2016)

Defining the Anthropocene

(Published in Village Magazine, January 2013)

This is an interview with environmental historian Professor John Robert McNeill of Georgetown University author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010); The Human Web (2003); and Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World (2000)

Can you define the Anthropocene?  I can, but there are various definitions and mine is no better than the next one.  However, for my part, I like to define it as that time period in which human action has had deep impacts on the basic systems of the Earth.  Those systems include such things as climate and biogeochemical cycles.  Notice I am not saying it is an epoch or an era – the geologists will decide on that.

Can you trace its origin?  For my money, it began only in the mid-20th century.  But many scientists argue for various earlier Anthropocenes, some preferring 1800, some 5,000 BCE, some even earlier.  A great deal depends on which sorts of evidence one prefers.  Paleo-ecologists often like to cite evidence of large animal extinctions in the late Pleistocene as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene.  That would be roughly 13,000 years ago and earlier.  But for me, that is not enough: one needs the multiple interventions of the last 75 years to justify the term.

What has been the impact of human beings on planet Earth?  They are too numerous and profound to list concisely.  I tried to take stock in a book published in 2000, entitled Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th– century World, but that exercise took more than 350pp.  And more detailed assessment abound at still greater length.  However, I would say one could list among the more significant impacts, from the human point of view, are ongoing changes to the climate, changes to vegetation, especially the reduction in forests, acceleration of soil erosion, the reduction in infectious disease, especially waterborne disease, the advent of intense urban air pollution (and its reduction in some places, including Dublin!)

What changes do we need to make to our lifestyles to ensure the Anthropocene does not become a dark chapter featuring the collapse of many societies?  We probably can’t ensure much of anything strictly speaking, but to improve the odds of a happy Anthropocene I’d recommend changing the energy system away from fossil fuels to something else that does not entail greenhouse gas emissions on any scale; supporting formal female education as a benign way to encourage lower fertility and slower population growth; more efficient urban design, since in the future ever more of us will live in and around cities.

One of your books confronts the subject of malaria. Do you think there is any prospect of eliminating this killer?  No immediate prospect, certainly.  The etiology of malaria is devilishly complex and the plasmodia responsible for infection are capable of evolving so as to sidestep efforts to check their proliferation.  The best bet is mosquito control, but it is not a very good bet because dozens of anopheles species are competent to transmit malaria.

What other contagious diseases will pose a significant challenge to human beings in the future?  This is extremely hard to predict.  At the moment it is hard to ignore the outbreak of ebola, now raging in parts of West Africa and making an appearance in Madrid and Dallas.  Whether that yet counts as a significant challenge probably depends on where you sit.  Influenza is always a threat of sorts, because the virus in question mutates rapidly and could conceivably break loose once again as it did in 1918, when roughly 50 million people died of influenza.  As a category, breath-borne viruses are probably the most worrisome.

In your opinion, what obligations to our natural environment and other species does our dominance of the planet confer?  Everyone has a different opinion on this matter, and mine is no wiser than the next.  That said, I take the (common) view that it confers upon us the obligation of stewardship: our power means we need to take responsibility for the survival of other species (however I’d make an exception for certain mosquito species that spread human disease, even if they too are God’s creatures).

A recent WWF report claimed that 50% of the world’s species have become extinct in the past 40 years. What is the value of biodiversity?  In the first instance, if one accepts the notion that human power confers the responsibility of stewardship of the biosphere, then biodiversity has value in and of itself: we do not have the moral right to exterminate species.  In the second instance, biodiversity is useful for ecological stability.  When it is reduced, the probability rises of dramatic alterations of ecosystems, including ones we rely on.  Third, many species are extremely valuable to us, as sources of medicines, or as pollinators for crops we depend on.  There are probably unknown species that potentially offer us unknown medicines, if they are not first driven to extinction.

Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in an Earthwatch article in 2009 claimed that animal agriculture accounted for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. Do you consider this credible?  I haven’t seen the article in question, so I’ll refrain from pronouncing one way or another.

How can human beings feed themselves without fossil fuels?  At the moment, we can’t.  We would need different sources of energy or else a lot fewer humans.

What changes in agricultural policies in the US and EU do you believe should take place?  There are a lot of perverse subsidies in US and EU agricultural policies.  Most should probably go. I’d favour policies that make livestock farming more expensive; wasting water more expensive; intensive use of antibiotics on feedlots more expensive; intensive use of nitrogenous fertilizers more expensive.  All this would make food more expensive, which would be unpopular and is not likely to happen any time soon!

Should governments in Western countries be encouraging widespread adoption of plant-based diets?  Yes, as a matter of human health.  I’d do it by adopting policies that gradually change the prices of various foods.

What role do you envisage for Nuclear energy?  Nuclear power is tempting because the only greenhouse gases it produced come in the creation and destruction of power plants, not in their operation.  However, I am not quite in favour of it, due to the risk of accident (viz. Chernobyl, Fukushima, among others), the risk of the wrong people getting their hands on fissionable material, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste.  Maybe in future some of these matters will be resolve so that nuclear power becomes a useful possibility.  Not at the moment however.

Do you believe the innovative spirit of capitalism can provide the technological solutions for our dependence on fossil fuels?   Yes, although I would encourage it because it may be too slow to forestall disagreeable climate change.  I would do that by a carbon tax, one that escalates annually.  And by prize money for useful innovation in the energy field.

How can humans restrain the acquisitive tendencies inherent in capitalism?  I don’t think this can be done without some highly improbable ideological/religious transformation of societies.

Do you think that human beings can reach a point of equilibrium on the planet?  More or less.  Equilibria don’t generally endure for long, and upsets of one sort or another normally come along every so often.  But it is plausible to imagine a human population much less ecologically disruptive than what we have at present, and indeed more or less in equilibrium with the biosphere.  That could theoretically happen over centuries by a radical reduction in human population, although I regard that as unlikely.  It could also happen through technological changes that make it easier for a few billion – maybe not 10 or 12 billion – to live much less disruptively on Earth.  The first step, again, is to revolutionize the energy system.


The complex legacy of Judge Adrian Hardiman

(Unpublished April 2016)

This year saw the premature passing of Supreme Court Justice Adrian Hardiman who devoted his rhetorical gifts to crafting judgments sure to inform our laws for years to come. He combined an acute attention to detail with wistful literary flourishes suggesting gifts in a more artistic domain. It is perhaps unsurprising that he devoted spare time to scholarship on James Joyce.

It is apparent that he was animated by strong philosophical convictions; a liberal in the Continental sense, he revealed a conviction that citizens’ lives should, as far as possible, be unfettered by state interference.

This might be discerned in two ways: first, resistance to the idea that the Court should vindicate so-called socio-economic rights under the Constitution as this would violate the principle of the Separation of Powers; and secondly, especially in evidential matters, a conviction that strict rules should be applied to the behaviour of what he termed the force publique.

But unfortunately few beyond the legal professions will engage with his oeuvre. It is a general failing that judgments of the superior courts, including Hardiman’s, fall prey to what Max Weber described as ‘lawyer’s law’.

Hardiman’s critique of the excesses of the Force Publique ‘the wider legally empowered class’ was nothing short of a crusade. In his dissenting judgment in DPP v JC (2015), which reversed strict rules regarding the admissibility of unconstitutionally obtained evidence laid down in DPP v Kenny (1990), he expressed himself ‘horrified that it is proposed in the current case to make “inadvertence” a lawful excuse for State infringements of individuals’ constitutional rights.’

He decried the state’s appeal describing it in colloquial terms as asking the court to ‘first move the goalposts and then to order the match already won and lost, to replayed with new rules, written by one side and imposed on the other.’ He opined characteristically that ‘Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” is the only authority I can think of to support the paradox which the state has advanced.’

He also drew attention to Tribunals enquiring into the conduct of An Garda Siochana which revealed illegal phone tapping, noting that ‘not one guard of any rank has been prosecuted for this’. He set store in the comments of Leo Varadkar that the Department of Justice was ‘not fit for purpose’; and those of Conor Brady the former head of GSOC that ‘you could not get into Fortress Garda’.

As a former student of history Hardiman was keenly aware that even if the current government upheld norms of constitutional justice it was crucial for the Court to make allowance for a government bent on subverting fundamental rights.

But while progressives might have cheered his approach in DPP v JC his repudiation in Sinnott v Department of Education (2001) of socio-economic rights under the Constitution was a source of disappointment.

Almost by definition judicial discretion is informed by a judge’s political or moral outlook. Adrian Hardiman as a founding member of the Progressive Democrats was associated with the classic liberal idea of reigning in the state in terms of expenditure and taxation.

In Sinnott the Supreme Court were asked inter alia to adjudicate on the legality of mandatory orders made in the High Court by Judge Peter Kelly.

Following a High Court decision of Justice Declan Costello in O’Reilly v Limerick UDC Hardiman distinguished between commutative and distributive justice, the former bearing on relations between individuals such as found in contract and tort with the latter involving the distribution of the resources of the state. In contrast to commutative justice which he considered central to the court’s function, he held, in obiter, that the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction over distributive justice was repugnant to the Separation of Powers.

Despite Justice Costello showing a willingness for distributive justice in the subsequent case of O’Brien v Wicklow District Council (1994) Hardiman nonetheless brought to bear his arguments in O’Reilly and sought to elevate them to a constitutional principle. He said that the apportionment of resources ‘would lead the Courts into the taking of decisions in areas in which they have no special qualification or experience’; and were a judge to engage in ‘designing the details of policy in individual cases or in general, and ranking some areas of policy in priority to others, they would step beyond their appointed role.’ Revealing he also alluded to generalised ‘human rights to earn a livelihood and hold property.’

But other constitutions including those of South Africa and India make provision for socio-economic rights. It would surely be remiss for a Court to deny jurisdiction on the grounds of incompetence on distributive justice – detailed financial resolutions are, after all, already executed in the family and commercial arenas – if constitutional alteration enjoined judicial oversight.

Moreover even in the present constitutional framework the paramount right to life under Article 40.3 should require the Court to make mandatory orders in circumstances that might easily arise: the judiciary would surely be forced to intercede on behalf of citizens whose level of material welfare jeopardised their lives; where the legislature fails to vindicate a right to life the Court must surely assume responsibility.

It might also be argued that the executive branch has not always shown competence in managing the resources of the state! In inferring a constitutional principle debarring adjudication on distributive justice Judge Hardiman may have left an ideological hostage.

There is another criticism that may be levelled against the late Judge which is really directed at the voluminous judgments of the superior courts that generally use arcane legal prose inaccessible to the non-legal public. This could even offend Article 34 which ordains that justice should be administered in public.

The sociologist Max Weber provided a compelling critique of the tendency for verbal gymnastics in the Common Law system of which Ireland is part. He said that with this ‘lawyer’s law … reasoning is tied to the word, the word which is turned around and around, interpreted, and stretched in order to adapt it to varying needs, and, to an extent that one has to go beyond, recourse is had to “analogies” or technical fictions’.

One might recall Pascal’s dictum apologizing for the length of a letter: ‘If I’d had more time it would have been shorter’. It would surely be appropriate if judges were obliged to provide more terse judgments for public appraisal. Though hardly the worst offender, Hardiman’s love of language did generate long judgments which could inhibit engagement from the wider public.

We might contrast the Common Law inheritance of Ireland with that which has traditionally obtained in France where law is seen as part of a general education. The eminent jurist Rene David wrote of this awareness of law as being an element normal del la culture generale. Indeed it has been said that the original French civil code owes its clarity to how the draftsman always had to ask himself whether his words would withstand the criticisms of a highly intelligent layman in the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte, unfamiliar with legal jargon.

Hardiman was one of the leading jurists of our times in Ireland, it is to be regretted that the level of legal knowledge of most citizens in the state along with a failure to reign in arcane language and textual accumulations in judgments is such that discussion of his ideas is unlikely to occur beyond the legal community.

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.



Informing Beauty

(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)

Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.

Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.

Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.

At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.

Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’

According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.

Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.

According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.

But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.

Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by  then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’

“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.

But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’

She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.

The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.

But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’

But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.

Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’

Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.

I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.

In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:

‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’

The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.

Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.


It’s all in the mind

(published in the London Magazine, June/July 2012)

The ultimate achievement of reason … is to recognise that there are an infinity of things that surpass it. (Blaise Pascal 1623-62) 

After reading Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene I was a convert to Neo-Darwinian genetics. In that best-selling work life is traced to individual genes each seeking to confer advantage on the ‘replicator’, which carries the genes, in order to survive through reproduction. ‘Successful’ genes are passed on, unchanged, to descendents.

Its title alone reveals an analysis that sees human life, and nature more generally, as characterized by competition rather than cooperation. That my actions, thoughts and emotions were reduced to a battle for expression between DNA sequences generated slight despondency; idealism, morality and kindness are simply ‘memes’: ideas that, like genes, proved durable in evolution.

Intriguingly, The Selfish Gene was the favourite book of Jeffrey Skilling CEO of Enron. He interpreted neo-Darwinism to mean that selfishness was ultimately good even for its victims, because it weeded out ‘losers’ and forced ‘survivors’ to become strong.

Over time I developed a more nuanced view of the world. An awareness of the limitation of human intelligence (especially my own) and of the historical specificity of any position made me reluctant to accept any one explanation in full.

A powerful scientific voice has emerged to counter the inheritance of Dawkins. Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion is an antidote to the Selfish Gene. By providing fascinating insights into the new field of Epigenetics he explodes the grim certainty of the Neo-Darwinian analysis.

Sheldrake provides a powerful critique of the present state of scientific research, berating skeptics (including Dawkins) for a dismissive approach to his evidence. He also addresses what he considers the limitations and corruption of Western medicine. Sheldrake’s account, if accepted, may radically alter our understanding of nature.

Cosmic Resonance

It is often suggested that physics through mathematics will ultimately reveal the organizing principles of the universe and all organisms therein. But Sheldrake refers to the uncertainty principle in quantum physics from which it became clear that indeterminism is an essential feature of the physical world, and the apparent incompatibility of quantum theory with the theory of relativity. He quotes Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Modinaw: ‘The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequences of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.’

Sheldrake poses challenging questions to materialists such as: ‘Were all the laws of nature already present at the moment of the Big Bang, like a cosmic Napoleonic Code?’ He argues: ‘The very idea of a law of nature is anthropocentric’, and asserts that ‘eternal laws are embedded in the thinking of most scientists’

His intention is not to dismiss all conventional scientific ideas or cast doubt on every study but instead insists on their limitations: ‘The laws of conservation of matter and energy seem less like ultimate cosmic principles and more like rules of accountancy that work reasonably well for most practical purposes in the realms of terrestrial physics and chemistry, where exotic principles like quintessence and the creation of dark energy can be ignored.’

He contends that we operate in an evolutionary universe in which even the laws of nature are subject to change. He says that the oldest of the constants, Newton’s Universal Gravitational Constant, Big G, ‘is also the one that shows the largest variations.’

Sheldrake’s ‘big idea’ is the hypothesis of morphic resonance. He suggests that the habits of nature, organic and inorganic, operate in non-material morphic fields. Ken Wilber defines the concept: once a particular form comes into existence, it will have a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and thus the more a particular form has been replicated, the more likely it will be replicated in the future.’ This idea is unsettling to pure materialists as it resurrects pre-Enlightenment ideas such as vitalism which suggests the existence of soul apart from our material bodies.

Sheldrake outlines interesting phenomena that lend weight to his theory. Referring to ‘habits of crystallization’, he argues that ‘the more a compound crystallizes, the easier its crystals should form’. He gives the examples of Xylitol which was believed to be a liquid until 1942, but subsequently crystallized at successively higher temperatures. When each new temperature for crystallization was reached this pattern repeated itself in other laboratories and the old crystals did not show up again. He also refers to Ritonavir, a drug used against AIDS, which baffled its developers by morphing inexplicably from its original form, and has continued in that pattern since.

He cites evidence from ‘one of the longest series of experiments in the history of psychology that rats do indeed seem to learn quicker what other rats have already learned’. He attributes observed improved performances in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests, known as the ‘Flynn Effect’, to morphic resonance.

We might identify morphic resonance in human history with the independent emergence of agriculture in different continents in close time proximity to one another. Or, more compellingly, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified what he called an ‘axial age’ during which revolutionary ideas such as Platonism, Confucionism and Buddhism emerged simultaneously. On a more basic level, most of us have probably said: ‘I was thinking just the same thing’.

The idea of morphic resonance coheres with Karl Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious, and even more strikingly with the Taoist idea of Qi which is seen to define all physical reality. According to Ted J. Kaptchuk ‘Qi is the thread connecting all being. Qi is the common denominator of all things from mineral to human. Qi allows any phenomenon to maintain its cohesiveness, grow and transform into other forms.’ The action of ‘resonance’ is also apparent: ‘The ability for one thing to influence another is called in Chinese gan ying, which is usually translated “resonance”. If Qi is the link, resonance is the method.’

Sheldrake’s hypothesis can thus be situated within a broader constellation that has long been accepted by important and enduring philosophical schools in the East and West. But what is interesting and indeed remarkable about Sheldrake is that he is a professional scientist with more than eighty articles in peer-reviewed journals, including several in Nature.

Unusual Phenomena

Sheldrake enjoys drawing attention to phenomena that seem to debunk established scientific ideas. In response the online Skeptics Dictionary assert: ‘although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned conventional science in favor of magical thinking’.

The first law of thermodynamics says that change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to that system. Thus the ‘closed system’ of a human being (that doesn’t photosynthesise) cannot draw energy or ultimately survive without food (heat).

But Sheldrake draws attention to the case of Indian yogi Prahlad Jani, one of numerous individuals through history who have claimed to live without food, a phenomenon known as inedia. Jani says he has lived without food or water since 1940 owing to the intervention of the goddess Amba. He was put under continuous surveillance by a team of 35 researchers from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Applied Sciences (DIPAS) in 2010 for a period of two weeks.

He had several baths and gargled, but the medical team confirmed that he ate and drank nothing, and, remarkably, passed no urine or faeces. A previous medical examination in 2003 had given similar results. The director of DIPAS said: ‘If a person starts fasting, there will be some changes in his metabolism but in his case we did not find any’. Most scientists would dismiss this evidence as an impossible transgression of the first law of thermodynamics. This leads Sheldrake to ask: ‘Is science a belief system or a method of enquiry?’ While inedia is rare and controversial there is at least a possibility that human beings can actually draw energy from willpower alone. Scientific research should be alive to that possibility, rather than dismissing it as ‘magical thinking’ because it does not fit with accepted tenets.

Sheldrake also shows how many pets display psychic connections to their owners, and provides empirical evidence for telepathy in humans, including uncanny abilities to determine the identity of the person from whom a phone call is received.


The field of Epigenetics upsets established Neo-Darwinian ideas. It originates in the research of Dr. Lars Olov Bygren a Swedish preventive health specialist who explored how the health of grandparents continues to influence their grandchildren. This has been described as ‘ghosts in our genes’ and was hailed by Time magazine as one of the top ten scientific discoveries of 2009. Bygren and other scientists gathered historical data for famines and periods of over-abundance and showed how these environmental conditions continued to affect the life-expectancy of their children and grandchildren even after adjusting for social class. This astounding research is being used to explain trends in human longevity and supports Sheldrake’s argument that genetic codes are not the full extent of inheritance. Orthodox neo-Darwinism particularly that associated with Richard Dawkin has been cast in serious doubt if not superseded.

Moreover, doubt has been cast on the whole field of genetics by the limited insights of the human genome project. Sheldrake gleefully seizes on this: ‘The optimism that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the ‘programs’ of an organism gave way to the realisation that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and actual human beings’. Recently, he entered a public wager with an eminent biologist on whether with the genome of a fertilised egg or an animal or plant we will be able to predict in at least one case all details of the organism that develops within the next twenty years.

Will Power

Sheldrake acknowledges the contributions of Western medicine to human longevity citing the example of Edward Jenner’s discovery of the Smallpox vaccine but asserts that the ‘rate of discovery is slowing, despite ever-increasing investment in research’. He suggests this is a product of tunnel vision that afflicts many scientists who see the body in terms of its component parts rather than as an integrated whole. This is contrary to the Chinese approach which sees pathology in terms of a web of phenomena. In Chinese medicine an illness may be expressed in the liver but the cause may lie elsewhere, even in the mind. The Western approach is usually more successful than the Chinese at least in the short term, but it tends to address the symptom rather than underlying causes, arguably leaving greater likelihood of recrudescence.

He says that ‘the failure to recognize the power of minds means that Western medicine is weakest when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships and religious faith’. This is despite medical research acknowledging the power of the mind in the placebo effect, but he says that attachment to a Cartesian, mechanistic view hinders exploration of perhaps non-material phenomena. Many doctors will disagree profoundly with Sheldrake’s analysis.

Sheldrake also draws attention to the disturbing corruption of the pharmaceutical industry: he show how prominent scientists are gifted large fees to put their names to articles that have been ghostwritten; the multi-million scale of lobbying to the US Congress; the self-regulation of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK leading to delays in the inclusion of safety warnings (by 21 months in one instance); and the profitable and usually unpunished sale of drugs ‘off-label’.

Most controversially he contends there is ‘overwhelming evidence that scientists’ attitudes and expectations can influence the outcome of experiments’. If correct this has profound implications for our understanding of medical research. We already assume a researcher hopes a hypothesis – say that a pill will have a certain effective – will prove correct. If he is actually ‘willing’ a certain outcome on the participant in the study then we are entering new, slightly troubling, territory. Sheldrake advocates double-blind testing as an important safeguard.

Rather than funding hugely expensive genetic and molecular studies into the causes of diseases he argues that more attention should be paid to social factors that lead to pathologies. He cites research showing that those who pray or meditate remain healthier and survive longer than those who do not, and wonders why more prominence isn’t given to this. He argues that research into genetic or microbial drivers of obesity should be abandoned in favor of focusing on the social factors of a condition already costing the US taxpayer an estimated $160 billion each year.

He argues in favour of complementary and alternative therapies, attributing their efficacy to the time their practitioners spend with patients compared to conventional doctors who work under greater time pressure; and the unhealthy preoccupation of many conventional doctors with prescribing drugs; many doctors will disagree with the latter contention especially. He refers to a review by the WHO of 293 controlled clinical trials of acupuncture that concluded that it is an effective treatment for a wide range of conditions.

A Moment in Time

It would be churlish to dismiss the benefits of Western science. The natural sciences, including medicine, have improved the quality of our lives, raised life expectancies, and generated fascinating insights into the natural world. But its aspirations and blind spots give increasing cause for concern.

The attitude of many scientists towards genetic modification, invariably motivated by corporate aggrandizement rather than genuine necessity is a particular concern. One of the editors of Nature proclaimed that by the end of the twenty-first century, ‘genomics will allow us to alter entire organisms out of recognition, to suit our needs and tastes … [and] will allow us to fashion the human form into any conceivable shape. We will have extra limbs, if we want them, and maybe even wings to fly’.

The Science Delusion exhibits phenomena that belie what are considered the eternal laws of nature. Doubt is cast on established ideas in genetics with important lessons. Perhaps Sheldrake takes his arguments too far at times and undoubtedly skeptics will dismiss his conclusions, but he does adduce empirical evidence that is worthy of open-minded analysis. This open-mindedness to new, even shocking, discoveries is an important prerequisite for all intellectual enquiry. Spirituality, often disparaged by rationalists, may yield important insights. We have much to learn about our cerebral capacities; Iain McGilchrist estimates that there are ‘more connections within the human brain than there are particles in the known universe.’

Six hundred years ago the Catholic Church claimed to understand the workings of the universe, and most people subscribed to their analysis. Today most of us scorn the preposterousness of their infallibility. Perhaps in six hundred years time our descendents will chuckle at certain established ideas of the present time; unless in the mean time scientific advances bring about the untimely demise of human life on the planet.