Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Monday, February 20, 2017

Happy Feast Day of St. Robert Southwell!

Another opportunity to draw your attention to "The Burning Babe", one of my favourite poems.

May we emulate the courage and witness of this great Jesuit saint!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Great Words for Great Things

I was just thinking of Yorkshire pudding and I realised it's one of those instances where I love a term and the thing it describes just as much.

Some others:

1) Brandy

2) Kaleidoscope

3) Amber

4) Formica

5) Silhouette

6) Winter

7I Turkish delight

I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them.

Here's a case where I like the thing the word describes, but not the word itself: poetry. I think poetry is a very unpoetic word.

I've noticed that many diseases and medical conditions have beautiful names, even though the things themselves are not so nice: rubella, scarlatina, tinnitus, tonsilitis, whooping cough, gonorrhea, sciatica, meningitis. How lovely!

No Alliance with Secularists or Atheists

That is what I would advocate.

Yes, political correctness is a menace. Yes, free speech is precious. Yes, the freedom to ask questions is precious. Yes, militant Islam is a danger and we should be allowed to discuss it without being called Islamaphobic.

But I'm worried to see how some religious conservatives are making common cause with atheists and secularists as a result of all this.

I'm not (as I've said before) talking about the sort of atheist who just happens to be an unbeliever, but who respects religion. I'm talking about bullish atheists and secularists, those who speak disrespectfully of religion and even attack it.

I feel much more affinity with Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and any other variety of religious believer, and with every other person and faction who believes religion is of central importance to society, than I do with Bill Maher or Sam Harris or any other God-basher.

If someone is wrong about the most important question, how can that do anything but warp their other views? Everything rests on the First Commandment.

I don't even want to be friends with anyone who attacks religion. Yes, I have plenty of atheist friends, but they are all respectful towards my faith, and faith in general.

"The Wild Fingers of Fire are Making Corruption Clean"

This has now become my all-time favourite line of poetry, taken from "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon.

And the blog post that's meant the most to me, of all the posts on this blog, is "A Short History of my Priggishness", where (amongst other things) I discuss what I find fascinating about this line. The spiritual atmosphere that I try to evoke in that post is crucially important to me, to the extent that I often re-read it for my own inspiration.

Could such very personal meditations be of interest to anybody else? I don't know. Writing seems to be a balancing act between drawing on what moves you the most, which will always be intimate and subjective, and trying to address the human condition and themes that are universal (or at least, of public interest). How do you draw from the well of your own soul without falling into it? That's the question.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Dream

I dreamt I met the mother of my birth
I'd never met before. Her house was dark.
Her looks were strange. Her accent made it hard
For me to understand her.  The same blood
Ran in our veins, but oh, how far apart!

She was so proud, so proud; stuck-up, perhaps.
She smiled at me, indeed, but said: "How long
It took you to come here!". "Well, here I am."

I thought about the land from which I'd come;
The rolling meadows, hedgerows, merry streams,
So long explored, yet so much more to see!
Its sights and sounds had seeped into my blood.
That dear dear land; my home...but not my home.

"Come see your ancestors", she said to me.
We went from wall to wall, and though she held
A lamp, I barely made each picture out.
"You see the kingly features in his face?"
She asked. "And her, is she not beautiful,
Surpassing all the beauty that you've seen?"
"Indeed", I said, but all that I could see
Were foreign faces in a lake of gloom.

"You have not seen the gardens yet", she said,
Sensing perhaps my want of eagerness.
"Come with me. Gardens, did I say? Far more!".

I walked with her through chilly corridors
Stealing a glance or two. How old she was!
And yet, a sort of beauty in her face.

She fumbled for a key, unlocked a door,
And out we stepped into the moonlit night.

"Behold", she said; and a horizon stretched
As far as I could see; we stood atop
A sort of peak; below, a wilderness
As vast and wild as my romantic heart
Could ever ask for. "Here is home!", I cried.
"Here is my home, at last! A whole new world!"

"Well, keep your head", she chuckled girlishly.
"This land is wild; you do not know its ways.
Heir of this land, possess your heritage!"
She pushed me forward, laughter in her voice.

I stumbled, fell, and hit the stony ground.
I rolled downhill. Above, my mother laughed
As blithely as a girl. I hit a tree.

I rose again. I fell again. The moon
Gave little light. The night was cold. It seemed
The trees themselves fought with me. Still again
I struggled forward. Still again I fell.

"Oh brave new world!", my mother laughed. "Perhaps
The happy hamlets and the rolling roads
You left behind you are your real home?"

"This is my real home", I shouted. "Laugh!
By God, this is my home, and I will be
Its dweller, let it break my bones to bits!"

"And you thought me the proud one!", she replied.
"Perhaps-- deluded too? Well, after all,
You are my flesh and blood." She stepped inside
And closed the door, still laughing like a girl.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thinking Along an Axis

The anthropologist Kate Fox wrote a book called Watching the English. In it, she mentioned a very interesting fact (I presume it's a fact) that I'd never heard before; that is, that the way people behave when they are drunk is specific to their culture. English people (well, some English people) get rowdy when they drink because they expect to get rowdy when they drink. In other cultures, this doesn't happen.

(A barely related experience of my own: I once left a pub after an evening out, and found myself staggering a little while crossing the road. It was only then that I remembered I hadn't drunk a drop of alcohol.)

I mention this observation because I've noticed that the way political (and other) opinions are formed seem to be often determined by the surrounding culure, even when the people with the opinions think they are entirely the result of personal experience and reflection.

I've noticed this in an American context. (Please understand that I'm commenting on the American context because I'm an outsider and I can see it from the outside. I'm not in any way judging American political thought. I think this applies to all cultural contexts.)

Last year I was talking to a left-wing American chap who was telling me all about the climate of fear and division in America. As he spoke about the issues, all of which were based on his personal experience (or so he said), I was intrigued that they happened to hit on all the American cultural flashpoints.

For instance; religion in public life. He had strong feelings about this, even though I think this is something that would never come into someone's head spontaneously. He told me about how instrusive religion was into his life and he seemed to have a real beef with it.

Nobody in Ireland talks about this, except for a minority of militant atheists. I mean, nobody you'd run into in ordinary life talks about it. Journalists do, but not ordinary people.

Another example is the role of government in society and the economy. I've read a lot of accounts of why various liberals became conservatives (and some accounts of why various conservatives became liberals). I'm very interested in opinion formation.

What strikes me is that in America, liberals often become conservatives when they decide that government causes more problems than it solves, or come to some such decision on the role of government.

In European countries, it's rather more likely for people to become conservatives because they come to a deeper appreciation of tradition or heritage or the family-- the issue of government doesn't, as often, come into it either way.

Again-- I'm not making any comment about American poltiical culture whatsoever. I'm just using it as an example for a phenomenon I've noticed. That is, that the debates and paradigms that surround us tend to affect how we organise experience, even when we're completely unware of this-- even when we would be willing to swear that we paid no attention to those debates whatsoever, and weren't even interested in the issues before they forced themselves on our attention.

(Yes, I accept that cultural context might have an effect on experience itself. as well as on our interpretation of experience-- for example, that the role of government might simply be a more important issue in America because of the way society is set up. But I don't think this explains the phenomenon entirely.)

Complexity and Stimulation: An Interesting Thought from Bruce Charlton

I mentioned the conservative academic Bruce Charlton yesterday. He kindly makes his book available online, and today I was browsing his book Addicted to Distraction: Psychological Consequences of the Mass Media.

He suggests that our constant interaction with the hyper-stimulating mass media (by which he also means social media) is actually making us more simple-minded, and supports this with some very interesting claims:

It is primarily when our brains are ‘offline’, including asleep, that complexity is generated – in other words complexity of ideas does not come from the external environment but from inside the head – from the internal workings of the mind.

(See “The Sleep Elaboration–Awake Pruning (SEAP) theory of memory”, by Bruce G. Charlton and Peter Andras; published in the journal Medical Hypotheses; 2009; Volume 73: pages 1-4.)

This is not the whole story, of course, since such relationships are reciprocal, and our minds certainly need input – but the usual idea is wrong that human ideas ‘come into the brain’ from the environment, and complex thoughts therefore derive from a complex environment. By this account old-time rural dwellers necessarily had simple thoughts since they lived in simple environments; while modern city dwellers have complex thoughts to reflect their complex environment.

If complexity of cognition is something put-into the mind from outside; then the extravert, the sociable, the widely read, the culture vulture, the traveller – one who draws stimulus from his environment is therefore the paradigm of complex thinking.

Yet I suggest that in reality almost the opposite is the case – so long as we compare like-with-like (that is, compare people with similar psychological characteristics, but in different environments).

It makes more sense to see complexity as coming from within, and this complexity being typically constrained by the environment.

So a complex, information-rich, and highly-stimulating environment actually causes the mind to simplify, by the environment ‘culling’ more innately-generated complexity. Thus those most engaged with other people and with the Mass Media would be expected to have simpler cognitive processes than they would-have; if they had been more solitary, detached, autonomous individuals.

This tallies with something I've often noticed before. It's a strange paradox, but very extroverted people are very often the people with the least amount of interesting things to say, and with the most banal conversation-- or so it often appears to me. I'd often wondered why people who converse the most would have the worst conversation. Perhaps this explains it?

(Of course, this is not true of all very extroverted people.)